**   ICELAND & FAROES 2017  - A  PROLOGUE    **

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In the summer of 1972, we undertook a back-packing expedition to Iceland, long before the mass tourism industry had hooked its voracious claws into that North Atlantic island. Now 45 years later we plan to return to Iceland, this time taking George our faithful VW camper as our travelling companion. As a pictorial foretaste of Iceland, we have scanned a selection of the colour slides taken on our first visit, and these are presented in our Iceland 1972 Photo Gallery. The photos' quality may not be up to today's standard, but they are 45 years old! There is just one ferry each week to Iceland, operated by the Faroese company Smyril Line, from Hirtshals at the northern tip of Jutland, Denmark via the Faroe Islands (Smyril is the Faroese word for the Merlin bird of prey). With no ferry services now across the North Sea to Denmark, it is a long outward journey via Holland and Germany to Denmark before we can board M/S Norröna for the 3 night crossing of the North Atlantic to the small port of Seyđisfjörđur on the east coast of Iceland. Click on the map right for details of our outward journey to Iceland.

Click on map for details of
our route out to Iceland

Those who watch BBC4 will be familiar with the port of Seyđisfjörđur, which was the setting for the 2016 Icelandic crime drama Trapped; in this Nordic Noir thriller, winter snows on the enclosing mountains cut off the small port, and the police investigation following discovery of a dismembered body in the fjord all conspire to trap both the townsfolk and the Smyril Line ferry M/S Norröna. A gruesome tale of murder at our port of arrival in Iceland, and the prospect of 3 nights at sea crossing the stormy North Atlantic, are not the most encouraging prelude to this year's trip!

Despite this our planning for Iceland is now at an advanced stage, aided by much appreciated advice from our good friends Kathy and Rick Howe from California and George and Kate Zekan from Australia, both of whom toured Iceland in summer 2015 in their respective campervans. Read the Howes' excellent Travelin' Tortuga Icelandic travelogues on their Icelandic Sagas and Land of the Sideways Sun. We shall be setting off shortly and during the course of our journey around Iceland and week long stop-off at the Faroes on the way out, we shall publish our usual detailed travelogues and pictorial records covering the progress of our travels. As is our custom, we now present this Prologue study with geological, demographic, cultural, and historical background to Iceland and the Faroe Islands, our host countries for 2017.


Geography:  Iceland is located in the North Atlantic half way between New York and Moscow. It lies just south of the Arctic Circle which passes through the small island of Grimsey off Iceland's northern coast (see map above right). Slightly larger than Ireland in size, Iceland measures 190 miles (305 kms) from north to south and 312 miles (500 kms) east to west. Around half the land mass of this mountainous island is over 1,300 feet (400m) above sea level. While the coastal lowlands and valleys are fertile and allow cultivation of grass for hay, the interior plateau is largely barren. Lava which erupted in the last 10,000 years forms a tenth of the surface area, and 50% of the country is desert.

Geology:  geologically one of the earth's youngest land masses, Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where two tectonic plates, the North American and Eurasian continental plates are drifting apart at a rate of 2.5 cms each year. As they do so, the land is continually tearing itself apart, as molten magma from the earth's mantle wells upwards towards the surface to fill the widening gap. The interaction of these 2 forces over the last 15 million years has created the island of Iceland from a series of undersea volcanic eruptions. Iceland is built up of all this volcanic material. Almost all of Iceland's recent volcanic activity is located along the line of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which runs SW~NE across the island (see right). The results of this volcanism along the line of tectonic separation is clearly visible at Ţingvellir with the great rift of Almannagjá (see above left), and at the solfataras and steaming fumarole vents at Námafjall near Mývatn in the north. Recent volcanic eruptions along the line of this central zone of volcanism have created the island's youngest rocks, consisting mainly of post-glacial lava deposits. Conversely, the oldest rocks are found in the now geologically stable eastern and western parts of the island where there is now no volcanic activity, consisting of tertiary basalt which makes up around half the area.  Click here for geology map of Iceland

Volcanism:  Iceland is one of the world's most active volcanic countries, and an estimated one third of all the lava that has erupted on earth in recorded history has come from Iceland. There are some 200 volcanoes mainly along the central volcanic rift zone; some are extinct, some dormant, and at least 30 have erupted since the country was first settled 1,100 years ago. In the last few centuries, Iceland has experienced a volcanic eruption on average every 5 years. They take a number of forms depending on the chemical composition of their magma which flows out of the volcano as lava: where this is fluid and effusive and the eruption slow and continuous, the lava builds up to form a wide, flattened cone called a shield volcano, taking its name from Skjaldbreiđur (Broad Shield) volcano at Ţingvellir; more viscous magma produces violently explosive eruptions, with lava is ejected as a fine spray of ash, gravel-like scoria or larger fragments of volcanic bombs (pyroclasts), forming cinder cones of tephra, the general term for such unconsolidated ejected volcanic material. Hverfjall at Mývatn is a typical example of a tephra cone. Fissure eruptions with rows of craters are one of Iceland's most common volcanic formations, such as the disastrous Lakagígar eruption in SE Iceland which lasted for 6 months in 1783 along a 25 km line of 100 craters; its massive lava flow covered an area of 565 square kms 12m deep, and the ash and poisonous gases from the eruption devastated farming, killing livestock, polluting the land and causing the country's greatest famine with loss of 1000s of lives. Submarine eruptions still occur off of the coast, such as the one that created the new island of Surtsey off the Westman Islands in 1963. Another volcanic structure are pseudo-craters, formed when lava flows over marshy ground, vaporising the water which explodes through the solidifying rock causing clusters of crater-like blisters; examples can be seen at Skútustađir near Mývatn and Landbrotshólar near Kirkjubćjarklaustur. Volcanic eruptions also occur under Iceland's glaciers such as the one under the Eyjafjallajökull glacier in 2010. The violent interaction of molten lava and ice under the ice cap produced dramatic results: the 9km high drifting ash cloud caused week long closure of airspace and grounding of aircraft all across Europe, and the flash floods (jökulhlaups) from melted ice washed away major sections of the Ring Road and destroyed bridges around the south coast.

