Iceland - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Iceland: the Bradt Travel Guide

The early history of Iceland is such a well-told tale that it leaves very little room for embellishment. The sagas recall every event with great detail – pick any pretty spot in Iceland (an elegant fjord or mountain) and you will find a perfectly accurate description of that very same spot as it was written 1,000 years ago. Read on and you will find out exactly what happened there and how it happened. The name on the signpost is most likely the same name it was given by the Viking whose bones now lie beneath the turf.

To appreciate Iceland’s history is to recognise that Iceland is timeless.

Godafoss, Iceland by ariiet, ShutterstockIceland's rocks, volcanoes and people have changed very little over the centuries © ariiet, Shutterstock

To appreciate Iceland’s history is to recognise that Iceland is timeless. That goes for the rocks and volcanoes, as well as its people, who have changed very little in spite of the centuries. So much of what Iceland looks and feels like today is a culmination of things changing very little over a very long time.  

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural History section in Iceland: the Bradt Travel Guide

Iceland is a very young country still in the midst of its own creation. It is the very attraction of this land and why the topography alone is so entertaining. Most of us come from gentle countryside tempered out of ancient geologies. Not so in Iceland, where the landscapes look positively prehistoric. The mountains in the distance or that lava field or waterfall did not happen ‘hundreds of millions of years ago’ – it’s happening right now.


Iceland’s plant ecosystem is common in its collection of sub-Arctic species, but unique in colour and diversity. Because of Iceland’s poor soil, heavy water and high winds, plants put out dense root systems that create the turf (torf) once used to construct homes, walls and churches. A few hundred species of moss cover the hills and valleys with their densely packed leaves – it’s always worth inspecting the differences up close. Icelandic moss (Cetraria islandica) or fjallagrös is the commonest type of brown-green lichen that grows everywhere and anywhere – truly the carpet of Iceland’s hills and mountains (the Icelandic name means ‘mountain grass’). Such thick growth acts like a sponge that holds a huge amount of water and allows hikers to bounce from rock to rock. 

Iceland bursts into bloom in spring and enjoys an intense two-month season of tiny blossoms everywhere. The flowers make for such a glorious experience (and scent) that a midnight sun feels almost requisite. The national flower is the palepink glacier poppy (Ranunculus glacialis) or jöklasóley, which translates as ‘glacier sun’ and grows high in the mountains, close to glaciers. Down in the valleys and by the coast grows sea mayweed (Matricaria maritima) or baldursbrá, the daisylike flowers worn on the forehead of the Norse God Baldur. More common are the purple stalks of alpine bartsia (Bartsia alpine) or smjörgras (‘butter grass’). A favourite are the minuscule pink star flowers that grow in tight little bunches of moss campion (Silene acaulis) or lambagras (yes, ‘lamb grass’). Good luck trying to keep all the pretty little yellow flowers apart because there are dozens. The meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris) or brennisóley is perhaps most common, but looks a lot like the alpine cinquefoil (Potentilla crantzii) or gullmura. Both grow on hillsides, and at higher altitudes you’ll find the larger yellow Arctic poppy (Papver radicatum) or melasól.

What Icelanders call blueberries (bláberjalyng) are actually bilberries (Vaccinium uliginosum). They grow in very small clumps or ‘bushes’ on the ground and are abundant on wet hillsides. The pink flower blossoms from May to June and blueberry picking commences in late July/early August. ‘Blueberries’ are a summer staple and eaten year-round. It really is the national fruit of Iceland and Icelanders will keep their special blueberry-picking spots a secret from both friends and strangers. For visiting hikers, blueberries provide welcome and abundant treats (they cannot be confused with anything else).


The creatures of Iceland are plentiful, especially the birds, and the fish. Some will be pleased to know that there are no reptiles or amphibians. There are however, lots of insects, but they are only active in the short summer period and none of them bites. On very rare occasions, a polar bear might float over to Iceland on a piece of drift ice, but they are not indigenous – just accidents. Trigger-happy Icelanders have prevented them from ever getting established. Walruses are also known to swim over from Greenland from time to time, but they just stop for a visit before swimming off again.


Puffins, Iceland by Visit IcelandPuffins are just one of the 300 species of bird that have been spotted in Iceland © Visit Iceland 

Over 300 species of bird have been spotted in Iceland, but that oft -quoted figure says little about what Iceland means to birds. First and foremost, Iceland is home sweet home – the nostalgic birthplace for millions and millions of birds who live all over the world. Instinct brings them back year after year, often to their very childhood nest. The sub-Arctic island provides undisturbed summer breeding grounds and access to a good deal of food. When the brunt of tourists arrive in summer, the whole country is a bustling nursery of baby birds and expectant mothers. It’s very exciting.  


The only known indigenous mammal in Iceland is the Arctic fox (Algopex lagopus), which is quite a special creature. They have adapted to the extreme conditions of the north in so many ways – the fox has tiny triangular ears, high body fat, fur on the bottom of its paws (like slippers with treads) and the warmest coat of any mammal in the world – even more efficient than a polar bear’s fur. They are omnivorous, eating everything from bird eggs to shellfish to little lambs, although their main prey in Iceland is the ubiquitous ptarmigan. Visitors most often spot a fox when it is chasing birds or mice in a field.

The horse is essential to the Icelandic landscape – watching a few dozen animals thunder across a stormy horizon is a heart-swelling and familiar scene. More than 80,000 horses live in Iceland today, all of them descended from a controlled group first carried over by the settlers. In ad982, the Althing passed a law forbidding the future import of any foreign horses, and so for more than 1,000 years Icelandic horses have evolved and were bred expressly for the land and climate of Iceland. That means today’s Icelandic horses can swim a glacial river and cross a highland desert. The breed is so specialised and pure that once a horse leaves Iceland, it is never allowed back in. A constant debate rages as to whether or not Icelandic horses born and raised in Europe and North America can still qualify as the original breed. 

