Narration and photos by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. The last photo is by Páll Stefánsson.
Viðey island was inhabited shortly after the Settlement of Iceland in 874 AD, but not much is known about its history until a monastery was established there in 1225. It became the second-wealthiest monastery in Iceland, but was closed down after it was plundered by the men of the Danish king in 1539.
In 1755, Skúli Magnússon, the first sheriff of Iceland (also referred to as the Father of Reykjavík), had Viðeyjarstofa built as his residency. It is the country’s first concrete building and one of the oldest preserved buildings in Iceland. Twenty years before his death in 1794, Magnússon had Viðeyjarkirkja church built and he is buried underneath the altar.
Today, Viðeyjarstofa is used as a café, restaurant, gallery and museum. Upon entering the building, visitors are greeted by wishes for peace that hang from the branches of a so-called Wish Tree—an idea of Yoko Ono’s.
After enjoying coffee and refreshments, visitors can take a look at Viðeyjarstofa’s book collection. Guðbrandsbiblía, the first Icelandic Bible edition (printed in Hólar bishopric in 1584), is preserved on Viðey, along with the originals of the following nine editions of the Bible in Icelandic. The sixth, Viðeyjarbiblía, was printed on the island in 1841.
Once back outside, visitors have several hiking opportunities to choose from. They can also borrow a bike for free and cycle around the island. It is 1.6 square kilometers in size and divided into two parts, Heimæy and Vesturey, which are connected with Eiðið. The eastern part of Heimæy is known as Austurey.
There are many sites of historical significance worth looking at, for example the remains of a village and a school (where there is a photo exhibition of the daily life on Viðey while the island was still inhabited) and Tóbakslaut, the place where Skúli Magnússon tried to grow tobacco with poor results.
But Viðey was good for growing other types of plants. Magnússon also experimented with potatoes, cabbage, trees and cumin. Cumin still grows along the island’s hiking paths. It is ripe in August and can be identified by its dark color. There are 156 different types of plants on Viðey, about one third of Iceland’s flora.
For centuries, Viðey was considered one of the best farming lands in Iceland. In 1901 farming couple Eggert Briem and Katrín Pétursdóttir built a cowshed for 48 cows on Viðey; the most technically advanced cowshed in Iceland at the time. The couple sold 200,000 liters of milk to Reykjavík every year.
In 1930, 138 people lived on Viðey. The main industry of the village was fish processing. When the local fishing company closed down in 1931, inhabitants moved away one by one and by 1943 the village was deserted. Farming persisted on Viðey until the end of the 1950s. Currently no one lives on the island. The buildings there are owned by Reykjavík City and their renovation was completed in 1988.
Viðey is known for varied bird life and for centuries inhabitants of the island profited from collecting eider down. Eider is the most common bird on Viðey. Other common bird species are fulmar, graylag, snipe, sandpiper and oystercatcher. Almost 30 bird species nest on the island, mostly around the ponds on Eiðið.
Viðey has seen its share of tragedies. In spring 1906 cutter Ingvar was sailing to Reykjavík past the island. A storm had ripped off most of its sails and the ship was therefore difficult to control. It crashed into a reef by the island’s western shore and broke to pieces. The entire crew of 20 died. The anchor from Ingvar later became a memorial for the people who died in the accident.
On October 9, 2007, Viðey island became world famous because on that day the Imagine Peace Tower was lit for the first time. The tower of light was created by concept artist Yoko Ono in the memory of her late husband, Beatle John Lennon.
Its light will shine every year between October 9, Lennon’s birthday, and December 8, the day of his assassination, but also on New Year’s Eve and other special occasions. The words “imagine peace” are engraved to the tower’s base in 24 different languages.
The Imagine Peace Tower is not the only artwork on Viðey. In 2000, a statue of Virgin Mary was unveiled on the island on the occasion of 1000 years of Christianity in Iceland. Virgin Mary was the saint of the Viðey monastery.
In 1990, an artwork by American sculptor Richard Serra was erected on Vesturey in relation the Reykjavík Art Festival. His work is comprised of nine pillars of columnar basalt, which frame a nearby landmark, and was his gift to the Icelandic nation.
The ferry to Viðey goes from Sundahöfn harbor in Reykjavík year-round. The island is only five minutes away! For further information, visit elding.is.
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This multimedia slideshow was originally published in October, 2008.