Created | Updated Oct 19, 2009
Iceland is a country in the North Atlantic Ocean. Geologically, it is not part of any of the continents, but culturally it is part of Europe. Iceland is not as cold as its name suggests - most of the country is green and grassy, though there are some large ice caps, including Vatnajökull, the biggest ice cap in Europe, which covers about 3,000 square miles.
The Sagas and Eddas1 give some clues about where the name for Iceland originated. Apparently, the rebels of Norway who wanted to avoid the rule of King Harald the Fairhaired escaped with their families to Iceland, where they could continue with their old fiefdoms in peace. Because they wanted to be left well alone, and having come across a much colder island to the west, they named the island to the west 'Greenland' in the hopes that people would believe it to be more hospitable than Iceland. Another theory of course is that Iceland was named after Vatnajökull as that is visible from much of the country. A third theory would be that one of the first people to visit Iceland, Flosi Vilgerðarson, named it Iceland upon seeing a fjord filled with ice and finding the whole thing very uninviting.
Iceland is sparsely populated. The area of the island is about 40,000 square miles (100,000 square km), which is about the size of the state of Virginia, USA or 20% bigger than Ireland. The total population is only 300,0002 and half of these inhabitants live in the capital, Reykjavík, and its environs in the south west of the country.
The continents of North and South America are moving away from the continents of Europe and Africa, forming the Atlantic Ocean in between. At the centre of the Atlantic, a gap is continuously being formed on the sea bed. Magma from inside the Earth wells up, forming a ridge right down the middle of the Atlantic all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Iceland is one place where enough magma has risen above the surface of the ocean to form a large island. This process is ongoing, so there is a fault line which runs down the middle of the island. There are many known active volcanoes; new valleys appear every so often and new islands surface in the sea off Iceland.
The oldest parts of Iceland are the parts furthest from the fault line, and they are about 20 million years old which is not old at all in geological terms. The youngest parts of Iceland are very recent, most of it originating from recent volcanic eruptions, such as the Hekla one in 1994. Some of the volcanoes can produce enough lava to cover hundreds of square miles of land and much of the surface of Iceland is covered with these lava fields.
As well as volcanoes, Iceland has hot springs, geysers and bubbling mud pools. These all occur because of hot magma close to the surface, or under underground rivers and streams. This energy has been harnessed by the locals; much of the country is heated by hot water pumped up from underground. This has the unfortunate side effect that there can be a slight smell of rotten eggs from the hot water coming out of taps (produced by hydrogen sulphide), but the residents soon get used to it. Despite the smell, water in Iceland is some of the cleanest in the world, with bottled water being exported all around the world.
Many of the mountains in Iceland have a very new, jagged look to them, while others were weatherbeaten and smoothed out by glaciers into graceful curves in the last ice age. Few mountains in Iceland have much vegetation to speak of and at best moss, grass and some low shrubbery can be found on them.
The other notable formation of the Icelandic scenery is produced by the ice. There are a number of icecaps, the biggest being Vatnajökull. This is located in the south east of the island, hemmed in by a line of mountains on the south side so that it almost, but not quite, reaches the sea.
Every ten years or so, the combination of fire and ice causes a spectacular phenomenon; Grimsvötn is a chain of volcanoes which lies underneath the Vatnajökull ice cap. When the volcanoes erupt, a large amount of ice, right above them, melts and flows southwards towards the sea. A stretch of coastline which normally contains about a thousand small meltwater rivers is completely inundated and becomes one massive river bigger than the Amazon, washing away anything in its path. The river flows for about 20 miles until it reaches the sea. Because this happens regularly, there are no buildings, trees or anything else in this area. There is a road, which is regularly washed away and rebuilt afterwards. Re-routing the road around the other side of the icecap would add about 150 miles to the journey around the country.
Iceland gets a lot of rain. The average temperature for July and August is 14°C, with winter temperatures on average just below freezing. Storms are common, both in winter and summer, but rain in Iceland is a rather different experience than for instance central European rain. There are hardly any torrential downpours, and flash floods are extremely rare. Avalanches are more common, but they mostly happen away from inhabited areas, as the Icelandic have for the most part had the sense to not settle in avalanche-prone areas.
