by Christal (Oliver) Speer IR# 637679
On a beautiful sunny day in June 2004, my family and I headed in our rented van to the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. This included my husband, daughter, son, and daughter-in-law. I had spent many happy hours planning this day's excursion and plotted on a map the various farmsteads where my Icelandic grandfather and his ancestors had lived.
The planning would have been easier if Icelandic Roots had been available in 2004, but I was able to find on a good map each farmstead to visit, plus various sites that would interest family members. On this day, we would be seeing where my grandfather Olafur Kristjan Olafsson IR# 574372 (also known as Christian Oliver), his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived.
Arriving at the eastern end, the first farm we visited was Bruarhraun. Two young lambs came bounding up to greet me as I stepped out of the van, jumping up on me like energetic puppies. Soon, the farm wife approached with two lamb-size “baby bottles” in her hands and the hungry lambs quickly latched onto the bottles, furiously wagging their little tails.
We then drove down a long gravel lane to the farm Krossholt where lush green fields were dotted with hay bales covered in white plastic. Across the fields could be seen the mountains behind Bruarhraun, where we had just visited.
Driving along the peninsula's southern coast, we could see the beautifully shaped volcanic crater called Eldborg off to the left. Just a few miles after Eldborg, a road to the right led to Gerduberg, a massive wall of basalt columns about 1/3 mile long, with some over 40 feet tall. They were formed from flowing lava, cooled and solidified into hundreds of hexagon columns.
There are three farms named Grof on the peninsula, but the first one was where my grandfather was born. Of course, the old turf house was gone, but looking to the west, we could see a beautiful view of Snaefellsjokull, the glacier at the western tip of the peninsula. Snaefellsjokull means “snow mountain glacier.”
The well-run farm Faskrudarbakki also has a church and cemetery on the property. The farm wife was pleased we stopped by and wanted to know more about my extended family, who once lived at this farm.
She had the keys to the church and proudly explained that not many churches had such beautiful stained-glass windows.
Perhaps the day's highlight was visiting the farm Straumfjardartunga at the end of another long gravel lane and near Faxafloi bay (pronounced Strum-far-thuh-tune-ga). It was here that my grandfather last lived with his parents. When Christian was ten years old, his father died, and four years later, his mother died in 1892, leaving five children ages 2 to 15 as orphans. The children then went to live on various nearby farms, never living together again but able to see each other at times. Happily, by 1904 the last of the five siblings had emigrated and joined the others already living in Duluth, Minnesota, USA.
The old turf house was gone and a lovely modern house stood on the farm. The owner’s son (who lived in Reykjavik) happened to be at the home that day and warmly greeted us. He told us that he remembered when my aunt visited the farm in 1971. He explained that the swift-flowing river that runs through the farm and out to the bay is perfect for salmon fishing. Here’s a photo of me at the sign with daughter Lisa and son Eric Speer and a view of the river.
Further along, the peninsula’s southern coast is Ytri-Tunga, where seals like to sun themselves on the rocks, so we stopped. But the seals decided not to show up for us that day. There were many other farms of interest to us; some we visited, but others were in ruins and accessible only by hiking long distances. One of the famous churches on the peninsula is the church at Budir. We did not have time to stop there, but in 2015, my cousin and his bride flew to Iceland to be married in this church.
Suddenly, I spotted a recently shorn ram with impressive curling horns close by the road. I had been eager to take a photo of a ram the whole trip, but thus far, any ram I had seen had been too far away. Of course, ewes and their lambs could be easily seen everywhere. Why did I want a close-up photo of a ram? Because one way my grandfather had earned money to emigrate was to take the horns of slaughtered rams and polish them to a high sheen before selling them.
As we began going around the tip of Snaefellsnes (which means snow mountain peninsula), we came to the village of Hellnar. The church was open and we had a look inside, then read some of the inscriptions on the graves in the cemetery. Looking out to the ocean, we could just make out three whales swimming in a large circle in the distance.
A little further along the road was a famous historic site called Laugarbakki. This was the childhood home of Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir IR# 133852, a world traveler and the mother of Snorri, the first European child born in North America. She is of particular interest because all modern-day Icelanders, including those of us living in Canada and the United States, can trace their ancestry back to her. There is a small monument to her and Snorri by the ocean. (A duplicate memorial is at the turf house museum at Glaumbaer in northern Iceland, where she later lived.)
Have you tried the Relationship Calculator on the Icelandic Roots website to see exactly how you are related to her? She is my 24th great-grandmother.
As we rounded the tip, the road traveled along some desolate ground with ancient lava flows. If I had only known then what I have since learned from Icelandic Roots, we were also passing right through the abandoned parish of Einarslon that had once been a thriving parish with 12 farms. My great-grandfather had been born on one of those farms and his brother had lived for many years on the farm Malarrif where a lighthouse now stands. Further along, the road is a turn-off to the volcanic crater Saxholl.
We pushed on to Olafsvik on the northern coast to get some supper and then traveled further east to what once had been a fishing village called Brimilsvellir. The three farms where my ancestors had once lived are now gone and all that is left of Brimilsvellir is a well-kept horse farm and a beautiful church with the Breidafjordur bay beyond. Across that bay are the Westfjords. This present-day church is a far cry from the old turf church that my ancestors attended when they lived here for a few years. I have a letter written by my great-grandfather complaining about the poor condition of the church and its leaking roof.
With the sun never quite setting at night, sightseeing could last until bedtime. Even so, it was time to head back to the southern coast, where we planned to spend the night. The Snaefellsnes peninsula has a rugged chain of mountains down through the center and the evening hours were spent traveling a gravel “highway” up and over a mountain pass. The peninsula has much to offer—a glacier, a chain of mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, basalt cliffs, volcanic craters, beautiful beaches, abundant birdlife, and much more.
We couldn’t begin to see it all in one day, and I can’t explain everything that we managed to see in this short article. But now, 18 years later, I can still remember what a special place Snaefellsnes is.
While we were in Reykjavik one day, we visited the City Hall and a room with a very large relief map of Iceland. I took the following photo showing Snaefellsnes since it gives a good idea about the terrain. North is to the top in the image and west is to the left.
After a good night’s sleep, our next day’s journey took us to northern Iceland. A couple of days later, we were at the village of Hofsos and the Icelandic Emigration Center. We arrived in time for the opening celebration of a new exhibit called “Silent Flashes.” This is a photographic exhibit with 50 large panels situated around a large room. Each panel has several photos of emigrants and their families, all taken by Icelandic photographers.
My grandfather was one of those photographers with several portraits on display. Two photos are shown below: one of his two daughters and one of his wife and baby son Vernon (my father) in a Madonna pose. I’m so pleased that Christian Oliver was honored by having some of his work included in this exhibit.