NET4 Turf Building Course in Iceland (19-28 August 2018)
With Contributions by Ingrid Shearer, Andrew McConnell, Linda Dunwell, James Fussell, Sarah Law-ther, Jim Shearer, Paul Higginson and Sara Carruthers
The NET project is a Key Action 1 project for Staff and is funded by the Erasmus+ programme, which is sponsored by the European Union. NET offered the Turf Building Course through The Firm of Arch Ltd to those working within the natural and cultural heritage sectors in Scotland to work with Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga, and their network partners in Iceland. The Firm of ARCH (Archnetwork) was established in 2001 and works in the field of nature conservation, management and interpretation of natural and cultural heritage in Scotland and across Europe. In the NET project ARCH works with a consortium of Scottish organisations.
This exchange included eight participants from Scotland from a range of heritage backgrounds including architecture, archaeology, traditional buildings skills, volunteering, conservation, attractions management and heritage interpretation. The group was composed of:
Sara Carruthers – Historic Buildings Development Manager, Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust
Linda Dunwell – Volunteer, Map research, Errol Shelter (Cob building volunteer), EBUKI Member
James Fussell – Campsite Manager, Comrie Croft and EBUKI member
Paul Higginson – Architect, ARC Architects Ltd and EBUKI Member
Sarah Lawther – Heritage Crafts, Highland Folk Museum
Andrew McConnell – Project Development Officer, Glasgow Building Preservation Trust
Ingrid Shearer – Archaeologist, Northlight Heritage
Jim Shearer – Archaeology volunteer, National Trust for Scotland
Our hosts were representatives from Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga: Bryndís Zoëga, Guðný Zoëga, Sigríður Sigurðardóttir (Retired Director and instigator of the Turf Buildings reconstructions in and around Skagafjordur), Berglind Þorsteinsdóttir (The Current Director)
and other museum staff; Helgi Sigurðsson of Fornverk ehf; Kristín Jóhannsdóttir owner of the farm at Tyrfingsstaðir and her husband Sigurður Björnsson.
We also met Fidelma Mullane an architect from Ireland who is researching the use of turf under thatch in Irish vernacular houses, she was an additional guest invited by Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga, and accompanied us for several days.
Arrival and visit to Reykjavík: Our first trip was to “The Settlement Exhibition” (871 ±2), built around
the remains of a Viking longhouse found when digging foundations for the hotel which is now built
over the exhibition. This very interesting display of the longhouse in its original situation clearly
shows stone foundations with layers of “turf” between, including the remains of animals under walls
Travel to Sauðárkrókur: After a very welcome late breakfast and with jetlag setting in, we set off on a
four hour drive, through a remarkably long tunnel and heading towards Skagafjordur, our hub for turf
buildings on this visit.
Visit to Hólardomkirkja: This is the first stone cathedral built in Iceland and much of the wood has
been imported from Scandinavia. The Bishop was kind enough to give us a fascinating talk about
some of the treasures in the church, the font for instance is thought to have been recarved hundreds
of years after its original construction (see picture below left). She spoke at length about the history
of religion in Iceland and its development through the years since 1200’s which most recently has
been majority Lutheran.
Audunarstofa: We were also invited to see inside the Holar Bishop’s Office, a reconstruction from
2002 of an earlier building which stood on the site (see picture above right). Using traditional
techniques from mainland Scandinavia, this stunning three-storey log house was first built for
Bishop Audun the Red in 1315. We all agreed that this may well be the most beautiful office in
Iceland. Lucky bishop!
The turf house Nýibær: For some of us this was our first experience of a standing turf building,
seeing the structure of the turf cuttings and how they aged. This range of turf buildings is thought to
date from the 19th century and is of the North Icelandic type, with forward facing timber gables along the front elevation and rear buildings at right angles to a central corridor. The complex has
been extensively renovated and is displayed in a partly furnished state (see pictures below). Much
discussion revolved around the apparent draughtiness of the buildings and the potential insulative
qualities, questions we would have answers to later in the trip.
Lunch at Storu Akrar: This range of turf buildings was in existence in 1737 and has associations with
Skuli Magnusson, significantly reconstructed by the museum, but contains timber structure dating
from the medieval period, possibly reused from an early church. There is also an example of turf
wall surrounding the buildings.
Víðimýrarkirkja: A turf church still in use every weekend, serving the local and extended
congregations. The staff were very friendly, interested in our visit and excited to show us around the
church, describing the tradition of seating arrangements in great detail. The timber interior was
built from ‘driftwood’ in the 18th century: high quality timber lost from the Baltic and Siberian
logging industry has historically washed up on the north coast of Iceland (see pictures below).
Day 1 of turf building at Tyrfingsstaðir with Helgi Sigurðsson of Fornverk ehf: Our brief for the week
was to help with construction of “The Smokehouse”, a small rectangular building made of simple
round pole timbers and to be used for meat smoking in the future. This was part of a complex of turf
buildings belonging to the family who still worked the land, the matriarch Kristin having been born in
the main turf house before moving into the modern house now standing close by. The turf buildings
have since become a place for tourists to visit and for students of turf such as ourselves to practice
building. Helgi first introduced us to turf cutting techniques and how to use the turf scythe down in
the boggy lower fields. The three main building blocks we would be learning to work with were called
strengur, torfa and klambra.
• Learning to identify the best areas for turf cutting and what specific plants to look out for is key to
building something which will last for many decades. Inferior turf may last for twenty to thirty years
whereas good quality turf may last for a hundred years or more. Many aspects of this choice showed
that the “turf” is more like Scottish peat than turf, but with a higher sand and clay content to give
Our first experience showed us just how labour intensive the work could be and in inexperienced
hands just how difficult it is to cut the turf to shapes required. Many of our first attempts although still
usable were too thick or uneven, not to mention heavy!
