Early Settlers in Iceland – The Ultimate Self-Reliance Test!
Joy wasn’t the first emotion I experienced when my husband said he had booked us a surprise trip to Iceland – my first thoughts were – cold and barren. Ungrateful I know but Cold I would say is my main weakness – a holiday in it wasn’t what Id hoped for. Still grateful for this opportunity, the excitement crept in and I started researching the country on our journey there. I was intrigued to know how historically humans had coped in this cold and barren landscape without the modern trappings of my down jacket, gortex Parker and insulated snow boots. I was looking for inspiration to be tougher!
What I didn’t anticipate finding was such a fascinating history of toughness, of resiliance and slow but sure adaptation to survive in this unusual landscape. It is a history lacking in any kind of environmental support for human survival, the land and climate in Iceland yielded little in the way of advantageous natural resources for man. Reading the book of Settlers it is like reading how the land wanted to push humanness to its adaptive limits, like it was trying to push us off.
This article is a dedicated to those early Settlers, in awe of their self-reliance against all odds I would like to share their story with you. Perhaps we can all find some inspiration from Icelanders?
To begin with, lets clarify the term Icelanders – they are genetically predominantly Norwegians and Irish. In 874 dissatisfied with the current strict rule of the king in Norway and wanting to carve his own life (and swathes of land), Ingólfr Arnarson took two of his slaves, an open top boat, some livestock, seeds and tools then set sail. Whether he had determined to land in Iceland or not we don’t know. Its existence had been known since ancient Greek times when it was called ‘Thule’ and indeed people had even visited and stayed before 874 … Irish monks, another Scandinavian or two, but none had remained so we cannot include them here as ‘settlers’.
Ingolfr however did stay. After spending a couple of summers wandering and the winters in between sheltering, looking for the best place on the island to settle he settled, like most modern people, in the Reykjavik area. A bay in the west away from the ice caps of the middle area and the harsh arctic winds from the north/east, warmed a little by the gulf stream the Reykjavik area was a good choice. Well, as good as could be in Iceland.
The island he had landed on was 104,000 km area with a coastline of 3000 miles and the only creature to be found on land was the artic fox who had floated there on ice by accident from somewhere else. Hot springs, glaciers, black volcanic rock and live volcanos. If you stand on this bit of floating hot rock in the North Atlantic, just below Greenland and look south there will be nothing but ocean until the South Pole!
Settling the Island – On Becoming Icelanders
Thankfully Ingolfr had come prepared. As a landowner in Norway he brought some skills and the livestock and seeds to go with them. Together with the labour (slaves) to implement these, Ingolfr and his family who had followed raised a few sheep, goats, cattle and poultry. Like most settlers who initially use their own old ways of land management in the new environment they soon realised they need to adapt methods, Ingolfr struggled here with his usual methods of farming.
The climate and landscape was different from Norway and winter days could be as short as 4 hours of daylight with very short cool summers. This meant that much winter grazing was simply not available and there was not enough to store from short summers to cover such long winters for livestock food. The settler had to let their livestock wander in winter instead of keeping them close and feeding them – they left their livestock to become self-reliant themselves. This resulted in losses, until the farmers worked out what livestock was more suitable to focus on in this climate and landscape.
Cultivating, Foraging and Hunting.
The same problem occurred with the seeds he brought – some worked in this climate and terrain others didn’t. Winter veg such as potatoes, turnip, kale type veg worked but growing grains was notoriously difficult. They tried to grow grain they brought over, then when this proved difficult, they cultivated a wild grain on a small scale that didn’t yield much…. Barley grown on low lying plains was the only successful grain grown here and this wasn’t massively productive and ceased altogether for much of the first 1000 years. In fact a lack of grain and the settlers adapting around this characterises much of their diets development.
Foraging: One thing that kept early Icelanders alive in the absence of grain was Icelandic moss (actually a lichen found on the northern side) they would soak and eat as a porridge. A second bulk food was dulse a seaweed found more on the southern shores. It is presumed the idea of eating Dulse came from Ireland with the Irish women.