Horse, Iceland by Daria Medvedeva, ShutterstockThe horse is essential to the Icelandic landscape © Daria Medvedeva, Shutterstock

About 750,000 sheep live in Iceland today, making it the most common mammal in the country. Icelandics are considered the oldest and purest breed of sheep in the world, as there has been no cross-breeding for more than 1,100 years. The animals usually have horns and their tails are naturally short and skinny. Their coats come in all different colours and patterns, and they actually have two separate layers of wool – a short and soft undercoat, and then longer, coarser strands on the surface. Sheep are typically shorn at the beginning and end of winter, and Icelandic wool is considered rare and exported as a speciality product for hand-knitting. Traditional knitting patterns feature the natural colours of the sheep.


It’s hard not to see a seal in Iceland, as long as you know where to look. When not diving for fish and crustaceans, seals like to hang out on the rock skerries and low-lying islands around the coast, as well as the barren stretches of sand along some of Iceland’s remote peninsulas. Seals can be equally curious and wary of humans and will slip underwater if you move too close. Better to sit and wait patiently in a spot known for seals – they will appear, either playfully swimming or sunning themselves on their sides.


Whale, Iceland, Husavik Tatonka, Shutterstock14 different species of whale have been spotted in Icelandic waters © Husavik Tatonka, Shutterstock

In Iceland, you have a good chance of seeing a whale any time that you are on or near the water. Most whales arrive in May and leave by September or October. In summer, keep an eye on the fjords in the morning or evening and near islands, and watch for where the birds are feeding on fish stock. Down below there is likely to be a whale. Some 14 different species of whale have been spotted in the waters around Iceland, although only half of these are seen commonly. While the narwhal (Monodon monoceros) and beluga whale (Delphinaptesrus leucas) are still both listed for Iceland, they are extremely rare.  

People and culture 

Icelanders see themselves as quirky and distinct in a world that is fast becoming bland and similar. They know that their numbers may be few, but they are also confident in their personality as a nation. Traditions are not followed for the sake of tradition, but rather because Icelandic traditions are a lot of fun. 

Vikings, Iceland by Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson, Visit ReykjavikIcelanders see themselves and their traditions as quirky and distinct © Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson, Visit Reykjavik

Icelanders are not mere ‘Scandinavians’ but represent a unique blend of Norse and Gaelic heritage. Many in Iceland tout their Nordic roots, shirking the Scandinavian label. Historians still argue over percentages, but we do know that the first settlers to Iceland were Vikings and their servants – most of whom were captured in raids along the Scottish and Irish coasts. Irish women were considered prized booty and the sagas relay several tales of Norse and Irish couples who bore children. The two groups likely merged within the first century of Iceland’s settlement.

The stereotypical Icelander has blinding blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, but their spectrum of physical appearance is much more diverse. Some Icelanders appear quite dark and Celtic genes contribute a higher-than-average number of redheads. What is distinct are the pronounced Nordic features, most noticeable in a person’s eyes, nose and cheekbones.

The Icelandic population is very small and close-knit, so that people tend to know one other. It’s uncanny how the random stranger you met on one side of the country is probably the cousin of the sister-in-law of a school friend of the bartender you’re chatting with in Reykjavík. It’s also funny how every time you happen to mention someone’s name to an Icelander, they will stop and think about it before volunteering: ‘No, I don’t think I know him/her.’ Iceland is not a good place for anonymity. The common belief is that all Icelanders are related by no more than four degrees of separation. As proof, there is a national website where any two Icelanders can easily find out how they are connected by blood or marriage. The site is password-protected for Icelanders only, and goes back to the late 1700s (there is no need to go back any further).


Icelanders love to read and they love to write. Iceland is the most literate country in the world and one out of every ten Icelanders will write a book in their lifetime. One can easily argue that the entire Western literary paradigm is based on the Icelandic sagas (Íslendingasögur). The sagas are exactly like the word they gave us in English – long, meandering tales of history, family feuds, romance, wars, travels and adventure. Despite handheld Western compilations, the sagas don’t make for good in-flight reading. Some people spend their whole lives dedicated to studying just one saga, and there are close to 50 known Icelandic sagas out there. Most were written between the 12th and 14th centuries and recount the lives of the first three generations of Icelanders. The writings are based on oral tradition, which explains their loose structure but not their overwhelming length. Every December there is the annual book rush. Dozens of new releases are out, just in time to make great Christmas gifts.


The Icelandic poetic tradition is equal to, if not greater than, that of its prose. The eddas were the long poems of Norse history and mythology, whereas the skaldic poems of the Viking era were literary compositions composed by skilled court poets called skalds. Skaldic poetry is best known for its intricate use of metre, alliteration and metaphor, and talented poets were celebrated. In Egil’s Saga, the condemned Viking Egil composes such an impressive skaldic poem – Head Ransom – that his life is spared. Another chiefly Icelandic tradition is that of rímur – poems that rhyme at the end of each line and that were sung to a rhythmic beat. Long ago, rímur were the primary form of entertainment in the long winter months and their effect on Icelandic music is obvious. 


Icelanders have been making their own music ever since they arrived in Iceland. Sadly, very little pre-Christian music (rímur) has survived the ultrareligious period of the 16th and 17th centuries except for a few haunting relics. Older Icelandic music tends to be choral and religious. The renowned hymn writer Hallgrímur Pétursson set the standard for Iceland’s ecclesiastical tradition with his Passion Hymns, which are performed more than any other. Icelanders will form a choir at the drop of a hat but they still tend to be very good. Choirs are usually affiliated with schools or churches and organ recitals are common entertainment.

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