Iceland was more or less settled from 874-930. In many cases, early settlers appear to have chosen good sites for their farms as many are still inhabited. In other cases, settlers often gradually learned that the chosen site was not ideal.
Sometimes the quality of the soil was poor or the buildings stood unprotected so that they faced bitterly cold north winds.
In such cases, farmers often moved, not necessarily abandoning the disrict but onto a better location. Early writers insist that Iceland was treed so the building material obviously was wood, rock and sod. As the woods gradually disapeared, buildings more and more were made of rocks and sod.
This explains why Iceland, despite it’s long history has no buildings remaining, dating back that far in history. It is amazing that the oldest buildings one finds in the country are 18th century constructions. The National Museum has done a remarkable job in preserving some of those old homes, for instance Glaumbær in Skagafjörður and Burstafell in Vopnafjörður.
Burstafell is situated in Vopnafjörður, a little ways out of town. The oldest part still standing dates back to 1770. It was in the hands of the same family since 1532 when Árni Brandsson bought the property. His wife was Úlfheiður Þorsteinsdóttir. Their gravestone is now on display at the National Museum in Reykjavík. The last person living at Burstafell vacated the house in 1966. In the first Icelandic novel, Piltur og Stúlka, (first printed in 1850) writer Jón Thoroddsen sets events at Burstafell. One special folktale takes place here:
The Magistrate’s Wife at Burstafell
There once lived at Burstafell in Vopnafjörður a rich county magistrate of a good family. He was married and maintained a generous household.
It was customary at Burstafell during the winter that people take a nap in the early evening before the lamps were lit in the baðstofa; (Baðstofa was the main room in the old sod house. It really was the living, dining, and bedroom.) It was up to the magistrate’s wife how long the nap would be.
She would light the lamps herself and awaken the people. One evening it happened that the magistrate’s wife didn’t wake up at her usual time, and the working people got up by themselves and kindled the lights.
The magistrate didn’t want to have her awakened; he said she was dreaming and should be allowed to enjoy it. It was far into the evening when she finally woke up, heaving a weary sigh, and told her dream. She had felt, she said, that a man came to her and asked her to get up and go with him.
She did as he asked, and he took her some distance from the farm to a large boulder that she recognized to be in the Burstafell land. The man walked three times clockwise around the boulder, at which time it appeared to her that it turned into a small but elaborate house. He then led the magistrate’s wife into the house, which was beautifully furnished.
There she saw a woman in the throes of labor and having great difficulty. Also present in the house was an old woman but no other people. The man now explained his visit to the magistrates’s wife. He had come to ask her to save the woman in childbed, who was his wife. She would die, he said, unless she had human help.
The magistrate’s wife went over to the would-be mother and said, “The Lord Jesus help you.’’ These words worked such change that the woman soon delivered to the great joy of everyone. The magistrate’s wife noticed, however, that after she mentioned the name of Jesus, the old woman who was also there dragged herself off her bed and carefully swept the whole house. The visitor had the feeling that the old one considered the dwelling soiled by the utterance of that name.
The baby now had to be washed, and the magistrate’s wife was asked to do that. The mother then gave her a jar filled with ointment, with which she asked that the baby’s eyes be daubed during the bath. The magistrate’s wife, believing the ointment must be something salubrious, did so.
It also occurred to her that she ought to smear some in her own eyes but was afraid to do so in view of the others. She did manage, however, to touch her right eye very quickly with her fingertip unseen. The bathing was soon finished, and the magistrate’s wife prepared to return home.
As she departed, the mother gave her a most exquisite cloth; it was the finest velvet and all embroidered with gold. The man escorted the magistrate’s wife back outside and walked three times counterclockwise around the house, whereby it once again turned into a boulder. He then accompanied her home to Burstafell, where he took his leave of her.
The magistrate’s wife now produced the cloth from her pillow and showed them all the proof of her story. No one had ever seen anything of the kind, and people say the cloth is still used as an altar cloth in the parish church to which Burstafell belongs.
As for the magistrate’s wife, she felt a change in her right eye, which she had daubed with the ointment, for she was now able to see everything that happened in the earth as well as on it. Close to Burstafell, there are said to be large rock formations and high cliffs. The magistrate’s wife saw that all that was quite different from what it appeared to be.
It was all farms, houses, and large villages, filled with people who behaved just like anybody else mowing,raking, and cultivating fields and meadows. They had cattle, sheep, and horses, all of which grazed with other livestock.And the people similarily mixed with other people, working at whatever they pleased. But no one saw this except the magistrate’s wife, and she noticed that these people used much more practical work methods and were much keener in forcasting weather than ordinary people.
They often tedded their hay even when the weather wasn’t dry, and sometimes they did not, although there was strong sunshine and breeze. She also noticed that whenever they tedded, dry weather followed but rain if they didn’t. Other kinds of work adhered to a similar pattern.
The magistrate’s wife tried to learn from their example and methods and felt it always worked out for her benefit. Some time now passed without event. Then one day the magistrate’s wife went to town, and when she stepped into the store she saw the woman she had once helped in childbirth behind the counter.
She had gathered up and held in her arms a load of selected dried goods – some of the best the merchant had on his shelves. The magistrate’s wife realized that no one other than she was aware of the woman’s presence, so she walked over to the counter and said in her friendliest tone of voice, “Well, finally we see each other again.’’
The elf woman turned around, looking quite angry, and without a word spat in the right eye of the magistrate’s wife. With that, she lost sight of the elf woman and never saw her again. Nor could she ever after that see anything more than she had before the ointment in her eye.
From Icelandic Folk And Fairy Tales, Published in Reykjavík in 1987