The Gaelic and the Norwegians were the first inhabitants of Iceland. The history and demography of the Icelanders (as diverse as it is right now) are not complete without the mention of these two origins.
This is obvious from scientific studies on the earliest inhabitants. Such as the genetic studies and blood types including historical evidence dating back to the pre-settlement era.
Iceland’s landscape is one of the few in the world that has remained the same for thousands of years. With treacherous mountains and active volcanos dotting the whole land which has until today. It makes the country a sparsely populated one. But it’s also one of the richest and most developed modern worlds we have presently.
Icelandic Ancestry – Where do Icelanders come from?
The record has it that, Icelanders have about 60% Norse origin while the rest is of the Irish Gaelic. In fact, there is a whole lot of evidence of the Irish influence in Iceland across the country especially in the naming of some places in Iceland. For example, a place like Vestmannaeyjar is translated to mean ‘the Westman Islands’. This is so because the Norse usually refers to the Irish as ‘Westmen’ prior to the settlement period. That’s because Ireland was believed to be positioned in the westernmost part of Europe.
History also has it that, when the Norse raiders were coming back from their Viking expedition, en route to Iceland, they normally stopped by at some Irish settlement. They attacked and plundered these settlements and took slaves of many Irish men and women. Brought them to Iceland and made the women slaves after ‘mixing’ with the Norse Vikings. They would later go on to become mothers of the first generation of what today are trueborn Icelanders.
This Norse and Irish ‘merge’ no doubt explains why the majority of Icelanders have blonde or slightly ginger hair and blue eyes.
The Settlement Era in Iceland
During the period of 874 to 930 AD, there was evidence of an already thriving population of entirely Norwegian men and Irish women in Iceland. Who had formed their distinct families and clans. By 930 AD, there were approximately 39 district assemblies all scattered throughout Iceland and run by 39 clans.
This culminated in the Alþingi assembly – the Icelandic Commonwealth of clans to help ease tension, conflicts and unnecessary rivalry amongst the clans. It was the first Icelandic Commonwealth that was run for decades and which later became the world’s oldest active parliaments of free people. This marks the end of the settlement era and the beginning of a new world.
New World Era
The demographics of Iceland continued to change; a once-remote island with just few people now had clans all over the country who were determined to keep their commonwealth. The New World witnessed new ideologies, politics, and religion – including the Christian missionaries largely from Norway who were bent on upturning the old ways and making the people abandon the old Norse faith.
As the years went by, the people of Iceland gradually started submitting to the influence of the Norwegian and the Danish governments’ political and religious supremacy. Also, they were influenced by technological advancement brought about by these two countries.
Impact of the Whaling Industry
One such advancement was the explosion of the whaling industry in Iceland. This happened during the middle of the second millennium where although the infertile land was a discouragement for some new people to settle in Iceland, however, the natural abundance found in their waters like fishes and whales drew many ships from far and near to the coasts of Iceland.
This new discovery found in Iceland also brought about a new demographic structure – the mixture of sailors with the Icelandic women. Although such incidents were mostly not recorded due to the shame and punishment attached to such merger, nevertheless, such mixture did happen.
The Laki Eruptions
Regardless of the many changes, the Icelandic demographics have witnessed over the years, there is none that has really changed the demographic nature like that which happened during the Laki volcanic eruption of 1783 to 1784. This volcanic eruption brought about the largest mass exodus the country ever witnessed. The volcanic lava, pollution, and subsequent famine eradicated over a quarter of the population and compel another quarter of the population to migrate to North America.
While this was a significant tragedy to the people of Iceland; subsequent years saw some that left to North America returned home with new families and new Icelanders.
The 20th Century
By 1940-1946, a new set of people comprising the British and Americans soldiers also came. And they added to the demographic picture of Iceland. These well-dressed and polite soldiers became a darling amongst the Icelandic women. Compared to their men whom they perceived as being conservative, unruly, and aggressive. This was even more so when the Americans completely replaced the British soldiers in 1941.