“Ever since the first settlement of Iceland , wild growing Angelica archangelica L. has been used for human consumption and has also been important as medicinal herb. It was also eaten fresh, picked in the wild on the mountainsides. In Iceland all parts of the plant were used – the seeds, leaves, stalks and roots and were eaten fresh, fried or boiled (o en in milk); or prepared in some other way ” (I saw skeletons of this all over).
“The most commonly used green plant in Iceland was probably Rumex acetosa L. It was usually served with meat, sh or as a avour to bird soup. It is still recommended in a cookbook as tasting well with boiled puf- n [15,29]. Generally speaking, the common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is the most popular wild food plant also in Iceland”
Yarrow, and chickweed have all been identifed as present then with wormwood being well used between 900’s and 18th century. I also saw some ribwort plantain popping out in grass under snow.
Around the woodland areas, berries such crowberry, cloudberry and bilberry would have been available.
Hunting: Despite an unusual lack of land mammals there were still plenty of coastal products. Fish such as capelin and herring, sea birds such as puffin and gulls eggs, sea mammals but for some reason the early settlers were determined to be farmers not fishermen so kept plodding on with trial and error land based survival methods for another 1000 years. Whaling wasn’t really a deliberate practice either though settlers would make use of beached carcassses. It wasn’t until spear-drift whaling was introduced in the twelfth century that the settlers could be said to hunt whales. They would go out in open boats, strike a whale with a marked spear so that when it died and beached they would be able to find and claim it. Salmon and trout were found in the clean rivers.
Food Preparation and Preserving in a land with no wood for Fire.
When the settlers first arrived, the country was said to be one of forests. This actually meant that the 25% of available land that could be forested because it wasn’t ice cap, rock or tundra, was tree covered. This ensured the early arrivals had plenty of timber for building and wood for fuel but within 30 years of settlement, the island had seen the arrival of about 30 – 40,000 more people, usually Norwegian men picking up Irish women en-route and this forest was all but gone! The slow growing nature of trees so far North meant the taiga type coniferous forest trees and the birch and willow couldn’t keep up with demand. This is shown in pollen analysis of soil samples. Scientists observed that tree pollen became replaced with more pollen from the pasture land plants around this time.
So circa 910, Iceland had around 35,000 settlers in a country of harsh climate with no fire-wood or timber for building shelter. How did they adapt?!
Lack of fire to cook on:
“As for cooking methods, boiling was by far the most common; there were no ovens for roasting and no medieval frying pans have been found in excavations. Meat was sometimes roasted on a spit but probably mostly when a cauldron or another cooking vessel was unavailable”.
*“Some Icelanders did have an alternative, fuel-conserving method for cooking. They simply cooked their food in the nearest hot spring. Sometimes the food was placed in a cauldron or other container which was then lowered into the boiling or almost-boiling water; sometimes it was buried into the hot earth close to the spring. We know that hot springs were used for cooking in medieval times, because a source dating back to 1199. Geothermal heat was probably used mostly for baking bread. moist rye bread) in some shops. The dough is placed in a closed container, buried in hot earth and left to steam in its own moisture for up to 24 hours.”
“For most cooking however, the most commonly used fuel, after a few centuries of deforestation, was either peat or dried sheep manure. This continued into the 20th century and sheep dung is even used to this day for smoking meat and salmon”.
Lack of fire-fuel to preserve food:
Another problem the settlers faced in addition to lack of fire to cook food or preserve it by smoking was a lack of salt for preserving. Even as a coastal country Iceland couldn’t yield salt for the settlers easily because of the lack of sunshine to evaporate water in the usual salt distilling process. Nor could fire-wood be wasted just on salt making. Their usual methods of preserving food simply didn’t work in Iceland. A method to extract salt from seawater via ice rather than heat developed. Seawater was allowed to freeze, the frozen fresh-water top was scraped off and the remaining water re-frozen. The salty under-layer became more and more concentrated. The resulting super salty water was heated so it didn’t take as much fuel to get to the brine stage as it would have with boiling the first seawater. Another frequent method was to gather seaweed and dry it. The dried seaweed was then burned and the salty ashes used to preserve food. This was called “black salt”.
Icelanders did air-dry fish but the results were variable as you needed a run of cold dry sunny days.
Another method of food preservation that developed uniquely in iceland due to shortage of fuel was skyr whey fermentation of meat. In the UK we see Skyr as a form of yogurt but it is actually a type of cheese.
