When June arrives in North Iceland, the midnight sun bounces on the horizon, never fully setting. And in the town of Siglufjörður, it signals the start of new adventures.
Here in Siglo, as it’s called by locals, summer is marked by the greening of scenic mountain trails, the flowering of purple lupines and the reedy sounds of accordions filling the warm air on weekends. Follow the music and you’ll likely step into a scene straight from the 1940s: women dressed in plaid shirts, yellow aprons and red headscarves, salting and packing fish by the barrel. Known as the “herring girls”, these locals regularly draw a crowd – not only for their lightning-speed hands but also for their live re-enactments of a lesser-known part of Icelandic history.
During the “herring adventure” (the Icelandic fishing industry’s equivalent of the goldrush) from 1910 to 1969, thousands of seasonal workers from across Iceland flocked to the herring capital of Siglo to work every summer. With herring accounting for as much as 40% of Iceland’s total exports, it was all hands on deck. The women who worked on the piers cleaning, sorting, filleting, brining and barrel-packing Atlantic herring were just as vital as the fishermen at sea. Icelanders credit them for paving the way for the country’s exemplary commitment to gender equality (Iceland has been named the most gender-equal country in the world for 12 years in a row, according to a World Economic Forum index.) And thanks to the preservation of their history, the once-sleepy town of Siglo is now experiencing a nostalgia-fuelled resurgence.
Inside the award-winning Herring Era Museum, which chronicles the period through five immersive exhibition buildings filled with artefacts, visitors can walk through the original apartments of the herring girls. One of the museum buildings is located in Róaldsbrakki, a former Norwegian salting station built in 1907,where up to 50 women of all ages would share cramped quarters during the season. Not that the size of the dormitories mattered; they spent the majority of their time outside, standing over salt boxes or dancing the night away.
“It was backbreaking work,” said Anita Elefsen, director of the Herring Era Museum. “They would pack three to four barrels per hour throughout a 26-hour shift and then could go home and rest. Many said they came in and just laid down on the floor, completely wiped out. And sometimes, just two or three hours later, someone would knock on the window to let them know another ship had come in full of fresh herring.”
Most remarked on enjoying the work, even though it was difficult. And many refused to take a day off – not just for financial reasons, but also because of their shared dedication to saving and processing a valuable and highly perishable national resource, said Elefsen.
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The herring adventure marked the first time Icelandic women held a prominent role in the workforce. By the 1920s, the herring girls established Iceland’s first women’s union and fought for higher wages, coinciding with the country’s wider suffrage movement. Unlike other professions at the time, herring girls eventually had the opportunity to earn equal (and sometimes more) money than men because they were paid piecemeal at a rate of around 30 ISK (£0.18) per barrel. By working quickly and efficiently, they could earn up to 1,290 ISK (around £7.50) per day, which empowered them to buy homes or vehicles, study, travel and have a sense of independence. Due to the work of the women’s union, the amount they were paid per barrel increased by more than 70% between 1929 and 1962.
Birna Björnsdóttir, a herring girl who’s now in her 80s, began working on the assembly line at age seven. She now participates in the museum’s live herring exhibitions that take place on the pier in front of the Róaldsbrakki building, which she said still stir up the same joy and excitement she felt as a child.
“It was such a fun time. Yes, we worked a lot – my longest shift was 36 hours,” she said in an interview with the museum. “The ‘call boys’, who were 11 or 12 years old, were tasked with waking us up when the boats came in. Sometimes we were in the middle of a dance when the horns sounded, and we had to go back to work. We just changed from our party dresses to work suits.”
Siglufjörður’s population peaked in the 1940s and 1950s at 3,000 people (today, it’s less than half that). Walking down the main street used to mean elbowing your way through crowds. But when the fishermen came back empty-handed in 1969 due to the collapse of the herring stocks, almost everyone left.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, when a group of volunteers (mainly teachers from the local high school) rallied together to restore the abandoned old salting station and create the museum, did the town start to rebound. And after winning a European Museum Award in 2004, it solidified Siglo’s position as a must-visit stop along North Iceland’s scenic Arctic Coast Way driving route.
Visitorship to the museum is steadily increasing. And with 2022 set to be its busiest year yet, according to Elefsen, Siglo is experiencing a second boom – this time because of tourism.
“Even though we don’t fish for herring anymore, preserving and sharing our history has made us capable of somehow rising again and turning into a popular destination,” she said. “People from all over the world now come here year-round.”
Icelanders see the value in it too, with many of the historical items on display in the museum – from record players to vintage dresses – arriving by way of donations from former herring girls’ families. More than 20 years later, the museum still receives at least one new item per week.
While Siglo was once difficult to access, a tunnel through mountains now connects it to the city of Akureyri and the rest of north-eastern Iceland, making it easier to reach. Meanwhile, expedition cruise ships bring in history lovers by the boatload.
New ventures in town are popping up to meet this growing interest in Icelandic history. Next door to the museum is Segull 67, a brewery located inside an old fish freezing plant that offers tastings among antique machinery. And in the restored marina village, brightly painted buildings house cafés like Hannes Boy, named after a local legend and fisherman, and the charming Siglo Hotel, whose nautical-themed rooms have views of the surrounding mountains. While they’re in town, adventurous travellers often head to the peaks of Tröllaskagi (Troll Peninsula), a mecca for backcountry and heli-skiing in the winter and hiking and horseback riding in the summer.
“Tourism has increased quite a bit in the north,” said Harpa Hlín Jónsdottir, a local guide who leads treks with her company Trolli Ferdafelag. “I think more people want to experience activities in untouched nature. The hiking trails here were formed by sheep and aren’t human-made – it’s a true adventure.” Her newest project is working with the municipality to re-mark several trails, which will allow seasoned hikers to independently explore the region.
The Herring Era Museum also has plans to expand its offerings. The former salt house is currently undergoing a restoration that will see a new exhibition focusing on wintertime during the herring era, when most of the men would leave town and the women would stay and have union meetings in preparation for the next season.
Eventually, the ground floor exhibition of Róaldsbrakki will be refreshed to better highlight the voices of the herring girls. Elefsen and a camera crew have spent years travelling around the country interviewing more than 70 herring girls about their experiences. They plan to install immersive video installations, allowing guests to hear first-hand accounts of the women’s daily lives.
With recent summers leading to more than 50 live herring exhibitions on the pier, many former herring girls are still donning their uniforms. Increasingly, however, they’re passing the rubber gloves to young Icelanders, who despite never working on real assembly lines, are more than happy to re-enact the magic of salting herring under the midnight sun.
“It’s not only a matter of entertaining our visitors, but it’s also about passing the knowledge onto the next generations,” said Elefsen. “Somehow, we’re keeping the tradition alive.”
The herring adventure may be over, but for the tiny town just a whisper below the Arctic Circle, a new tourism-focused one has just begun. On endless summer days, the herring girls are still making history.