From Iceland — Iceland On The Brain: 1200 Years Of Tourism

Iceland On The Brain: 1200 Years Of Tourism

Published September 3, 2014

Iceland On The Brain: 1200 Years Of Tourism
Photo by
Sigtryggur Ari/DV ehf

Everyone knows that Ingólfur Arnarson (that chap with the spear thing on the hill overlooking the city centre) was Iceland’s first settler. But, he was not the first person to set foot upon it. A few years before the settlement, which is assumed to have started in 874, a Swede named Garðar arrived, naming the place Garðarshólmur before abruptly leaving again (thankfully, modern-day Swedish tourists no longer feel entitled to go around naming the country after themselves). Not long after, a Norwegian named Hrafna-Flóki (“Raven-Flóki”) arrived to spend an entire winter on the island and, not much impressed, subsequently re-named it Iceland, as a warning to others. Flóki never returned, but the name stuck. Iceland’s first tourism boom ended soon after, as people from Flóki’s homeland, disregarding the brand name, started settling, bringing along scores of reluctant Irishmen to till the fields and such.

In fact, it was probably the Irish who arrived first of all, as the Sagas mention the presence of Irish monks predating any Norse settlement. No one knows how long they stayed, as they disappear quite suddenly from the sources, perhaps after incidents involving Viking battle-axes, or perhaps departing of their own accord to pre-empt such incidents. In any case, they may have used Iceland as some sort of spiritual retreat, entering the annals of history as Iceland’s first ever tourists.

The Dog-Day King

It was only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—when young aristocrats started travelling the world, inventing modern tourism in the process—that people started visiting Iceland to see the sights. Incidentally, much like the ongoing tourism boom, this one was presaged by a volcanic eruption. In 1783 Laki erupted, killing almost quarter of the population and blowing ash everywhere, destroying crops all over Europe, and possibly causing the widespread hardships that led to the French Revolution. The sans-culottes may not have been aware of the Iceland connection, but in 1809, the revolution came these shores in the form of Iceland’s most famous 19th Century visitor, Jörgen Jörgensen.

“Shakespeare was apparently familiar with the Icelandic sheep dog, “Pish for thee, Iceland Dog! Thou prick-eared cur of Iceland!“ being one of his better insults.”

Jörgen was a Dane, in the service of English soap merchants. He took over the country, declared independence from Denmark and ruled for 100 days before being deposed by the British Navy, who then returned the island to the Danes. Jörgen went to his grave in Australia decades later, still calling himself the King of Iceland. Over here, he’s still fondly referred to as Jörgen the Dog-Day King, in reference to the dog days of summer that he ruled here.

Of course, Jörgen wasn’t really a tourist without purpose. He came to engage in trade, and just happened to proclaim himself ruler of the island during his visit. His boss, however, a certain Joseph Banks, can perhaps legitimately be said to be the first modern tourist to Iceland. And of course, he came here by accident.

Shakespeare insults us

Iceland is rarely mentioned in English literature before the late 18th Century, although a couple of examples do spring to mind. Shakespeare was apparently familiar with the Icelandic sheep dog, “Pish for thee, Iceland Dog! Thou prick-eared cur of Iceland!“ being one of his better insults. And the great scholar Dr. Samuel Johnson, a man of wide and profound learning, was known for being able to quote verbatim a whole chapter on snakes in Iceland from Niels Horrebow’s ‘Natural History of Iceland’ from 1752. It ran thusly: “There are no snakes in Iceland.”

But it was Sir Joseph Banks who led the first English expedition to Iceland, thereby bringing the country to the attention of educated Englishmen for the first time.

Sir Banks had in fact been planning an expedition to the Pacific along with James Cook, but since this turned out to be too expensive, he decided on Iceland instead. A member of Banks’ expedition, Uno Von Troil, published an account in which he comments on the country’s whales, volcanoes and cuisine, but concludes that it is a “dreary land so little favoured by nature that one is tempted to believe it impossible to be inhabited by any human creature.” But, as with Hrafna-Flóki, Von Troil’s warnings did not keep people away. Rather the opposite, as English visitors now started coming to our shores, many of them to see the already-famous volcanoes.

The French discover Iceland

At the time, Iceland’s best-known sight was the volcano Hekla. A medical student named Henry Holland visited it in 1810, later describing the effect of entering the crater as “at once extraordinary and pleasing—The magical palaces of an eastern tale, could not have been better illustrated to the eye.” Holland’s account, like most travelogues to this day, describes Iceland as at once magical and exotic, even comparing it to the orient rather than to Europe. More travellers subsequently came to Iceland in the 19th century; many of them developing a deep fascination for the country, a condition which later scholars of these travels have sometimes called “Iceland on the brain,” more recently termed “Icelandophilia.” One of these new fans was William Morris, whose translation of the Icelandic Sagas had a profound impact on modern day fantasy writers such as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.

