It is without question that Iceland is the land of ice, snow, and beautiful wilderness expanses. But what people do not know about Iceland is that it is also a land where myth and magic intersect with reality. While Iceland is a sophisticated modern country, it is also a place where long-held traditional beliefs about fairies, ghosts, and elves (Huldufólk – “hidden people”) are still accepted and believed. While there are numerous Icelandic tales that are still believed, the strongest beliefs are reserved for the Huldufólk. Even through the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first century, road construction has been diverted – or altered to avoid disturbing the Huldufólk. While such beliefs may seem odd to many people, all one has to do is journey outside of Reykjavik in order to see that Iceland is a place where such things could exist.
Before traveling to Iceland, I had heard some of the stories and myths of the country, and even though I am an avowed curious skeptic about such things, I was interested to see what existed outside of Reykjavik – both natural and supernatural. From the moment we touched down in Iceland, I was not disappointed by the majestic – and large scenery of the country. My initial impression of Iceland was of a country where the mountains stretched to meet the sky, and nothing over the course of my visit changed that opinion. After a brief stopover in Reykjavik, I was excited to hit the road, and see what the real Iceland was.
The first thing that became apparent almost instantly was that there was a forty five minute driving bubble around Reykjavik where Iceland looked like almost any industrialized country – houses, restaurants, businesses – civilization. But, after that point, Iceland was wild. On that first day, as we traveled South and East on the Ring Road, my fiancé and I saw fewer and fewer cars, fewer and fewer houses, and fewer and fewer people. That was fine with us – we were – and are wilderness people, and the scenery present was a feast for our eyes. The absence of near anything human related, however, drove home the message that even today, in 2015, Iceland remains a place that was by and large, still wild.
The other thing that we noticed as we continued along our first day of road-tripping adventures was that at various locations along and off the Ring Road, there were rock houses constructed for the Huldufólk – small structures, mostly, and there were abandoned farmhouses. Many of these were perched in great locations, atop hills, overlooking mountains, but even from a distance, one could see that they had been left empty for quite some time. As we had things to see, and things to do, our experiences with them was limited to quick moments of “look at that!” followed by admittedly somewhat repetitive speculating about what had happened to the inhabitants, or the house itself.
Toward the end of the day, after we had explored the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon, we found ourselves in somewhat of a regrettable position: we had plenty of food (snacks, mostly), but nothing that should have been classified as a proper dinner. Since we knew that the nearest town was Skaftafell, an hour or more to the South of us, we decided to continue up the Ring Road to the North (and East) in the hopes that we would stumble across something that would provide us dinner, or at least find a spot that would allow us to supplement our snack stores. Unfortunately, as we continued on, we did not discover anything, and to make things worse, it was late – past 10 p.m. The odds of finding a location that was open in the remote Eastern area of Iceland at that time were slim to none.
Fortunately, as we were in Iceland, it was still light. It was not bright, but a dim gloaming twilight. As we headed up the Ring Road toward nothing, I told my fiancé that we would turn around at the next spot so we could head back toward Skaftafell in order that we wouldn’t miss our next day’s activities. After a couple of minutes, I saw something on the distant horizon – a structure. I mentally marked the spot as our “turn-around” spot for the day because I was sure it would have a driveway I could pull off the Ring Road onto. As we got closer, I could tell that I was right about the driveway, but wrong about my assumption that the structure was inhabited. Even from a distance, I could tell that the building had no roof, and no windows.
Once I pulled off the road into the “driveway” of the structure, I turned off the car and asked my fiancé if she wanted to take a couple of minutes to explore it with me. I told her that we had agreed earlier in the day that it would be interesting to explore one of these ruins, if we had the opportunity. I also told her that this was a once in a lifetime experience to see something unique that most people would never get to see. She gave me a withering stare and asked if I was bleeping kidding. Now, in all fairness to her, we had been exploring non-stop since 8 a.m. that day, and had seen many once-in-a-lifetime spots, and even worse, had not had a real dinner. After I assured her that I was indeed serious, she indicated to me that I lacked common sense and, that there was no way she would accompany me. And, as I exited the car, she left me with a parting warning, “you’re probably going to get shot or something by doing this!”
After walking down the road for five or so feet, I was certain that I was not going to get shot – the property was clearly abandoned – long abandoned. What I was concerned about was that I was going to lose a boot in the muddy morass the driveway was rapidly becoming. As I carefully picked my way toward the farmhouse, all I could hear was my own breathing, the sucking squelching sound of mud underneath my feet, and the sound of empty, wild Iceland: nothing. Just past the pond on the property, about fifty feet from the house, everything changed. Out of nowhere, a wind blew into my face, filled my ears, and whistled around the absent windows and doors. The effect, from a physical and a paranormal standpoint was chilling. But, since I am an avowed skeptic, or perhaps crazy as my fiancé had implied, I continued on.
The farmhouse was large – a two story structure with an outbuilding that looked like it had been used for both farming – and laundry. All around the structure were farming implements that were slowly sinking into the ground, and were discarded for unknown reasons. I poked my head into the outbuilding first, and spent a couple of minutes listening to the wind sing through the rubble inside as I looked at various items. I then hunched my shoulders, and strode over to the main building. As I walked up to the front door, I could tell that the building had indeed been abandoned for a long time. The doors and windows were not just absent, but completely gone, with no traces of hinges or glass to suggest that they had ever been there. Moreover, the interior of the structure was gone as well – in the absence of a roof, the beams of the interior had collapsed, and the second story had fallen into ruin on the first.
Since I had no desire to step on a nail, or fall through a pile of debris in a ruined structure, I decided to walk around to the rear of the building to see what else I could see. The property was structured so that the building was atop a hill, and the highest portion of the hill was the rear of the house. As I passed a half-sunk tractor, I stopped to look out on the distant gloomy mountains that were far away from me to the North. And that was when I heard it. Perhaps it was the wind running around the hill, perhaps it was my overactive imagination, or perhaps it was something else, but it sounded like voices.
Suddenly, I realized that I wanted to be anywhere else but there, on a hill, next to an abandoned house in Iceland in the middle of nowhere at the dead of the night that was still somewhat light. I sat there listening to the sounds – the not-voices voices for a minute, because I thought it would be embarrassing for me to run from elves or ghosts, or wind in front of my fiancé. After a minute or two of contemplation, I gritted my teeth, and set off back down the road. Once I was back by the pond, the wind, and the not-voices voices stopped. As I walked down the remainder of the driveway, I realized that I had more questions than when I had stopped on the side of the road. Why had the farmhouse been abandoned? When had the farmhouse been abandoned? Where had the people gone? Why had they left many things, if not everything? Why had there been a wind by the house, and not the pond? What would happen to everything – would nature reclaim it all, or would someone return to the house in the future? And most importantly, what were the not-voices voices?
By the time I reached the car, I knew that I would never have answers to any of the questions in my head. What I did know, however, was that like 54% of Iceland, I believed in Huldufólk or ghosts or whatever. I believed, because alone in the desolate open expanses of one of the last wild places on Earth, in the not-dark dark of the night, it seemed beyond plausible that something, anything could be out there speaking to me – or whoever had been there before, and just maybe – that was why they had left.
Postscript: Ghost Stories or Huldufólk stories are all well and good, but historical preservation is better. If you are interested in the abandoned farmhouses of Iceland (haunted or no), there is an ongoing effort to chronicle them that can be read about here, and here.