Just off the southern coast of Iceland lies a small archipelago called Vestmannaeyjar. Since I’ve been out skiing for the past week and neglecting the site, i’ll give you a good post today. Vestmannaeyjar is one of the most interesting places in Iceland and often overlooked, since you either need to fly or take the ferry.
The archipelago consists of 15 islands and around 30 islets. Several of the islands were inhabited permanently or seasonally in the past, but today only the main island Heimaey (E. Home Island) is inhabited. Just over 4000 people live in the town on Heimaey.
Vestmannaeyjar is loaded with history. The name which means “Islands of west men” is thought to be derived from Ingólfur Árnason. Ingólfur who came to Iceland in the year 874 is generally considered the first settler of Iceland. The tales of him will have to wait for a later post. However, his first winter he put up camp on the cape of Ingólfshöfði (close to Skaftafell), while his brother Hjörleifur Árnason camped on Hjörleifshöfði (close to Vík). The following spring Ingólfur sailed west and discovered that his brother had been murdered by his slaves. From Hjörleifshöfði you can see Vestmannaeyjar, and he correctly assumed that the slaves were hiding there. Naturally, being a viking he chased them around the islands and killed them all. Several places in the islands bear the name of the slave killed there. Since these slaves were Irish, they were called Vestmenn (E. West Men) by the Scandinavians and hence the name Vestmannaeyjar.
The islands have been inhabited at least since the 10th century, but the population has thrice been cut down considerably. First by pirates, second by sickness and finally by an eruption.
In 1627 about half the population (242 people) were abducted by pirates in an event called Tyrkjaránið (E. The Turkish Abductions). Many more were taken in other parts of the country. This event caused great fear in Iceland and lives strongly in the collective memory of Icelanders. An Icelandic urban legend says that after the abductions, it was legal to kill all Turks in Iceland, until somebody noticed that the law was still in place when Turkey played in the Handball World Cup in Reykjavík in 1995. That’s probably not entirely true and would be quite unfortunate, especially since the pirates weren’t really Turks. They were mostly Moroccans and Algerians under the command of a Dutchman acting on orders of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the people eventually managed to return to Iceland. The most famous of them was Guðríður Símonardóttir who later married one of Iceland’s most renowned poets, Hallgrímur Pétursson.
The second cut in the population occurred in the 18th century when lots of people got sick and died. That’s not as interesting as violence and volcanoes, so let’s turn to the next one.
On the 23rd of January 1973 the people in Heimaey were awaken by an eruption. At first people thought it was a grassfire lit by some kids, but it actually turned out to be a large eruption. More than half of the towns houses were destroyed or severely damaged. Many houses caught fire as molten lava rocks were scattered across the town, others collapsed under the weight of ash on the roofs and about 300 houses were completely engulfed by lava. My mother in law’s house for example is buried deep under the new mountain. Fortunately nobody died during the eruption. Bad weather had preceded the eruption and all the ships were in harbor. This made evacuation very easy for the small fishing community. What is actually most amazing is that people fought the volcano. Many houses were saved and most importantly, the opening of the harbor was saved, by pumping seawater onto the glowing red lava. By doing this they were able to cool down sections of lava and direct the lava rivers out into the ocean. The battle went on until the volcano quieted down five months later. Many people, having lost their homes, never returned to Vestmannaeyjar and the population shrank from 5.273 to just over 4.000.
If you want to go to Vestmannaeyjar, there are basically two choices. You can fly from Reykjavík (ca. 25min) with Ernir or go with the ferry. Once you are there you can go on all sorts of boat tours, the volcano museum, “The Pompeii of the north" or just explore the island on your own. If you don’t bring a car with you, you can rent a scooter and see the whole island.
Oh and if you are still not convinced, check out these great panoramas that Ivan Dasko posted to Iceland in Pictures facebook wall recently. The photographer in this panorama is standing on top of the new lava field with several houses beneath him. The other panorama looks across the town and the Herjólfsdalur valley. Herjólfsdalur is famous for attracting roughly 10.000 people for the annual Þjóðhátíð (E. National Holiday) every August. It’s not really a national holiday of any sorts, but it is Iceland’s largest outdoor party. Both of the panoramas feature the new volcano, Eldfell (E. Fire Mountain). It is the red sloping peak which has little vegetation on it.
You might also want to check out some previous posts about Vestmannaeyjar. Check out a video by National Geographic about children rescuing puffins, an awesome picture of the 1973 eruption, the Heimaklettur cliff or Iceland’s most popular youtube video, featuring a fishing ship battling a crazy storm on its way into the Vestmannaeyjar harbor.