Iceland was first inhabited by Irish and Scottish monks looking for a remote place where they could do some praying. It was discovered by the Vikings in 874 AD. Many Vikings moved to Iceland from Norway, and settled down as sheep farmers. These people were famous for their raids on the coasts of Europe where they took many prisoners, from Ireland and other countries, back to Iceland and Norway as slaves.
The Icelandic Parliament, Alþingi, was founded in 930 AD, and it is still running today, albeit in a rather different form. The Alþingi of old was a place for laws to be set and disputes to be heard. It met once a year and there you could hear news of the world, make some business arrangements and catch up with friends and family. The laws not written down, but memorized by the Speaker, or Lögsögumaður, who recited them at every annual meeting. There were so many of them that it took the Lögsögumaður, or Speaker, a few days to recite them; to be Lögsögumaður was a high honour to which you had to prove worthy. Legal penalties took the form of peer pressure, where fines were imposed and a person could become ostracised from society if they did not pay the fine. There was no police force, prisons or government officials other than the Speaker of the Parliament.
In 1262, Iceland agreed to share a king with Norway, then in later years when Norway was annexed or occupied, Iceland would follow. That is how Iceland came to be a part of Danish rule in 1380. In 1662 the Danish forced the Alþingi to agree to Danish sovereignty at gunpoint. It remained under Danish rule until the 20th Century, when it gradually gained independence in a number of steps, starting with home rule in 1904, finally declaring itself an independent republic in 1944 with the Alþingi taking over government.
The People and the Economy
The population of Iceland is about 300,000. Because the centre of Iceland is an inhospitable highland, most of the people live around the coast. The main industries are fishing, services and tourism, with industry following closely and farming somewhere lower on the list.
Up to about 1900, the biggest town had about 5,000 people. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Icelanders numbered less than 50,000, and many had moved to Canada and the USA in the previous century. After World War II, people started moving to the capital, Reykjavík, and now about half of the entire population lives around there. The Icelandic economy is booming at the moment and the people are some of the best off in the world.
Because the population of Iceland has always been small, there was never any tradition of surnames. Instead a system of 'son of' or 'daughter of' along with their father's first name was used (this is known as a patronymic). For example, if Jón has a son called Eiríkur and a daughter called Vigdis, their names are Eiríkur Jónsson and Vigdís Jónsdóttir. Jón himself will have a completely different patronymic relating to his own father. Married women do not change their name when they marry so a family of mother, father, son and daughter might have four entirely different patronymics. It is to be noted that legally there is no reason why children or their parents may not use matronymics instead, and in fact, many do so.
Icelanders tend to use their first names all the time, only adding the patronymic/matronymic when confusion might arise. For example, former president of Iceland, Vigdís Finnbogadottir, was always known as President Vigdís, not President Finnbogadóttir. For the same reason, the Icelandic telephone directory is sorted in order of alphabetical first names, and not last names.
The language spoken in Iceland is a very undiluted form of old Norse. It has not changed much since the original settlers arrived there and present day Icelanders boast that they can still read the sagas written down six or seven hundred years ago without any problems. Ancient Icelandic literature consists of poems called Edda and stories called Sagas. The Sagas are usually very matter-of-fact accounts of people and their lives, the feuds they had with other families and so on. They read so much like historical records that they are often assumed to be actual true accounts. In fact most of the Sagas are fictional, but based on real people and real events. They are certainly very different to the highly fantastic literature that was being produced in the rest of Europe at the same time. The Edda poems are written in a strict metrical style similar to Ancient Irish or Welsh poetry, with restrictions on the number of syllables per line, cross rhymes, assonance and so on.
Because of the great tradition of literature in Iceland, there is a very great interest in books. Everybody reads and everybody has a large bookshelf full of the classics. It is said that if you translate a book into Icelandic, you have guaranteed sales to almost everybody in the country.
