The Westman Islands
The extraordinary Westman Islands form a group of fifteen islands located approximately 10km off the south coast of Iceland. Famous for its puffin population which attracts countless visitors every year, the islands are of great historical and geological importance and have been drawing attention since the year 870 when the Westmen, who were a group of rebellious Irish slaves, sought refuge there after they’d murdered their master Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson. They consequently became the island’s first inhabitants and are the people the islands are named after. When Hjörleifur’s foster brother, Ingólfur Arnarson (the first Icelandic settler), heard of the treachery he hunted them down and slaughtered them all.
The Westman Islands has a modest population of around 4,500 people, many of whom work in the prosperous fishing industry – the community boasts a large fleet of fishing vessels. In recent years the area has also become a popular destination for travellers resulting in a growing number of new services, with accommodation and restaurant options and a whole range of new tourist activities. Apart from the daily flights to the Westman Islands from Reykjavik, the Herjólfur ferry service operates from Landeyjarhöfn a few km east of Hvolsvöllur on the mainland – it makes several trips a day and only takes 30 minutes.
Out of the 15 islands the largest is Heimaey (Home island) and the only one inhabited by people. Over the centuries the population grew until the islands attracted the attention of some Algerian pirates; they landed at Ræningjatangi (the robber’s spit) in 1627 murdering 40 settlers and kidnapping a further 250 – or half of the inhabitants – most ended up as exotic slaves in the Ottoman Empire. The country was devastated by these so-called Turkish raids and it wasn’t 1970 that the law demanding the death of any Turk found on the island was repealed.
The Westman Islands are considered babies in geological terms with the oldest of them emerging from a submarine volcano over 10,000 years ago. Surtsey is the youngest, appearing dramatically from the sea during a four-year series of eruptions starting in 1963. With a prosperous fishing industry and a fleet of 60 fishing vessels the economy of the Heimaey flourished, it was mainly thanks to this same fishing fleet that the entire population (5,000 people by then) were safely evacuated when a volcano erupted in the middle of a January night in 1973. This volcanic episode lasted until July of the same year, covering 30% of the town in lava and ash – adding a total of 230 million cubic meters of volcanic materials to the island.
3. Eldheimar Museum
When a huge volcanic fissure opened on the island of Heimaey in the early hours of a January morning in 1973, 400 houses, or one-third of all the buildings on the island, were covered with millions of tonnes of ash. Years later, during an excavation project nicknamed ‘Pompeii of the North’ a perfectly preserved residence was uncovered which now forms the centrepiece of the Eldheimar Museum, which translates as “Worlds of fire”, where visitors can observe a significant moment in history dramatically frozen in time.
4. Elephant rock
An extraordinary sight and a must-see for anyone visiting the Westman Islands, this rock formation, which is located close to the Halldórsskora cliffs on the north-west coast of Heimaey Island, looks just like a giant stone elephant dipping its trunk deep into the Atlantic Ocean. The attraction is best seen by boat, where you can get a good look at the basalt rock which has a remarkable wrinkly texture that perfectly resembles an elephant’s skin.
Named after Herjólfur Bárðarson, the first Icelandic settler of the Westman Islands, this horseshoe shaped valley provides great shelter and is the location of one of Iceland’s biggest summer festivals. Travellers can visit the excavated ruins of a 10th-century farmstead which is said to have once been the dwellings of the first settler. A replica of what the farm might have looked was built in 2006. The valley also has a campsite with good facilities.
During the eruption in 1973, a magnificent red volcanic cone reaching heights of 221 m (725 ft.) was created on the eastern side of the island of Heimaey and given the name Eldfell or “Fire Mountain” by the locals. Although it’s now possible to climb to the northern wall of the crater, the volcano is still hot enough in places to bake bread. Visitors might also like to ramble through the Eldfellshraun lava field where memorials marking places in the lava where there were once homes can be found.
Located on the southernmost point of Heimaey Island this great cape is famous for being the windiest place in Europe. The cape is home to an old weather station that has been in operation since 1921 where the record for the lowest land observation of air pressure was recorded on 2nd December in 1929. In addition to being famous for its wind, the cape is also known for its birdlife and is home to the largest puffin colony in the world.
Text: Elisa Maccagnoni – Iceland premium tours