The Second World War saw Reykjavik became the center of every activity in Iceland. And this was the place the American soldiers were stationed. For the Icelandic women there was a huge movement to the city. As there were a great many opportunities of employment due to the American presence; especially for young Icelandic ladies who are not as conservative as their elders.
After the war, the country signed an agreement with the US. Where visitors would have a permanent base in Iceland. During the post-war period when Iceland was fully independent of Denmark. We saw more of the American presence who had already had families with the Icelandic women.
Since 1944 after the independence of Iceland, it is safe to say that it hasn’t just been the Norwegian, the Danish, Germans, or the Americans that have helped shaped who the traditional Icelanders were. With the massive technological development (apart from fishing and agriculture) which culminated into Iceland’s industrial development. Leading to more research centers and universities. Iceland became short of people to fill in the gap in the work market.
The Impact of Immigration
Migrating to Iceland became much easier from Europe when the country joined the European Economic Association (EEA) in 1994 and also when they signed the Schengen agreement in 1995.
The opening of Icelandic borders to new immigrants saw the influx of newcomers from Lithuania, Poland, Britain, Denmark, and Germany taking up residence in Iceland. In fact, these newcomers were not only from Europe, but from the Philippines but also from Thailand as well as many from North America. Many from Asia were thronging into Iceland to partake in the economic growth of the country.
By 2006, when the US finally decided to close down its military base in Keflavík, Iceland, the country’s demography had changed from a homogeneous population into a diverse group of people with roots from almost every continent.
Iceland’s Current Demographics
At present, in Iceland, 6% of the populations are foreign-born, while about 10% are believed to be from first or second-generation immigrants. And it is projected that by 2030, the first-generation immigrants in Iceland should account to about 15% of the population. Iceland has thus come a long way from its homogeneous bloodline into a more diversified multi-racial society from across the continent.
Therefore, if the question of ‘where do Icelanders come from’ arises again, the simple truth is that they come from everywhere. However, we must not forget that the founding fathers and the oldest generations are the Norse and the Gælic and just like what is happening all over the world, national and ethnic lines are gradually giving ways to a new and modern heterogeneous society in Iceland.
Area and Population Density in Iceland
In all, Iceland has a land area of 103,001 square kilometers (39,770 square miles) and comes in at 108th with the largest landmass in the world. However, it still remains one of the sparsely populated areas due to its harsh geographical landscape. Iceland population density is put at 3 people per kilometer making it the least populated in all of the European countries.
There are many factors that affected the population of Iceland – the early days saw the volcanic eruption, over 35 famines recorded from the period of 1500 to 1804. The outbreak of plague including the harsh winter were some drawbacks that affected the population growth.
The first census conducted in Iceland shows a population of more than 50,000 in 1703 and by 1783-1784 the Laki volcanic eruption declined the population to 40,000. By 1850 when the living condition improves once again saw an increase to 60,000 and by 2008 the population had hit 320,000 people.
Immigration and Re-migration in Iceland
Most of the increase that happened in Iceland came from people who are settling here. The first quarter saw a total of 970 children born and 600 people die. Thanks to foreign nationals, the net migration saw a positive movement of 1,740 people to Iceland, while the net migration of Icelandic citizenship changed by 20 people.
During the first quarter also, a total of 560 Icelandic citizens immigrated to Nordic countries. 370 moved to Denmark, Sweden or Norway. Another 400 moved to other Nordic countries.
The first quarter also witnessed large migration from countries like Poland. Accounting to 770, from the 2,530 foreign nationals who came to Iceland. Lithuania followed second with 320 nationals.
The median age in Iceland is put at 36.5 years of age with a life expectancy of 83.1 years making it a fairly young population for a developed country. The fertility rate in Iceland is quite rare compared to other European nations – here the fertility rate is above 2.1 children born per woman.
The Icelandic ethnic composition presently is 93%, while the largest ethnic minorities living in Iceland today are the Poles, accounting for about 3% of the total Icelandic population. This is about 8,000 Polish people residing in Iceland and having about 75% of the total workforce in Fjarðabyggð.
