From Iceland — Heydalur: Western Magic

Heydalur: Western Magic

Published September 3, 2010

Photo by
Julia Staples

Moss covered lava fields, jutting cliffs, sheep-dotted mountains, roadside cairns—the treeless landscape from Reykjavík to the West Fjords kept my travel companion and I wide-eyed throughout the roughly seven hour trip to Heydalur. After driving to the end of a winding gravel road, populated with only a few dimly lit houses, we reached our destination a little before midnight. Our keys were waiting in the door to our room, as the guests in the other eight rooms and the staff had retired for the night. Too exhausted to venture into the darkness to find the hot pot, we slid into our warm beds for a restful night’s sleep.

The next morning, we breakfasted in the large dining hall—a converted cow barn complete with wide-timbered walls; horseshoes and harnesses; brightly coloured, abstract paintings and a chandelier made from rope-tied bottles. The friendly staff provided us with fresh bread, fruits, meats, coffee, skyr and a variety of other foods and drinks. (complimentary to the guests but priced at 1290 ISK for campers). A gray parrot, named Kobbe, entertained us while we ate, performing tricks for sips of orange juice. After breakfast, we found the hot pot and soaked up the warmth and the view of fjord. Stella Guðmundsdóttir, the owner of the inn, told us she opened the place in the early 2000s after converting the cow houses into the cozy guest rooms.

Despite the seclusion, Heydalur provides plenty of activities to keep guests entertained year round, such as fishing, kayaking, horse-back riding, and, as we had already discovered, relaxing in the hot pot. In the winter, organised trips are offered to view the northern lights. Both my travel companion and I agreed that Heydalur is the perfect place to unwind and relax. We left the guesthouse mid-afternoon and headed towards Hólmavík. The rainbow infested skies caused us to stop many times for pictures along the way.

The Underground 

On route to Hólmavík we stopped at Vatnsfjörður, where an abandoned church and half empty graveyard stood next to a freshly excavated archaeological site, recently covered with turf for protection from the elements before next summer’s dig. A farm mound, built up over the course of a thousand years, contained buildings, one on top of another including the last turf house built in Vatnasfjorður in 1884. Archaeologists and students from the field school at the Fornleifastofnun Íslands (Institute of Archaeology, Iceland) and NABO (North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation) have been excavating the site since 2004.

The older area of the site, dating to the 10th century, once belonged to a Viking chieftain. Gentle slopes in the ground mark the silhouettes of a large farm, a smithy and a number of small storage buildings and workshops, all part of a thriving settlement during the Viking Age. Pits filled with flame-cracked rocks, which once held sparkling fires, were used for cooking and making tools. Some of the artefacts found over the years include blue glass beads, a rare gold pendant, loom weights, charred animal bones and plant remains, among other things.

Rumours of a possible tunnel from the large cellar near the farm mound to the church remain a mystery. The archaeologists have decided to leave the cellar in tact for the public to view, instead of destroying it and risking not finding anything. The graveyard near the recently abandonded church also remains unexcavated out of respect for leaving the modern graves undisturbed.

Theory About Magic & Miracles

After getting a taste of the mysterious history of Vatnsfjörður, we decided to explore some of the folklore of the West Fjords. We arrived at the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Hólmavík early in the evening on Thursday. My travel companion and I wandered around the museum for about twenty-five minutes while listening to recordings on a headset explaining the exhibits in English.

The museum manager later told us that the museum had been built in order to boost tourism for the town; however, all the explanations of the displays were in Icelandic. The museum displayed glass cases filled with human skin worn by sorcerers, the famed nábrikur; pieces of a whale’s mouth used for casting spells; and other blood stained objects associated with magical happenings around the Strandir area. A surge of supernatural interest and persecutions occurred in the 17th century, and nearly 200 people were suspected of practicing witchcraft. Twenty-one of them were found guilty and burnt alive (20 men and 1 woman).

The recording on the headset explained it all and set a magical scene. As we were leaving, the museum manager asked if we would like to see his costume…umm, yeah! He went into the museum to change and came back out dressed in a tunic and hat made of animal skin. The guy jumped onto the bench in front of the museum and gave us a much more interesting view on sorcery and witchcraft than the museum itself. He went on about the magic of tattoos and how he had calmed the winds later that morning by chanting a spell and holding a rod topped with the head of a fish with a rune-carved stick in its mouth. After we finished talking and were about to leave, my travel companion and I realised that we needed to jump-start our car, as had been the case for the entirety of our journey.

We jokingly asked the museum manager to perform some magic so we could avoid the hassle of jumper cables for the third time that day. Much obliged, he slapped his hand down on top of the hood of the car, warning us that magic can be dangerous if not performed properly. We turned the keys and sure enough, the car started. We drove back to Reykjavík without any other car troubles and our heads full of magical wonderment from the West Fjords.

Accommodation provided by Heydalur. Booking tel.: +354 456 4824 or


Due to a devastating server crash, we lost all the original images that appeared with this article in its original, printed form. If you find the replacement images disappointing, feel free to browse our .pdf arcives and search for the originals.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!