History of Hornstrandir

Early history

  • Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is a remote and uninhabited peninsula located in the far northwestern corner of Iceland. The reserve covers an area of approximately 580 square kilometers and is known for its stunning natural beauty, rugged coastline, and abundant wildlife.
  • The history of Hornstrandir and its relationship with people dates back to the Viking Age when it was inhabited by a small community of farmers and fishermen. Pastoral societies were common, rearing lamb in the summer and fishing out in the nearby prosperous fishing grounds during the winter. The long stretches of vertical seabird cliffs offered eggs for those skilled enough to climb. Bartering within settlements was common, with trading posts in Isafjordur and Bolungarvik a day’s sail away. To join us on tours venturing to the northern tip of the reserve and thrive where people survived. Book a Traverse or Heights and Sights Tour and learn more about history.

Military involvement

  • This may come as a surprise to some, but it’s also part of the Hornstrandir history, this area also contains remnants of two military bases. Visitors to the area can explore these historic sites and gain a deeper appreciation for the role that Iceland played in the Allied war effort and the sacrifices made by military personnel during this time. The British WWII base located in Darri can be visited on our Green Cliffs of Hornstrandir Tour, with the US nearby operated Straumnes Air Base used during the late 50’s in sight on a clear day.

More recent history

  • When and why did inhabitants move away
    • Inhabitants of Hornstrandir relocated away from the reserve during the 1940-50’s due to overarching societal shifts in Iceland. Jobs supplying foreign military bases in southern regions of Iceland attracted residents searching for cash paying jobs. This offered inter generational wealth, rather than relying on fishing, hunting and pastoral rhythms of tradition. 
  • When was it made into a nature reserve?
    • In the mid-20th century, the Icelandic government began to consider the area for potential development, including plans to build a dam and hydroelectric power station. However, due to protests from environmental activists, these plans were eventually scrapped, and in 1975, Hornstrandir was declared a nature reserve.
  • How is it used today?
    • Hornstrandir has become a popular destination for hikers, birdwatchers, and nature enthusiasts. Despite its popularity, Hornstrandir remains relatively untouched by commercial tourism, and visitors are encouraged to respect the reserve’s natural beauty and fragile ecosystem. By doing so, tourists can help to preserve the area’s unique charm and ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy its pristine wilderness.
  • Geology, landscape, and terrain.
    • Environment Agency: Jökulfirðir are surrounded by mountains, and there it can well be seen how the area was built up by a series of volcanic eruptions (many in history) where lava layers are visible with sediment layers in between. Numerous rock dykes cut through the lava layer stacks and create magnificent peaks and ridges. Surf ridges are frequent in Hornstrandir, whereas in Jökulfirðir signs of glacial rifts are prevalent.
  • Flora history
    • Environment Agency: The flora of Hornstrandir is unique, because the weather is similar to the Arctic and there has been no grazing there for more than half a century. Snow is often heavy and protects the vegetation against frost in winter. The water released through melting keeps the soil moist all summer. This means that conditions for various plants are favorable and large flower areas can be found in the region. The flora has a very large number of varieties; more than 260 species of vascular plants are found within the nature preserve. Continuous vegetation only reaches and altitude of 300-400 metres. The small mountain plants such as the mountain buttercup are common as well as tall fields of roseroot, angelica and geraniums. Sea pea and sea lungwort are common on the coast.
  • Wildlife
    • Environment Agency: There are seven internationally important bird areas in the area, all with sea birds: Grænahlíð, Ritur, Kögur, Kjalarárnúpur, Hælavíkurbjarg, Hornbjarg and Smiðjuvíkurbjarg. There are also large numbers of eider duck and other duck species. Hornstrandir is an important moulting area for duck species, and a part of the area is the winter home for the harlequin duck. Other species include the sandpiper, the snow bunting and the meadow pipit. Sea eagles, falcons and merlins also nest in the area. There are few lakes and lake birds are therefore rare, although red-throated loons, mallards, swans and phalarope can be found. Amongst mammals, the fox is most common and is totally protected. The Arctic fox is registered in Appendix II of the Bern Convention and is totally protected in Europe. The nature preserve is one of the most important sanctuaries for foxes in Europe. A large number of tourists visits the Hornstrandir area to see and photograph the Arctic fox, both in winter and summer. Research has been conducted on the fox, its life and the impact of tourists on its behaviour and survival. It has been shown that tourism can at times have an adverse effect on the fox. This is a short history of Hornstrandir.