Húsavík and Hótel Húsavík – Pearls of the North

Húsavík is a picturesque town situated on the north coast of Iceland, the largest town in Þingeyjarsýsla, it nestles on the eastern shore of Skjálfandi bay facing the impressive Kinnarfjöll mountains. The town’s name, meaning ‘bay house’ or ‘bay of houses’, most likely refers to the settlement of the area, for it was here that the Swedish explorer Garðar Svavarsson spent the winter of 870 AD. Departing the following spring Garðar left behind a man called Náttfari along with an unnamed serf and a bondmaid. Some consider Náttfari’s settlement, in Náttfaravík across the bay from Húsavík and later in Reykjadalur, to be one of the first settlements of Iceland. [1,2]

In Bagley’s novel Running Blind the protagonist is told to deliver the mysterious package to Akureyri. For the television adaptation BBC Scotland changed this location to Húsavík and filming took place at the airport, the harbour and within Hótel Húsavík (now Fosshótel Húsavík). Hótel Húsavík has its origins in international trade and the formation of a farmer’s co-operative called Kaupfélag Þingeyinga, established in 1882.

Horse traders and S.S. Camoens

Robert Slimon was a merchant and ship chandler operating from the port of Leith, a district to the north of Edinburgh in Scotland, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The company ‘R&D Slimon – Ironmongers, Ship Chandlers and Lampmakers’ operated a trading route from Scotland to Iceland, via Orkney and Shetland, transporting thousands of sheep and horses to Granton and Leith. Slimon would arrive in Iceland during the spring to buy horses and stay until after the gathering of the sheep in the autumn to buy sheep. Offering a passenger service, his ships also carried hundreds of emigrants, many travelling onwards to America. One of the ships owned by Slimon from 1879 to 1888 was the steamship S.S. Camoens and one of its Captains, John Coghill, who cannot go unmentioned, was perhaps Sliman’s best known agent and horse trader in Iceland. [3,4]

tvadaptation-locations-hotel-husavik-coghillJohn Coghill was born in Thurso, Scotland in 1835 and moved to Orkney as a child where he grew up and began working for local sheep farmers. Following the death of his father, Coghill moved back to Scotland with his mother and siblings, later becoming a deckhand on a merchant ship. He qualified as a Captain in 1870 and started to work for Slimon as his agent in Iceland from around 1875.

Coghill’s business in Iceland was always busy, he employed many workers in the buying and selling of livestock. He was said to ride very fast in a short space of time and his riding style was well known. Men who rode their horses hard were said to ‘Ride like Coghill’. Coghill paid in gold, which became known as ‘sheep’s gold’ and many farmers accumulated large amounts of this precious metal. One story surrounding Coghill’s gold was that one of his gold bags was lost in the harbour at Reykjavík and after persistent northerly winds some gold washed ashore. Later, following similar weather, it was not uncommon to see men searching in the sand on both sides of the old stone pier in the hope of finding more gold. [4]

Húsavík at the end of the 19th century was a much smaller town with only 287 residents [5], but it had much to offer in the way of trade. During March 1880, at Helgastöðum in Reykjadalur, a committee had been elected to work on trade reforms [6]. During the summer of that year R&D Slimon operated seven trips between Scotland and Iceland, which included visiting Húsavík. The Camoens’ sailing schedule advertising passenger departures from Húsavík on 30th June and 14th July 1880. The 1st class fare for the journey was £5 (90kr) single, £8 (144kr) return or £3 (54kr) single, £5 (90kr) return for a 2nd class fare [7]. Severe winters in both 1881 and 1882 caused great hardship and starvation in the north of Iceland and when the Camoens arrived in Granton on 6th October 1882 she was carrying 106 emigrants. [3]

tvadaptation-locations-hotel-husavik-camoens

In 1881 direct trade was established between the farmers of Húsavík and Slimon. That year the Camoens made six voyages carrying 6,000 sheep from Borðeyri along with 1,500 horses from Akureyri, Húsavík and Reykjavík. The trade with Slimon was considered a great success and on 26th September a committee meeting was held at Grenjaðarstað to discuss future trade issues. On 20th February 1882 the very first farmer’s trading cooperative in Iceland, Kaupfélag Þingeyinga, was officially formed with Jacob Hálfdanarson appointed as the Purchasing Manager. The cooperative regulated trade by negotiating prices and handling the sales for its members, everything was discussed in committee and then approved. Each member was required to purchase at least one share in the company and all members had equal voting rights regardless of their shareholding. The profit in the company was distributed to each member, not the company, which at that time was both bold and innovative. [6]