Day 2 of turf building: Building walls and gable using klambra, strengur and torfa, and Hornhnaus,
large square blocks, for the corners.
We learned how to identify older parts of the remaining building which needed to be cut out (because
the structures had degraded and become undefined), and how to then add on the newer blocks to
create a stronger structure while preserving as much of the existing building as possible.
After reaching the eaves of the timber framework for the roof we then started work turffing the roof
using older, drier torfa for the first roof layers, these were leftovers from work carried out by another
team in the spring, so were drier and much more fibrous than the peaty cuttings we had been cutting.
Day 3 turf building: The first part of the day consisted of cutting our roofing turf using a two handled
and pretty noisy machine cutter. The blade had been altered by Helgi to cut turfs thicker than
standard and slightly lens shaped in cross section. We cut long strips of around 36 m which were cut
into smaller sections of around 1.2m by spade and loaded onto the tractor for transport up the hill.
Helgi explained that this cutter was really best used for the roof turf as it cuts to a specific depth and
width in long swathes which we could then cut to length for the roof. These roof turfs were cut from
the cultivated turf in the fields and was more root filled and less peaty. The roots would grow to bind
the sheets together over the next years if we laid these turf up.
We completed the six layers of overlapping roofing turf to much satisfaction, three layers with grass
facing down and three layers with grass up, held by wooden pegs banged through the turf near the
eaves. Later that day we practiced wall building using a cut called Kantsnidda (diamond shaped
blocks), various other Snidda (turf is usually exposed) and Glaumber Naus (row of joined parallelogram
shaped blocks). These techniques for building free standing walls in Iceland go back for centuries and
still form the basis of many rural roads criss-crossing the land today.
Finally, we toured the other buildings onsite being repaired/rebuilt on the farm, including several
sheep folds with hay barns. The sheep fold had higher stone walls at the base to prevent the sheep
damaging the turf walls and with rounded internal corners, as apparently sheep can get stuck in a
To finish our turf building experience, we were invited to a massive cakefest at Kristín and Sigurður’s
modern farm house at Tyrfingsstaðir. Kristin really spoiled us with the variety and amount of food on
offer. It looked like the dog too had been spoiled rotten.
In the morning we attended lectures by Guðný Zoëga on local archaeology and Sigríður Sigurðardóttir
on turf house traditions at Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga offices at Sauðárkrókur.
Lunch and tour of Glaumbær turf houses: This amazing complex of 16 houses have been run as a
museum for many years and we saw artifacts in place to describe the uses of the rooms. The traditional
gable end of one building had flame symbols at the top of the gable to show the priest’s room in the
complex, this room had ornate carved bedboards and boxed beds with fabric curtains to show the
importance of this room. Other members of the household lived communally in the rear room. Many
rooms are not lined with wood and are used for storage (big barrels of whey to preserve meat), the
smithy “house” was at the edges as it would have had a forge which could cause fire.
A kitchen room was lined with drystone walling surrounding firepits and covering the turf walls up
to the eaves to prevent fire in the walls. Communal sleeping rooms were usually lined with wood with
boxed beds lining the long walls, women would sleep up to 4 to a bed on the north wall and men
would sleep on the south walls. Only the head of the family would sleep with his wife in a separate
room (possibly with children in the same room). Amazingly this building did not feel damp despite the
2 months of rain, the turf felt dry and quite hard with a flocked texture. We were told about the
recent finding of a Viking Long house in the meadow to the east of Glaumbaer closer to the river, it
also could have had turf, which may result in an additional attraction on this site.
Horse riding at Lytingsstadir and The Old Stable: While some of the group took an opportunity to ride
on the beautiful Icelandic horses, others visited a small turf stables, constructed by Helgi our Master
Builder and Evelyn Yr Khune (owner) completed in 2015. An excellent guided audio tour
accompanied the visit where visitors are encouraged to handle the many original objects housed there,
such as antique bone skates.
Bathing at “the muddy pool” as Helgi calls it – Fosslaug hot spring at Reykjafoss waterfall. Helgi was
the builder who expanded a tiny puddle using turf and stone to mix river and hot spring water to an
ideal temperature (we can vouch for the temperature). It was a great end to the day and “Well Done”
to Bryndis and Andrew for braving the river dip too!
The Drive south: An opportunity was taken to visit some more traditional sightseeing locations, and
we still managed to find turf walls!
Þingvellir is the original site where the first parliament of Iceland gathered annually, where laws
were passed, disputes adjudicated and in some cases judgement made. There is a place called the
drowning pool where no doubt those judgements were quick to be passed.
Geysir is also in the “golden circle” of the south east of Iceland where the two continents are spreading
apart creating and area of hot springs and geysers. Geysir is the original, and the name is the origin of
our word for geysers, though it is now nearly dormant (it does apparently still occasionally erupt), but
a newer geyser called Strokkur is the main attraction with a cycle between 5 and 12 minutes,
obviously very popular as a destination as we also observed helicopters touring around and stopping to
Gullfoss, famous as a film location this was not at its most violent (usually in the spring) though still an
amazing sight. The sunset which started as we left for our journey back to Keflavik was still colourful
2 hours later due to the long Icelandic summer days and gave an amazing view of the moon rising over
mountains and glaciers.
An early morning flight back to Edinburgh after a full and engaging schedule in which our hosts had
looked after us magnificently, not to mention feeding us to the point of keeling over!