Geysers, geothermal springs and fumaroles :  Iceland's Great Geysir (meaning Gusher) has given its name to the general phenomenon of spouting thermal springs, where subterranean water is superheated by the magma building up such a pressure that the boiling water is erupted high into the air. The original Geysir is now quiescent, but nearby Strokkur (meaning the Churn) still performs regularly every 10 minutes: the surface of the pool begins to swell violently up into a giant bubble which bursts, blasting a steaming column of boiling water 30m into the air (see above left) with the sound of rushing wind, before the water falls and drains back into the basin. Thermal springs are found all across Iceland, emerging at the surface as boiling pools often lined with sinter or caked with sulphur deposits as at Hveragerđi and Hengill. Such natural geothermal sources of hot water are harnessed for heating homes, swimming pools and greenhouses, or for driving geothermal power plants. The geothermal water can mix with clay to form bubbling, boiling mud pools as at the Hverarönd solfatara at Námafjall near Mývatn. Superheated water may emerge at surface vents as gushing steam fumaroles (see left).

Glaciers and glacial rivers:  in spite of its subterranean heat, Iceland has largely been shaped by ice: glaciers and ice caps (Jökull in Icelandic) cover around 11% of the surface area (see above right), formed where the constant year-on-year accumulation and compacting of snow and ice exceeds the rate of melting. Vatnajökull in the SE of the island covers about 8% of the country and is the world's largest ice cap outside the poles. The immense weight of the ice causes glaciers to move imperceptibly down mountainsides, grinding away stony sediment which is dumped as moraine at their foot or spread as outwash desert-plains (sandur) of black gravelly, sandy debris along the SE coast. Glaciation has also gouged out glacial valleys and the plunging fjords which cut into the basalt coastal cliffs on the east and western sides of the island. Some glaciers have lakes at their foot, as at Jökulsárlón below Breiđamerkurjökull on the SE coast, where icebergs calve from the glacier into the glacial lagoon. Rivers of glacial melt waters flow rapidly down over the steep ground, carving out canyons and dropping over precipices in spectacular waterfalls such as Dettifoss on the Jökuls á Föjllum river in the NE (see left) and Gullfoss on the Hvíta river in the SW. Unlike clear water rivers fed by rain or springs, glacial rivers carry sediment and silt debris from the ice making their waters brown and murky. In recent years the power of Iceland's glacial rivers has been harnessed to create hydro-electric power (HEP), the huge dam projects creating major controversy with environmentalists as at the Kárahnjúkar Dam built in 2006 on the Jökulsá á Brú river flowing from Vatnajökull, to power an equally controversial aluminium smelting works at Reyđarfjörđur.


Icelandic language:  thanks to centuries of comparative isolation, the Icelandic language remains very much that of Old Norse, the Germanic language spoken by the Vikings who migrated from Norway to settle Iceland in the 9~11th centuries, with complex grammatical rules for case endings. The written language has changed little since the 13th century, enabling modern readers to understand the Sagas which were written at that time. The Icelandic alphabet has 32 letters, and is the only modern language to retain the old runic symbols of đ/Đ ('eth' pronounced as a hard 'th' as in 'that') and ţ/Ţ ('thorn' pronounced as a soft 'th' as in 'thing'). There is a strong lobby in Iceland to maintain what is seen as linguistic purity by resisting foreign loan-words, and an academic committee has coined curious neologisms from existing Icelandic words to cover modern scientific or technological terms; eg simi (literally 'long thread') for telephone, farsimi (literally 'travelling long thread') for mobile phone, tölva (literally 'number prophetess') for computer, ţyrla (literally 'whirler') for helicopter, ţota (literally 'zoomer') for jet aircraft.

