The 1970s in Iceland was a decade characterised by volcanic eruptions, Cod Wars and the fight for equal rights. Jump back in time with our collection of historical video footage and photographs from Iceland during the 1970s, as part of our Forgotten Iceland series.
While no doubt grim in parts, there is no escaping that the seventies was one of the most fascinating decades in Icelandic history.
See US journalist Dan Rather’s (somewhat inaccurate) news report of the 1970s in Iceland below.
What Was Life Like in Iceland During the 1970s?
The seventies was hardly all sunshine and rainbows, not just for Icelanders but the rest of the world also. One of the major issues facing Icelandic society at the time was housing and accommodation; the population boom of the 1960s meant that many young people left the downtown area to settle in cheaper suburban homes, a consequence of high inflation rates.
See Also: Reykjavik Funky History Walk
These monolithic, brutalist apartment buildings rose with surprising speed, rapidly changing the landscape of Iceland’s capital. At the same time, money was becoming readily available to this younger generation, forcing them to accept the new status quo of their daily lives. Life in the seventies, after all, was a far cry from the farming and fishing of decades gone by.
This exodus to the suburbs left much of the city’s historic buildings falling into disrepair. At this time, there was no building preservation society to protect them and so Reykjavik began to resemble the peeling, crusted fishing village that lay dormant beneath its uneasy modernisation.
Regardless, the Icelandic people went about their lives as always, their stoic optimism keeping them afloat through years of political and cultural confusion. Often, the population would make a point of calling out the country’s news media for only focusing on the darker facets of life. Such is the Icelandic character, but ten years would come to shape it further still, progressing ever closer to what we know and love about Iceland today.
Entertainment and Culture
Iceland in the seventies was still coming to grips with its newfound position in the modern world; all in all, the government was nationalist and fearful of outside influence, holding onto traditions and known ways of life while adapting to growing power and influence.
See Also: Culture Tours in Iceland
While yes, music was an ever-growing passion among Icelanders, visual media was left wanting; TV (which only played around 3 hours a day) was banned on Thursdays and throughout July (for farm duty) to both avoid foreign influence and to promote valued time within families. This was also due to a lack of domestic programming.
Cinema was no better off.
Take the following example: famed German director, Werner Herzog, fresh from shooting Fitzcarraldo in Peru, visited Reykjavik in 1979. He was asked at a press conference whether he ever believed that there would be a domestic film industry in Iceland, to which he replied he didn’t, citing that pain was necessary for great cinema.
At that point, a young Icelander by the name of Friðrik ﬁór Friðriksson stood up and shouted: “We have pain on the brain, Mr Herzog!” Friðrik Þór Friðriksson would go on to be one of Iceland’s most successful film directors.
See Also: The Story of Icelandic Cinema
Of course, the decade was not without its cultural highpoints. Led Zeppelin would make an appearance, playing the opening concert of their 1970 tour of Iceland, Bath and Germany at Laugardalshöll arena. Foreign bands visiting Iceland was a rarity at the time and caused something of a frenzy amongst the island’s youth.
By all accounts, the Icelanders made for a hell of a crowd, unlike anything that Led Zeppelin had seen up until that point. The experience made such a lasting impression on the band that frontman Robert Plant and guitarist, Jimmy Page, wrote ‘Immigrant Song’ for their next album, Led Zeppelin III.
The famous lines “We come from the land of the ice and snow, with the Midnight Sun where the hot springs blow” have gone on to become iconic in rock n’ roll history.
Politically, Iceland was still very much influenced by global affairs, though routinely made itself a hindrance to both its allies and enemies, strengthening its reputation as a nuisance to world bodies. With that being said, Iceland joined the European Free Trade Association in 1970, building ties with the outside world and continuing to develop their economy.
When it comes to matters of war and peace, Iceland was still very much at a crossroads, still suffering a hangover from a world war fought only thirty years previously.
