Sunday, August 31, 2014

Visiting Iceland--the Intriguing Westman Islands

Westman Islands from Iceland
Westman Islands from the seashore in Iceland
I read Icelandic history in preparation for a trip to Iceland in 2012. The Landnámabók, the Book of  Settlements, written sometime between 900 and 1300, describes that in the first year of settlement, 874 or 875 AD, Hjörleifr Hródmarsson drove hard 10 Irishmen, whom he had captured in Ireland and enslaved, making them drag the plow, as he had only one ox. The thralls (slaves) made a plot. They killed the ox and said a bear had done it. When Hjörleifr led them out hunting for the bear, the Irish thralls killed Hjörleifr and all the Norsemen who were with him. The Irishmen then took the women of the small settlement, food and weapons and fled by boat to offshore islands. 

Before the end of summer, Hjörleifr's foster brother, Ingólfur Arnarson, famous as Iceland's first settler, learned of the deaths. Seeing the boat was missing, he gathered a party and sailed after them. The Norsemen surprised the escaped slaves and they fled. The settlers hunted down and killed all of them. The saga reports "the islands where these thralls were killed have been known ever since as the Vestmannaeyjar, becaue they were Vestmenn, Irishmen." The saga also notes that landmarks on the Westmen Islands carry the names of thralls who died there, but none of the maps available to me confirm that.

The story emphasizes the rich history of Iceland and importance of the Icelandic sagas even today.

On that trip, I stood on the beach in southern Iceland and photographed the Westman Islands--the photo above.  From that location, they looked very bleak.
This summer, traveling with the Met and Academic Arrangements Abroad, we stopped at Heimaey, the main island in the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) en route to Reykjavik, Iceland.  

Before breakfast we had a chance to take small boats around the bay (port). The cliffs were spectacular. As usual I photographed nature and not buildings or ships.

Bay at Heimayr, Westman Islands, Iceland
Bay at Heimaey, Westman Islands, Iceland
Seabirds nest all over the cliffs. Here's a glimpse:

Birds nesting on the cliffs, Westman Islands, Iceland
Birds nesting on the cliffs, Westman Islands, Iceland
We went ashore. There are 15 Westman Islands, the largest is Heimaey, at 5.2 square miles. It is the only inhabited island. The population is about 4,000.  There are regular local flights across the strait to Reykjavik and of course you can sail there.

Houses on Heimayr
Houses on Heimaey

Westman Islands, Iceland
Westman Islands, Iceland
Iceland is on a volcanic hotspot, like Hawaii, so volcanic activity is continually building Iceland. The Westman Islands were created quite recently by that hot spot. Off shore of Heimaey, you can see a line of little islands, stretching south and west. They are or were over the hot spot and are progressively younger farther out to sea. The last (farthest from Heimaey) is Surtsey. Surtsey is 51 years old this year: it emerged suddenly from the Atlantic in 1963 as the undersea volcano erupted and built its 0.54 square miles very quickly. (See the pattern: on the Google map of Iceland, zoom in until you can see the islands to the southwest--southeast of Reykjavik--that are the Westman Islands, and zoom in further to see the line leading out to sea, ending with Surtsey.)

Chain of New Islands SW of Westman Islands
Chain of new islands running southwest, Westman Islands 
Sheep on Westman Islands
Sheep on Westman Islands
An amazing and dreadful tale from the Westman Islands' history is that in September, 1627, Barbary pirates landed on Heimaey and kidnapped 234 people. They sailed home to Algiers where the captives were sold as slaves. Most were never recovered; one or two managed to return to Iceland. We read of Vikings raiding ports all over Europe: we don't read of other people raiding Scandinavian towns. The pirates from Algiers raided elsewhere in Iceland at about the same time.

Bay on Heimayr, Westman Islands
Bay on Heimayr, Westman Islands
In 1973, Mt. Eldfell, on the north east end of Heimaey, erupted dramatically. Ash and flaming rock fell on the town. The residents were extremely fortunate to be able to evacuate almost everyone--some stayed to fight the volcano!--because there had been bad weather the day before and the whole fishing fleet was in port.
Lava Flow from 19xx Eruption, Westman Islands
Lava flow from 1973 Eldfell eruption, Westman Islands
(with Alaskan lupine)
The eruption buried almost the entire island in 6 feet of tephra (airborne volcanic material, from ash to boulders), destroyed 400 buildings--most of them people's homes--and lava seriously threatened the fill the harbor. They fought the tephra by shoveling buildings free of the weight as fast as they could and they pumped seawater on the lava to halt it. Fighting a volcano is not easy but the Westman Islanders' heroic efforts succeeded in reducing the damage. (Read more about the eruption of Eldfell:

The volcano, now taller, now better protects the harbor from storms and shelters the residents from the worst winds as well.
House mostly buried by Eldfell eruption, Westman Islands
House mostly buried by Eldfell eruption, Westman Islands
Heimaey has just opened a spectacular museum describing the eruption and the people's response. (more on the museum

Icelandic horses, Westman Islands
Icelandic horses, Westman Islands

The Vestmannaeyjar were terrifically interesting and, upon closer inspection, not bleak at all!

Jones, G. The Norse Atlantic Sagas. 2nd ed. Oxford U. Press, 1986. 

Related posts: Iceland 
                      coconuts in Iceland

Questions and comments welcome.

Kathy Keeler

1 comment:

  1. WOW !! The place seems to be extremely beautiful. What I think that we have to visit each country twice ( once in summer and then in winter). Today I am going Italy and really quite excited about it.
    honeymoon to italy