Icelandic people and population:  modern Icelanders are primarily descended from the original Norse Viking settlers and Celtic peoples who were brought as spouses or slaves from earlier settlements in Northern Britain and Ireland. Iceland's current total population is just 350,000 and with its land area at 103,000 square kms, this makes Iceland one of Europe's most sparsely populated countries with an average 3 inhabitants per square km. Two thirds of this population however live in the area around the capital Reykjavík. With tourism now more important for the national economy than fishing, Iceland is overwhelmed each year by almost 1 million tourists. Icelandic names use patronymics based on a combination of father's forename plus the suffix 'son' or 'dóttir' (daughter): so Jón Einarsson has a son Ólafur whose name will therefore become Ólafur Jónsson; his daughter Sigríđur will be named Sigríđur Jónsdóttir. Icelanders formally address others by their forenames; even the telephone directory is listed by first names.


Early Viking Settlement:  the Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia (Marseilles) is said to have explored NW Europe around 325 BC and, although his writings have not survived, he described an island in the ocean 6 days sail north of Britain named as Ultima Thule. This End-of-the-Earth island remained clouded in mystery until the 8th century AD when Irish monks, who had already colonised the Faroes, settled on the SE coast of Iceland, seeking further solitude and seclusion. The accounts of one of these Papar (Fathers) spoke of a land with no daylight in winter and 24 hours daylight in summer. The Irish Papar were driven out when Viking adventurers began to explore the Icelandic SW coastline in the early 9th century. Driven from their home country of Norway by political feuds and land shortages to seek their fortunes overseas, these Viking freebooters had already raided Britain and Ireland in the 790s. One of these Viking adventurers, Garđar Svavarsson circumnavigated Iceland in 860 AD, over-wintering near modern-day Húsavík; around this time another Viking Flóki Vilgerđarson's attempts to colonise were defeated by winter ice and he named the country Ísland before returning to Norway. Attracted by the prospect of endless free land, 2 other Vikings, Ingólfur Arnason and his blood-brother Hjörleifur Hröđmarsson, who had lost their lands in Norway for killing a chieftain's sons, set sail for Iceland in 870 with their households and belongings intending to settle there permanently. In true Viking tradition on reaching a new country, when they came within sight of land, Ingólfur threw overboard his 'seat posts' (setstokka), his symbols of authority as head of household, and vowed to found his new settlement wherever the gods washed them up. The posts were found in a SW bay and there Ingólfur built his homestead in 874, naming the place Reykjavík (Smokey Bay) after the steam rising from hot springs. The next 60 years Age of Settlement (Landnám) saw increasing numbers of Norwegian Viking emigrants establishing farms in Iceland, bringing with them their sheep, horses and crops like barley and their pagan beliefs, and clearing forests to create pastures and provide timber for homes and ships. Landowners became local chieftains who arbitrated in disputes by negotiation at regional gatherings (Ţing). Conditions must have been favourable compared with those back in Norway since by 930 when the last areas of land were claimed, some 60,000 already lived in Iceland, a figure not exceeded until the 19th century.

The Commonwealth under the Alţing, and conversion to Christianity (930~1262 AD):  by the early 10th century, Iceland was firmly established as an independent nation with landowner-chieftains continuing to meet at regional assemblies to trade and settle disputes. But some form of national government was needed. Rejecting the oppressive concept of paramount leader or monarch as experienced in Norway, the Icelandic chieftains decided on a Commonwealth (Ţjóđveldiđ) governed by a national assembly (Alţing). Úlfljótur the lawyer was sent to study Norway's law code and prepare something similar for Iceland, and in 930 AD, the Alţing began its annual 2 week summer gatherings on the plain at Ţingvellir, with Ţorsteinn Ingólfsson given the honorary title of Allsherjargođi (Supreme Chieftain). The gathering was presided over by the Lögsögumađur (Law Speaker) who recited the country's legal code and, along with the 48 Gođar (chieftains), held legislative power. Disputes were settled by regional courts and a supreme court established early in the 11th century, with fines paid to the injured party or family and the highest punishment being exile from the country as an outlaw. According to Erik the Red's Saga (see left), one of those outlawed for killing a neighbour was Eríkur Ţorvaldsson (Erik the Red) who sailed into exile from the West Fjords in search of rumoured land to the NW. He discovered a barren, treeless coastline and returned to Iceland to recruit colonists to settle the place which he called Greenland to attract interest. 2 colonies were founded in Western Greenland which lasted until finally driven out by the Inuit in 16th century. It was from Greenland that Erik's son Leifur Eríksson set out around 1000 AD to explore reported land even further to the west. Attempted settlements of Vinland, an unidentified location somewhere along the north American coast named after the wild vines discovered there, were driven out by native American Indians, and America had to wait 500 years until European rediscovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The first century of the Commonwealth was regarded as a golden age: the new parliamentary and judicial systems were largely successful, the country was settled and united, farming profitable and resources plentiful. The first generations of Icelanders were carving out great names for themselves in events which passed into oral lore and were later written down as the Sagas.