Now entangled, if only partially, in a new conflict, the Soviet satellite tracking ship Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was routinely seen drifting through Faxaflói Bay. This served as a constant reminder of the Cold War, as well as Iceland’s precarious place—both geographically and ideologically—between two of the world’s most dangerous superpowers.
Yet again, it would be the relationship between Iceland and one if its closest neighbours, Britain, that would become the most contentious.
The Cod Wars
The First Cod War occurred from 1958 to 1961, a consequence of Britain’s refusal to accept an Icelandic expansion of their national fishing grounds.
Due to both UN and US pressure, Britain was forced to back down, leaving Iceland with their new 12 nautical mile wide fishery zone. Naturally, the 1970s proved that the first Cod War was only the very beginning of the dispute, and would be the most peaceful clash out of the entire conflict.
The Second Cod War
In September 1972, the Icelandic government extended its fishing zone to 50 nautical miles, despite opposition from all Western European states and members of the Warsaw Pact. Naturally, Britain opposed the Icelandic extension most of all, fearing it would diminish British fishing quotas and set a dangerous precedent for other nations.
Interestingly enough, many African states supported the extension after the Icelandic prime minister argued that their cause was part of a more significant battle against the forces of imperialism. Iceland famously has no standing army, nor an air force or navy.
On the 1st September, Icelandic trawlers began fishing in the new zone alongside British and West German fishing vessels. Within a few days, the Icelandic Coast Guard started to use net cutters on non-Icelandic ships, heightening tensions. On the 5th, an unmarked ship refused to follow Icelandic orders to leave the zone, instead choosing to play Rule Britannia loudly over the ship radio.
See Also: Fishing in Iceland
The disagreement became further complicated in January 1973 after the Icelandic trawlers’ net-cutting became such a hindrance to British ship that they could no longer sail without the protection of the Royal Navy.
British trawlers returned in May accompanied by armed frigates and Hawker Jets, the latter of which notified vessels below as to the Icelanders’ movements.
Military inclusion in the conflict only angered the Icelanders further. According to the Frederick Irving, US ambassador to Iceland at that time, the parliamentarian Ólafur Jóhannesson made demands that American jets bomb the British frigates. That same month, major protests occurred in Reykjavik, with all of the windows of the British embassy being smashed.
The 29th August saw the conflict’s first casualty when Icelandic engineer, Halldór Hallfreðsson, was electrocuted after water flooded the welding station at which he was working.
As it had done in the 1960s, Iceland wagered that threatening to leave NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) would be enough to force a British retreat from the dispute. Secretary-General of NATO, Joseph Luns, talked with Icelandic ministers in September 1973 to negotiate a withdrawal of British trawlers.
An agreement would be signed in November stipulating that Britain would be allowed to fish within limited areas of the 50-mile zone. This was, no doubt, a loss for the British. Leaving the fishery zone, their trawlers played Willie Nelson’s The Party’s Over over their ship radios.
However, the party had merely paused. The agreement expired in 1975, at which the conflict raised its ugly head once again.
The Third Cod War
The Third Cod War would be the hardest fought out of the entire conflict, with numerous incidents of net cutting and ramming between the Icelandic Coast Guard and British ships and frigates. The third conflict began in 1975 after Iceland announced it would be extending its fishery zone to 200 nautical miles.
Some British MPs considered Iceland’s rebelliousness a more profound threat to the Western Alliance than the Middle East. While it was true that Icelandic fishing boats deliberately attempting to get rammed by British boats to gain international sympathy, Iceland posed little threat save to UK fishing communities such as Hull and Grimsby.
Once again, Iceland used its position within NATO as leverage for a victory, even going as far as to promise they would no longer allow American serviceman in the country should the conflict continue.
Once the Icelandic government threatened to close the NATO bases in Iceland—an important strategic location between Europe and North America—the British complied, leaving only 24 trawlers within the contested fishery zone.
Today, Iceland is considered the victor of the Cod Wars, a real-time story of David and Goliath that saw a small fishing nation face off against the might of the Royal Navy and win. The island still maintains a 200 nautical mile fishing zone today, covering 700,000 square miles of territory.
