Top 10 Iceland Facts You Did Not Know About
A small nation with a big heart and natural wonders to match. Iceland may only have a population of around 330,000 (that’s roughly the size of Leicester) but it boasts some of the most extraordinary landscapes in Europe as well as a cultural identity like no other.
How Iceland got its name
Icelanders call their island Island (pronounced Eesland). You might think this was a reasonable name for an island with substantial glaciers and icecaps. Actually though, Iceland wasn’t named after its icecaps and Iceland wasn’t its original name either.
Being a volcanic island which had grown from the ocean floor, Iceland has never been attached to a continental landmass so could only be colonised by seafaring people. So who got there first? We can’t know for sure but an Irish monk named Dicuil wrote a book in Latin, telling of a meeting in 795 with monks who had lived on an island named Thule.
They described the place as light enough on a summer’s night to “pluck lice from one’s shirt” and that the frozen sea lay a day’s sailing to the north. Incredibly, these monks would have crossed the North Atlantic in an open skin-clad curach.
By coincidence, it was around this time that the Viking raids on Britain and Ireland began in earnest and after the Faroe Islands were taken from the Irish hermits, it was only a question of time before they reached Iceland.
Early historical manuscripts tell of a Viking named Naddodur, who was blown off course westwards from the Faroes, finding a large country with no sign of habitation. In the autumn, it began to snow heavily on the mountains and he returned to the Faroes, naming the island Snowland Snaeland.
Around 860 a Swedish Viking named Gardar, who settled briefly in the north at Husavik, bestowing that name on the bay where he built a house (today the town is Iceland’s top whale watching centre). Clearly this was a man of no small ego as when he returned home he named the island after himself, Gardarsholmur.
Not long after, a Norwegian Viking called Floki set sail for Gardarsholmur with his family and livestock and settled in the west of the island. He spent the summer fishing and hunting but forgot to harvest hay for his animals so his attempt at settlement failed.
The story goes that in the spring he climbed a high mountain to check the approaching weather systems and saw fjords filled with drift ice from Greenland. It was this ice and not the island’s icecaps that prompted the disgruntled settler to name it ‘Iceland‘ and talk badly of it back home in Norway. Evidently not everyone believed him as within 50 years around 20,000 people left Norway to live in Iceland – but the name stuck!
Iceland’s icecaps are not remnants of the Ice Age, having formed about 3,000 years ago. In fact it is likely that when Iceland was first settled the icecaps were very much smaller than today and stayed that way until the 14th century when things cooled down again.
Today, most are retreating once more but with about 12,000 sq km of Iceland’s surface covered with ice that is over 800m deep in places, it’ll be there for some time to come.
Why are Icelanders so happy?
Icelanders are often ranked as the happiest people in the world. Since at the time they were also one of the most prosperous nations it would be easy to conclude that the two were linked. When the financial crisis hit Iceland particularly hard it might have followed that its people would now be perceptibly less happy than before, but this simply isn’t the case.
Historically, Icelanders have met adversity full on, confronting natural disasters, famine, isolation and colonial domination. Standing on the island’s surf-lashed shore each morning this nation of fishermen would be faced with the same decision. Do I go out in my boat today and risk my life at sea or do I stay alive onshore but starve?
So what makes the 330,000 inhabitants of Europe’s least populated nation so contented even though many do choose to live and work outside of the country at some point in their lives? There’s a kind of naive optimism about the people, combined with a ‘can do, will do’ attitude. There’s a belief that ultimately things will work out but if they don’t, the last thing you want to do is complain about it.
Family ties are strong and families, friends and associates rally around to help one another – interestingly these same qualities have been blamed for some of the misdemeanours of the financial crisis.
It’s also an egalitarian society, without aristocracy or underclass, largely free of stigma and low on prejudice, where everyone is on first name terms and the crime rate is the lowest in Europe.
All sounds a bit Utopian? Well perhaps not, when you’re aiming to be the world’s first fossil-fuel free society by 2050, when you can still drink from the rivers and the air is as pure it gets. When there’s enough geothermal hot water gushing from the ground to heat every house on the island and swimming is part of the national curriculum.