Norway converted to Christianity in the late 10th century under King Olaf Tryggvason who then, with land grabbing in mind, extended his brutal evangelising zeal to Iceland through his ruthless missionary Ţangbrand. At the annual Alţing of 1000 AD, civil war between Icelandic pagan and Christian factions was only averted by the Law Speaker Ţorgeir. With utmost diplomacy Ţorgeir persuaded the rival factions to accept his judgement once he had pondered the issue for a day and a night; he decreed that Iceland should convert to the new religion with pagans such as himself allowed to practise their religion in private. This compromise gave the formerly divided groups a semblance of national unity, and the first Icelandic bishoprics were established in 1056 at Skáholt near Ţingvellir and in 1106 at Hólar in the north. The new religion brought important changes with the introduction of tithes (property taxes), and as the church's wealth increased, monasteries and schools were founded bringing education and the beginnings of literacy. The 12th century began the Saga Age when the epic tales of early settlement, family feuds, romance and tragedy were recorded by scholars. In 1130 the church commissioned the compilation of the Íslendingabók (see right), a historical narrative of the Settlement Age and lineage of the Icelandic people, written by Ari Ţorgilsson not in Latin, the usual language of educated people at that time, but in native Icelandic.

Collapse of the Commonwealth into the anarchy of the Sturlung Age (13th century):  despite such cultural developments, by the early 13th century Icelandic society was declining after 200 years of enlightened peace. Life became more arduous: eruptions of the Hekla volcano polluted farmland with ash, tree felling stripped the land of ship- and home-building timber, the effects of consequent soil erosion were compounded by over-grazing, and the reduction in available farmland increased dependence on food imports. Land ownership, wealth and political power were concentrated in the hands of a new aristocratic elite of a few clans, with resultant constant power struggles and violent feuds between rival chieftains. Enriched by tithes, the Icelandic Church's political power increased, and when it fell under the jurisdiction of the Norwegian Archbishop of Nidaros at Trondheim, this gave the expansionist Norwegian throne a lever to pressure Iceland into accepting its authority. The country descended into anarchy , and this dark hour in Iceland's history during the early~mid 13th century became known as the Sturlung Age after the Sturlungar, the most powerful of the aristocratic families whose most influential member was Snorri Sturluson the historian, poet, and wily politician. The Alţing's lack of effective control became clear as it proved impotent to cope with the crisis of feuding between the 6 most powerful clans as they battled for political supremacy, the Church's expanding power and demands for freedom from secular law, and pressure from the Norwegian throne to accept its authority. To achieve lasting peace amid the chaos of civil conflict, the Icelanders had no other choice but to accept Norwegian sovereignty. In 1262 the Icelandic chieftains signed the Gamli sáttmáli (Old Covenant) which effectively placed Iceland under union with Norway. Although Iceland nominally retained her legal code, the Norwegian throne exercised real power; this marked the beginning of 7 centuries of foreign rule of Iceland.

Norwegian rule, followed by Danish rule (14~15th centuries):  Norway immediately replaced the chieftains with its own nominees as government officials and began appointing Norwegian Bishops and imposing excessive taxation. In 1281 a new constitution, the Jónsbók was introduced under which the country was overseen by a governor with 12 regional sheriffs acting as local administrators; all were Icelanders but appointed by Norway. The Alţing continued to meet annually as a national court but with limited powers and decisions approved by the King. The new regime should have brought stability, but corruption was rife as officials abused their position and former chieftains contended for high office. In the late 15th century, following a period of dynastic feuding, the weak Norwegian King Hĺkon VI married the shrewd Danish Queen Margrethe I (see left) who in 1397 engineered the Kalmar Union which unified the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway and its overseas dependencies including Iceland; control of Iceland now passed to the Danish throne and Denmark continued to rule the country until 1918. The 14th century had brought natural disasters to Iceland: severe winters wiped out crops and Hekla together with the volcano under Örćfajökull erupted covering a third of the countryside with ash. But most devastating, the Black Death, which had plagued Europe during the 14th century, reached Iceland in 1402 killing half the population. The demand for dried cod in Europe brought new trading opportunities for the Icelanders; fishing thrived and dried fish became a major export commodity. English and German vessels vied for trade, and the English established a trading post in the Westman Islands. Concerned at England's increasing influence in Iceland and the loss of taxes due to uncontrolled trade, Denmark tried to ban the English from Icelandic waters and encouraged the Hanseatic League to set up trading bases. The English responded with force securing the right to trade providing tolls were paid to Denmark, but after a 1532 clash between English and German ships at Grinsvik, English involvement with Iceland declined leaving Icelandic trade in the hands of Danish and German interests.

The Reformation (16th century):  the Church, which by now had total jurisdiction over land ownership and profitable stakes in faming and fishing, gained even more power in 1533 when its 2 bishops were appointed as Iceland's joint governors. But across Europe Lutheranism was gaining greater influence, encouraging revolt against the Catholics' growing obsession with material profits rather than spiritual well-being. European monarchs were attracted by a break with Rome, seeing the opportunity to get their hands on the Church's riches and lands. During the 1530s all of Scandinavia became Lutheran and Iceland gained a number of converts even though threatened with excommunication by the bishops. In 1539 the Danish King Christian III (see right) ordered the appropriation of Church lands by the Icelandic governor, leading to the murder of one of the sheriffs and a military expedition to Iceland to enforce conversion to Lutheranism. After Danish suppression of an armed revolt, the last of the Catholic bishops was executed, and in 1550 the Lutheran Reformation was imposed on an initially reluctant Icelandic population. The Danish king acquired all Church holdings and their revenues, profits which had previously stayed in Iceland, and monasteries were abolished. Although deprived of funds, making continued sponsorship of education difficult, the Church managed to publish a translation of the Bible in 1584, the first printed book in Icelandic.

