The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

History: The first explorers

"There came into view a large and misty mountain in the ocean . . . with misty clouds above it, and a great smoke issuing from its summit . . . Then they saw the peak of the mountain unclouded and shooting up flames into the sky which it drew back again to itself so that the mountain was a burning pyre . . . Soon after, one of the inhabitants came forth . . . he was all hairy and hideous, begrimed with fire and smoke."
(Navigatio Sancti Brendani, c.575)

St Brendan`s fanciful description records what was probably one of Hekla's eruptions more than fourteen hundred years ago. This strange, fiery land "rugged and rocky, covered over with slag, without trees or herbiage, but full of smiths' forges", struck terror into the hearts of the earliest visitors. Alarming tales such as these and Iceland's isolation in the northern reaches of the Atlantic helped ensure that it was another three centuries before any major colonisation took place.

It is not clear who the earliest inhabitants of the island were. Some Roman coins of the third century have been found, but we do not know who brought them or when. The island was probably first explored by Irish monks during the sixth to ninth centuries AD; these brave men sailed north in frail curraghs, landing on the island's southern coast and establishing a settlement at Kirkjubær. St Brendan's description quoted above probably refers to one of these early inhabitants. Although there were as many as 1,000 of these exiles by 874, little is left to show how they lived or worked, and the reasons for their disappearance after the settlers' arrival remain shrouded in mystery.

The first Scandinavian known to have arrived was the Norwegian pirate Naddod, who left his native Norway in 860 and, blown off his course to the Faroes, landed in Reyðarfjörður in the eastern fjords. Four years later the Swede Gardar Svafarsson sailed round the island, staying a winter at Húsavík and, encouraged by Svafarsson's description of this new land, the Norwegian Flóki Vilgerðarson spent two years exploring the island. He and his party stayed at Vatnsfjörður in the north-western peninsula.

However they spent too much time fishing to the detriment of the cattle, which had no winter fodder, and therefore did not survive the winter, forcing Flóki to move on. The following spring was very cold too, and on climbing a hill near their winter home, Flóki saw Fossfjörður full of icefloes that had drifted in from Greenland and named the land "Iceland".

Undeterred by the country's new name, the first permanent settlers arrived in 874. They were Vikings from Norway and their arrival must have horrified the Irish monks who had fled to this lonely island to escape the depredations of just such men as these.

Generally considered to have started in 793 with an attack on the unprotected monastery at Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria in England, the "Viking Age" lasted for some two hundred years, during which time the sight of Viking ships was to strike terror from Labrador in the west to Istanbul in the east as these farmers-turned-sailors conquered and colonised wherever they went.

Just what caused the waves of conquest and colonisation that typified the "Viking Age" remains open to debate; the primary cause of Iceland's colonisation, however, is fairly well established. While the tribes in Sweden and Denmark had been welded into something approaching nationhood by the dominant tribes in each region (the Swedes and Danes respectively), Norway at this time was still fragmented into a large number of minor kingdoms ruled by tribal chiefs. In the late ninth century, Harald Finehair (862-930), a minor chief from the south, unified the country by force of arms during a bloody ten-year campaign that saw the major opposition to his rule subdued.

The defeated chieftains were faced with a choice: to subjugate themselves to his rule, to resist further, or to leave the country. Many left, a good number ending up in Iceland, although often only after a generation or so settled in the more familiar and prosperous British Isles.

Unusually, therefore, in world history, this emigration and colonisation of new territory was carried out by some of the noblest, richest and ablest inhabitants of the "mother" country. They were accompanied by many ordinary farmers simply seeking a new life and a chance to farm in peace, as well as, less voluntarily, by Irish slaves who were probably carried off to provide labour by settlers en route from Norway to Iceland. These latter were freed in the fullness of time, becoming independent settlers in their turn (the Westman Isles are so named as they were the "Isles of the West Men", i.e. the Irish).

Iceland is the only country in Europe that possesses a record that dates, to all intents and purposes, from the beginning of its inhabited history. This is the Landnámabók ("Book of Settlements") compiled in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which gives an account of the first four hundred or so settlers, their origins, their land and the subsequent histories of their families.

The first settler to arrive was Ingólfur Árnarson. On sighting land he is said to have thrown his wooden "high seat" pillars into the sea, vowing that he would settle wherever they reached land. Decorated with elaborate mythological carvings, the pillars were sacred and their removal to the new home was an act of great symbolic significance to the early settlers. A long search for the pillars ensued before they were found at the site of the present capital of the country. Behind the broad sheltered bay into which the pillars had drifted, plumes of vapour rose from warm water springs. Impressed by this sight, Ingólfur named the place Reykjavík ("Smoky Bay").

What`s in the website ?


The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy