Boom and bust in Herringtown

Turf church
Turf church

The farmer sucked on his teeth, looked out into the middle distance and, with a wry smile, said, “Well these days I farm tourists”. This was in response to my question about what crops he raised on the windswept North Icelandic coast. He went on to explain that he had small crops of winter wheat and linseed in, but “It’s rubbish. It’s just too cold here for farming.” He hesitated, then added “I’m the third generation of my family to farm this land.”

We had breakfast this morning in the only Mongolian yurt in Iceland. It was quite a cosy refuge from the wind and rain that had swept in over night. Like everything else in Iceland the cost was tear-inducing. Iceland is not anyone’s idea of budget travel even staying in hostels.

We set off, heading further West and further North into a beautiful, but windswept and marginal landscape. Most of the morning’s drive was through valleys that led up to high passes through the hills. The countryside is a deep green, but it’s clear that the rocks are never far from the surface. Eventually we crested a final pass and made our way back down towards the sea.

Turf houses.

On the way we stopped to see some traditional turf houses. The first of these was a church, its sides built of wood but its steep roof a growing field. It was a tiny church, small enough that you didn’t even need to have everyone facing forward to hear from the pulpit. Inside was like a series of little rooms with bench seating around three sides of each one. We moved on to a little preserved village of turf houses; these with their entire structure built of turf sods. The walls are several feet thick and made up of blocks laid at alternating angles. The roof is again a growing thing. It was amusing to see someone doing some maintenance on the roofs by sowing grass seeds (and this evening we saw someone else mowing their roof!).

Our road then took us along the coast with some dramatic seascapes – all lowering clouds and storm-tossed waves around rocky crags. The road itself was quite scary with frequent evidence of it having been swept off the face of the Earth by rockfalls. After negotiating a single-lane tunnel bored through a final headland we came to our destination for the night – the town of Siglufjordur.

Siglufjordur.

is a tiny place which reminds me of the TV show Northern Exposure; it has that frontier feeling. It is also somewhat emblematic of Iceland as a whole. In the 1940s and 19450s the town flourished on the back of the humble herring. It grew to be the second largest town in Iceland and boomed. Siglufjordur became known locally as Herringtown. Then almost as quickly as it started, it was over; the herring stock was fished out and the town went bust. Today, the town remains dependent upon the fishing industry a fact readily apparent the moment you step out of your car – the whole place smells of fish. But the industry, and the town itself, are now tiny compared to days past and the town is striving to replace it with tourism.

Iceland’s history is much like that. A series of dramatic booms followed shortly by enormous busts when the limited resources are depleted. There’s a sense of excess about their use of resources. Even the recent banking crash can be seen in the same light – too far, too high, too fast. Interestingly, my farmer from this morning had something to say on that front too. I’d asked him about the horses, you see.

Hard farming country
Hard farming country

Everywhere you go in Iceland there are horses and ponies in the fields. Not just one or two but herds of them, all over the place. We’d been struggling with theories about where they all went. Middle-East horse fanciers? Dog food? Where was the thriving horse market?

It turns out that’s not the case at all. According to my farmer, “If you have desk job in London or Reykjavik, you put horses on the farm. They don’t need you to look after them in Winter – they’re the only thing you can just leave. They’re a sign it’s not a real farm, just collecting subsidies.” Rather than a sign of plenty, the horses are a sign of decline.

Still look wonderful, though.

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2 thoughts on “Boom and bust in Herringtown”

  1. Wow. That sounds just like the American West.

    Would love to see turf houses. Are they just for show or do people really live in them? They say that in the American Midwest, people lived in turf houses like that. At least they did in the Little House on the Prairie books : )

    1. Just for show now. All the real houses are wooden, white with cheerful red roofs. They look great in the midst of Icelandic wilderness.

      Given most of iceland’s population left for the states at one point, the same people who built houses here probably built them in the Midwest!

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