This is Vigur Island on a good day. It lies just south of the Arctic circle in the West fjords of Iceland.
One and a quarter miles long and just 400 yards wide, it seems an unlikely stop on any cruise. And in fact the cruise ships can’t get close to it. To get there we are paying good money to sit on a zodiac for over an hour bouncing across the water, with an arctic wind cutting through our many layers of clothing. It is though, a picture perfect day, something that happens rarely in this part of the world. The sun is out, the skies are blue and the water is calm and even bluer, but it is still the arctic, and the air is bitterly cold. We are 12 miles away from the ship in an inflatable dinghy with not a sign of life in any direction. The water temperature is 4 degrees celsius. It is not long before the thought “what were we thinking” creeps into our subconscious.
But the island’s reputation attracts travellers from all over the world. And we are two of just 30 or so Seabourn travellers who have elected to make the extra journey. It may be a tiny piece of land but it is home to Iceland’s only windmill, its oldest working boat and some of its oldest buildings. If that was the sum total of the island’s atrractions, I would have never left the ship. But there is so much more to Vigur Island. Designated an ‘internationally important seabird habitat’, it is home to some 7000 breeding Eider Ducks, more than 100,000 pairs of nesting puffins, a rare colony of Black Guillemot, more nesting Arctic Terns than anyone can count, and two and a bit people. The birds make it their home from June to September, the two and a bit people call it home all year round. The bit is a child of 5, the two are his parents. They make a living from the uniquely Icelandic tradition of eiderdown farming, hosting small groups of tourists and renting out one of the houses as a vacation rental. The zodiac ties up to a tiny dock at one end of a small pebble bay, that in today’s sunshine looks as inviting as any bay in the world.
At the other end of the bay is a handful of buildings, the famous windmill and the oldest boat. We are met by Gisli, the husband. A big charming bear of a man, with unruly hair, an unruly beard and unruly clothes, who likes nothing better than his own company. He tells us that they accept the occasional vacation rental reluctantly as they are only truly happy when they have the island entirely to themselves.
He also adds in a hushed whisper that actually his favorite time is when his wife and child leave the island, which they do regularly, and sometimes for weeks at a time. Then life is truly perfect he confides, especially in winter when the snow and the ice insure that there will be no unexpected visitors. For someone who loves being on his own he is a remarkably entertaining host for the next three hours, and I can quite understand why he prefers his own company to any other.
His wife, Felicity, is more than a match for him. A truly remarkable woman with a completely unremarkable upbringing in the tiny village of Birchington–on–Sea, on the south east coast of England, she became the first and only woman to ski across Antarctica completely alone. She took just 59 days to travel well over 1,000 miles. The men who had done it before her were all aided by wind kites or machines. Felicity used nothing but her own muscles and her fierce determination to make the journey. A tall powerful woman with an easy smile who has lead the most extraordinary life of any person we are ever likely to meet, she seems remarkably at ease playing the gracious host to 30 Seabourn passengers, making us coffee and serving us homemade rhubarb cake, while chatting about her life on the island. She is brilliant and charming but I can’t help wondering if she would rather be somwhere else. And in fact she would, as she still travels the world, continuing to explore the polar regions, lecturing and fighting to preserve the natural wonders of the area from the encroaching world.
They bought the island in 2019 with the intention of preserving and keeping everything just as it has been for the last two centuries. And amazingly it is the 7,000 eider ducks that return to nest here every year that make this possible.
The eider drake is a handsome looking chap
He has no problem selecting a mate from the selection of rather drab females.
Once he has had his wicked way with his duck of choice he skips town immediately leaving the female to build the nest and raise the ducklings. Men!
The female then finds a nice sheltered spot and does what she has been brought up to do. She makes the nest as cosy as possible by covering it with down from her body.
By July the island is covered in these nests and this is when Gisli and Felicity move into action. With the help of a friend they scour the island looking for the nests. They carefully remove the down, and replace it with straw. The mothers seem quite content with their new bedding, and show their appreciation by returning every year. Gisli and family are quite content as they can sell the down for a lot more than they paid for the straw.
Cleaning the down of all the debris that has attached to it is a painstaking chore, but eventually it can be weighed, packed and shipped.
There is an otherworldy magic to true eiderdown. It is blissfully light, soft as silk, incredibly warm, and outrageously expensive. It is used to make luxuriously bespoke bedding so expensive that the Japanese are one of the few countries prepared to pay the price.
Meanwhile Gisli and Felicity live in their 200 year old house with no central heating, and the ducks sleep on a bed of straw!
And strangely enough everyone is happy