Those who lived it still claim it was the best time of their lives. The Great Herring Adventure of the ‘50s and ‘60s was the Icelandic equivalent of Klondike. A gold rush (or silver rush perhaps, as herring is affectionately called the silver of the sea in Iceland) where seasonal workers made a year’s salary in a few month period salting herring for foreign markets. The herring years, as this era is commonly known, has been repeatedly romanticised in songs, novels and plays in Icelandic culture, leaving us – the post herring era generations – to believe that this nation peaked a long time ago, and no matter what we’ll do, or where we’ll take this nation in the future, it will never compare to the herring years. And perhaps they are right. Those were different times. Simpler times. And perhaps they were better times.
The Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður celebrates this era in an award winning fashion. Selected as the museum in Iceland in 2000, it managed to top itself in 2004 when it was awarded the Micheletti award as the best museum in Europe. The museum is housed in three separate houses, each featuring an aspect of the production cycle and the life of herring workers. The Boat House recreates the town’s bustling harbour of the 1950s, with many old fishing boats at the dock. Loaded with tools and memorabilia from life at sea and the equipment used to bring the valuable herring –the silver of the sea – to shore. Grána, a herring meal and oil factory from the 1930s shows how men and machines processed herring into meal and oil. Filled with old equipment used for the process. The oldest museum building is Róaldsbrakki, built as a Norwegian herring station in 1907. On the ground floor is a display of the equipment and conditions of (mostly female) workers on shore, where the herring was salted and barrelled for export. The upper levels accurately recreate the condition of the ladies who bunked together in small rooms, with common cooking facilities and sanitary equipment, and the offices of the herring exporters, complete with pay slips, production reports and bottles of Jenever and Icelandic Brennivín.
The work for herring salters was no picnic. The day started whenever the boats would come in, and it ended when all the herring had been salted. Each working day could easily exceed 20 hours, standing upright, soaked in fish gut and salt, suffering from cuts, blisters and infections.
The township of Siglufjörður in Northern-Iceland was the biggest herring manufacturer in Iceland from the early 1900 until the industry crashed around 1970. During the herring season, the number of inhabitants multiplied when tens of thousands of seasonal workers and fishermen migrated to this northernmost town of Iceland to ply their trade.
Old photos from this era, displayed in the museum, show hundreds upon hundreds of boats, filling the fjord from one shore to the other during days when the fleet had to seek shelter from the storm. For sailors, these days ashore were usually accompanied with wine, women and dance. Accordion music has become symbolic, for when there was free time, there was dance. Or so legend would have it. Myself, I would probably have used every spare moment to rest.
The Icelandic Herring Era Musuem
Snorragata 15, 580 Siglufjörður
Tel.: 467 1604
Opening hours: 13:00 – 17:00
Admission: 800 ISK