Traditional Turf Building in Iceland 2016

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Our week in Iceland was a whirlwind tour of a country with a diverse and rich history. After a week of speaking with experts in local heritage and turf building I feel I have only seen a small fraction of the culture and history Iceland has to offer. Before I left I found people were surprised and a bit confused by the idea of a week long trip focusing on the history and practise of Icelandic turf building. Indeed, I was surprised to realise how much we barely scraped the surface of information available and I felt keen to delve further into Scotland’s rural building techniques as a result of this course.


Our trip was a very well rounded introduction to the area of Skagafjörður and its place in Iceland’s history. It has always been a rural and sparsely populated area of Iceland and the people would have lived off livestock and some small agricultural produce. Turf houses would have been a common sight, particularly as trees were rare and most timber was driftwood from Scandinavian countries. There was a common joke told several times throughout our trip which really rang true after witnessing the landscape for myself. The line was: ‘What does an Icelander do if they get lost in a forest?’ and the answer is: ‘They stand up.’ With nothing but a few small wispy trees and bushes the scenery of the area was very open. The lack of wood however posed a real difficulty for Icelanders. I was surprised that wood was still a significant feature of the Turf houses we saw with the roofs always supported by a timber frame and often lined with wood panelling to protect the internal walls.


The group I travelled with was made up of a diverse mix of heritage professionals which included individuals working in building, archaeology, interpretation and education. This interesting mix of backgrounds meant we all came to Iceland with very different ideas and perspectives and were able to engage with the course in different ways. By sharing our perspectives I certainly learnt about aspects of the history and building techniques I never would have considered. I think this has helped me develop new ideas about new ways of engaging visitors with a centre on methods and techniques rather than the social history I would normally focus on. Being involved in actually constructing a building using local materials seems like a very simple activity, and it is amazing how involved everyone became in the processes. It surprised me how quickly we felt comfortable working with the turf, offering opinions on how to improve the structure and better achieve a level base.


The course really highlighted the excellent standards set by the heritage sector in Skagafjörður and I felt the history was well cared for and researched by the professionals we met. There were many similarities between the sectors in Scotland and Iceland which were discussed at length with the experts we met along the way. What surprised me was that there was a clear lack of interest from local people in preserving the turf buildings and the course we did had been offered to Icelanders with very little uptake.


There has been a recent surge in tourism in Iceland and they are dealing with an unprecedented number of foreign visitors who undoubtedly wish to see more of the Icelandic heritage. In 2003 they had around 300,000 visitors a year, in 2015 this increased to 1.2 million. Unfortunately this also comes at a cost and without proper steps to preserve much of the landscape there is a real danger of destroying some of the fragile sites across the country. This is particularly the case with many of the existing turf houses. Turf is not an easy material to preserve and only when there are high concentrations of clay in the soil will the walls remain intact for more than 100 years or so. Therefore much of the turf buildings in existence have been repaired and replaced over the years, in many cases only the stone foundations remain.


On the whole, Iceland does seem invested in its heritage and history though I felt there was a significant southern focus. It is a problem we see all the time in Scotland; money floods to the south of England and the capitols (both London and Edinburgh) but rural development is stinted by a lack of proper investment. In Iceland this is particularly relevant as 2/3 of their population live in and around Reykjavik. While Reykjavik has always been the central focus and has much to offer it does leave the rural areas in a tricky situation. Tourism in Iceland does focus on their natural heritage, with amazing resources such as hot springs, mountains, rivers and the very popular Icelandic horse riding readily available. Tourists tend to remain in the south though because of the nearby airport and the investment in tourism. Encouraging more tourists to go further would lessen the footfall in the south and help alleviate pressure on some locations.


Coming from a heritage education background I was interested to see how the course itself engaged with the local heritage and encouraged learning for adults and schools. As is often the case outside of the UK, a formal education programme is a rare find and this was certainly the case in Skagafjörður. This was specifically an adult learning course. It was a structured but relatively informal format which I felt really encouraged us to think about the processes for ourselves and work out how and why techniques developed in the way they did. Our expert and teacher, Helgi, was a fountain on knowledge but knew when to stand back and leave us to puzzle through a problem. He was always on hand to tell us when we were wrong but it didn’t happen as often as I would expect.


