On exciting turf: the turf roofed houses in the Westfjords 

Like any committed culture vulture will have you know, the architecture of a region tells multiple stories on a singular platform: stories of survival and ingenuity, of making the most of the raw materials available in that geography and time, of progress and hope and of man’s eternal quest to make himself a little more comfortable. 
All the above narratives hold true even in the simplest of constructions, most especially when it comes to building a house. 

Simply put: the turf roofed houses of Iceland were built as protection against extreme weather conditions, offering better insulation than buildings made of stone or wood.  
Typically, a turf house would consist of a foundation of flat stones; upon this a wooden frame would be mounted-all the better to hold the turf. The turf would then be fitted around the frame in blocks. The floor of a turf house could be covered with wood, stone or earth depending on the purpose of the building. The grass turf on their roofs naturally flourished in the summer months, making the houses blend into their surroundings. 
From the medieval era right up to the mid-20th century building a turf house was how many lived and thrived in Iceland. That they were a long-lasting form of architecture can be proved by the fact that some people were living in turf roofed houses until as late as the 1960s. 

Modern day heating and assorted amenities have rendered turf houses obsolete-what’s more they need lots of maintenance-but they are nevertheless a touching nod to history. Thus, quite a few big turf houses double up as museums. Most of these heritage structures belong to the National Museum of Iceland and are a part of the National Museum’s Historic Buildings Collection. 

The Westfjords, being a remote part of the country, has its share of turf-roofed houses too: a warm piece of legacy indeed considering how bitterly cold it can get here. 
Here’s a list-by no means an exhaustive one-of a few of our favorites in the Westfjords. 

Hrafnseyri

Hrafnseyri in Arnarfjordur is the birthplace of Jon Sigurdsson, the leader of the 19th century Icelandic independence movement; fittingly his old turf house (where he grew up) is part of the museum in his memory. There is a small chapel that stands outside too (he was the son of a pastor) and is welcoming to all visitors.  

Notably, Hrafnseyri has become considerably more disability-accessible since its recent renovation. Perhaps this is as fine a tribute as it gets for a leader described by historian Gunnar Karlsson as a ‘classical liberal and a protagonist of modernisation, democracy, human rights and economic progress.’  

Best of all, it also has a small cafe where you can get coffee and homemade treats as you ponder over Jón’s greatness. 

Osvor

Let’s not forget for a minute that this is a maritime country and has been one for centuries. In case you’d like to check out what an old Icelandic fishing station looked like before the onset of automation and cutting-edge technology, you’ve got to visit Osvor, which is essentially a recreation of a 19th century double fishing booth fish drying platform and salt shed. It also contains information on the kind of boats that were used. 

As an innovative touch, the curator of the museum often welcomes guests in a traditional fisherman’s outfit. He then offers you a unique glimpse of a long gone past especially the accommodation available to the fishermen in that era. The museum is on the road that goes into Bolungarvik on the east side of the bay. 

Hjallur

Thought to have been built around 1880, Hjallur in Vatnsfjordur is one of the grandest houses of its kind in Iceland and is under the protection of the National Museum since 1976. It is located a short distance from the church and the farmhouse. Its relatively high side walls are made of stone, the rest of wood, and the crown is a sod turf roof.  Such hovels were mainly used as depots for fishing gear and for fish processing, i.e. dried fish.  

Litlibaer

Litlibaer or the little farm was built in 1895 by two families that each occupied half the house, partitioned by a wall through the middle.  Made of timber and stone it has a turf roof, and a hayfield around it enclosed within a stone wall. Occupying an area of 3 hectares, this pretty little historic house (which was occupied until 1969) is now restored with a number of small rooms where you can have a glimpse at how life used to be for the residents who mostly sustained themselves through fishing and farming. 
Try out the coffee and waffles with jam and cream. 

The Sorcerer’s Cottage

What adds to the aura of the mystical Sorcerer’s Cottage is its dramatic location: the remote Strandir area in the Westfjords.  At a glance, it consists of three connected turf houses made of turf (sod), rocks and driftwood.

Driftwood is one of the main resources in this remote area of the Westfjords and was used here as a building material for the turf houses to greater extent than in other parts of the country.  

Locals contributed to the restoration of the Sorcerer’s Cottage, donating items like hides, lambskin, old scythe-handles, rakes and assorted old tools that would help recreate the olden times. Be sure to visit this quaint little place to get a better idea of the aspirations of the common man especially in a region so unforgiving: for example, a little magic for your tools to double up their speed-endearing in their sheer simplicity. 

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