Hótel Húsavík and the fire of 1975

Perhaps one of the most innovative and praiseworthy actions of Kaupfélag Þingeyinga was to provide a guesthouse for its members providing good accommodation at attractive and reasonable prices. The company purchased a nice, but small, house located on land above the pier at Garðarsbraut 8, and rented it to Hjalta Illugasyni from Reykjadalur on the condition that he operated it as a guesthouse. This was welcomed by many cooperative members who had neither the space nor facilities to host visitors to their town [8]. Over the coming decades Hótel Húsavík was to serve not just as a hotel for visitors, but also as a meeting place for locals, a community space for local events and a venue for the Kaupfélag Þingeyinga district committee meetings. By the time Húsavík had been granted its municipality on 30th December 1950 the town’s residents numbered 1,279. [5]

tvadaptation-locations-hotel-husavik-1927

The hotel flourished and on 7th July 1954, in an article published in the newspaper Dagur [9], it was described as a ‘handsome and spacious premises’. This article referred to a party held that day at the hotel celebrating the 60th birthday of Ása Stefánsdóttir, the wife of Hjalta Illugasyni, who had worked at the the hotel with her husband for over a quarter of a century. Six years later on the 10th anniversary of the towns municipality a ceremony of celebration was held at the hotel where the guests numbered 50-60.

The small hotel was not designed to cater for the growing number of visitors to the town. In 1961 it was purchased by Sigtryggur Albertsson, who recalled:

There was a small room, which took 30-40 people, and there were only six rooms. I had access to rooms here and there around town. [10]

In 1967 work started on Húsavík’s community centre, located in Ketilsbraut, with plans in mind to possibly build a new high-quality hotel adjoining the centre in the future.

At the Annual General Meeting of Kaupfélag Þingeyinga, held on 29th and 30th April 1970, a motion was unanimously approved authorising the Board, pending consultation with the head of the company, to increase the share capital of the company ‘K.Þ. Hotel Húsavík hf.’ [11]. Three months later in July an advert appeared in a newspaper advising that Hótel Húsavík had opened an ‘elegant dining room’ in the nearby community centre. [12]

Sometime in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1971 a fire broke out in the basement of the hotel. This caused a blast that was loud enough to draw the attention of the Captain of a Danish ship anchored offshore, who looked through his telescope to see flames coming from the hotel. Fortunately nobody was in the hotel when the fire occurred as New Year’s Eve celebrations were taking place in the community centre. The fire spread rapidly through the wooden building and although firemen arrived on scene very quickly the fire was not easily extinguished, despite two hydrants pumping sea water through a number of hoses into the hotel. It took six or seven hours to control the fire, the seat of which appeared to be close to the refrigeration system in the basement. The fire continued to smoulder and reignited briefly later that evening, by the time the fire was fully extinguished only the walls of the hotel remained. An article in Morgunblaðið, dated two days after the fire, stated that the previously planned new hotel would now be built and combined with the community centre [13,14]. A week later it was reported that the cost of this new hotel would be in the region of ISK 25 million. [15]

The hotel continued to advertise and operate the restaurant in the community centre as the new hotel was being built and both were combined into one elegant building. On 20th June 1973 the new Hótel Húsavík opened with 15 rooms available, in July that increased to 34 (in total 64 beds) 24 of the rooms with bathrooms. Each room was equipped with radio, television and telephone and the hotel offered two lounges for visitors. There was a cellar, excellent kitchen facilities, a meeting room that could offer conference facilities together with a cafeteria that could cater for 50-60 people. The obvious benefit of combining the community centre with the hotel meant they could offer an additional dining area capable of seating 250-300 people, which could also accommodate up to 500 people for community events and dances. [16,17]

filmloc-hotelhusavik-hotelhusavik-1973-78

When interviewed in August of 1973 Sigtryggur Albertsson, now manager of the new hotel, said:

The builders left via the back door as the guests arrived in the front.