The Trip


Our introduction to Iceland was both magical and surreal. We arrived late, and faced a 4 hour drive to the north of Iceland and an area called Skagafjörður. It was odd driving through the scenery in the middle of the night which never got particularly dark. We basically arrived and went straight to bed without much of an idea about where we were. The morning introduced us to the amazing farm we would call our home for the week and the even more amazing Icelandic sheep dogs who lived next door and were very happy to see us. Our morning was spent exploring the cottage and getting to know one another better. We were met just before lunch by our host Brandís who took us to a local café for some fish soup and then on to the community centre for a series of lectures.


Each of the lectures was an interesting introduction to the area and gave us a taste of the information we would soon become experts on through our 3 day turf building course. We started with a lecture on heritage management and Iceland turf tradition from þor Hjaltalín. His talk gave us an overview of Iceland’s development since settlement to the present day and focused on the massive changes faced in recent years. He discussed one of the most famous historical texts which have benefited from a recent surge in popularity, the Sagas, and how the north East of Iceland used these through a historical tour. This really intrigued me and the idea of following the stories of the Sagas on a journey through Iceland is a really nice way to see some of the less obvious sights of the area. This is done through maps, signs and CD disks and connects many of the archaeological sites of the area.


Our second lecture was from Sigríður Sigurðardörður and focused on the methods of Torf and some of the basics we would see for ourselves in the coming days. She specifically talked about the various construction methods and the types of turf we would see during the course. She then took us through the various buildings in the area and the history of their construction. Interestingly, turf needs to be kept alive and watered so the grass on the top keeps growing and the roots remain strong. The walls are normally left to dry out and settle but some moisture helps keep the turf from cracking and breaking. I found this very interesting as it meant that the houses were living things that needed regular maintenance and attention and they don’t just sit in the landscape as stone or wooden buildings do. These buildings were also lived in till very recently, with the last one becoming unoccupied in 1989 – the year I was born. Some are still used and the farm in which we would go for our course was one example of them being used within the farm for sheep pens and chicken enclosures. Most are preserved as part of the local heritage to showcase life in Iceland over the years.


Our last lecture was from our host’s sister and archaeologist, Guðny Zoëga. She works in the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum and is part of the only archaeology department for a local museum. Her role faces many challenges but is vital to the preservation of the history in the local area. The archaeology is very well preserved in many areas because most of the farming is of livestock and not crops so ploughing hasn’t destroyed evidence of past settlements. Instead her biggest concern is erosion and other environmental factors.


This series of lectures was an excellent way to start us all thinking about the local area and how turf buildings developed and influenced the history of the region. It was fascinating to hear such detailed talks and then see how it was applied within the practical application of turf building.


The next day was the highlight and our first taste of building with turf. We were all quite worried with lots of discussions on appropriate footwear and waterproof clothing. The house we were repairing was an hour’s drive from the cottages we stayed in and we set off early. The course took place on a farm overlooking a spectacular gorge and the first things we saw were several turf houses. These were all previous projects repaired through courses over the past few years, including another group from Scotland’s work. The houses were fascinating; some were used regularly for storage or farm animals, specifically sheep. The largest house was actually in use until relatively recently, around the 1960’s and some of the cladding was still inside, although much of the wood had rotted away. There is a plan to restore the house to its last use and to make it a heritage site again. This sounds like an exciting project and will hopefully bring some life back into the turf house, it would be nice to see the houses being used and people other than those on arranged courses coming to see them.


The building itself started with the process of cutting the turf. This was extremely hard work and surprisingly technical but our tutor, Helgi made it look annoyingly easy. Each block needed to be cut into a particular shape, which is a surprisingly difficult task when you a presented with a muddy field. We used a sham scythe to cut out lengths of strengur or strips which would form the long lengths. We also cut pieces called torfa which would be used in the middle of the wall to even out the layers. The hardest sections were the corner blocks which were large, square block and very difficult to get out of the ground. The klempa were the smaller, sort of triangular shaped blocks which make the pattern along the edge were a little tricky to get the angles correct on and I spent most of the 3 day course getting this wrong!


