Iceland’s settlement story is remarkably well documented. This young island has no real “natives” except maybe the arctic fox. Around the 8th Century, people in Europe had begin exploring the planet and found this new island in the middle of nowhere
Let's settle the question: who settled Iceland?
The most valuable source of the settlement is Íslendingabók (the book of Icelanders) by Ari fróði Þorgilsson. It was written around 1130, over 200 years after the first Nordic pilgrims came to Iceland. Before that the stories had been told from generation to generation through folklore, song and rhymes.
The settlement period is believed to have been between the years 870 and 930. These dates represent the first Nordic settler, Ingólfur Arnarsson, which reached Iceland between 870 and 874, and the founding of the Alþingi, world’s first parliament, in 930. These dates are based on both written sources and geological evidence.
Around the time of the first Alþingi most of Iceland had been claimed by Scandinavian pilgrims.
Thousands of men and women from Norway, Sweden and Denmark sailed across the sea to find new land to be claimed, without conflict or any royal interference.
Their stories are no not all heartwarming stories of people seeking freedom and new land to crop.
Some of the settlers were Vikings that had pillaged, raped and robbed villages in the UK before heading to the new island. In fact, recent DNA research show that while around 80% of Icelandic men are of Nordic descent only around 50% of Icelandic women are Nordic. Nordic men brought many women from the Irish and British isles as slaves and many Icelandic women can still trace their bloodline back to them.
Greenland and North America
What’s really interesting with the settlement stories is how the settlement of Greenland and North America are intertwined with the discovery of Iceland. Unlike Iceland, Greenland and North America had natives. Their settlement stories are therefore more of discovery stories from the European perspective.
A man names Eiríkur the red Þorvaldsson discovered Greenland around the year 985. He named it Greenland or Grænland to better “sell” the idea of others to follow him there. His son, Leifur Eiríksson, lucky Leif, discovered North America around the year 1000. He built a camp in the area called Newfoundland today and spent the winter there. Leifur called the new country Vínland. On his way back to Greenland he saved a group of 15 fishermen aboard his ship. After that, he was given the nickname “lucky”.
A world map sure would have come in handy for Eiríkur and Leifur. Pic by Andrew Stutsman.
There are written records that Irish and Scottish monks lived in Iceland before anyone else. The monks were called papar and lived mostly in the Eastfjords. They are spoken of in the Íslendingabók as Christian men that lived in Iceland and the Faroe Islands before the Nordics came.
They left as soon as the Vikings came to Iceland as they did not wish to live among heathens. Since they did not reproduce or really settle in for more than one generation they are not considered the real settlers of Iceland.
We hope this was informative and that you are a little wiser of Iceland’s history. This is, of course, a very simplified version of these tales as there are many books on the subject.
A drawing of the Irish monks or papar by Jakob Jóhannesson.