Oh yes, and there are no tuition fees at university, school children have almost three months summer holiday and on Reykjavik’s Culture Night (usually the third Saturday in August), the cream of Iceland’s artists perform for free. No wonder they’re happy! And that was all before this tiny nation demonstrated it’s unity and skill on a football pitch.
Whose son or daughter are you?
Most Icelanders don’t have a surname, using instead the system of patronyms.
This is how it works: Anna Steinsdottir and Magnus Karlsson are a married couple and they have two children, Halldor Magnusson (son of Magnus) and Sigrun Magnusdottir (daughter of Magnus). When Halldor fathers a son, he is named Eirikur Halldorsson. Effectively this means that there could be several different second names in the same family.
Children could equally take their mother’s name but it is more common to use the father’s. Things get complicated if the paternity is disputed but there is always the option to take a grandparent’s name instead. A woman never changes her name on marriage because clearly you cannot become someone else’s daughter or son! Not having surnames means that titles are not used either, which creates an informal atmosphere in the workplace and at school.
Icelanders are listed alphabetically in the phone book, but by first name. When you meet someone you’ll be introduced on first name terms. If you want to know more, then you must ask of course “Whose son (or daughter) are you?”
Talar thu Islensku (do you speak Icelandic?)
When Icelanders dip into Njal’s Saga, one of dozens of Medieval masterpieces, written in the 13th century, they’ll read it with ease. Now how many of us could say the same about Chaucer?
Icelandic may not be the most useful language on earth but it’s remarkable in that it has hardly changed in 800 years. It’s an agglutinative language – which means that words are often composed of several smaller words and can get rather unwieldy and long. So a radio producer is utvarpsdagskragerdamadur or a ‘radio day list making person’!
It’s a grammatically complex language with nouns, adjectives, some numbers and even personal names changing in form according to their role in the sentence. And the alphabet has 28, not 26 letters, including some that don’t exist in English (though they did once!). And in case you’re wondering, almost all Icelanders speak good English though it’s always appreciated when visitors learn a phrase or two.
Of elves and trolls
Iceland has an unusually rich folklore and thanks to 19th century scholars Jon Arnason and Magnus Grimsson, we know quite a lot about it. They visited every farm on the island, collecting enough short stories to fill six volumes, each numbering around 600 pages! A large number of these stories are anecdotes about elves and trolls.
In Iceland the elves are also know as the Hidden People, or Huldufolk and they look just like us but live in a world parallel to ours, choosing to remain invisible to our eyes – most of the time! All around the island are rocks, cliffs and hillocks, which are known elf sites, and where not even the Public Roads Authority would dare to bulldoze in case they disturb them. Many folktales tell of humans abducted by the elves, never to reappear, except in dreams, so there’s good reason for it!
In contrast, trolls are giant cave-dwelling beings with a vicious temper and an appetite for human flesh. As most of them can’t tolerate exposure to the sun (they get turned to stone), there’s little chance of running into them during daylight hours but they are the perfect excuse for getting children to go to bed!
The most famous trolls in Iceland are the Jolasveinar, Iceland’s own brand of Santa Claus. The thirteen Christmas Lads are the sons of the troll-wife Gryla and her husband Leppaludi. There’s no end to their mischief as each in turn come down from the mountains on the thirteen days before Christmas for a spree of door-slamming, spoon-licking, sausage-stealing and peeping through windows. Children leave a sock on the window-ledge – the well-behaved hoping for a gift.
In the old days a lump of coal would suffice, but today they’re a bit more demanding! Most will toe the line, just to avoid the troll family pet, the Christmas Cat, a creature infinitely more terrifying than its owners.
Ask an Icelander if he or she believes in elves and you’ll be surprised how many are undecided. So where did they come from? The elves, according to one anecdote, go back to Genesis. Following Creation, God came to visit Adam and Eve. They’d not had time to get all their children ready for his visit. Those who were not washed and dressed in time were hidden away. When God found them he was angry and declared that “Henceforth all that is hidden from my eyes shall also be hidden from mankind’s eyes”, so Iceland’s elves are the descendants of these hidden children of Adam and Eve.
