Published February 11, 2005
The Westman Islands often seem far away from mainland Iceland, and while Iceland was for most of its history peaceful if poor, the Westmans have another story to tell.
English and Turk Invaders
The islands first appear in written history when the first settler of Iceland, Ingólfur Arnarson, chased runaway slaves there. The rebellious slaves had killed his blood-brother Hjörleifur, and Ingólfur slaughtered them to a man. As the slaves came from Ireland in the west, they were called Westmen, and the islands still bear their name.
The islands are also the only part of Iceland to have endured violent foreign invasion. In the 15th century, the English came to Iceland to trade and occasionally to raid. They kidnapped one governor of Iceland and killed another, and bought local children, which gave rise to the contemporary legend that Icelanders gave away their children but sold their dogs dearly. Their headquarters were on Heimaey, where they built the fortress Skansinn which still remains. But after a war with the Danes and the Hanseatic League in 1468-73, the English withdrew.
A more violent invasion was the “The Turkish Raid” in 1627. Actually, this was launched by Algerians, Moroccan-converted Europeans and commanded by a Dutchman. But as the captives were taken to Algeria, then a suzerainty of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, the raid was blamed on the Turks. It was not until the 1970s that a contemporary law stating that any Turk found in Iceland should be killed on sight was withdrawn. Thankfully, this was never enforced.
The Turks killed and captured some 400 people, most of these from Heimaey, and burned down the church and the warehouse. Ten years later, 27 of the captives were ransomed back to Iceland. The place where the Turks came ashore is still called “Ræningjatangi”, or robber’s peninsula.
Volcanoes and Flying Spiders
The next tragedy to befall the island was in 1973, when a sudden earthquake devastated the town. Fortunately, the fishing fleet had remained in port the night before due to bad weather, and all but one of the inhabitants, who decided to break into the pharmacy rather than flee, managed to escape to the mainland. When the lava cooled it had increased the island in size by more than 2 square kilometres, and the town was quickly rebuilt. The remains of the ruined houses are borne witness by the odd chimney sticking out of the lava hills here and there. In some places the lava is still warm enough to bake bread on, and this is occasionally done for the benefit of visitors.
An earlier ocean bed eruption in 1963 created the island of Surtsey, the world’s youngest island, just off the coast of Heimaey. Few human beings are allowed there as geologists are studying its development for clues to the origin of life on earth. Its first permanent settlers were spiders who apparently glided to the island on their cobweb parachutes.
Puffins and Celebrity Killer Whales
The most famous animals to inhabit the Westman Islands, however, are the puffins, which migrate to the islands every spring to breed. They are considered a delicacy and are hunted by brave cliff-hangers, whose tiny summer cabins are visible on the cliffs. But the puffins are dear to the heart as well as the belly of islanders. Pufflings who get lost as they try to migrate south in the autumn are helped in finding their way, and the Aquarium also doubles as a puffin hospital in the summer. The aquarium itself is small but well worth a visit.
But all other attractions were briefly overshadowed by the appearance of Keiko the killer whale, star of the Free Willy movies. Originally born in these waters before he went off to Hollywood and stardom, he was escorted back home in a USAF Hercules upon retiring from the movie industry. After scientists had spent considerable time trying to teach him to hunt fish, he was released into the wild and immediately headed for Norway, where he died, as so many stars do, at the age of 27.
Death and Religion
Perhaps it is history that leads to the close relationship the islanders seem to have with death, or perhaps it’s just the fact that death is an inherent part of any seafaring community. The Westman islanders still account for about 15% of the fishing of most of the major species found in the waters around Iceland. On the day that I was there this January, an exhibition about funerals, presented by the town priest, was opening in the Landlyst museum. Afterwards, the attendants retreated to the church to watch a documentary on photographing corpses. The church in question is a replica of a Norwegian wooden church, presented by the people of Norway in 2000, celebrating the 1000th anniversary of Christianity in Iceland.
Religion has long been a big part of island life. Mormonism caught on here in the late 19th century, and around 200 Mormons eventually immigrated to Utah. A monument in Herjólfsdalur valley was later built in their honour.
More recently, in the 1990s the Christian group Betel gained notoriety throughout Iceland for its burning of rock CDs, but not everyone was convinced of the group’s merits, and their leader emigrated north.
And Finally, A Good Party
But the islanders also know how to party. In 1874, they were unable, due to bad weather, to attend the celebration held at Þingvellir when Iceland received its first constitution. Instead, they held their own shindig, which has been reprised every year since and has become the country’s biggest outdoor festival, attracting thousands of people from all over Iceland and the country’s biggest live acts the first weekend of every August.
At the opposite end of the year, in January, a smaller festival called “Allra veðra von” (“Expect Any Kind of Weather”), is held indoors. It is a battle of the bands in which aspiring rockers from all over Iceland and the Faroe Islands compete. This year, it was won by a group called Armæða, although two girl bands, one from Kópavogur, and the other a local group called “Sigyn” (named after Norse demon Loki’s wife), also put in a strong showing.
The day after a good night out on the island, you can go for some hair of the dog and a pizza at local chain Pizza 67, Thai at Prófasturinn or Balkan at Lanterna. Or you can punish yourself some more with a “djúpsteiktur Akureyringur”, a deep fried hot dog and fries with cheese on top, all served in a bun. As you wander about town, you’ll see all the friendly faces you saw the night before, most of them seemingly in the same state as yourself. And you’ll feel a part of these fair islands.