The Icelandic language has evolved in past centuries, and continues to do so, unlike Welsh, for instance. Whereas in Welsh you'd probably call a computer a computer, the Icelandic language has its own name for those wonderful things3, along with a name for almost anything under the sun. The Icelandic alphabet has a number of letters not in the English alphabet, among which are Ðð(eth) and Þþ(thorn), but also Ææ(aye) and Öö, Áá, Íí, Éé, Óó, Úú, Ýý (here the letters are shown both in caps and lower case). However, the Icelandic language does not use C, Q, Z or W.4
In most languages, placenames were originally descriptive but as the language changes, the original meaning is forgotten. The names of Birmingham and Chester in England probably don't mean much to most people. Because Icelandic has not changed much since people first arrived on the island over a thousand years ago, most of the placenames are still literal descriptions. Reykjavík means 'smoky cove'; Vatnajökull means 'watery ice-cap'; Jökulsá, the biggest river in Iceland, means 'glacial river'. Some features have more fanciful names such as the mountain Herðubreið, which means 'broad shoulders', but most have names like 'blue mountain', 'midge water', 'white river', 'long icecap' and so on.
As in most other countries, mankind has had a dramatic impact on the countryside of Iceland. Sheep were introduced to Iceland in 874 AD, with the first settlers. The sheep soon ate most of the trees that were said to cover Iceland 'from mountain to shore,' according to the Sagas, although fierce debate is ongoing about the nature of those trees, their size and existence. Their damage to the land is apparent, but huge success has been had with controlling them, and reversing their effects, so Iceland looks very green once again. This is a constant struggle, and will be an issue the world over for future generations. There are many places in Iceland very desolate and barren, but these have little to do with sheep, and more to do with geology and evolution.
Iceland is a wonderful country to visit, but one of the most expensive on the planet. All towns are in the coastal area, and there is a road that goes the whole way around the island. The central highlands are the most interesting places to visit, but the roads are rough, unpaved and often suitable only for four-wheel drive vehicles. They are also closed due to snow for most of the year. The best time to visit Iceland is therefore mid-summer.
Some places which must be seen to make any visit to Iceland complete:
Thingvellir is a beautiful, peaceful valley and the site of the original parliament.
Gullfoss are the golden falls, one of Europe's most spectacular waterfalls.
Geysir is the great geyser, which no longer erupts regularly.5 There is a smaller geyser beside it called Strokkur, or the Churn, which erupts every few minutes.
Myvatn means midge water. It is a big lake with plentiful birdlife and many interesting geological features around it.
Landmannalaugar is a wonderful landscape of rock.
Thorsmork is a beautiful green valley overshadowed by glaciers.
Dettifoss is Europe's most powerful waterfall, and is on the Jökulsá river.
The Glacial Lagoon is a lagoon formed of meltwater from Vatnajökull, complete with icebergs.
Eldgjá is the fire gorge. This valley appeared in about 1400 AD.
The Rainshadow of Vatnajökull is a vast cold desert north of Vatnajökull where it never rains and nothing grows- the most remote place you can go in Europe.
Things to Do
- Sightseeing - look at the list above
- Walking - Iceland is a walker's paradise
- Swimming - in geothermally heated pools or the Blue Lagoon
- Birdwatching - particularly around Myvatn
- Snowmobiling - jetting around on a glacier
- River rafting - on the Hvítá River or others
- The Aurora Borealis - the Northern Lights are a good reason to visit in winter
While Iceland is expensive, it is only about a third more expensive than Britain, for instance. There is no need to take out a second mortgage to go for a drink in Reykjavik, just don´t buy a round for everyone in the bar.6
Most inhabitants are friendly and helpful and speak English with ease. There is little crime, pollution and stress to aggravate your holiday, and there is plenty to see in Reykjavik. There is the Perlan, a great big dome shaped building which has a view of the entire bay, over to Snæfellsnes on a sunny day. There is the town centre itself, with its colourful houses, shops and crooked little streets. Reykjavik also has a world-class symphony orchestra, theatres, opera, a dance troupe, cinemas and museums, and from Reykjavik you can organise all the things to do and see while you stay there.