The 1000 year history of Viðey Island

The Monastery

Viðey was first inhabited soon after the sett­lement of Ice­land around 900 AD. In 1225, a mona­stery was founded on the island by Þorvaldur Gissurarson, with the ass­ist­ance of scholar and chieftain Snorri Sturluson. Being the first mona­stery in the sout­hern quarter of the country, it soon grew wealthy. At its zenith, it was the second richest mona­stery in Iceland, own­ing up to 116 estates.

In 1539 the mona­stery came to a dramatic end when it was rai­ded by Danish soldiers, after the Reformation was imposed on the Icelandic church.

For the next two cent­uries Viðey belonged to the royal estate of Bessastaðir. A home for pau­p­ers was loca­ted on the island.

Skúli Magnússon

Skúli Magnússon was the first Icelander to become Treasurer, and for half a cent­ury he was one of the most powerful men in the coun­try. He had Viðeyjarstofa (Viðey House) built as his official resi­dence; it was completed in 1755.

But Skúli did not only make his mark on Viðey. He also founded the first industrial enterprise in Ice­land, the Innréttingar wool­len works­hops, which led to the beg­inn­ing of the urban develop­ment of Reykjavík. Hence, he is known as the Father of Reykjavík.

Skúli died on Viðey island in 1794 and was buried bene­ath the altar of the church that he had built there 20 years before.

The Stephensen family

In 1794 Ólafur Stephensen, the first Icelander to be Governor of Iceland moved to Viðey, where he lived until his death in 1812. He was renow­ned for his hospitality. His son Magnús Stephensen, presi­dent of the High Court, took over the estate at his death, and in 1817 he bought the island from the royal estate. He instal­led a print­ing press on the island, which functi­o­ned from 1819–44. Magnús died in 1833, and the island remained in the Stephensen family until the end of the 19th century.

The 20th cent­ury

In 1901, Eggert Briem and his wife Katrín Pétursdóttur started large-scale farm­ing on Viðey. They built a cattle-shed hous­ing 48 cows and sold about 200,000 litres of milk per year to the inhabitants of Reykjavík.

In 1907, Pétur J. Thorsteinsson and Thor Jensen founded the P. J. Thorsteinsson & Co. fis­hing comp­any, with a share capital of a million krónur, a huge amount at the time. Hence it was always known as Milljónafélagið (the Million Corporation). It was loca­ted at the eastern end of the island, where a village of houses and fish process­ing facilities developed, adjacent to the best har­bour facilities on Faxa­flói Bay. At that time Reykjavík had no proper harbour.

The Million Corp. went out of bus­iness in 1914, but fishprocess­ing still cont­inued. In 1924, the Kári comp­any made the island its fis­hing headquart­ers, and the pop­ulation of the village rose to a high point of 138 in 1930. A year later, the fis­hing comp­any fai­led, after which the island­ers began to move away. By 1943, the village was uninhabited.

Farming cont­inued on Viðey until the 1950s, after which the island was unin­habited.

By 1968, when the ownership of Viðey House and the church passed to the National Museum of Iceland, the build­ings had become sev­erely dilapi­da­ted. In 1986, the Icelandic state presented the build­ings to the City of Reykjavík. Renovation work on the build­ings was completed in 1988.