Vestmannaeyjar (English: The Westman Islands) is a small archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. The largest island, Heimaey, has a population of 4,036. The other islands are uninhabited, though two have single hunting cabins. The archipelago came to international attention in 1973 when Icelanders battled to prevent lava from the volcano Eldfell blocking Heimaey's harbour.
The islands are named after the Irish who were captured into slavery by the Norse Gaels. The Old Norse word Vestmenn, literally "Westmen", was applied to the Irish, and retained in Icelandic even though Ireland is more easterly than Iceland. Not long after Ingólfur Arnarson arrived in Iceland, his blood brother Hjörleifur was murdered by the slaves he had brought with him. Ingolfur tracked them down to Vestmannaeyjar and killed them all in retribution.
On June 20, 1627, in an event known as the Turkish abductions, the islands were captured by a fleet of 15 ships (12 galleys and 3 other types of vessels) of Barbary Pirates from Algiers, under the guidance of Murat Reis; who stayed there for 26 days until July 16, 1627. The forces of Murat Reis enslaved 400 people from the islands and took them to Algiers (after a voyage which lasted 27 days) where most of them spent the rest of their lives in bondage. One of the captives, Ólafur Egilsson, later managed to return back and wrote a book about his experience. Subsequently, a Turkish corsair named Ali Biçin Reis also came to the archipelago and Iceland itself, from where he took 800 slaves.
The area is very volcanically active, like the rest of Iceland. There were two major eruptions in the 20th century: the Eldfell eruption of January 1973 which created a 700-foot-high mountain where a meadow had been, and caused the island's 5000 inhabitants to be temporarily evacuated to the mainland, and an eruption in 1963 created the new island of Surtsey.
From 1998 to 2003 the islands were home to Keiko the killer whale, star of Free Willy.
The islands are famed in Iceland for their yearly festival, Þjóðhátíð (Thjodhatid, English: "national festival". See Wiktionary:þjóð), which attracts a large portion of the nation's youth. The festival was originally held in 1874, concurrent with Iceland's celebration commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the inhabitation of Iceland. Vestmannaeyjar residents had been prevented by weather from sailing to the mainland for the festivities and thus celebrated locally. Over the last century, the festival has grown to become the largest festival in Iceland, with an annual attendance of 10,000, with up to 7,000 travelling from mainland Iceland.
We visit Vestmannaeyjar on the following tour: