In the old days, turf houses appeared to be a good way to face difficult Icelandic weather, providing a higher insulation than wood or stone made buildings.
The other reason for their popularity was the lack of native trees in Iceland although Iceland was still 30% forested when settlers came to land. Settlers, who had already been building turf roofs back in Norway, naturally started using the Icelandic birch as a framing material for houses and turf in large quantities.
Very few skilled people in Iceland are able to perpetuate the tradition of turf building, and Skagafjörður region puts a lot of efforts in preserving and renovating turf houses. Here are a few you should not miss!
1) GLAUMBAER – Skagafjörður Folk Museum
The first turf houses built in Iceland were inspired by Viking longhouses, but gradually became more compartmentalized, with a corridor leading to additional living spaces. Glaumbær is a great example of the “Gabled Farmhouse” scheme imagined by Guðlaugur Sveinsson, with rooms arranged in parallel to have a more aesthetic gabled front.
This turf farmhouse was inhabited until 1947 and currently serves as the Skagafjörður Folk Museum. The kitchen is the oldest section, dating back from 1750.
Víðimýri church (1834) is one of Iceland’s very few preserved turf churches, built by parliamentarian Jón Samsonarson. It is considered as one of the best examples of turf churches and has been in the National Museum’s collection since the 1930’s. The contrast between the black wood and the colourful windows is wonderful!
3) GRAFARKIRKJA – Höfðaströnd
Grafarkirkja church is the only church in Iceland of its type, with a circular turf-wall around the graveyard.
The chapel was built in the 17th century by Gísli Þorláksson, bishop of Hólar, and is believed to be the work of the talented wood carver Guðmundur Guðmundsson.
The church was deconsecrated in 1765 by a royal order from the King, and was reconsecrated by the Bishop of Iceland in 1953 after being entirely rebuilt in its original form by the National Museum in 1950.
4) NÝIBÆR – Hólar í Hjaltadal
For 700 years, Hólar was the capital of North Iceland before Akureyri, and its bishopric was serving half of the country since its creation in 1106. Although Hólar ceased to be a bishopric in 1801, it remained a historic place very dear to Icelanders. In 1824, Benedikt Vigfússon, bought the farm at Hólar , where he built himself Nýibær in 1860, just a few steps from the former bishop’s residence.
Not far from there is the remarkable Cathedral of Hólakirkja (1763), also worth visiting!
5) THE OLD STABLE – Lýtingsstaðir
In Icelandic history, turf houses were not only used so that people could live in but also as a shelter for the animals. This Old Stable can be seen at Lýtingsstaðir, where one can find old work tools for horsemanship, and a presentation about the Icelandic horse. The architecture and patterns are stunning!