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Understanding Icelandic Places - Part II

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

by Doug Hanson Last month we examined historic place names in Iceland such as sókn (parish), hreppur (district), and sýsla (county). This month we will explore more modern geographic boundaries. In the 20th century, many communities in Iceland gained population, especially in the Capital region. As population centers changed, many traditional place divisions, such as hreppur were merged, subdivided or eliminated altogether. Towns also grew and were sometimes renamed as cities or bær. To facilitate local governance, a large number of municipalities were created, most of which have been gradually consoilidated from a high of 229 in 1950 to 74 today. Some, such as Fljótsdalshérað, are very large in area, while others, such as Seltjarnarnesbær, are tiny by comparison. 

The map above shows present day municipalities within Iceland. Some are a bit difficult to see on a national scale map. Recognizing these boundaries will help us to better understand Icelandic place names, especially when using online resources. In fact, while most Icelandic places in the IR database use historical references, many use modern ones, and some use both! While the Icelandic Roots database will likely be your primary source for finding ancestral farms and parishes, there are other online resources that are very helpful. One resource that has worldwide coverage is This site is an international open source mapping database and is useful for finding farms and geographic features. Probably the best online resource is the National Land Board of Iceland. (Landmælingar Íslands) This organization has extensive online resources, mostly in Icelandic. Their newest mapping tool (linked above) is available in both Icelandic and English. Explore the different layers and try the search function. Search results are listed by present day municipality, so our knowledge of modern place names can really help refine our searches. (Please note that this map uses a reference system unique to Iceland so the coordinates are NOT latitude and longitude). These maps and tools will help us to better understand Iceland and our ancestral places. If you have not already joined, we hope you will consider becoming a member and will enjoy exploring your family’s places in the IR database. The Icelandic Roots volunteer team adds more Icelandic places information to the database every week. In a future post, we will continue our exploration of Icelandic places with a practical application. 

Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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