by Marian Reid
“They built this town on the herring, but they forgot to tell the herring.”
Shortly before I arrived in North Iceland to live in the town of Skagaströnd for two months, almost everyone I knew in Australia asked me if I had read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. It’s a remarkable novel, set in a small town not far from Skagaströnd. Aside from its central plot, it’s a tale that evokes a very traditional farming life in a bleak and cold landscape during one of Iceland’s darkest periods. I arrived in Skagaströnd to find blizzards, dramatic windswept coastlines and Icelandic horses peering out from under their shaggy manes, just as anyone who has read Burial Rites would imagine. But as for a traditional way of life – like most developed nations around the world – it has largely disappeared. Even so, as I settled into the slow rhythm of winter in northern Iceland, I became curious to learn what threads of tradition were still alive in this little town and the enduring landscapes around it.
The village of Skagaströnd sits on the bay of Húnaflói. From the harbour, across the bay, you can see the striking cliffs of the Westfjords rising from the Greenland Sea. Away from the sea, behind the cluster of townhouses and farms, rises the flat-topped mountain of Spákonufell. Skagaströnd is a village that was founded on farming and, later, herring – a lucrative fish that disappeared from local waters in the 1940s. “They built this town on the herring, but they forgot to tell the herring,” jokes local resident Ólafur Bernódusson. There’s a dark side to his little joke, though. After enormous investment in Skagaströnd in the 1940s, the herring’s migration patterns changed and they left the local waters before the new fish factory was even finished. What remained was broken dreams and a town scattered with abandoned monuments; purpose-built fish factories that still shadow the harbour as reminders of what was meant to be.
Salting fish and other tales
“You have to get the fish without cutting the stomach. And we need cod, not haddock. Ask them for two cods. They usually haven’t opened it.”
I’m sitting with Ólafur Bernódusson (Óli) in the Skagaströnd library among the town’s historical book collection. From here, through the upstairs windows, we can see the harbour and the old herring factory, which is mostly empty these days. Óli is telling me how he makes salt fish: “I would start by taking the head off. I cut it from the back, you know, along the spine. And I take out the bones in the back. The fish will stay as one this way. Then I wash it and squeeze out the blood. And then we salt it.”
Óli thinks he may be the only person left in Skagaströnd who salts their own fish. He’s promised to show me if I buy some fresh cod, but during my last few weeks in Skagaströnd a blizzard hits, the fishing quotas are full, and fishing boats rest quietly in the snow-covered harbour. No fish comes in for me to buy. So Óli just has to tell me about salting fish instead. “The first idea for the Icelandic national flag was supposed to have three salted fish on it because it was so important for our exports. It was the only way before we had freezers – you either had to dry the fish or salt it.”
There’s a two-storey skeleton building in Skagaströnd that used to be a busy fish salting factory. It’s where Óli got his first job when he was a boy, more than 50 years ago. “It was complicated to salt the fish because you had to take the head out and the bone, then salt it for three to four days in liquid salt. Then you had to put it in dry salt. Then, in two weeks, you would take all the salt off and start again. Then we would pack it in hessian and send it off to Spain and Greece.” The factory closed in the 1970s when a financial crash in Europe meant Greece and Spain stopped buying salt fish. With it, went the tradition of salted fish in Skagaströnd.
When I first arrived in Skagaströnd, the fishing boats were active. I’d see them heading out early in the morning when the light was still cold blue – before the sun thawed the ice hanging from the gutter around my house. In the evening light, they’d return and unload their haul of cod, haddock, snapper and lungfish into colourful pallets. These would then be trucked to another town, an hour away, for processing. If you went down to the harbour as the fish came in, the fisherfolk would sell you a fish right off the boat for just a few dollars – extras they couldn’t count in their quota for the day.
But by mid-April, the boats sat forlornly in the harbour because when the quotas are full and the weather is bad, it’s just not worth going out. Their stillness was also indicative of the decline of fishing in little towns all around Iceland, where there are fewer boats, reduced fishing and less income for local fisherfolk. Óli blames the quota system, which was introduced to stop over-fishing, but which has also changed the tradition of being a local fisherperson. “The quota affects the fisherman badly. He feels like a pirate. Everyone thinks he has a quota so he is rich. But he is not a quota king. He is just a fisherman. He may be 76 years old and he has been doing this all this life since he was 12. And then someone from up high comes down and says you can only fish this much, and so on. And he just has to make the most of it.”
That evening, I go to the little supermarket in town to buy the only fish available – frozen cod fillets, probably shipped up from Reykjavik and caught on one of the big industrial fishing trawlers. The next morning, I go out for a wander in the snow, past the entrance point to the harbour and scramble down the rocks to the old fish salting factory where Óli worked. Builders have been here recently and the skeleton building with its peeling paint and rusty salt-soaked walls is slowly being reimagined as a hotel for artists who visit the town. As I am poking around the discarded pallets and timber to one side, I come across some fish hanging to dry in an open shipping container. Tied with bright orange twine, the fish sway in the breeze to the rhythm of the drip of melting snow – tucked away in a quiet corner of the town where no one comes much.
Part 2, on the town’s traditions of weaving, is coming soon.
Marian Reid is a Melbourne-based writer dedicated to telling important and unusual stories from around the world. She recently spent two months in Iceland with NES Artist Residency.