*“Skyr making was thought to be more economical than ordinary cheese making; the yield from the milk was higher when skyr was made than when the milk was used for cheesemaking. The lack of salt may also have played a role, since cheese was usually salted to preserve it, but skyr needed no salt at all.
*”The milk – usually skimmed – is curdled with bacterial cultures and rennet. The culture comes from a starter kept from the last batch of skyr and the rennet was usually made from calf’s stomach, although butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) could be used in a pinch”
The resulting whey was used as main drink and used to preserve meat for up to a year in the absence of salting. The making of skyr and its ‘waste’ product whey for drinking and preserving meat was a lifeline for Icelanders even though it would’ve made everything it preserved taste sour it would’ve not only preserved meat without salt/fuel for drying but imparted extra nutrients in the form of probiotics and B vitamins.
Lack of cooking pots for cooking on fire
“Even cooking pots were in short supply. Some bog iron can be found in Iceland, but not nearly enough to make the cooking vessels that were needed: the clay in Iceland is not suitable for pottery, Cauldrons and pots had to be imported and were expensive. Wealthy men often bought cauldrons and rented them out.” Vicars had to pass a law prohibiting villages from using church fonts to cook in.
Lack of timber for building:
Turf-clad houses became popular with the use of drift-wood or stone topped and sided with turf. They were often built into existing banks then walls and roofs were covered with turf to minimise need for wood in the building and the need for fires to keep warm.
Despite all this hardship the early Icelanders were successful in certain aspects of their way of life!
The island community despite being sparse, was effective at self-organisation. The landowners decided to elect representatives to debate on community matters together and action results. In other words by
the year 930, one of the world’s oldest parliaments had formed. These communities were also willing to allow women to take roles of power. Scandinavian countries seem to have accepted that women have a presence in politics more easily and for longer – possibly thanks to this Viking view of women as strong and key holders!?
What they couldn’t grow they learned to subsitute or do without. As more ships started arriving – what they could’nt grow, substitute or do without could be traded with what they could grow, raise and make.
The settlers traded sheep wool, woven wool cloth, dried fish and dairy products exchanging it mostly for grain, tools and cooking implements. Rye and wheat were imported; rye for the poor, wheat for rich. Grain was more used for porridge or flat breads rather than risen breads in as it would go further and without much fuel consumption.
From the 1500’s Iceland was under Danish rule that resulted in a period of hardship for the country. This, coupled with lack of sunlight caused by ash fall out after a volcanic erruption a period that became known as the little ice age caused a long period of famine. After thousands of deaths, reindeer were imported to remedy the problem. They still roam freely in places and can be hunted.
Problems with imports
Some things came over with trade boats that were less welcome. Rats, mice, lupin seeds that have spread and taken over whole fields, rabbits that ruin puffin burrows and mink that were imported in 1700’s for clothes but now escaped. TB and the plague were also unwelcome stowaways to Iceland. On the other hand, sometimes ships wouldn’t come for months – so grain and other imports could not be relied upon.
“Icelandic cuisine was for almost a thousand years a cuisine of wants – want of grain, want of fresh produce, want of salt, want of fuel, even want of cooking vessels and utensils. The people of Iceland had to pay a certain price for choosing to live somewhere north of life, but they adapted to their environment and managed to survive for a thousand years on what they had”*. Finally after trying farming for a thousand years realised fishing made more sense than farming and harbours developed more around the 3000 miles of coastline…. Trading at ports, fishing and whaling provided work. Whaling – a sperm whales head could contain 3 tonnes of spermaceti, an oil prised throughout Europe for street lighting, medic food beauty products…. this could be sold at a premium and the profits used to buy in staff – and so fishing moved from being a self-sufficiency activity to being an industry,creating employment for whole communities who could then use their wages to buy goods in.
Iceland in Modern Times – read the next article to see how from the self-reliance of early settlers Iceland has become self-reliant as a country in modern times. Cheap hot water on tap, free cold mineral water to drink, self-reliant in energy and vegetables, dairy and eggs… permaculture principles abound plus the ultimate Volcano Bug-Out-Bag situation that many modern Icelandic families are faced with.
*From the article https://nannarognvaldar.com/a-little-food-history/