Drangey Island – Iceland - Atlas Obscura

Drangey Island

An Icelandic island full of diving birds and legend. 


What happens to volcanoes when their fiery lives come to an end? In the case of Drangey island, it becomes a weird and wonderful island full of exotic birds, irresistible outlaw stories, and legends of giants.

Long ago in Skagafjörður, northern Iceland, a mighty volcano died, and over the millennia it crumbled and washed into the sea—all but the round rock core of its magma passage. 700,000 years later, the corpse of this powerful force of nature became a symbol of spring and life for nearby Icelanders. Every year as winter passes, a rich variety of birds nest in the rugged nooks and crannies of the island, and every year locals head to the island to collect eggs, go fowling, and do some serious fishing in between. The haul of fowl is most commonly diving birds, but the island is also a nesting site for falcons, puffin, and ravens. 

The island attracts riffraff as well. Famous outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson (commonly known as Grettir the Strong) lived and died on Drangey Island, and his story is a much loved Icelandic tale. The bad tempered, redheaded brute was the son of a Viking, and his life story is told from beginning to end in the Grettis Saga. While Grettir was, for the most part, portrayed as a gruff but lovable rogue, he was said to be responsible for a hall fire that killed several men and forced him into outlawry. The outlaw hid with his brother and slave on the isolated island for 20 years, giving him a longevity that was virtually unheard of. Eventually, his enemies caught up with him, and he was assassinated on one of Drangey’s rocky cliffs. The Grettis Saga was the first but certainly not the last literary reference to the volcano island. 

While we know the origins of the geology, there is also a fascinating legend about the Island of Drangey, involving night trolls that become stone statues when the day breaks. The giant trolls had a treasured cow that they wished to breed, and so when the cow was finally old enough and went into heat, the night trolls began the journey across the fjord to a waiting bull. The husband and wife troll team found themselves up against a very unwilling, stubborn animal, and as the long trip across the water proceeded, the cow’s slow gait exposed all three to the sun’s morning rays, and they petrified where they stood, now making up the pillars of rock at each end of the island. The pillars, named Kerlingin (the old woman) and Karlinn (the old man) after the two doomed giants, stood until the 18th century when Karlinn collapsed into the waters. Kerlingin still remains.  

While snaring is now illegal, locals still head out to the unusual island every spring and net a glorious feast of eggs, birds, and fish. Often referred to as a “fortress,” the dead volcano island is a stellar example of the stark beauty consistently offered up by the Icelandic landscape.

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April 18, 2014

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