Iceland 2017 Report
Sue Manning (ecological architect, farmer and horse enthusiast)
Thursday 1st June Arrival
I stayed overnight at Emma’s house as we had an early flight from Edinburgh. We met most of the rest of the group at Keflavík airport: Zoe, Eleanor, Neil, Andy and Gavin. Bryndis Zoega our host was there to meet us, along with our minibus for the week. The road to Reykjavik passed through the most extraordinary bleak lava flow landscape, with distant grey mountains and modern settlements huddled along the shore.
In Reykjavick we picked up Maria, our final course participant, and headed directly to the Settlement Exhibition, which focuses on the early settlers in Iceland and life at the time of the Vikings. In 2001 archaeological remains were excavated in Adalstraeti, which turned out to be the oldest relics of human habitation in Reykjavík. During the excavation, a longhouse from the tenth century was also discovered. The hall and a wall fragment are now carefully preserved at their original location, with the new building being built around the ruins to protect the excavation.
At the National Museum we met Guðmundur Lúther Hafsteinsson, head of the House Collection. Here we had lunch and a talk about the history of Icelandic houses. Afterwards we had 40 minutes or so for a quick look around the museum which gave us a taste of things for the week to come, before heading off on the four hour journey to Skagafjordur, the town of Saudarkrokur in the north of Iceland, and our accommodation at Keldudalur farm.
On the drive we talked to Bryndis about the landscape we were driving through – big, bleak and grey – and the sheep farming that is carried out in the area. During the summer months, around this time, the sheep are taken up to the high pastures for the summer grazing. This grazing is usually a shared or ‘common grazing’, used by a number of farmers. In the autumn, at the annual gathering or ‘Round-up’, everyone will work together to bring the sheep off the hills, and down to the pens to be sorted. These large round pens, divided into sections and built of stone, steel, concrete or whatever is at hand, are a feature of the Icelandic landscape.
Friday 2nd June First Day of Turf Building
Another early start, and we headed up the valley to Tyrfingsstaðir to begin our first day of turf building. Here we donned bright waterproof cagoules and met Helgi Sigurðsson, our turf-building teacher and expert. Sigurður Björnsson and Kristín Jóhannsdóttir own and live on the farm. For them it is a retirement project; they are interested in traditional methods of farming and especially the repair and maintenance of the turf houses and animal shelters. We were shown the old turf farmhouse, being repaired in the traditional methods.
Bent Sythe tool for cutting and trimming turf
So we launched straight into the tough job of cutting turf with spades and a bent sythe tool, first the ‘torfu’, wedge shaped turf, and then the Glambur, wedge shaped turf, from the wet soggy ground,
We all had a go, and found it hard work.
Fortunately a lot of turfs had already been cut, which we loaded into the trailer for transporting to the site.
Our task was to carry out some more repair work to an old sheep shelter, continuing the work started last year by the previous group. Helgi showed us how to remove the old crumbling turf and create a base from which to start re-building.
First a layer of stringir or strips followed by the diagonal shaped glambur, then an infill of old bits of turf. Trim the tops and sides with the spade. A layer of torfu, strips going across the wall, and trim the edges. Then another layer of the diamond wedge shaped glambur – trim tops and sides and infil with earth, and on upwards repeating the process.
It is this layering of the different pieces of turf that gives the walls their distinctive appearance. Special pieces were cut for the corners and at the doorway.
Saturday 3rd June A day of touring
A more relaxed start for a day of visits. First we went to the settlement at Reynistaður; a farm, a timber church and a re-constructed turf house. It was interesting to note that a modern building membrane had been used, (to no obvious benefit) in the re-construction of the turf house. There was a gap of about 100mm between the timber paneling and the turf wall to help to keep the timber dry.
Then on to the main event of the day, the old turf farmhouse and museum exhibition at Glaumbær. This popular tourist attraction is owned by the National Museum of Iceland, and is a well-preserved traditional Icelandic farmhouse – a complex of nine different ‘houses’ or rooms united by a central passageway. Storerooms and a smithy are attached to the front of the building, which has the distinctive south facing timber wall.
The turf farmhouse at Glaumbær.
The farmhouse is constructed from turf and driftwood, and dates from different periods in the 18th, 19th centuries. The two guest rooms at the front of the house, and the baostofa (living room) at the back of the house are fitted out with timber paneling, while the kitchens, storerooms and corridor are of turf. Apparently up to 22 people lived, ate and at times worked here. We were told that the space was unheated, but everyone kept warm enough because of their woollen clothing and the insulation properties of the turf walls and roof.
