No trip to the north coast of Iceland is complete without seeing the hundreds of ptarmigan on HRÍSEY, a flat, teardrop-shaped island at the mouth of Eyjafjörður, reached by ferry from Árskógssandur, about 10km southeast of Dalvík. At 7.5km long and 2.5km wide, it’s the country’s second-largest island (Heimaey in the Westman Islands is the biggest), but it’s home to barely two hundred people.
As you might expect, Hrísey’s history is tied to fishing. Its population peaked at 340 in the mid-twentieth century, when fishing boats from across the country landed their catches in the tiny harbour, making it the second-largest herring port on the north coast, after Siglufjörður. Since then things have declined: the fish-processing factory down at the harbour was Hrísey’s main source of employment until it closed in 1999, and over thirty people left the island to look for work in Akureyri and Reykjavík. Today, it’s the Icelandic National Quarantine Centre, established here in 1974 so that stocks of Galloway cattle could be imported from Scotland, that keeps many islanders in employment. Reforestation has also begun in a couple of areas, in an attempt to protect the thin layer of soil atop the basalt rock of which Hrísey is formed from further erosion.