The most famous work of 19th century literature set in Iceland is of course Frenchman Jules Verne’s ‘Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.’ Verne never actually came to Iceland (in fact, he rarely left his office), but based his descriptions on travelogues by his countrymen. The French scientist Gaimard, referenced by Verne, explored everything from the Icelandic potato to the nether parts of Icelandic women to determine if they looked the same as in other countries.


The invention of the dirty weekend

By the turn of the 20th Century, then, we can already see the beginnings of tourism in Iceland. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the British who brought environmental tourism, the Americans who brought cultural tourism and the French who came to research the loins of local women.

But foreigners only started coming in large numbers during World War II, when the British Army arrived in 1940, with American troops following a year later. As in the Napoleonic Wars, this was more to occupy the country than explore the sights, and after the end of the war, the soldiers were sent home or confined to their base in Keflavík. With 60,000 foreign soldiers suddenly stationed in a country of 120,000, the occupation certainly increased Icelanders’ awareness of the outside world, but the outside world paid little attention in return.

And no wonder. During the first decades of the Cold War, Iceland seemed a dreary place. There were few visitors, and it was difficult to leave due to expensive flights and currency restrictions. In order to get foreign currency, one would have to make an appointment with a manager of one of the local banks, and his goodwill determined how much you would get. Obviously, it helped if you were related.

Slower but lower

In the ‘50s, the airline Loftleiðir started flying transatlantic routes between New York and Luxemburg employing outdated propeller aircraft. “We are slower, but we are lower,” was the company motto. In the late ’60, Loftleiðir became known as “the Hippie Express,” transporting young Americans to Europe who cared more about low cost than punctuality. Among those taking the trip was a young Bill Clinton. Iceland became a stopover for transcontinental travellers, but ironically, it was still very expensive to fly from Iceland, as the company held a de facto monopoly. Flights from Iceland to the USA, for instance, were much more expensive than the other way around.

Enter Björk

iceland on the brain

When I was a young lad in the UK in the ‘80s, Iceland seemed to exist in most people’s imaginations—if at all—as a little known place that was probably home to polar bears and Santa Claus.  Icelanders prided themselves on winning various Miss World and Strongest Man in the World titles, cementing the prevailing image of Iceland as a nation of latter-day Vikings and supermodel waitresses. But the proper outside recognition Icelanders so lusted for was in the end spurred by music.

In the mid-‘80s, the world’s most famous Icelander was a well-respected fellow named Magnus Magnusson, a BBC TV presenter who was born in Iceland, but had spent his whole life in Scotland. As if to assert his Icelandicness, Magnus went on to translate many of the Sagas into English, and retained Icelandic citizenship until the day he died.

Then came Björk. When the Sugarcubes’ “Birthday “was voted single of 1988 by Melody Maker in 1988, young people in the UK started developing an interest in the country.

Björk’s solo career started taking off in 1993, and it wound up bringing even more international attention than her band had. Iceland was fast becoming a modern country, but in the video to her breakthrough single “Human Behaviour,” Björk still can’t resist indulging in a little bit of Iceland exoticism, which seems to have not changed much since the 19th century, presenting herself as a pixie closely in tune with nature.

Britpop in Iceland

When “Cool Britannia” took off in London the next year, Iceland felt the effects immediately. It had never before seemed so close to the centre of the universe. Instead of the burnt-out hard rock bands that used to stop by Iceland during the ‘80s (Status Quo, Meatloaf, Kiss, Europe), some of Britain’s hottest acts started coming over to play and party as Björk mingled with the world’s most popular and progressive acts in London and New York.

Everyone from Blur’s Damon Albarn to Mel B of the Spice Girls could now be spotted on the streets of Reykjavík, sometimes arm in arm with local paramours. In the wake of Björk, Sigur rós, Gusgus, múm, Quarashi, and others who made a splash internationally (the most recent example being Of Monsters and Men). The movie ‘101 Reykjavík,’ largely set in Albarn’s old haunt Kaffibarinn (still going strong!), helped establish Reykjavík as a party Mecca and the Iceland Airwaves festival, which soon attracted many visitors, was started in 1999.

And in the wake of the stars came the general public. Running into tourists, exchange students and other visitors to Iceland stopped being an oddity and became a somewhat regular occurrence. Iceland might still be exotic, but it was no longer completely unknown.

See also:

Growing Pains


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