Every Sunday our fabulous host Steinnun organizes a day trip for us to drag our compulsive workaholic butts out of our studios and give us a look at the broader context of where we are. Yesterday we headed up and around the Tröllaskagi Peninsular to our east. Skirting the northernmost point, we could see the low island of Grimsey on the northern horizon which sits on the Arctic Circle – my first sighting of the circle from land. We stopped in the little town of Siglufjörðu for a lunch of delicious pickled herring, rye bread and stout and then a long wander through the great Herring Era Museum. The whole ambience was improved (at least for me) by burping up my herring lunch while wandering the displays.
In its time, Siglufjörðu was like a gold rush capital as tens of thousands of barrels of pickled, salted, and dried herring and fish oil was processed along the miles of wharves and shipped around the world. The museum does a great job of conjuring that time. There are three separate buildings. ‘The Boathouse’ is a huge shed containing whole fishing boats and assorted wharfside shacks dimly lit as if at night which you can wander around at your leisure. You can climb up onto and into the holds of the boats as if you were sneaking around the wharves at night unnoticed.
The atmosphere in the Boathouse was excellent. The air was pervaded with a sweet, faint residue of gasoline, oil, bundled hemp ropes, and ground fishmeal – yum!! It is like walking into a very ambitious project by Michael McMillen.
There are two more buildings in the museum. One dedicated to the processing of herring into fish meal and fish oil. Sounds dry I know, but its more like wandering around in an busy factory on a quiet sunday afternoon when its all closed down. It feels transgressive, as if you’ve found yourself behind the scenes and out of bounds in something that’s fascinating but hard to fathom.
The last building is the ‘salting station’ or brakki – an original building dating from 1907. It housed the office and dormitories for the workers.The museum’s website says “The old brakki has largely been left as it was when inhibited by dozens of girls working in the herring in the summer. When walking through their former lodgings on the third floor, one can easily sense the atmosphere of the old times.” Its true! The tiny bunk beds on the third floor have hand embroidered quilts, suitcases stuffed under them and early Life magazines strewn about, depicting the glamorous America life. You can almost hear the gossip and laughter as the girls come off their long, hard shift salting herring.
We drove back home up the luscious Öxnadalur valley and under the brow of the spectacularly jagged Hraundrangi.
In the foreground is the birthplace of Jónas Hallgrímsson – poet, naturalist and one of the fathers of Icelandic nationalism and independence. You could see how all of those characteristics could have arisen in him from interacting with such an amazing environment.
We drove home along the eastern shore of Skagafjöður to Baer with the evening sun sneaking under low scudding clouds.