The Mysterious Case of Gudmundur and Geirfinnur
One of the most infamous disappearance cases happened in 1974 when Guðmundur and Geirfinnur—two unrelated men—disappeared without a trace within ten months of another.
Although disappearances in Iceland do happen—given the notorious weather and expansive wilderness—a murder enquiry was opened after police failed to find either body. The case attracted significant media attention, putting the Icelandic Police under enormous public scrutiny to solve the murders.
See Also: The History of Iceland
This pressure amounted to six signed confessions. The suspects—Sævar Ciesielski, Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson, Kristján Viðar Viðarsson, Albert Klahn Skaftason, Guðjón Skarphéðinsson and Erla Bolladóttir—all had no memory of committing the crime, however.
The notion that these confessions were coerced did not take long to emerge; think, Iceland’s version of Making A Murderer.
The suspects had been kept in isolation during their police interviews with little to no communication with their lawyers, as well as been fed drugs such as Mogadon, diazepam and chlorpromazine.
Aside from that, the suspects had experienced forced sleep deprivation and water torture. At the time, the Icelandic police had little experience dealing with murder enquiries and felt a confession was necessary to secure a conviction.
Today, most Icelanders believe it was a miscarriage of justice, with the BBC claiming it is one of “worst Europe had ever witnessed”. A documentary about the case, Out of Thin Air, was released in 2017.
Woman’s Day Off in Reykjavik
On 24 October 1975, 90% of women across Iceland decided to go on strike to demonstrate their importance to society. At 2.08 PM in the afternoon exactly, women across the country stopped working and took to the streets to rally for equal rights with their male counterparts. This was because 2.08 PM signified the moment that, on average, men started to be paid more than themselves. Approximately 25,000 women were involved in the strike.
See Also: Gender Equality in Iceland
Because of the sheer number of women involved, countless shops, restaurants and factories across the capital were forced to close, and men had little choice but to take their children to work with them.
Because of this, the day was unceremonially coined “The Long Friday” by those few who disagreed with this burgeoning female empowerment.
And few they were. The strike got universal backing from the workers’ unions and is today considered a seminal moment in Icelandic history, leading to such great leaps as the appointment of the first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, in 1980.
The Women’s Day Off has since been held five times, in 1985, 2005, 2010, 2016 and 2018. Last year’s strike began at 2.55 PM, demonstrating that over forty years, women have only gained less than an hour’s progress. At this rate, equal pay for women will not be seen until 2068.
Eldfell Volcano Erupts on the Westman Islands
Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands, are a cluster of islands just off Iceland’s South Coast. The largest island, Heimaey, was in 1973 home to around 5000 people. On January 23rd the villagers awoke to the sudden roar of a volcanic eruption, a fissure from Eldfell volcano that had burst from the earth only one mile away. The explosion had been entirely unexpected.
Immediately, the Icelandic State Civil Defence Organisation set about executing their evacuation plan. Rivers of bright orange lava were already slithering their way toward the village’s eastern boundaries, and the heavy ash fall posed an imminent danger to anyone foolish enough to stick around.
See Also: Volcanoes in Iceland
Fortuitously, the evacuation was aided by the fact that the previous days had seen severe storms around the island, forcing the fishing fleet to stay sheltered in the harbour. This meant that islanders were being taken from the island within the first half hour of the volcano’s eruption.
Eldfell continued to pour out lava until the 3rd July. In that period, volunteers on the island—200-300 people—obsessively fought the lava flows with cold seawater. This froze much of the lava and ended up saving the village harbour. As one can imagine, the islanders were elated that their livelihoods remained intact, despite knowing that half of their village had been destroyed
Did you enjoy our article about Iceland during the 1970s? Make sure to check out our other informative articles on Iceland’s history, including Iceland in the 1960s | Historic Film Footage, Old Film Footage of Iceland in the 1950s and Iceland During WW2 | Historical Film Footage. Make sure to check back next week as we delve into the fascinating era of the 80s. Make sure to leave your thoughts in the Facebook comments box below.