If you’re a pragmatist you’ll probably like this version better: Trolls, like elves, were most likely conjured up to explain in a more acceptable way the harsh reality of living in Iceland – that people used to simply disappear without trace, an unavoidable hazard of an existence at the edge of the habitable world. Instilling fear into people who had little defence against natural disasters and inclement weather was a way of controlling their behaviour and ultimately helping them survive.
Our In the Footsteps of Elves guided hiking holiday explores this stunning area of rugged trails, epic fjords and sweeping coastlines in the company of an expert guide and lets you gain an insight into local folk tales and traditions.
Icelanders don’t actually have a word for superjeep. A jeep is simply a jeep – jeppi in Icelandic. The term ‘superjeep’ was coined by visitors, who were wowed by what they witnessed Icelanders do to their vehicles to make them go through rivers, up impossibly steep gradients and even travel over glaciers.
So how’s it done? Take a Toyota (many other brands will also convert), raise the body from the chassis, adapt or replace the suspension, drive train, gear ratios, putting in stronger parts. Then modify the body to fit its new inner workings and finally deck it with 44in tyres and all the latest Sat Nav gadgetry and you’re ready to take on Iceland’s formidable nature.
Because of the costs involved, most Icelanders elect to do the work themselves but there are companies like Arctic Trucks that will do it for you. A project like this can take years and becomes something of an obsession, but a worthy one! There’s not much that will defeat one these monster jeeps but in Iceland there are rules about what you can and can’t do.
Off-roading is forbidden because it damages the vegetation and leaves deep scars in the landscape. But not in winter when there’s snow on the ground. By reducing the tyre pressure to just a few pounds per square inch and increasing the contact surface, your superjeep just glides through the snow. Icelanders have become pioneers in the field and Arctic Trucks have taken part in expeditions all over the world, including in 2010 across Antarctica.
So, how do you get to drive one? Understandably a lot of Icelanders are reluctant to let a stranger behind the wheel of their superjeep but they’ll be more than happy to take you for a ride in one – our Superjeep Weekend Safari is a great short break option or choose from a wide range day trips.
Fossar – Iceland’s waterfalls
One of the easier Icelandic words to remember is Foss. It means ‘waterfall’ and it actually exists in English too – remember ‘High Force’ and “Aira Force”, both in the north of England?
Who knows if anyone has attempted to count all of Iceland’s waterfalls as there are thousands. You’ll be amazed by the staggering variety of shapes and sizes:
- ground-shaking Dettifoss, Iceland’s and Europe’s most powerful
- two-tiered Gullfoss thundering into its misty canyon and often spanned by a perfectly formed rainbow
- the uncannily symmetrical Godafoss, the Fall of the Gods, forever linked to Iceland’s conversion to Christianity 1100 years ago
- spellbinding Aldeyjarfoss,
- mysterious Seljalandsfoss where you can walk behind its narrow plume,
- Svartifoss perfectly framed by its basalt columns
- majestic 200ft Skogafoss, made all the more impressive as you observe it from below
- Glymur, Iceland’s highest, disappears into a brooding 650ft abyss
- the island’s second highest 400ft Haifoss
- shy Gljufrabui (canyon dweller) hiding in a slit of a gorge
- Hraunfossar’s multiple thread-like rivulets emerging from under a lava field
- fan-shaped Dynjandi, that roars off the flank of a mountain
…and that’s just for starters.
So just why does Iceland deserve so many waterfalls? Well simply put, it’s geologically a very young country and its river systems are in their infancy, so they do pretty much what they want. There are also many powerful rivers formed of glacier melt-water, as well as clear-running, spring-fed streams
Why is Iceland so volcanic?
Iceland is sited over what geologists term a hot spot, where magma from the earth’s mantle is drawn towards the surface through a mantle plume. So what are the chances of witnessing an eruption?