The Danish Trade Monopoly and imposition of Danish absolute monarchy (17~18th centuries):  politically the Church was now an instrument of the crown, and as Head of the Church the king gained a more direct control of Iceland. Iceland was technically still independent through its treaty with Norway, but in 1661 King Frederick III declared absolute rule over the entire Danish realm including Iceland and an armed ambassador was sent to Reykjavík to require a swearing of allegiance to the monarch. The Alţing's Law Speaker and Bishop of Skálholt were forced to submit, removing the final vestiges of authority and passing total control of the country to the Danish crown. The Icelandic economy, still based on farming and fishing, suffered a severe blow in 1602 when the Danes imposed a Trade Monopoly: exclusive trading rights in Iceland were confined to a select few Danish merchants who charged high prices for their goods and paid poorly for Icelandic products. By 1700 the Trade Monopoly had crippled the country, creating an impoverished population of tenant farmers and landless labourers. Fishing was also in decline, partly because timber shortage kept ships small and inefficient and no competition for foreign vessels. In an attempt to boost local industry and bypass the embargo on trade, wealthy town magistrate Skúli Manússon founded weaving, tanning and wool dyeing factories in Reykjavík; his warehouses formed the core of the Reykjavík town, then just a small farming settlement, which would soon become the de facto capital. During the 18th century a further wave of natural disasters hit the country. The worst was the catastrophic 1783~4 Lakagígar eruptions when massive lava flows covered farmland in the SE and toxic fallout wrecked farming across the entire country. The resultant famine reduced the population to just 38,000, and Denmark even considered evacuating the survivors to Jutland. Earthquakes demolished the cathedral at Skálholt and caused subsidence at the Ţingvellir Alţing site; the bishopric was moved to Reykjavík and the now totally disempowered Alţing was finally dissolved.

Icelandic Nationalism (19th century):  the increasingly liberal political climate of the early 19th century encouraged the growth of nationalism throughout Europe, and was championed in Iceland by the Icelandic scholar Jón Sigurđsson (see left) who lobbied for restoration of free trade and autonomy from Denmark. Europe's royal families had begun to cede power in order to avoid suffering the same fate as their French counterparts in the French Revolution. Bowing to popular demand, the king reconstituted the Alţing at Reykjavík in 1843, which met every 2 years with 20 elected regional MPs and 6 representatives of the crown; Jón Sigurđsson was one of the first MPs to be elected. By 1848 the Danish monarchy's power was under threat as revolutionary tide swept across Europe, and in Denmark rising expectations of a growing middle class and formation of political parties brought pressure for change. The Danish king Frederick VII signed a new democratic constitution which abolished absolute monarchy, established a 2-chamber parliament elected by popular vote, and an independent judiciary. Denmark moved overnight from autocracy to constitutional monarchy and the beginnings of parliamentary democracy. In Iceland Jón Sigurđsson seized the opportunity to demand that, since Iceland's 1662 oath of allegiance to the king as absolute ruler was no longer valid, the Old Treaty should therefore apply again. He also led the defeat of a bill at the 1851 Alţing that would have legally incorporated Iceland into Denmark. 4 years later he also secured the final lifting of trade restrictions, which did more than anything to improve Icelanders' life by enabling the import of modern farm implements and timber for boat building at reasonable prices and the profitable export of livestock, wool and fish. In 1871 Iceland secured a new constitution, returning full domestic legislative powers to the Alţing, which was ratified by King Christian IX himself while attending celebrations at Ţingvellir in 1874 to mark the 1000 year anniversary of the Settlement. This brought further improvement to living standards: the tithe system was abolished, urban development began in what had been a predominantly rural society, infrastructure improved, schooling was made compulsory, improvement in boats and fishing equipment brought the growth of port towns, and farmers formed cooperatives to deal directly with foreign suppliers. But a sizeable growth in population, another volcanic eruption of damaging ash and livestock poisoning gases from Askja, and poor harvests caused by further spates of poor weather, all caused major emigration during the late 19th century to seek a better life in Canada and USA.

Home rule, the Act of Union, and independence (1900~1944):  Jón Sigurđsson died in 1879 before he could realise his ambition of total Icelandic political autonomy from Denmark; his birthday 17 June is celebrated as Iceland's National Day in recognition of his contribution to Icelandic independence. By 1900, differences in approach to achieving this led to the formation of political parties. In 1904 the king was pressured into granting Home Rule under the Home Rule Party led by Hannes Hafstein (see right). His decade in office saw the start of trends which would continue throughout the 20th century: an emerging middle class and gradual shift of population from land to towns, the development of communications with the introduction of telephones in 1906, improvement in technology which boosted output of both farming and fishing, the foundation of the first trade unions, and women being granted equal education rights and enfranchisement in 1905. Hafstein's draft constitution of 1908, which included the proposal to make Iceland an independent state under the Danish king, was initially rejected by the Alţing, but in 1918 following a referendum in which 90% voted in favour of this proposal, Iceland signed the Act of Union under which the country's independence as a sovereign state was recognised, with Denmark still managing foreign affairs, and the Danish king accepted as head of state.

