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Like a candle in the wind: A heartwarming tradition in the Westman Islands

By Sara McMahon

  • Lovely sight Pétur Steingrímsson, a police officer in the Westman Islands, hikes up Heimaklettur cliff every other day, all year round, in order to light an outdoor candle on its slopes for other people to enjoy during the winter months. Photo/Pétur Steingrímsson

A father, a daughter, and a police man hiked up a cliff. This is not the beginning of a joke, but rather a true story about a heartwarming tradition in the Westman Islands.

 

In late October last year, I went to visit my family in the Westman Islands, a cluster of fifteen islands off the south coast of Iceland, only one of which is inhabited. A friend of mine had tagged along and as the ship delicately maneuvered its way into the harbor, she inquired: “Where are the candles you told me about?” My eyes quickly scanned the towering cliff facing us, Heimaklettur, which translates as Home Cliff, and then I pointed out a little candle flame that flickered to and fro in the wind. “There it is! And there’s another one!” I exclaimed, surprisingly excited about the whole thing. It was simply such a welcoming sight after driving through rain, sleet, and a driving northerly wind to get to this remote location.

“The first couple of days after we first started to light the candles in Heimaklettur, my colleagues at the police station got a number of phone calls from concerned people who thought someone was in trouble and trying to signal for help."

Heimaklettur is a palagonite cliff that shelters the town of Vestmannaeyjar from the strong northern winds. It stands 279 meters high and has become an emblem of sorts for the island. Geologically speaking, it is one of the oldest parts of the island, dating back ten thousand years. To reach the top of the cliff, one must climb up two rather steep, wooden ladders, no easy task for the faint-hearted, believe me.

Pétur Steingrímsson, a police officer in the Westman Islands, hikes up Heimaklettur cliff every other day, all year round, in order to light an outdoor candle on its slopes for other people to enjoy during the winter months. Svavar Steingrímsson, no relation, and his daughter Halla do so as well. They have been doing this for five years now and intend to carry on the tradition for as long as their health allows.

Phone calls to the police

“The first couple of days after we first started to light the candles in Heimaklettur, my colleagues at the police station got a number of phone calls from concerned people who thought someone was in trouble and trying to signal for help. The police knew about my little hikes up Heimaklettur cliff and kindly told the callers not to worry, no one was in danger, it was only a candle that I had lit. They also very logically pointed out that in this day and age most would probably phone for help instead of lighting a candle,” Pétur recalls.

Pétur Steingrímsson, heimaklettur, vestmannaeyjar

Pétur Steingrímsson with his wife on top of Heimaklettur. 

The policeman was born and raised on the island and has lived there his entire life, apart from a year spent on the mainland after the 1973 volcanic eruption. He began his regular hikes up Heimaklettur in 2009.

“I wanted to do more outdoor exercise and one lovely day I decided to hike up Heimaklettur,” he says, adding that the view from the top of the cliff is unprecedented. “It hits you from all angles and one can’t help but feel amazed by its beauty. It becomes addictive and in order to feed your addiction you hike up the cliff again and again, at the same time you feel the body growing stronger and the mind becoming calmer.  In the beginning I resolved to hike up Heimaklettur every other day, all year around. This is still my goal, although I haven’t always been able to stick to that plan,” he explains. “It can take from an hour to up to three hours to hike up Heimaklettur, depending on your state of mind. You can either sprint or stroll up to the top.”

On his hikes up Heimaklettur, he would regularly encounter other hikers. Among those were Svavar Steingrímsson and his daughter Halla.
“When the days got shorter, the three of us would bring outdoor candles on our hikes, place them in a sheltered spot on the mountain side and light them. I can’t remember what made us do this, most likely it was merely for our own pleasure. It wasn’t a joint decision to start with, but with time it developed into teamwork. Each one of us has a special candle spot – one clearly visible from our homes. The candles can burn for ten to twelve hours in calm weather.”

 

Pétur Steingrímsson, heimaklettur, vestmannaeyjar

Two candles lighting up the winter sky. Photo/Steingrímur

 

A heartening gesture

Most evenings, after darkness descends, one can see the candle flames fluttering on top of the cliff. Some days it is just the one, other days you can spot three. According to Pétur, his fellow islanders find the gesture quite heartening.

“The unlikeliest of people have commented on it and told us how much they enjoy it. Should I not hike up Heimaklettur on a good day, people often want to know the reason why,” Pétur says, adding: “I was extremely touched when I found out that patients at the hospital enjoyed seeing the glow in the distance. The cliff is in plain view from the hospital and many have told me the sight fills them with a sense of joy and warmth. Others would search for the flame before going to bed at night.”

Pétur Steingrímsson, heimaklettur, vestmannaeyjar

Sheep roam free on the cliff all year around. Photo/Steingrímur

An old friend of Pétur was so thankful that he had his daughter, an artist, do a painting of Heimaklettur and presented it to Steingrímsson as a token of his gratitude.

To start with, the trio paid for the candles from their own pocket, but as their gesture continued to attract attention, others began to chip in. The Heimaey Candle Factory is among those who lend a helping hand, and Steingrímsson is thankful for their help.

“They make excellent candles that burn for hours on end. The managing director views this as good advertising and gives us a generous discount,” the kind-hearted policeman concludes.

Bonfires on the hillside

For decades, the people of the Westman Islands, or Eyjamenn as Icelanders call them, have lit candles and bonfires on mountain slopes for special occasions. It began in 1948 when one of the two local football teams, Týr, organized celebrations for the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January.

Humans, Yule Lads, elves, trolls, and imps all come together for festive song and dance and formally bid farewell to Christmas.

This is the last day of Christmas, and on that day the thirteen mischievous Icelandic Yule Lads head back to their homes in the mountains. The festivities end with a huge communal bonfire on the slopes of the mountain Há, where humans, Yule Lads, elves, trolls, and imps all come together for festive song and dance and formally bid farewell to Christmas.

Bonfires are also a big part of New Year’s Eve. Members of the other football team, Þór, would use hemp to form the club’s crest and the date, place it on the slope of Helgafell mountain and set it on fire just before midnight. This tradition has since been abolished.

For some years, a local would hike up Heimaklettur on New Year’s Eve, arrange a number of outdoor candles and light them. The candles would burn through the end of the old year and into the new.
“For some reason this person stopped doing this and Svavar Steingrímsson and Halla took over. All this candle-lighting activity is highly dependent on good weather, which is not always the case around these parts,” Steingrímsson says.
 

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