• December 12, 2014

An Icelandic Family Farm Finds Roots in Their Traditions

Becky Harlan
Gabriella Garcia-Pardo

It’s a beautiful mid-September day. The sun is not covered by clouds, the biting winds have the mercy to cease once every half hour or so, and I am on the bumpiest ride of my life with a growing herd of me-ing companions. (My fellow tractor rider, Þuríður Kristjana Þorbergsdóttir, informs me that in Iceland sheep “me” instead of “ba.”)

VIDEO: Ride along on the herding through the mountains of northern Iceland

I came to Glaesibaer farm in Sauðárkrókur, a town in northern Iceland, with my co-worker, videographer Gabriella Garcia-Pardo, to help make a video for National Geographic News about Göngur, which is the annual herding of horses and sheep back to the farm after their freerange summer mountain grazing. I, however, had not ridden a horse since I was 14, when I earned the nickname “Poofy Eyes.” Turns out I’m allergic. So the wise people of Glaesibaer offered me an alternative mode of transportation for the herding—the sheep tractor.

Picture of sheep jumping out of a sheep trailer, an animated gif
Sheep exit the trailer (aka, my ride for the herding) after they are brought down from the mountain to the round-up, where they will be sorted and taken back to their farms.

When someone invites you into their tradition they usually brief you on it beforehand, which is good. Otherwise I might have been foolish enough to forego the tractor to attempt the 10-hour horseback ride. But even if you’re given a play-by-play, you can’t know how something feels until you’re in it. And did I ever have a full-sensory experience that day—I acquired bruises from the tractor, tasted celebratory lamb’s leg with pepper sauce, and witnessed more adults wearing sweaters of the same pattern (called Lopapeysa) than I had thought was possible.

Picture of a little boy herding sheep in a pen
A boy helps his family herd the sheep after they are brought down from the mountain

Part of what’s special about the Göngur is that it’s not just one farm bringing home their horses, but the whole community. The atmosphere is celebratory in that unique way where people who know each other well are working together towards a common goal. That said, it also felt like a special day for the family at Glaesibaer—They had three generations present. The grandfather, Freidrick Stefansson, has been riding in Göngur for over half a century.

Picture of a young woman riding a horse on a farm in Iceland, accompanied by a dog
Svenja Linder, a German university student studying biology, helps out with the horses on Glaesibaer farm during breaks from school. She hopes to become a veterinarian one day.

This family’s traditions, I discovered, are rooted in practicality and performed in sync with the rhythms of the environment. From my perspective as an urban American, that’s rare. I wanted to see more, so I decided to come back to Glaesibaer a few weeks later to spend more time witnessing those rhythms.

When I returned, about 20 sheep had just been slaughtered. It’s something they do in the fall. Most of the meat is sold, but some is kept for the family. They use every part of the animal: the skin, the head, the heart. Ragneiheidor Erla Bjornsdottir, Freidrick’s wife, uses the fat to make sausage that she serves to her family (she has 11 grandchildren) through the biting days of winter.

Picture of sheep fat collected in the sink and in plastic bags
Sheep fat collected by Ragneiheidor Erla Bjornsdottir, which she uses to make sausage.
Picture of the heads of sheep after they have been slaughtered
Hardly any part of the slaughtered lambs are wasted. The family even eats the face of the sheep after burning off the hair.

One morning at 7:00 am, Helgi, one of their family friends, knocked on my window, gave me some galoshes, and we took to the nearby lake in a red canoe. The sky felt thicker than normal as it sprinkled us with light rain. Helgi’s actions were so repetitive—the oars dipping into the water, his hands pulling us across the surface as he tugged the submerged net, stopping to cut out a fish caught in the green webbing. Repeated 73 times, it was hypnotic. He does it every day.

Picture of a man rowing a boat through a lake in Iceland
Helgi, a family friend of Glaesibaer farm, fishes in the nearby lake nearly every day, selling his catch.
Picture of fish in the bottom of a rowboat
The yield from a Saturday morning fishing trip, which brought in 73 fish, was enough to overflow the containers that are normally used.

And then there was the predictable chorus of the clinking dishes each day around noon and six, as the family reunited at the table after they’d completed their various tasks. There was always, always coffee served with a pitcher of milk from a neighbor’s farm and quiet conversation that was consistently peppered with laughter.

Picture of a woman looking out the window of her home on the farm
Ragneiheidor Erla Bjornsdottir looks out the window of her home on a blustery day. She has lived on the farm since she was 18-years-old.

When I first arrived in Iceland, Ragneighdor Erla Bjronsdottir, who shares a name with her grandmother and is one of the 11 grandchildren of Glaesibaer, told me that a popular Icelandic poet, Einar Benediktsson, is known for saying that the lack of trees in Iceland doesn’t matter because they make up for it with their knowledge of their family trees. It’s true that Icelanders value their lineage. But beyond that it seems that many Icelanders see themselves as being a part of the landscape.

Picture of a grandmother and her granddaughter pointing to family photographs on the wall
Ragneiheidor Erla Bjornsdottir and her granddaughter who is also named Ragneiheidor Erla Bjornsdottir, point to family photos on the wall as they discuss their history

And so I was reminded, on a little farm in Sauðárkrókur, that by following the lead of the land—by shoeing horses and making sausage—ordinary tasks, it seems, can become traditions that ultimately remind us of our place in a larger and ongoing narrative.

Becky Harlan is an assistant photo editor working for the digital side of National Geographic. See more of her work on her website and follow her on Instagram.

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There are 7 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Geoffrey Hiller
    December 16, 2014

    Beautiful work here and on your site Becky. I appreciate your nuanced way of seeing.

  2. inga
    December 14, 2014

    Hello from Iceland. Horses have microchips these days like most of your pets. The former system of marking is freeze branding. Like branding with a hot iron, but cold. Thus, the white numbers are not “painted” on the horse, but a brand sign. 🙂

    It’s most commonly on their back and will not fade with age – like a “real brand mark” it stays forever.

    The sheep have ear marks. Not just plastic marks (signs) made in their ears when they were lambs, but also farm specific cuttings. Every farm has their own cutting mark.

    please only spread correct information. 🙂 Thanks. 🙂

    • Becky Harlan
      December 14, 2014

      Inga thank you so much for your correction. I misinterpreted the explanation that I heard at the herding. I really appreciate you sharing the correct information! The previous comment has been removed.

  3. Katarzyna
    December 14, 2014

    Very interesting article…And beautiful photos… Especially the photo of the boy who helps with sheeps. And I like the sentence about trees and family… it’s beautilful.Thank you very much!

  4. BONZI
    December 13, 2014


  5. Ellen M. Vogelezang (Palmi Bragason)
    December 13, 2014

    Iceland and it’s traditions are beautiful. Myself I love the wool, the patterns and the woman who create them. What a beauty this family has.
    My compliments

  6. Erik Rueb
    December 13, 2014

    I so want to go there. Take my border collie and ride the horses there.

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