Also, Iceland has about 88,000 people of Icelandic descent living in Canada and 40,000 living in the United States.
Religion in Iceland
The church in Iceland is and has always been part of the people here. Even before the 20th century when most Icelanders were farmers and fishermen. The church religious customs of prayer and devotion were also part of their daily life.
The fact that is common and cannot be disputed was that the first sets of inhabitants on Icelandic soil were the Irish hermits. They were Christians trying to find refuge in the remote shores of Iceland to practice their faith.
As Christianity begins to thrive in Iceland, missionary priests from England, Germany, and Eastern Europe where conspicuously noticed among the people. Despite the unrest and persecution that marks the Christian era and its continuity in Iceland, Roman Catholicism still held sway for close to five centuries during the Iceland settlement era.
In 1540, the Lutheran Reformation was founded in Iceland and its doctrine was forcefully pushed on the Icelandic people by the Danish crown. The king of Denmark, in a move to fully establish its authority as the supreme head of the church. Had the Roman Catholic monasteries dissolves and all its episcopal properties confiscated under his authority. In fact, in an effort to show his authority and make the people accept the Lutheran Reformation. The king went as far as to slay the Bishop and his sons who were by then the last clergy officials presiding over the affair of the Roman Catholic Church at Hólar in 1550.
Although the Icelandic constitution of 1874 guarantees religious freedom for all Icelandic people, the constitution also makes provision for the Evangelical Lutheran Church to become a national church and as such should be protected and supported by the State. This constitutional provision still remains unchanged even in the 1944 Republic of Iceland constitution.
The beginning of the 20th century also witnessed the emergence of two Lutheran free churches. Which were based on the same confession just like the national church but with different management that is structured to be more financially independent. Also, during the early decades of the 20th century, Seventh Day Adventist and Pentecostal missions were established and flourishing in Iceland.
Although Iceland is known to be a Christian country, since the 1970’s the popularity of religious activities has greatly declined with a very few percentages of the country’s population still attending church services except for ceremonial days like Christmas, a relative’s funeral or weddings. Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland has about 70% of the population while 90% belongs to Christian churches.
Statistics show that nine out of every ten children in Iceland are baptized during their first 12 months, 85% of the populace get married in the church while funerals take about 99% church attendance. While special events organized by the churches and church festival still draws lots of large crowds, however, Sunday morning services have witnessed much lower turnout.
Most Populated Areas In Iceland
Reykjavík is the capital and the largest city in Iceland and is an official trading town and was believed to have been founded in 874 AD. Ingólfur Arnarson was the first to arrive in this town but it was not until the 19th century that the town started growing rapidly and subsequently turned into a town. Population: 130,345.
This town is also within the capital city (southwest region) and has an area landmass of 31 square miles with an estimated population of about 33,205 and was founded in 1948. The town is mostly residential with just a few commercial and industrial companies in operation.
Also located in the capital region (southwest coast) with an area of 55 square miles and an estimated population of 28,200 making it the third-largest town in Iceland. This town is home to many local industries.
This city is located in the Northeast territory. With a land area of 53 square miles and a population of 18,191 people. Akureyri got its municipal charter as a seaport and a fishing center in 1786 and after the Second World War has witnessed mass rural to urban migration.
This is the fifth-largest municipality in Iceland and is located in the southern peninsula. It was the merger of three smaller towns that form Reykjanesbær they are Keflavik, Njarovik, and Hafnir. It has an area landmass of 56 square miles and a population of 15,379 people.
Other Cities In Iceland
This is also one city inside the capital and is also located in the southwest region. The town was first inhabited in the 9th century but got its municipal charter in 1878. It has a population of 14,453 and a land area of 29 square miles.
Also located in the southwest region and has a population of 9,075 with a land area of 71 square miles.
This is a town in Iceland and has an area landmass of 61 square miles and a population of 7,889.
This port town is located in the Northwest region of Iceland; it got its municipal charted in 1942 with an area of 3.5 square miles plus a population of 7,000 people.
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