Iceland: A week armchair travelling among the independent sheep and cow farmers of the snowy North

Armchair traveller
3 min readJan 7, 2024

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Reading in a blizzard — yesterday

If God is keeping a list of my foolish actions, near the top will be the attempt to take my children for a walk in an Icelandic blizzard. The snow looked beautiful from our apartment window, but the wind was so strong that once outdoors we were slid unbidden down the street until we reached a hostel where we could shelter… the next stop would have been the sea.

Such memories increased my enjoyment of this week’s book Independent People as I could better imagine the near-impossibility of surviving as a windswept Icelandic sheep farmer in the early 20th Century. It is the page-turning tale of Guðbjartur Jónsson and the hell he puts his family through in order to be beholden to no-one. Despite the frustrations of reading about a vile, foolish, anti-hero, the book’s almost tactile imagery made me feel like I’d lived through a series of traumatic winters and I guess I understand the Icelandish a bit more now.

Vegan fish sauce does the trick and that beer has no vodka in it — promise.

Independence is strong in the Icelanders — home to one of the world’s oldest legislative assemblies. It has been inhabited since 874 and a Republic since 1944. There were times they were ruled by the Norwegians and the Danes but If the Icelanders were anything like Guðbjartur or Björk, I don’t think they’d have been easy to rule. To prove this I give you exhibit B, this week’s film Metalhead, which is about windswept Icelandic dairy farmers in the 1980s. Not much seems to have changed since Guðbjartur Jónsson’s time as the family resort to independence — from community, church and each other — to fight the trauma of losing a brother and a son … It starts with a heavy metal fan getting accidentally scalped by a threshing machine and then follows his sister’s journey into metaldom as she drinks and screams her way through the trauma. There are the obligatory scenes of confused Christian locals listening to her metal band and an alcohol-driven march through a blizzard, but you wouldn’t want anything else from an Icelandic film I guess…

Just like you’d want an any Icelandic playlist to be heavy on the Björk. Mine is not, in fact, as I found a fair few other musicians to join her, from Sigur Rós to múm, but thankfully they are all a little crazy, and the combined experience is like the soundtrack to a snowscape written in a hot spring. The perfect background therefore to this week’s dish Vegan Skyr and potato stew. It’s a simple, delicious, healthy little recipe and if you, like me, have absolutely NO idea where to get vegan skyr, it can be made with coconut milk. Skyr, by the way is an Icelandic high-protein yoghurt that they have eaten for centuries.

And there is no beer in this vodka — best drunk on a snowy night in front of a fire!

You would have thought that Ice-people would be heavy drinkers, but in fact they banned alcohol in some forms from 1915 until 1 March 1989 — now celebrated as beer day! It is still prohibitively expensive and you have to be 20 to drink, but this just leads to a lot of pre-club-drinking! Whilst strong beer was illegal, they invented bjórlíki — in which you take a light beer (under 2.25%) and add vodka! Genius, but I decided simply to drink Reyka vodka on its own… this was nice but didn’t come close to matching the glacial Isfjord vodka I drank in Greenland.

I don’t normally write about a country’s religion but you should check out their recently invented Ásatrúarfélagið — founded on the first day of summer 1972, it is now practiced by 1.5% of the Icelandish — try it, you may love it.

And so we say farewell to the 376,000 people of Iceland and hello to the 1,428,000,000 people of India!

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Armchair traveller

Near-zero carbon travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.