Once we had cut some of the sections out, we moved on to building our first wall. Helgi patiently told us what to do first and basically left us to it, only really interjecting when we got it wrong. It was an interesting teaching technique and I came to appreciate it as we developed more confident. We weren’t just putting bits of turf where we were told, we were all thinking through what makes sense and taking ownership of the task. It took a surprisingly short amount of time to make us all feel like experts and by the end of the first day, no one really wanted to go home.



The next day of the course we were all a bit sleepy but ready to get stuck in, by this point we had broken off into three main groups each working on a wall segment. Our sub-team powered through the building and by the last layer we certainly felt like we knew what to do. The wall was finished remarkably quickly and we helped finished the remailing two sections. The big test was to come with the creation of an arch between two of the walls. Normally a frame would be made up for the arch, tailored to the dimensions. A turf arch is a little more rustic….


A few pallets were wedged in with a plastic barrel at the top and various wooden sticks wedged into the space to keep it all up: a basic, but effective method. Helgi then began to work magic cutting up various sized sections of turf and creating an arch around the frame. It looked rather precarious but we left it in place for the night, knowing that after a few more layers the supports would have to come out.



We arrived on the third day, fully expecting to see the arch in a heap but were glad to see it all still firmly in place. Our task for the day was a fairly simple one, we had a few more layers of klembra and strengur to put in place to weigh the segments of the arch down into place and then place some grassy strips for the top. With the last layers now weighing down the arch it was the moment of truth. Would the arch stay up. A brave volunteer, Mitchell, laid on the top of the wall over the arch while several of us kicked out the frame. Thankfully it didn’t budge at all and our hard work was complete. The image4.jpegtwo walls with an arch stood proudly in the field. The only disappointment was that the remaining two walls would be left for a future course to complete. While we had all been keen to keep going with the whole building the day before, by the third day I think everyone was ready to toast our hard work and explore the other turf buildings a bit more before our graduation ceremony later that day.



The rest of our trip was a complete contrast, and more of a historical journey and exploration of heritage sites in North East Iceland. We visited several turf houses as well as several other sites in the area. It was interesting to see how these were used for tourism or other means. The turf house which stood out most to me was Glaumbær which had been very well restored and was set out with objects that would likely be found in the rooms. This was of particular interesting to me as I work with with a historic house in Ayrshire, Burns Cottage, and I was glad to see a house restored to such a high standard. It was interesting to compare the display and use of the house compared with Burns Cottage, particularly as Glaumbær had much more on display within the house, while we have these types of objects on display in a separate museum. I actually felt this house did a better job of making the house feel real and lived in.




After a long road trip back to Reykjavik we had a chance to explore the city and visit some of the key sites. The Settlement Exhibition was particularly interesting; it was a well displayed museum with some interesting features, including the central foundations of a Viking turf house. The fact that this was preserved intact and the museum build around it was fascinating. Much of the interactive displays were well done. I particularly enjoyed their kids’ corner featuring games and handling objects to keep children amused.




Ultimately I think one of the biggest things I have taken from this trip is the chance to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the heritage sector with like minded individuals. It amazed me how many similarities there were between Scotland and Iceland. I am currently working at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway and one of our main features is Burns Cottage, the 18th century ‘auld clay biggin’ where the poet was born. Since learning more about traditional building methods I am keen to look into the history of the construction of the cottage here. I am also hoping to look into ways to incorporate these crafts into the education programme and our new outdoor learning workshops. I think there is an opportunity to engage all age groups with traditional skills. It may not be quite as elaborate of a turf house in a beautiful farm in northern Iceland but I think it is worth a try!


I’d like to thank Brandís, Guðny , Helgi, Sigríður, þor, and all the other amazing people we met on our journey through Iceland. This trip could not have happened without the generous funding of Erasmus and the hard work of Libby at Archnet and I would like to thank them for making it all happen. Lastly, I would like to thank the other 9 participants of the course who made it such an unforgettable experience.


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