The Westman Islands – Vestmannaeyjar – are an archipelago of fifteen or so scattered, mostly minuscule volcanic islands around 10km off the coast south of Hvolsvöllur. The only inhabited one in the group, Heimaey, is an easy trip from the mainland on the frequent ferries, and there are two immediate draws: Eldfell volcano, still steaming from its 1973 eruption, an event that doubled the width of the island and almost swallowed Heimaey town; and the sadly reduced numbers of seabirds and puffins. You can pack everything the island has to offer into a couple of days, though many visitors simply take a day-trip from the mainland, arriving late morning on the first ferry and departing in the evening.
Heimaey aside, the other Westmans are difficult to land on and so only infrequently visited, but you may be very lucky and score a rare trip around Surtsey, the group’s southernmost outpost and newest island, which sprang from beneath the waves during the 1960s.
Geological babies at only 12,000 years old overall, the Westman Islands played a part in the tale of Iceland’s official first settlers, Ingólfur Arnarson and his foster-brother Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson. The brothers had British slaves with them who, coming from the lands at the west of the Viking world, were known as Westmen; Hjörleifur’s slaves rebelled, killing him and fleeing to these islands – hence the name.
The Westmans lay more or less outside the mainstream of Icelandic history until Algerian pirates raided Heimaey on July 16, 1627, killing or enslaving several hundred people. It took some time to get over this disaster, but by the twentieth century mechanization and the country’s economic shift from farming to fishing saw Heimaey becoming a prosperous little haven, well positioned for taking advantage of the North Atlantic’s richest cod and haddock grounds.
Fresh problems lay ahead, however. On January 23, 1973, a 2km-long volcanic fissure suddenly opened up eastern Heimaey. Within 24 hours the island had been evacuated and the new volcano, Eldfell, was gushing lava in violent spasms; houses were buried beneath the flow or simply collapsed under the weight of accompanying ash. Worse still, the lava threatened to block the harbour mouth until halted by the novel method of pumping sea water onto the front of the flow. When the eruption ceased in June, Heimaey was two square kilometres bigger, had a new mountain and, amazingly, a better harbour – the entrance is narrower now, but more effectively shielded from prevailing easterly winds. Only one person was killed during the eruption.