The estimated cost of the building in 1973 was ISK 60 million, far in excess of the estimated costs mentioned two years previous. By 1974 that figure was re-evaluated at ISK 75 million with a further amount, estimated at ISK 35 million, required to create planned garage parking exterior works. [18]

Hótel Húsavík and the filming of Running Blind

tvadaptation-locations-hotel-husavik-june-1978

The cast and crew of the BBC Scotland production arrived in Húsavík some time in the last two weeks of June 1978, planning to stay for ten days [19]. They were to use the hotel as a base whilst filming in Húsavík, Ásbyrgi and Dettifoss, before heading into the highlands.
The spring had been exceptionally cold that year and the weather in June had not improved much, the crew were to be seen waiting around the hotel for the weather to improve, with crowds gathering around their Land Rover. [5]

The leading actress, Ragnheiður Steindórsdóttir, who played the character Elín, later recalled an incident involving one of the dummies, (pictured below with the actor George Sewell), that was to be thrown over the waterfall at Dettifoss:

One of the things that I particularly remember during the filming happened whilst we stayed at the Hótel Húsavík. With the luggage was a male dummy, which was to be thrown into the waterfall during a scene. The dummy was fixed to the roof of the car, where there was no danger it would fall off as it was tied down.

tvadaptation-locations-hotel-husavik-sewell

However, the next morning when we came to prepare for the scene the dummy was gone and, despite searching for it, it couldn’t be found. After a prolonged search the dummy was found, it had been taken into custody by the Police. They told us that a group of fishermen, having fun the previous evening, had seen the dummy and decided to take it. Probably missing their partners they took the dummy with them and danced with it, even though the dummy was male! The Police then took the dummy into custody. [20]

Filming took place within Hótel Húsavík using two locations:

The restaurant scenes were filmed in the 4th floor restaurant, which was converted into guest rooms in 1993. Graham (Dallas Adams) entered the restaurant by a door which now, structurally altered, leads into a corridor giving access to guest rooms. He joins Stewart (Stuart Wilson) who is seated at a table in an area which is today located between rooms 401 and 403. Graham was seated in what is now room 401 adjacent to the window fitted with window stays. Stewart was seated opposite in what is now the bathroom and shower area of room 403. In a later scene when Stewart is joined by Elín he is seated at the next table, in a location which is now the bedroom area of room 403. These rooms overlook the Kinnarfjöll mountains across the bay and visible in the distance to the right is the tower and spire of Húsavík church.

The painting hanging on the wall behind Graham was painted by a local artist Sigurður Hallmarsson, and shows a view of the River Laxa, near Húsavík airport, with the Kinnarfjöll mountains in the background. Sigurður, a teacher, headmaster and actor was born in Húsavík in 1929. He appeared in films with some of the actors cast in Running Blind: Jón Oddur & Jón Bjarni, 1981 (in which Jón Sigurbjörnsson also appeared); Atómstöðin, 1984 (in which Steindór Hjörleifsson and Jonina Scott also appeared) and Skýjahöllin, 1994 (in which Steindór Hjörleifsson and Flosi Ólafsson also appeared). Sigurður died on 24th November 2014 [21], his painting of the River Laxa is still in the hotel, although now in a different location.

Filming also took place in room 304, which was used as the location for Stewart’s hotel room, in which he was visited by Graham and Slade. This room is located on the north-eastern side of the hotel with a view towards the mountain of Húsavíkurfjall.

The 1980’s saw further increases in share capital of K.Þ. Hotel Húsavík hf. and the town council of Húsavík became major shareholders. By the end of 1992 capital expenditure for Hótel Húsavík had grown whilst its income had remained unchanged. In July 1993, the year of its 20th anniversary, the hotel was sold. The new owners and majority shareholders were Páll Þór Jónsson and Björn Hólmgeirsson, who had both previously worked in tourism. Between them they purchased 47.69% of the shares held by Húsavík town council and 4% of the shares held by Kaupfélag Þingeyinga, leaving the farmer’s cooperative with an 8.8% share. Other shareholders were Ferðamálasjóður (a tourism fund) and Flugleiðir (a holding company for Loftleiðir and Air Iceland) [22]. Interviewed in December the same year Páll Þór Jónsson said:

