Ah, the Vikings. Those crazy sailors to whom we owe so much – but not all of it exactly ‘PG’. Despite their less endearing habits, they were an amazing bunch and without them Iceland wouldn’t be here today.
They didn’t build the island of Iceland, of course. They merely inhabited it in about AD 874. And in the name of fairness we should say that if they didn’t settle it, someone else probably would have. But Iceland is already the last major landmass in Europe to be settled by humans. Basically if the Vikings hadn’t done it, there’s every chance it would have remained empty until one of the European empires set up a strategic sheep station or something. How different history would have been!
The story goes that Iceland was discovered by accident by a gentleman called Nadoddr, one of the discoverers of the Faroe Islands, blown off course to their larger neighbour. Another couple of accidental Viking discoveries followed before Hrafna-Flóki found it on purpose, spent one particularly cold winter there, named the place Iceland and then sailed away as fast as the winds would carry him.
The famous Ingólfur Árnason is considered to be the first permanent settler in Iceland and the remarkable remains of his farm can be seen in-situ at the settlement exhibition in Reykjavík. He allegedly threw his high seat pillars overboard and declared that the settlement would be built wherever they washed up. That just happened to be in Reykjavík – although the city wasn’t much of a tourist destination in those days. To this day, the pillars are depicted in the Reykjavík coat of arms.
Over the coming years he was followed by plenty of other Norse chieftains trying to escape the oppressive rule of their king, Haraldur the Fair-Haired. These Vikings brought with them an impressive number of slaves and servants from Scotland and Ireland. There were also free-born Vikings from Scotland and Ireland – but it is assumed they were of Scandinavian background. Their slaves and servants, however, weren’t and they account for a large part of the Icelandic gene pool today. That is why modern Icelanders are not as blonde as Scandinavians and there are a lot of black and red haired people as well.
The Vikings in Iceland soon adapted to their far-off existence and the importance of food trumped the importance of gold. They were farmers more than raiders and they invented the world’s oldest parliament in the modern sense of the word – and it (the Alþingi) still rules Iceland to this day. During their free years the Icelanders prospered and went further afield, discovering and colonising Greenland; and from there, North America.
Over a period of time Iceland came to be dominated by a few powerful families. This led to a de-facto civil war which only came to an end (albeit slowly) when the chieftains agreed to bring Iceland under Norwegian sovereignty. Norway (and Iceland) fell under Danish rule in the 14th Century – and Iceland would remain so until 1944.
And there we have it. Short Viking history lesson over…for now!