Iceland remained neutral during WW1, profiting from the high export prices paid for fish, meat and wool. As WW2 loomed, with Iceland dependent on trade with both Britain and Germany, the country attempted to maintain her neutrality. Despite this however, once hostilities broke out in 1939, Iceland's strategic north Atlantic position meant that it was simply a matter of time before one of the belligerents invaded. The British were first, landing unopposed in May 1940 in order to secure a vital supply base for Allied North Atlantic operations. The Icelanders had little option but to accept the situation, but ultimately the economy benefited from British and subsequently American construction projects, employment and spending. In July 1941, forces of still officially neutral USA took over occupation of Iceland, with the Alţing's approval on condition that they respected Icelandic sovereignty and left once hostilities were over. The German occupation of Denmark in 1940 prompted the Alţing to declare that, since the king could no longer govern, the Act of Union should be dissolved. With the government in disarray, the formal ratification took some time but Iceland's full independence was finally declared in 1944, with the acting regent Sveinn Björnsson elected as the first President of the Icelandic Republic (see left).

Republic of Iceland (1944 onwards):  one of the biggest challenges for the new Republic came immediately after the war. US forces left in 1946 as required, but as the Cold War began to develop, and with Iceland not having any military defence of its own, the Alţing voted in 1949 that Iceland should join the newly established NATO. Having just rid themselves of 700 years of foreign domination, this decision was highly controversial among Icelanders and caused a riot in Reykjavík. In 1951 the government agreed to allow US forces reoccupy the former airbase at Keflavík, and US military personnel and hardware continued to increase over the next 4 decades, with Iceland serving as a key Cold War monitoring station. Keflavík air base also served as the country's international airport; we recall our arrival there in 1972 and the sight of runways lined with US military jets. The controversial US military presence in Iceland only ended in 2006 when the base at Keflavík finally closed. Since 1944 there have been 6 Presidents of Iceland; the current President elected in 2016 is Guđni Thorlacius Jóhannesson (see right), a politically non-aligned academic historian.

Growth of modern Iceland, an economy based on fishing, and the 1950s~70s Cod Wars:  post-war Iceland transformed itself from one of Europe's poorest countries into a modern, developed society, with 2/3s of the population now living in the Reykjavík conurbation. The Ring Road around the country was completed in 1974 with the bridging of glacial rivers, opening up transport links in the remote SE and encouraging the growth of tourism. Major geothermal and hydro-electric projects were developed, such as the Krafta geothermal power station in the north, Svartsengi power plant near Reykjavík, and the Kárahnjúkar HEP Dam and power plant in the East. The fishing industry had always been vital to Iceland's economy and export earnings, but as commercial fishing picked up during the 1950s the country faced competition for fish stocks from foreign boats. In an attempt to protect its fishing industry, in 1958 Iceland extended its territorial waters exclusion limit for foreign vessels from 3 to 12 miles. Britain protested sending gun boats to protect its trawlers fishing within Iceland's new territorial waters in what became known as the first of the Cod Wars, which flared on and off for the next 30 years. Iceland continued to expand its claims as fish stocks dwindled, and employed its coast guards to cut the cables of foreign vessels caught poaching within the exclusion limits. Matters came to a head in 1975 when Iceland unilaterally asserted a 200 mile exclusion limit; Britain broke off diplomatic relations with Iceland and ordered the Royal Navy to protect its fishing fleet by ramming Icelandic coast guard boats. Shots were fired and boats of both sides rammed, and the situation was only resolved in 1985 when international law recognised Iceland's position by granting the 200 mile limit to all countries involved in the dispute. Dependence on fishing as the main source of export earnings created a very sensitive economy. Quotas were reduced in the early 1990s to allow fish stocks to regenerate after over-fishing, and the industry went into recession leading to higher unemployment and a sharp drop in the króna. But the country slowly began a period of recovery as the fishing industry stabilised, and today, although still sensitive to declining fish stocks, fishing still provides 40% of export earnings, more than 12% of GDP, and employs around 5% of the workforce.

