Norse colonisation of Iceland

During the Viking Age (late 8th century-mid 11th century) the Norsemen travelled, traded, and established permanent colonies in many locations throughout mainland Europe and overseas. In their way to Iceland, they encountered the Faroe Islands and used the small archipelago as a resupplying check point for stockpiles of resources that they could use subsequently in their journeys far up north.

However, it must be mentioned that both the Faroe Islands and Iceland were not uninhabited as some might assume, since Irish Catholic monks were present there prior to the arrival of the Norwegian Vikings, being most likely part of a Hiberno-Scottish mission.

The establishment of the Norse colonies in Iceland is documented in two Icelandic sagas which are Landnámabók – meaning ‘The Book of the Settlements’ — and Íslendingabók — meaning ‘The Book of the Icelanders’. The discovery of Iceland by the Norsemen was actually an accident.

A Faroese Viking explorer by the name Nadodd — who initially set sail from Norway to reach the Faroe Islands — and his crew were blown off by the course in the North Atlantic Ocean and incidentally landed on the shores of Iceland. After he had landed, he climbed up a nearby mountain to its peak and scouted the area from there. He didn’t see any smoke rising up, so he came to the conclusion that the land was not inhabited. He also gave it the name ‘Snæland’, meaning ‘snow land’.

He then returned to Norway and told his fellow comrades the story about a new uninhabited land located a long way westward. Even though Naddodd didn’t encounter any Christian hermit monks while he was scouting a certain coastal part of Iceland, this doesn’t mean they weren’t already present there upon his arrival.

Hearing the rumours spread by Naddodd, a Swedish Viking explorer known as Garðarr Svávarsson sailed to Iceland and encircled its coastlines in order to prove that it was an island. After he had finished his voyage, he returned to Norway and told the others that he noticed it being ‘wooden from mountains to the sea’. He changed its name to ‘Garðarshólmi’ after himself.

But the Viking explorer who is mostly credited for establishing the first Norse colony in Iceland is Flóki Vilgerðarson (also known as ‘Raven’ Floki), who went on in a quest for Svávarsson during the 860s. According to the legend, he brought three ravens with him in order to guide his passage to Iceland.

After releasing the third raven, that one guided his way to the land he had heard good news about. Flóki, along with his crew, met with an unfortunate voyage and ran into many problems before and after setting foot on Icelandic soil. He is known to have temporarily settled Iceland for several years before returning back to Norway.

It was him who gave it the name ‘Iceland’, but when he returned to Norway he had little good to report about his journey. However, the surviving members of his crew spread good rumours and encouraged potential convoys to set sail on purpose in order to colonise the area.

'The North Atlantic colonies, late 11th century', an artistic depiction of three Norse settlers by English illustrator Angus McBride. From left to right, woman settler, Icelandic high status warrior, and Greenlandic settler. Image source:

‘The North Atlantic colonies, late 11th century’, an artistic depiction of three Norse settlers by historical illustrator Angus McBride. From left to right, woman settler, Icelandic high status warrior, and Greenlandic settler. Image source:

The subsequent waves of Norse colonists found a land which met with all of their requirements for permanent settlement, given the fact that the coastal parts were favourable for agriculture and other human activities. The centre of the island couldn’t have been inhabited since it comprises either volcanoes, deserts or frozen fields.

Documentation sources and external links:

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