The holy mountain and Bjorn's harbour


Chapel at Bjarnarhöfn surrounded by crime writers photo by Michael Ridpath author of the Magnus Iceland Mysteries

On my search for mythic Snefellsnes, I drove through the Berserkjahraun lava field to Bjarnarhöfn, Björn's Harbour.


I had tentatively decided that this would be Magnus's grandfather Hallgrímur’s farm. I could have invented a farm; perhaps I should have done. Bad things happen in my books at Bjarnarhöfn, and real farmers live there and have lived there in the past. But I much prefer to write about a real place. It’s not just for the sake of the book; it is for my sake when I am writing it. Bjarnarhöfn is seared into my brain; when I am writing a scene set there, I feel that I am actually at that beautiful spot by the fjord.

And it is a beautiful spot.

It is a large working farm cut off from the rest of Snaefellsnes by mountain, sea and lava. To the east is the Berserkjahraun lava field, to the south, a massive, steep mountain rears up, and to the north and west lies the fjord. 

A tiny wooden chapel stands in a meadow between the farm buildings and the sea.  See the photo above, where the chapel is surrounded by crime writers. This church was built in 1856 and is little more than a one-roomed hut, but it contains a seventeenth-century altarpiece and a thirteenth-century chalice, both gifts from grateful shipwreck survivors. The cove just to the west of the farm is known as Cumberland’s Bay after the English merchants from Cumberland who used to visit there in the Middle Ages.

One of the farm buildings has been converted into a shark museum, stuffed with the old paraphernalia of Icelandic fishermen, but the highlight is the rotten shark, or hákarl. This is an Icelandic delicacy. Greenland shark is buried for a few weeks and then hung in drying racks in the next-door shed to rot. 

Eaten raw, or cooked immediately, the meat of this shark is toxic. But left to rot, or rather ferment, it is just about edible. It smells strongly of ammonia, and when you first taste it, it blows out your sinuses. It is best eaten on a toothpick with a chaser of brennivín, an Icelandic schnapps-like spirit that will definitely blow out your sinuses if the shark doesn’t get them first. Some people really like it; some don’t. It is Iceland’s answer to Marmite. You have been warned.


From the farm, one can look east over the sea of lava to the Kerlingin troll with the babies on her back, atop her mountain, and a lonely bump in the plain between the mountains and the fjord. This is Helgafell, or ‘Holy Hill’. It was deemed holy by one of the first settlers in the area, Thorolf Most Beard, who believed his family would enter it after their death and forbade anyone from doing their elf-frighteners on the hill ‘doing your elf-frighteners’ is the polite Viking term for defecating.

In the churchyard at its foot is the grave of Gudrun Osvifursdottir, Iceland’s first nun, and the heroine of The Laxdaela Saga. You will remember she was involved in a bloody love triangle, and her enigmatic last words in the saga are inscribed on a rock at the foot of the hill: ‘To him I was worst whom I loved best.’ If you walk from her grave to the ruined chapel at the top of the hill, in silence and with a pure heart, then your wish will be granted. I climbed the hill, but near the top, I slipped, fell and swore, so my wish wasn’t granted. But I promise I didn’t frighten any elves.

By the way, there is a new book recommendation site called Shepherd, where authors make five recommendations of books on a particular topic that is important to them.  I have just made my contribution: "The best books to read if you want to understand Iceland".  

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