One of the timber buildings at the museum was a Áskaffi, café or tearoom. This beautiful timber building dates from 1883-1886, and is set up to like a traditional Iceland home. Here we were introduced to the delights of skyr (yogurt and cream dish) and pönnukökur (pancakes) rugbrauo (ryebread) and smoked salmon and lamb. Delicious!!
Feeling very well fed, we then went to the harbor at Hofsós to look at the black timber house from ca. 1777, one of the oldest of its kind in Iceland, and posed for photos on the basalt columns on the shore.
From Hofsós to Grafarkirkja, a turf/timber church completely renovated in 1950, but the original one was built in the seventeenth century. This tiny church is surrounded by a circular stone and turf wall, and at one time was part of a large farmstead. Now the church is all that remains and stands in glorious isolation at the head of a deep valley. The door was locked so we were unable to go inside, but the church is still used, mainly for special occasions.
Finally we headed up the valley to the religious and educational centre of Hólar. Adjacent to the cathedral was Auðunarstofa, a new loghouse built with old techniques and methods, and Nýibær, a turf farmhouse.
Sunday 4th June Lectures and The Old Stable
The Sunday lectures, from Guðný Zoëga and Sigríður Sigurðardóttir from the Skagafjorour Heritage Museum, gave us more insight into turf buildings.
The use of building with turf came with the settlers, the material was readily available, easy to work with and provided good insulation against the cold. The material was used across Iceland, but with regional variations. There being more stone available in the south for instance. Another limiting factor was the availability of timber, which was either driftwood or imported and expensive. The tree cover in Iceland is very low. At the time of the settlement (9th C) the tree cover was an estimated 40% – (mostly downy birch) – now it is down to 1%, although the Forest Service is trying to improve this.
The best turf to use is found in damp boggy or marshy ground. The tough, coarse root systems of bog plants creates a tangle of root mater that can be dug up with a shovel and cut or sliced with a turf scythe. The optimum turf conditions are; no sand, clay, peat, stones or tree roots. We also learnt how to tell the age of the turf by looking for layers of volcanic dust, following various volcanic eruptions in the past.
Due to the shortage of suitable building timber, a variety of different roof types are used in turf construction; single ridge beams across short spans, single ridge beams with centre posts, double roof beams with collar beams and internal posts, and triple beams with collar beams and struts. The choice of construction depended on the timber available, usually driftwood, and the end use of the building. Animal shelters and stables are often of a simpler design.
In the afternoon we met Evelyn Kuhne at Lýtingsstaðir. The farm rebuilt two turf stables and a corral in 2016, and is now open as a heritage centre. To my surprise in the first stable, two horses were quietly standing in the darkness at the back. It was interesting to note that the second stable, without any animals, was rather colder and damper than the first. Obviously bodily warmth whether from humans or animals, plays a part in keeping these buildings dry.
Evelyn said they had about 100 horses at Lýtingsstaðir, which is a typical number for a horse farm. The horses are hardy and live outside all year round. Foals are born in April and May, with the mares being bred again with the stallions in June. After this they will go out onto the mountainside for the rest of the summer. The youngsters stay with their mothers for a year, and are not broken to work until 5 or even 7 years old. Some are sold, others exported to Denmark for homes elsewhere in the world, some are breeding stock and youngsters; others are ridden and used for trekking and on the annual ‘round-up’. A few horses are bred for meat, with the animals being slaughtered at about nine months.
Horses were integral to the settlement of Iceland on the 9th century and came with the Vikings. There is a saying ‘No Horse, No Settlement’, and these small (13ha) tough horses were the safest and fastest means of transportation in Iceland for more that ten centuries. The padding under the horse’s packsaddles was called reidingstorf or ‘pack-saddle turf’, and was made from the best turf containing no clay or sand.
Horses carried people, post, hay, dried fish, and materials for burning and were part of people’s lives from the cradle to the grave. Many stories and legends are told, and the horses are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas.
In addition to the usual walk, trot, canter and gallop, Iceland horses have a fifth gait called the tolt, a smooth fast pace that allows large distances to be easily covered. Although a natural gait, the horses have to be trained to tolt on command.
Imports of other horses were forbidden in the 10th century, and to this day, only Icelandic horses, Icelandic cattle, Icelandic sheep, Iceland goats and Icelandic dogs are allowed in Iceland. Today in Iceland there are 77,000 horses and a population of 230,000 people. Many of these horses are in the Skagafjordur district and are kept in large herds, like herds of cattle in Scotland. Farmers use their horses to graze odd corners of the farm and roadside verges. With their vast array of different colours, and long flowing manes, the horses are certainly a beautiful aspect of the Iceland landscape.
