A trip to the northern town of Skagaströnd raises questions about Iceland’s identity.
Iceland was, until recently, essentially rural. Rapid urbanisation after 1900 changed the country forever and despite Iceland being revered for its beautiful landscape, 94% of the population lives in towns and cities. Icelanders are, in effect, tamed.
How do Icelanders see themselves now? As the stoic farmer, resourceful and determined? Or the bright, fast-walking urbanite, animatedly holding court in Kaffibarinn? These images reject one another, and politically too, the lines between countryside and capital are stark.
To the north
Skagaströnd sits on the western shore of the Skagi headland. In the early December weather, the drive here is anything but tame. The roads are icy and snow snakes across them in treacherous corkscrews. We arrive after nightfall and Skagaströnd twinkles welcomingly as we descend into the town.
We’re here to film, and to see what Skagaströnd has to offer us, visitors from the big smoke. We come with our own expectations; I, country-raised and always threatening to run off to a farm somewhere, am instantly charmed. My editor, the city boy, condemns Skagaströnd as a ghost town. We are probably both right.
We’re staying at Salthús Guesthouse. Once a building for salting cod, it now hosts tourists and visiting artists alike. The rooms are warm and smartly decorated and the shared kitchen looks over the harbour below. It’s also minutes from the pool, our first port of call. You can tell a lot about a community from its pool.
The pool is tiny but impeccably clean, and we’re offered coffee as we soak. The air is freezing and the coffee provides a welcome kick. We strike up conversation with the only other occupant, who turns out to be the local priest. She extols the town’s virtues; the beautiful Church, the fishing, the museum. Covid never reached Skagaströnd, she informs us, but its impacts were still felt here. Loneliness is an issue, and she made sure to check on older residents during lockdown. Beyond the village there are farms spread all round the cape, and an ageing population inhabits them. But the priest is cheery.
After the pool we set about finding somewhere to eat. We pass the pier on the way, which, even on a Friday evening, is busy with small fishing boats unloading their catch. Every so often a lorry thunders into the village ready to receive the next batch.
Food for thought
Harbour Restaurant is beautifully decorated. There is one other table, a large family. No tourists. The food is well-cooked, if not exciting. As a visitor you always hope to see local produce featured on the menu—varieties of fresh fish or cheeses from nearby farms. But there is instead the usual lamb, burgers and pizza. At the end of the day, tourism here is limited, both from foreigners and Icelanders. When locals go out, they just want a decent, normal meal.
The pub, Hólanes, is an unexpected building, a log cabin in a landscape bereft of trees. A few people are drinking in disparate duos, and a TV is blasting covers of pop songs. We commandeer the pool table, the barman offers us control of the music and suddenly it’s a real Friday night. I’ve never played pool and so I am, unsurprisingly, terrible. People offer me tips and eventually we’ve made friends with half the bar. When closing time comes we invite the two left to join us for a nightcap.
The young men are filmmakers, and, what’s more, they’re here as part of an incredible arts programme, NES residency. In 2008, while the country was falling apart with the financial crash, the council here responded to the closure of the fish processing plant in a creative way. They converted the building into a large arts space, and invited creators from all over the world to come to Skagaströnd. In a village with a population of 470, more than 100 artists may visit in a year, to paint, sing, film, photograph, dance, sculpt and breathe life into the town.
It’s fitting that it’s here, not the city, that we are faced with this juxtaposition: new and old, frivolous artist and mundane worker, fisherman and poet. But Skagaströnd rejects this tiresome debate. 200 years ago, Icelandic farmers entertained themselves during haymaking with self-composed poetry, attempting to outdo each other with the complexity of their alliteration. Art and labour were intrinsically intertwined.
The sun rises late; it’s close to the solstice. From the little kitchen window I watch the town appear in the gloaming, street by street. Finally the streetlights go out and the mountain above the village glows orange and pink in the winter light. It is astonishingly beautiful. The harbour below is busy as always, with fishermen jostling in bright yellow waterproofs. On the pier are two young filmmakers preparing to shoot.
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