Murder, Trolls, and Seals on Vatnsnes Peninsula


Although Iceland is the size of Kentucky, its shoreline is the same distance traveling by car from San Francisco to New York City via Interstate 40. The reason for this is the multitude of peninsulas that Iceland has. While I do not know exactly how many peninsulas Iceland has; I can tell you that even its largest peninsulas have peninsulas! Over the course of the next year, I will be visiting some of these peninsulas–some smaller than others. This past weekend, I visited a nearby peninsula known as Vatnsnes, which happens to be two peninsulas over from where I live. After two weeks of cloudiness in the region, we were lucky to spot the occasional blue sky that, mixed with rainbows and eventually the setting sun, made for an excellent backdrop in my pictures. My traveling partners were Louise, a Master’s student at Hólar University and her good friend, Tess, visiting from the University of Guelph in Canada. Our first stop was a rock pillar along the lake, Vesturhópsvatn. The pillar near the shore translates to say that the first laws of Iceland were registered here in 1117-1118 when Iceland was still a commonwealth. In this area, sheep and horses are roaming freely, so despite the 80 km/h speed limit on the rural gravel roads, the scenery was worth slowing down for.


Most animals will look at you and wander off, escaping the tourist’s pet but some are happy to jump in and greet you!

Hvítserkur, the Troll of Vatnsnes

As we continued on the gravel road, we reached Hvítserkur–a 50-foot monolith that is a petrified troll, who, annoyed by the bells of a nearby monastery-was on his way to destroy it, when he was caught by the sun’s rays which petrified him, forever trapped. Imagine what he thinks of all these tourists taking pictures (trolls are actually very private). It has also been said that the large rock is a volcanic plug whose volcano has been eroded away over time, but I like the first story better. The word Hvítserkur translates to “white shirt” (hvít=white, serkur=shirt), and is so named because of the bird droppings that continuously cover it. To prevent the structure from toppling over, it has been secured at its base with concrete. However, I enjoyed taking pictures from a safe distance. We were lucky, having arrived in the late afternoon; it was low tide and we could view the rock from the beach below. If you visit Hvítserkur, it is not visible from the road, but be on the lookout for a small parking lot on the right. It is advised to check the tide schedule before visiting as at high tide; it is only viewable from a platform above the beach. At low tide, you can walk down from the parking lot and take a stroll along the black volcanic sands, and you might even see a seal or two basking on the sand in the distance.



Illugastaðir was a great stop for spotting basking and swimming seals. From the parking lot, there is peaceful walk along grassy knolls with grazing sheep, flanked by ocean on the other side. On clear days, towards the west, you can see the Westfjords, the northwest section of Iceland with many peninsulas. After a ½ mile walk, there is a viewing hut equipped with binoculars to view the seals just across the water or a perfect place to catch the sunset. But this area is famous for more than its seals; it is the site of a famous story of torrid affairs, betrayal, and murder. I heard about this story last year when someone recommended the book Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. It is a book of historically based fiction that the author learned of while visiting Iceland. The story is about the life and death of Agnes Magnusdóttir who, along with a housemaid, and a farmhand, murdered a well-known resident, Natan Ketilsson who owned the farm at Illugastaðir. Ketilsson was known for his numerous affairs, which eventually led to his demise. On March 13, 1828, Ketilsson along with his farmhand, a convict named Pétur Jónsson, were stabbed to death by the trio. After the stabbing, Agnes and the housemaid burned the house down to remove the evidence of their violent act. Historical records indicate that Agnes was an intelligent woman who has been portrayed over the years as a murderous witch. Kent beautifully tells the story from Agnes’ viewpoint with the rugged and unforgiving landscape of Iceland in the background. Agnes represents the last execution that occurred in Iceland.


The current guesthouse at Illugastaðir and walking trail.


The west side of the peninsula is home to Selasetur Íslands, (the Icelandic Seal Center). Inside is a small museum with helpful information about the seals, birds, and other wildlife in the area. The peninsula is home to three seal-viewing locations including Svalbarð, Illugastaðir, and Hvítserkur. Like Hvítserkur. The best time is low tide when seals are more likely to be basking on rocks and sand. The website will list any closures due to bird nesting or other reasons.



The last stop was Hvammstangi, an Icelandic village on the southwest side of the peninsula. It was an excellent place to stop to fuel the car and ourselves after a long day of sightseeing. I highly recommend the pizza at the Okran gas station. It was the best and cheapest meal I have had in Iceland!

Þakka þér fyrir að lesa! (Thank you for reading)



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