At the end of the day we visited the hot pool at Fosslaug
Monday 5th June Our longer day trip.
On our road-trip day we went northeast via Akureyri, Icelands second largest town, and the waterfalls of Gooafoss.
Then to the remote turf farm of Þverá in Laxárdalur where we met the owner Áskell Jónasson who had been born there, only moving out of the old turf house in 1963. The house was similar in appearance and construction to the museum house at Glaumbær, and was also owned by the National Museum of Iceland. There was a delightful bubbling ‘brook’ delivering fresh water straight into the old dairy part of the house. The house was in the process of being repaired, and had de-humidifiers keeping the building cool and dry.
We also visited the little timber church on the farm, which was used a few times a year by local people. The Icelandic government pays for the upkeep of the all churches, and the ones we saw were well kept and sparkling with fresh paint. In this church the heating was even on, giving us a cosy place to sit.
The farm was at quite a high altitude, and with being so far north, they have difficulty growing annual crops; not even able to reliably grow potatoes due to below freezing night-time temperatures in the summer months. This was easy to believe as the weather during our stay was mostly rather cold, sometimes sunny with a chilly wind, but with snow on the hills two days before we left. Yes, this is typical June weather we were told!
In Mývatn (translates as midge lake) lake area, we visited Hverir, a large geothermal field of bubbling mud pots, steam vents, hissing fumaroles and sticky red soil. The whole area smelt of sulphur, and the smell lingered all day.
At the National power Company’s geothermal power plant at Bjarnarflag, we learnt that 100% of Iceland’s electricity comes from renewable sources, geothermal and hydropower, and that 85% of buildings are heated with geothermal energy. Above the power plant is the Víti (Hell) crater, created by a volcanic eruption in 1724. After all this fire and ice I was ready for a good soak in the hot waters (temperature 36-40°C) of the Jarðböðin Nature Baths!
Tuesday 6th June The second Day of Turf Building.
Back to Tyrfingsstaðir to finish our turf walls with Helgi Sigurðsson. The weather was even colder and windier than our first day of building, but that didn’t prevent Bryndis and Helig from rustling up a great barbeque for lunch with lamb chops and all the trimmings. Its summer in Iceland!
We learnt more tips on choosing turf; the important thing is the root system, no sand, no twigs and its best to work the material when wet. Also anything goes, use what you have, use stones for the foundations. If you have plenty of stone why use turf! Or use a mixture. A 3 metre high wall would be 1800mm wide at the bottom, whereas for a 1 metre garden wall 800mm would be enough.
S we cut turf, carried turf, lifted turf, kicked turf, trimmed turf and repeated the process over again until the walls were too high to reach. By the end of the day the walls were considered finished, with a final topping of grass, as they needed time to settle before the roof could be put on. We were then all invited into the house of Sigurður and Kristín and treated to an Icelandic tea party.
Wednesday 7th June Travel back and Reyjkavick
On our last day in Iceland we traveled back to Reyjkavick where the group split up, some people choosing to go to the Golden Circle with Bryndis for more sightseeing, and others to explore Reyjkavick. For myself, I was happy to be alone for a few hours in Reyjkavick.
I had admired the bright smocks we wore on the turf-building site for their waterproofness, wind resistance, comfort (!) and toughness. So I tracked one down on the outskirts of Reyjkavick; at £50 the best bargain to be had in the whole of Iceland!
So I walked the streets of Reyjkavick in the bright cold sun; from Hallgrimskirka (large concrete church on hilltop) to the Solfar (Viking boat sculpture on the shore) and the Harpa (modern opera house near the harbour), from the Jonssonar sculpture garden, to the street art, and looked at many of the brightly coloured crinkly tin houses.
But it was the large relief model of Iceland inside the Tourist Information Centre, which captivated me. The glaciers and icecaps, the fjords and tiny coastal settlements, the southern beaches, the remote highlands – all the places we hadn’t seen, but also the places we had; the ring road, Akureyri, Mývatn, Saudarkrokur, and the Skagafjordur area that we had begun to call home.
I would like to thank Libby Urquhart and Erasmus for making the study trip possible, to Bryndis for being such a fantastic, knowledgeable and generous host, and Helgi, Guðný, Sigríður and others who tried to teach us about turf! Also the rest of the group who made the trip so easy and such fun, everyone was helpful, interesting and lovely in their own special way. Thank you.