By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos by Páll Stefánsson.
Viðey is the largest island in Kollafjörður fjord, 1.5 km2 (0.6 sq mi) in size, located just off Reykjavík, people visit the uninhabited island for leisure, including an increasing number of tourists. The ferry sails daily to the island from three locations in Reykjavík in the summer and from Skarfabakki pier at weekends in winter—from there, the ferry ride is only five minutes.
Education Center and Government Offices
An archaeological excavation has determined that the oldest remains of human habitation on Viðey date back to the late 10 th century. Not much is known about the island’s early history but in 1225 or 1226, a monastery, primarily Augustinian, was established there. The monastery cared for the poor and ill, and served as an education center. Wax boards from 1450-1600 have been found on Viðey. The monastery was closed after Catholicism was abolished in Iceland in 1550, but a nursing home continued to be operated on the island.
In 1749, Skúli Magnússon was appointed treasurer of Iceland by the Danish King. He made Viðey his residence and had his manor, Viðeyjarstofa, built there in 1753-1755. The grand white house with an elegantly-decorated interior—Iceland’s oldest stone building—was dubbed slotið (from the Danish ‘slott’ or ‘palace’). The adjacent Viðeyjarkirkja church was inaugurated in 1774.
In the four decades Skúli reigned on Viðey, he turned the place from a farmstead to the country’s greatest residence. In 1793, the King’s governor, Ólafur Stephensen, moved to the island and made Viðeyjarstofa his residence. Grudgingly, the now-old Skúli relocated to the loft, but died the following year. Known for their generosity and for hosting fancy dinners, the Stephensens dominated Viðey for four generations.
Large-Scale Farming and Industry
In the early 20th century, entrepreneur Eggert Briem ran a large-scale dairy farm on Viðey, selling the milk in a store in Reykjavík. In 1909, the so-called Milljónafélagið corporation bought the island with ambitious plans for farming and fishing. Two large piers and industrial buildings were constructed on the island’s eastern side, connected by rail. Some 20 houses were built for the employees. Danish companies used the island as a trans-shipment port and for storing coal and oil; from there oil was sent in barrels to Reykjavík.
Milljónafélagið went bankrupt in 1914 and in the early 1920s, Kárafélagið took over, operating trawlers from the island and processing fish in the village—inhabitants numbered around 100 in its heyday. Electricity was produced by a motor generator, water supplied from a tank, and a schoolhouse was built in 1928. But then the Great Depression hit and, in 1931, Kárafélagið went out of business. All the buildings, apart from the schoolhouse (where old photographs from Viðey are now exhibited), were moved to the mainland. By 1943, the village had been abandoned.
Attraction for Artists
Farming was practiced on Viðey until 1970. The island remained in private hands—and a small part of it is still owned by the Stephensen family—until the Icelandic state, and later the City of Reykjavík, acquired it in 1986 on the occasion of the city’s 200th anniversary. Viðeyjarstofa and the church were restored to their old grandeur and today, a café and restaurant are operated in Skúli’s old manor.
Artists have long been drawn to Viðey. US sculptor and video artist Richard Serra put up his outdoor artwork, ‘Milestones,’ on the island for the 1990 Reykjavík Arts Festival. The nine pairs of columnar basalt pillars ‘frame’ certain landmarks and destinations, including Hallgrímskirkja church and Snæfellsjökull glacier.
In 2007, Japanese artist Yoko Ono unveiled her Imagine Peace Tower on Viðey, dedicated to the memory of her late husband John Lennon. The word ‘peace’ is carved into the stone monument in 24 different languages. From Lennon’s birthday on October 9 to the day of his death on December 8—and select other dates—it projects a beam of light into the sky.