The 1000 year history of Viðey Island
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 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.