Iceland's economic melt-down, and subsequent recovery (2008~present):  since the late 1990s, Iceland had tried to diversify its economy from over-reliance on fishing by investing in the banking sector. Initially this created high profits and all seemed well; from 2003 the economy was full of confidence with foreign investors pouring money in, tempted by the 15% interest rates that Icelandic banks were applying to counter inflation. But this only brought accelerated inflation and further increases in interest rates, causing the exchange rate to lose touch with economic reality while giving Icelanders an illusion of wealth. The banks continued to buy up foreign assets with liabilities 10 times the country's GDP, meaning that the Icelandic government could not guarantee the banks. Finally in 2008 when the ripples of the worldwide financial crisis reached Iceland, the bubble burst and the economic consequences for Iceland were disastrous: the Icelandic stock market crashed, the króna plummeted losing half its value overnight, inflation soared, all 3 banks went into receivership and were nationalised, and the country teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Help came to Iceland in November 2008 with a $2.1 billion IMF loan and $3 billion bailout from Scandinavian neighbours. But spiralling inflation, with wage cuts and redundancies, meant that Icelanders' incomes fell by a quarter in real terms, with high household debt, record unemployment and emigration in search of work. Protesters rioted in Reykjavík, the public furious with a government it felt had betrayed them by not down-sizing the bloated banking system. These public protests brought down the right wing government of Geir Haarde (see above left) in January 2009, to be replaced by a left wing administration under Social Democrat Jóhanna Sigurđardóttir (see right). With backing from the Alţing, Sigurđardóttir immediately began discussions on EU membership (despite incompatibility between the Common Fisheries Policy and Iceland's insistence on its 200 mile exclusion zone), with the eventual aim of joining the Euro as a means of stabilising Iceland's economy. Negotiations continued but in 2014 Iceland's application for EU accession was finally withdrawn (see below). EU membership remains a contentious issue among Icelanders, and the country remains only an EFTA member and part of the European Economic Area and of the Schengen Agreement.

Despite the severity of the 2008 financial crisis, since 2009 both recovery and economic growth have been rapid; exports have been cheaper due to devaluation of the króna and with cheaper prices tourism has boomed as never before. The Icelandic government refused to bail out the banks, with priority for taxation spending given to the social welfare system to help those worst affected by the crash. The banks wrote off their debts, with impact falling on private creditors, many of them hedge funds, who are still trying to recover their investments. Iceland's approach to its recovery has won praise from the IMF and from international economists.

Iceland again hit global headlines in 2010 when the ash cloud from the volcanic eruption under the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap shut down European air traffic for a week, causing travel chaos across the continent. The Grímsvötn volcano which erupted in 2011 was less serious, but its ash cloud caused 3 days of air traffic disruption. In 2014 Bárđarbunga's rumblings again highlighted Iceland's volatility and its potential to close airspace. Tourism continues to grow with all the economic benefits but significant environmental impact.

Current Icelandic politics:  the 2013 general election was held against a backdrop of national economic recovery but public resentment against the Social Democrat government's tough austerity measures of spending cuts and higher taxation. The centre-right opposition comprising the Progressive Party and Independence Party successfully campaigned on promises of debt relief and cuts in taxation and opposition to the Iceland's application to join the EU. The result was a backlash against the ruling Social Democrat government and landslide victory for the Progressive and Independence Parties who formed a new coalition government under the new Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíđ Gunnlaugsson (see left). In early 2014 the new government suspended all negotiations on accession to the EU, and promised a national referendum on whether Iceland should resume talks on EU membership. As of present the referendum has yet to be held, but an opinion poll in early 2015 showed that 71% of Icelanders oppose EU membership; any attempt therefore to resume talks without the promised referendum would be deeply unpopular. And then in early 2016 leaked documents from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca showed that Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson owned a secret offshore company with his wife, undeclared when he entered parliament in 2009. Mossack Fonseca data also show that he had an undeclared interest in his country's failed banks, and used the offshore company to conceal the investment of millions of dollars. Recalling the financial scandals of 2008 which brought the county's economy to its knees, the Icelandic public was outraged by stories of continuing corruption in public life. With thousands of Icelanders protesting outside the parliament building in Reykjavik and opposition parties tabling a no confidence motion, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson was forced to resign and the Progressive Party's leader Sigurđur Ingi Jóhannsson became Acting Prime Minister. The General Election for the 63 seat Althing, was brought forward to October 2016 which resulted in neither of the two main blocs, the outgoing coalition of Independence and the Progressive Parties, or the centre-left opposition (Left-Greens, Pirates, Bright Future and Social Democrats), securing an overall majority. Despite negotiations within the 2 main party blocs, no progress was made in agreeing a workable coalition, the main stumbling blocks being a new market-based fishing quota system and the EU referendum. In December 2016, the Icelandic President gave a mandate to form a majority government to the leader of the radical Pirate Party, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, but the Pirates were unable to form a coalition. The President chose not to give a new mandate to form a government, but asked the party leaders to discuss the matter informally. In January 2017, a new coalition government was formed between Independence Party, Reform Party and the Bright Future Party, with Bjarni Benediktsson, leader of the Independence Party, becoming Prime Minister on 11 January 2017 (see right).


