The Ultimate Self-Reliance Test of Early Icelandic Settlers

The Ultimate Self-Reliance Test of Early Icelandic Settlers

Self-Reliance in Iceland 

The Ultimate Self-Reliance Test of Early Icelandic Settlers

I wasn't really looking forward to going to Iceland.  Ungrateful I know.   But cold, I would say is my main weakness and a study trip in it wasn’t what I'd 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 resilience 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 and seeds and tools and 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 known as Thule and indeed people had even visited and stayed before 874.  Irish monks, another Scandinavian or two, but none had stayed so we cannot include them here as ‘settlers’.

Ingolfr however did stay.  After spending a couple of summers wandering and winters in between sheltering looking for the best place on the island to settle he settled, like most modern people, in 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 quite accidentally from somewhere else.  Fish, sea birds and their eggs plus sea mammals on the coast and salmon and trout in rivers would have provided the only native food together with a few wild sour berries such as cloudberry but also possibly bilberry.

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 the lot Ingolfr and his family who had followed on raised a few sheep, goats, cattle and poultry.   Like most settlers who initially use their own ways of land management in the new environment then soon realise they need to adapt methods, Ingolfr struggled with the usual livestock side 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 long winter grazing was simply not available and there was not enough to store from short summers to cover the long winters for livestock food so the settlers ended up having to let their livestock wander in winter- to become self-reliant themselves.  This resulted in losses, until they worked out what livestock was more suitable to focus on in this climate and landscape.  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.  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.

Still plenty of coastal products such as capelin and herring fish, sea birds and their 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. 

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 in 30 years of settling 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 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 pollen from pasture land plants around this time.  Yarrow, angelica (I saw skeletons of this all over), and chickweed have all been identifed as present then with wormwood being well used between 900’s and 18th century.

So circa 910,  Iceland had around 35,000 settlers in a country of harsh climate with no fire-wood or timber for building shelter.     

Lack of fire to cook by:

“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 or fire-wood to waste on salt making.  Their usual methods of preserving food simply didn’t work in Iceland.  Several ingenious methods to extract salt from seawater that worked via ice rather than heat developed. Seawater was allowed to freeze, the frozen top scraped off  and the remaining water re-frozen.  The salty underlay became more and more concentrated.  The resulting super salty water was heating 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”

Another method of food preservation that developed uniquely in iceland due to shortage of fuel was skyr making and the subsequent whey fermentation of meat.

“skyr was thought to be more economical than cheese; 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”

From the article

the resulting whey was a main drink and used to preserve meat for up to a year in the absence in the salting The making of skyr and its waste product whey for drinking and preserving meat was the lifeline for Icelanders even though it would ve made everything it preserved taste sour it would ve not only preserved it without salt/fuel for drying but imparted extra nutrients in the form of probiotics and b vits.


Lack of cooking pots for cooking on fire

“even the 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, use of drift-wood or stone and build into existing banks then cover walls and roofs with turf to minimise need for wood in building or fires to keep warm.


Political organisation - the landowners had elected representatives to decide on matters together

By 930, the chieftains had established a form of governance, the Althing, making it one of the world's oldest parliaments. 


So what they couldn’t grow they learned to subsitute or do without.  Once more ships started arriving - what they could nt grow, substitute or do without could be traded with what they did have lots of.

The settlers traded wool, woven wool cloth dried fish, dairy exchanging it for grain.  Rye, wheat and barley were all  imported;  rye for the poor, wheat for rich. Grain was more used for porridge as it would go further or flat breads.

 in the 1500’s Iceland was under Danish rule that resulted in a period of bad decision making for the country coupled with lack of sunlight caused by ash fall out after a volcanic erruption a period that became known as the little ice age. A long period of famine resulted and finally 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 that were less than welcome in the end like Somethings brought over were not ideal…. Rats and mice, lupin seeds that have spread and taken over whole feilds, rabbits that ruin puffin burrows.  Mink imported for clothes it the 1700’s  and now escaped.  Also TB and the plague.

Sometimes ships wouldn’t come for months - so grain and other imports could not be relied upon.

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…. Fishing and trading at ports.Whaling - a sperm whales head could contain 3 tonnes of spermaceti an oil prised throughout Europe for street lighting, medic food beauty products….

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.

(Please note the edited version of this on the original blog has gone when I got the website moved over, so the above is mostly notes.  I shall try to find time to edit them again into a proper post)

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.