Iceland sits astride the tectonic plate boundary known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs the length of the Atlantic Ocean. As the European and North American plates drift apart, volcanic islands are thrust up along its length, from Jan Mayen in the high Arctic to Tristan da Cunha in the far south. But none are as large as Iceland.
This is because Iceland is sited over what geologists term a hot spot, where magma from the earth’s mantle is drawn towards the surface through a mantle plume, meaning intense activity over a long period of time. Millions of years ago there was a lot more going on and Iceland’s ancient volcanoes belched out the huge basalt flows that formed the island’s foundations.
Yet Iceland is still geologically a very young landmass. If the age of the earth were equal to a human life span, then Iceland would be a new born infant, whereas Greenland, just a few hundred miles to the west would be a pensioner!
Today, some 30 different volcanic systems are active but what are the chances of actually witnessing an eruption? When any rock you pick up in Iceland is likely to be lava you’d expect there to be eruptions all over the place, yet this is far from the case. Iceland sees an eruption on average every 3-5 years and most of them last just a week or two.
The March 2010 eruption on Fimmvorduhals lasted several weeks. It was the perfect ‘tourist eruption’ as it was possible to get close to the newly formed craters and safely view the amazing lava fountains and glowing rivers of molten rock as they tumbled hundreds of feet off the mountain flank.
To find out more about Iceland’s volcanoes browse our geology guide and if you’d like see an eruption for yourself, sign up to our volcano hotline and we’ll notify you as soon as an eruption occurs to help make the travel arrangements.
For Sale – the Northern Lights
At Discover the World we’ve pioneered a few unusual and amazing experiences in the ‘land of fire and ice’ but when it comes to selling northern lights, we discovered we were not the first!
Icelandic poet and lawyer Einar Benediktsson (1864-1940) was editor of Iceland’s first daily newspaper and a visionary entrepreneur who put up the northern lights for sale.
An advocate of the need for foreign investment to utilize the island’s natural resources, he spent years touring Europe to raise capital for this and other ventures. Arriving in London, he found a buyer for the northern lights but clearly the deal fell through as the auroras are still there for us to enjoy!
Caused by solar flare activity, having the opportunity to witness these rippling curtains of light blaze across the night sky in northerly latitudes is a dream of many. But nature’s celestial light show is notoriously fickle and there is no guarantee.
Even when conditions appear perfect – aurora forecast on red alert, a spotlessly clear, cloudless sky and away from artificial light – there may be no action for several hours. An easy way to avoid waiting around until the small hours of the morning for the aurora to show, is to stay somewhere offering a wake-up call at the first hint of an aurora. All the accommodation used on our northern lights holidays in Iceland provide this service.
And if you’re unlucky, well you could always blame it on Einar Ben, as the Icelanders affectionately call him. Maybe he did sell off the lights after all.
How did animals get to Iceland?
As Iceland has never been joined to another landmass, there are rather few land mammals on the island. Only the arctic fox was there before man arrived in the 9th century, and is presumed to have got to on the island on ice, during the last part of the Ice Age. The only other mammals – rats, mice, reindeer and mink, were introduced by man.
Livestock – horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and dogs – were brought over from Norway in the small open boats used by the Viking settlers. After regular sailings between Iceland and Europe tailed off in the 14th century, no more animals were brought in so the stock remained pure. The cows are rather small, with short legs, the sheep are as you would expect, woolly, but the wool has a special quality of being coarse and waterproof on the outside and very fine and insulating in its inner layers. They roam freely in the summer months over the uninhabited highland areas. Pigs and goats died out when the climate cooled but horses survived.
The Icelandic horse is the purest of breeds as no horses have been brought into Iceland since the 14th century – in fact it’s prohibited. These small, sturdy and sure-footed horses were the only means of transport in Iceland until the start of the 20th century. They have two unique gaits the tolt and skeid, and are a joy to ride. Today there are around 80,000 of them on the island, where they are used in the September sheep round-up and for the popular sport of horse riding.
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