History of the Faroe Islands:  the Faroe Islands (Fřroyar in Faroese meaning 'Sheep Islands') are a small group of glacier-sculpted basalt islands set at latitude 62şN in the North Atlantic halfway between Scotland and Iceland, with a population of 48,000. It is a self-governing region within the Kingdom of Denmark, with its own currency the Faroese Króna tied to the Danish Króna. Their history mirrors that of Iceland: with no indigenous population, the Faroes were settled in the 9th~10th centuries by Viking farmers, forcibly converted to Christianity in the 10th century, and ruled by Norway until taken over in the 16th century by the Danish kingdom. Under Danish rule, the Faroese reluctantly were forced to adopt Lutheranism at the 1535 Reformation, and for the next 2 centuries were subject to the impoverishing restrictions of Danish trade monopoly and greed of Danish governors. The trade monopoly was finally lifted in 1856, by which time fishing had become the mainstay of the Faroese economy. The mid 19th century saw the beginnings of Faroese nationalism and demands for greater autonomy which culminated in the Fřringafelag movement led by the Self-Rule Party leader Jóhannes Patursson (see left), fighting for the islands' self government by the Faroese parliament, the Lógting, and protection of the Faroese language from assimilation by Danish. Division of feeling on the Faroes between the conservatives who supported continuation of rule by Denmark and the radicals advocating home rule, prevented any change until Denmark was occupied by the Germans in WW2. British troops were sent to the Faroes in April 1940 to protect the North Atlantic shipping lanes, and from 25 April 1940 all Faroese ships flew the islands' flag, the Merkiđ (meaning the Banner) (see below right), a day still celebrated on the Faroes as National Flag Day.

1990s financial crisis and the issue of full independence:  during the war, the Faroese enjoyed home-rule in all but name, and in 1946 a referendum voted in favour of full independence. The Danish government however refused to recognise the referendum and the king dissolved the Lógting and ordered new elections. The new Lógting agreed to a middle course of greater self-rule within the union with Denmark and the Faroese Home Rule Act came into effect in April 1948. The Faroese parliament now has full powers over home affairs, including taxation, communications and education, with Faroese the official language of politics and national life. Danish must still be taught in schools and Denmark retains control of defence, foreign policy, justice and the currency. Trade is left in the hands of the Faroese, so that when Denmark joined the EU in 1973, the Faroes refused to join mainly to preserve the exclusivity of their fishing limits; all trade with EU countries is governed by specially negotiated treaties drawn up in consultation with the Danish foreign ministry. The Faroese pay no direct taxes to Copenhagen but receive subsidies from Denmark equivalent to 14% of their GDP. The post-war Faroese economy prospered, relying entirely on fishing which was aided by the 200 mile exclusion limit and cushioned by generous government grants. During the 1980s the Faroes enjoyed a high standard of living with unemployment low and spending high; road and tunnel building improved communications and brought the islands' communities together. But in the early 1990s dramatic reduction in fish stocks due to over-fishing with high-tech equipment hit the fishing industry hard: the annual catch fell along with the price of fish, and as a result the whole economy was plunged into crisis. During the same period the government was also engaged in massive overspending resulting in national debt of 9.4 billion Danish kroner. The national bank was supporting a massive debt and as people increasingly defaulted on their loans, the bank collapsed and was forced to ask the Danish government for a huge financial bailout. In return for financial support of almost 2 million kroner, the Danes demanded major reforms: Austerity measures were introduced to reduce public spending with higher taxes and cuts in public employees' pay. Unemployment rose to over 20% and the fishing industry was crippled with half the boats and processing plants going into receivership. Bankruptcy and scandal with the banks brought further requests for Danish bailouts, and finally a compromise reduction in the Faroese debt and interest free loans. Unemployment peaked in January 1994 at 26%, but has since fallen to 10% in 2000. Recovery measures were put in place and have largely resulted in revival of the economy. The fishing industry survived largely intact, fish stocks stabilised and the annual catch increased again. With fishing forming such a significant part of the Faroese economy (fisheries products account for 95% of total exports and half the Faroese GDP), the Faroe Islands operate a 200 mile exclusive offshore fishing zone and remain outside the EU despite Denmark's membership; relations between the EU and Faroes remain contentious over the issue of fishing quotas. The discovery of oil deposits in Faroese waters has led to exploratory drilling, and even though the oil may be difficult to extract, this has brought optimism for the future. The issue of full independence remains a contentious issue with the Faroese public since without Danish subsidies, this would leave them totally dependent on their own resources for continued prosperity.

OUR 2017 TRIP TO ICELAND:  so that's the background story of Iceland so far. When we first went there in 1972, Iceland was a largely undiscovered country still free of the ravages of tourism. In the intervening 45 years, the mass tourism industry now exploits the country to an ever-increasing extent. While this has benefitted the country's fragile economy and brought infrastructure improvement such as improved road system and increased number of campsites, the downside is to threaten the natural beauty of key sites with the impact of overwhelming numbers of visitors. We shall certainly notice the difference. As always, we travel purposefully, with the intention of learning more about Icelandic society and Icelanders' views on current issues: how do they feel for example about recent political corruption scandals and changes of government, and about Iceland resuming talks on accession to the EU. After all, they have been promised a referendum on EU membership by their government, just as the UK voted on this issue last year. It is going to be one of our more challenging trips, but we are looking forward to the opportunity for learning for ourselves more about our host-country, for discussing and understanding more about life there, and of course for seeing once again Iceland's astonishing geological wonders and its magnificent birdlife. We set off shortly and as usual shall be publishing regular reports and pictorial record of our travels. We hope you will enjoy sharing our experiences of Iceland through our on-line travelogues.

Sheila and Paul

Published:  11 April 2017

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Ó Guđ vors lands  (O God of our Land) 

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