Hornstrandir: where homes became history

When descendants of the original residents set up temporary homes every summer on Hornstrandir, there’s something to be said for roots. You learn, with time, that they indeed run deep.

A beautiful-but-unforgiving place to live, this northernmost claw of the Westfjords was eventually abandoned in the early 1950s, when locals decided they could no longer afford to ignore the opportunities and better life that beckoned across the bay and elsewhere in the country.

A few farmhouses, churchyards and an industrial relic here and there is all you will see of human habitation, but that’s only half the story. Here, nature is at her most wondrous, with vistas of open landscapes, fjords, cliffs and bays of rare beauty. This gorgeous interplay of untouched green slopes, studded with wild flowers and backed by white-capped peaks and grey-blue bays is accessible only by boat (or a multi-day hike) and mostly during summer, ensuring its pristine loveliness remains just so.

Hornstrandir became a national nature reserve in 1975 under the aegis of the Icelandic Environment Agency. Two of the tallest bird cliffs in the North Atlantic region are found here and the Arctic fox is a fully protected species.

Back to the beginning

At the beginning of the 20th century there were three fishing settlements; Hesteyri, Látrar, and Sæból; along with a few farms on the Hornstrandir peninsula. There were small houses with big families who survived mostly on what nature allowed: a bit of agriculture but largely dependent on fish and the birds on the cliffs for their food. Eggs and meat of seabirds such as guillemots, razorbills and puffins were plentiful. There were only a few roads on Hornstrandir, and it was not possible to get there by car, so the only forms of transport on the peninsula were horse or boat. Despite the isolation and long distances, community existence was made easier due to solidarity between the locals. Former residents fondly remember the one for all and all for one philosophy.

The route from the Bay of Hornvík to Hesteyri was commonly used in the 1940s. Hesteyri had a relatively large community of over 200 people, complete with a doctor and postal service. This was due to the presence of a herring plant. Most residents were employed at that plant that had first been a Norwegian whaling station.

In the thirties and forties people did not commonly have skis, so the deep winter snow made walking hard, sinking down with every step. Still, they walked the route in only 8-9 hours.

Time was precious and there were plenty of tasks to be accomplished in order to live successfully in the unforgiving terrain. Today, tourists and hikers employ a more unhurried pace, using two days to walk the distance and staying a night in Hlöðuvík Bay before continuing.

The farms on Hornstrandir, though few and greatly distanced from one another, were the epicentre of activity. A particularly notable farm was Kvíar on the headland between the fjords of Veiðileysufjörður and Lónafjörður. The ultramodern concrete house there was the biggest on Hornstrandir. Necessity had made the farmers into distinguished craftsmen, and they built fine boats from driftwood. “They also had wind generators and a hydro turbine in the river. This enabled them to listen to the radio and be connected to the outside world,” says Rebekka’s account.

The winds of change blew far and wide, making life tougher. The Great Depression following the US stock market crash of 1929 meant the thirties were a grim decade for economic activity and affected Europe as well. The main industry on Hornstrandir was the salt fish market, but it collapsed during the 1930s. In the 1940s the herring station at Hesteyri closed down too. After the Second World War, many people moved away when job opportunities grew in the bigger settlements around the coast of Iceland, especially in nearby Ísafjörður. The fishing boats had changed too: the newer ones had engines and were much bigger and in need of harbour facilities the likes of which did not exist on Hornstrandir. Geography and economics together meant that no such harbour could ever be built. Hornvík was abandoned around 1948. Between 1952-54 almost everyone else left Hornstrandir, too.

The population count plummeted from 500 to zero, but that doesn’t stop people from visiting. On the contrary, if anything.

And as for the former residents who still own their family homes and use them in the summertime: as we said, roots run deep.

Did you know ?

• The distance from Horstrandir to Greenland is less than 300 km.
• The sea around Horsntrandir is stormy and unpredictable, so there are quite a few lighthouses in the area. The one at Hornbjarg, one of the best-known cliffs, had a resident lighthouse-keeper until 1995.
• As of today, it is common for hikers to sail over to Hesteyri and start their hike from there. Hesteryri has been popularly captured in the novel and associated movie I Remember You, authored by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.
• In 1962, Hesteryi was in the eye of controversy, when its church was upped and moved to another village, Súðavík, without consulting the former locals and owners of the land.
• The Arctic fox often walks into hikers’ camps to ask for food. It is never a good idea to feed wild creatures though!

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