Extensive ongoing alterations are in progress, the hotel currently has 33 rooms only 21 of which have a bathroom, the rooms without a bathroom are not commercially viable. Space on the top floor, where a restaurant and bar are currently situated, will be altered to create more rooms making a total of 34 rooms all with a bathroom. [23]

tvadaptation-locations-hotel-husavik-may-1996The following years were to see the hotel flourish, the capital expenditure on redevelopment had been well spent. Tourism in the area increased, particularly tourists visiting for the purpose of whale watching, and in addition the hotel had become a popular venue for conferences. Further expansion of the hotel occurred in April 1996 when an additional 10 rooms were added, built over the top of the ground floor dining room. The work was completed in August, the hotel offering 44 rooms with a total of 84 beds. [24,25]

Hotél Húsavík was taken over as part of the Fosshótel chain in January 2006 and in March that year construction commenced on a new wing adding an additional 26 double rooms [26]. In September the same year the hotel advertised ‘A much renewed  3 star hotel – New and elegant rooms – A whale themed Moby Dick pub’ [27,28]. The following year renovations were carried out to the ground floor and exterior of the hotel.

The main investors for the construction work at the hotel have been the Icelandic bank Landsbankinn. At the conclusion of the current renovations in 2016 the hotel, retaining its nautical and whale themed decor, will feature 110 rooms; 63 standard and 47 deluxe. The new rooms, new reception area and a multifunctional 345 m2 meeting room will open on 20th May. The opening of a newly refurbished á la carte restaurant is scheduled for the beginning of July and 11 conference and meeting rooms will be available around the end of August or beginning of September. [29]

Húsavík, now part of the municipality of Norðurþing, has in the region of 2,200 inhabitants [30], and is an ideal base for visiting locations in the north of Iceland, such as Ásbyrgi, Dettifoss and Mývatn. The town is renowned as the ‘Whale Capital of Iceland’ and is globally recognised as one of the best locations in the world for whale watching. In fact, there is a higher chance of seeing whales in Húsavík than any other place in Iceland. The Húsavík Whale Museum, located near the harbour, which first opened on 20th June 1998, has just undergone refurbishment. It reopened on 12th March 2016 and now displays the skeleton of a blue whale, one of only ten places in the world where such a skeleton can be seen [31]. Both the town of Húsavík and Hótel Húsavík itself have come a long way since their humble origins of the late 1880’s.

tvadaptation-locations-hotel-husavik-may-1997

‘Sorry, no oysters just pearls!’ – Húsavík is often referred to as a pearl in the north of Iceland, which is mentioned in this 1997 advertisement for Hótel Húsavík’s ‘Setberg’ restaurant. The advert quotes the first line, ‘Nú andar suðrið sæla…’,  of the poem ‘Ég bið að heilsa!’ (I send greetings!), composed in 1844, by Icelandic poet Jónas Hallgrímsson:

Serene and warm, now southern winds come streaming
to waken all the billows on the ocean,
who crowd toward Iceland with an urgent motion –
isle of my birth! where sand and surf are gleaming.

Oh waves and winds! embrace with bold caress
the bluffs of home with all their seabirds calling!
Lovingly, waves salute the boats out trawling!
Lightly, oh winds, kiss glowing cheeks and tresses!

Herald of spring! oh faithful thrush, who flies
fathomless heaven to reach our valleys, bearing
cargoes of song to sing the hills above:

there, if you meet an angel with bright eyes
under the neat, red-tasselled cap she’s wearing,
greet her devoutly! That’s the girl I love. [sic] [32]

Fosshótel Húsavík’s website can be found here.

