The Story Begins a long time ago, perhaps almost a thousand years, a man decided to build a farm on the banks of the River Skaftá. He dreamt of an elf lady who came to visit him. She was unmarried and had no children, but desperately wished that her name would live on when she eventually passed away. She was called Hunka.
The man built his farm and called it Hunkubakkar, bakkar being the Icelandic word for river banks. There is also a knoll above the farm called Hunka. The original buildings lay close to the river and remains of the old turf-roofed farmhouse are still visible although they have been badly eroded by the river.
In 1783 a series of catastrophic eruptions in the Lakagígar fissure caused a lava flow reckoned to be the largest in modern history and a thick layer of molten rock spread over 600 sq. km. of local countryside (see below). One spur of the advancing lava ran along the course of the River Skaftá and the farmer was forced to move his farm and rebuild it further up the slope of the nearby hillside.
A small farm remained on this site until 1954 when new residents, current owner Pálmi’s parents, took over the land and began extending the farm. They built a new farmhouse on the present site in 1968.
Hunkubakkar opened its doors to guests in 1974, offering bed and breakfast to passing visitors. Present owners Pálmi and Jóhanna took over running the farming side of the business in 1988, adding the guesthouse to their operations in 2000.
The Fires of Skaftá River
Nature has demonstrated irresistible power in the area around Hunkubakkar. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and glacial bursts have all contributed to the shaping of the district’s rugged landscape.
In June 1783, a series of earthquakes shook the area for several days before a massive eruption began on Whitsunday, with thunderous booms, ash-falls and the stench of sulphur in the air. This was the start of one of the greatest lava flows in recent geological history, as molten rock spewed out of a two rows of craters and covered 600 sq. km. of land. The total volume of lava was 15 cubic kilometres.
Poisonous ash settled in almost every part of the country and polluting gases hung in the air. The foul atmosphere gave the period its name – The Misty Hardships (Móðuharðindi). The ash poisoned pastures and hay, and livestock starved. As hunger or poisonous gases killed more and more animals, people began dying from hunger.
The number of horses was reduced by two thirds and only one fifth of the sheep flock survived. Two of every five people died in the districts around Hunkubakkar; 20 farms were completely engulfed by lava and a further 30 were so badly damaged they were no longer viable.
A dense cloud of ash hung in the atmosphere and gradually spread around the Northern Hemisphere, shrouding the sun and causing cold weather around the globe. Thomas Jefferson, later to become President of the United States of America, was an amateur meteorologist who kept accurate records of temperatures and weather patterns. He noted that in the three years after the eruption, average temperatures in New York fell by several degrees. The winter of 1784 was almost 5°C cooler than usual.
One of the fathers of modern science, Benjamin Franklin, was an Ambassador in Paris, France at the time. He noted that “during the summer of 1783, a thick persistent haze covered Europe and part of North America. A magnifying glass wouldn’t even burn paper,” he said, “so dim were the sun’s rays.”
In the following years, there were devastating crop failures throughout Europe and as far away as Japan, causing immense hardship in many countries. Some theories suggest that the Fires of Skaftá River indirectly triggered the French Revolution.
The Sermon of Fire
One Sunday, as the eruption reached its peak, Father Jón Steingrímsson held a service in his church in the small town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. A month and a half had passed since the eruption had begun. Father Jón considered the eruption to be a punishment from God for debauchery, laziness, and sinful living. The lava flow was bearing down on the town at speed with thunderous rumblings and crashes. The terrified residents believed their only hope lay in the church. A service began and Father Jón called to God, promising that his congregation would repent their wicked and sinful ways. As the service continued, the lava-flow reached the course of the Skaftá river near an outcrop called Systrastapi, just outside the town. And there it stopped. This remarkable event was attributed to Father Jón’s compelling prayers and his address to the congregation is now known as the “Sermon of Fire”.
The snow-white caps of the mountains to the west of Hunkubakkar hide another dormant threat to the otherwise tranquil lives of the residents of South Iceland. Under the thick ice of Mýrdalsjökull sleeps the active volcano Katla, which last erupted in 1918. When Katla wakens and hot lava bursts out under the glacier there is a sudden, massive melting of ice and millions of litres of melt-water burst out from under the ice and spill over the surrounding plain, washing away farms and villages. The glacial burst leaves a thick deposit of black volcanic sand in its wake.