Next location


Notes

Images:
Húsavík Harbour © The Bagley Brief
John Coghill © Frals Verslun 1955
S.S. Camoens schedule © Isafold 1880
Hótel Húsavík © Samvinnan 1927
Hótel Húsavík © Tíminn 1973
Hótel Húsavík advertisement © Hótel Húsavík / Íslendingur 1978
BBC at Hótel Húsavík © Frals Verslun 1978
George Sewell © Ágúst Baldursson / mbl.is Árvakur hf. 1980
Hótel Húsavík © DV ehf. 1996
Hótel Húsavík advertisement © Hótel Húsavík &  mbl.is Árvakur hf. 1997

1. Johannesson, G.T. (2013). ‘The History of Iceland’ pp.6-7, 19-20.

2. Visit Húsavik (2016). ‘First Settlement in Iceland’ [online]. URL [Accessed 15th April 2016]

3. Slimon, C. (2010). The Orkney Image Library – S.S. Camoens 13th September 2010 [online]. URL [Accessed 15th April 2016]

4. Dyrmundsson, Ó.R. (2014). ‘Horse Kogill and Mr Moneyman’ review [online]. URL [Accessed 15th April 2016]

5. Fráls verzlun (1978). ‘Byggð: Húsavík – ungur bær í tvennum skilníngi’ (1st June 1978 pp. 76 & 77).

6. Héraðskjalasafni Þingeyringa (2011). ‘Djarfir bændur og stofnun fyrsta íslenska kaupfélagsins’ [online]. URL [Accessed 16th April 2016]

7. Ísafold (1880). ‘Camoens’ (8th June 1880 p. 60).

8. Samvinnan (1927). ‘Hótel Húsavík – Gistihús Kaupfélags þingeyinga’ (1st September 1927 pp. 307 & 308).

9. Dagur (1954). ’60 ára afmæli Ásu Stefánsdóttur’ (14th July 1954 p. 12).

10. Íslendingur (1960). ‘Húsavíkurbær 10 ára’ (19th February 1960 p. 2).

11. Boðberi K.Þ. (1970). ‘K.Þ. AGM minutes’ (1st June 1970 p. 5).

12. Þjóðviljin (1970). ‘Hótel Húsavík – Ferðafólk!’ (12th July 1970 p. 10).

13. Morgunblaðið (1971). ‘Hótel Húsavík brann’ (3rd January 1971 pp. 23 & 24).

14. Þjóðviljin (1971). ‘Aðeins veggirnir standa uppi af Hótel Húsavík eftirbruna’ (3rd January 1971 p. 10).

15. Alþýðumaðurinn (1971). ‘Húsavík 9. janúar.’ (15th January 1971 p. 8).

16. Þjóðviljinn (1973). ‘Glæsilegt Hótel og Félagsheimili’ (19th August 1973 p. 10).

17. Tíminn (1973). ‘Hótel Húsavík – Húsavík’ (14th October 1973 p. 6).

18. Fráls verzlun (1974). ‘Hótel Húsavík’ (1st August 1974 pp. 47-49).

19. Vísir (1978). ‘BBC á íslandi’ (9th June 1978 p. 25).

20. Morgunblaðið (1980).  ‘Spjallað við Ragnheiði Stendórsdóttur um kvikmyndun Út í óvissuna og fleira’ (23rd January 1980 p. 11).

21. IMDB (2016). ‘Biography – Sigurður Hallmarsson’ [online]. URL [Accessed 17th April 2016]

22. Morgunblaðið (1993).  ‘Bærinn selur eignarhlut í Hótel Húsavík’ (24th June 1993 p. 2).

23. Dagblaðið (1993). ‘Stórhuga einstaklingar keyptu Hótel Húsavík’ (13th December 1993 p. 54).

24. Morgunblaðið (1996).  ‘Hótel Húsavík stækkar’ (21st April 1996 p. 4).

25. Dagblaðið (1996). ‘Geysileg fjolgun erlendra fferöamann’ (12th August 1996 p. 16).

26. Morgunblaðið (2006). ‘Byggt við Fosshótel Húsavík’ (6th March 2006 p. 50).

27. Fréttablaðið (2006). ‘Fosshótel Húsavík’ (28th September 2006 p. 52).

28. Fréttablaðið (2013). ‘Til hamingju Íslandshótel’ (4th May 2013 p. 7).

29. Sigurðardóttir, J. Á. (2016). pers. comm 29th March 2016.

30. Norðurþing (2016). ‘About Norðurþing’ [online]. URL [Accessed 18th April 2016]

31. Visit Húsavik (2016). ‘The Blue Whale Exhibition revealed!’ [online]. URL [Accessed 18th April 2016]

32. Ringler, D. (1996-98). Translation – ‘I Send Greetings! (Ég bið að heilsa!)’ [online].
URL [Accessed 20th April 2016]