A windswept rock emerges from the Atlantic Ocean, waves battering it from every angle. This is Iceland… but only just. The mainland is a hazy blur way off in the distance. Here, the only inkling of human activity is a single, solitary house. It’s a home so remote, so incredibly isolated, that it’s known as the “loneliest house in the world.” And if that’s not unsettling enough, the building harbors a dark history. After all, why would anybody build a house so far from civilization, if not for sinister intentions?
This tiny islet is called Elliðaey and is part the Vestmannaejar archipelago, which consists of 15 islands and 30 smaller formations. It’s said that only one of these landmasses – a place called Heimaey – is settled by people all year round. So, what’s the deal with the house on Elliðaey?
The house is quite the sight – a completely unexpected structure on an otherwise unblemished island. Elliðaey is just an isolated dot of land in an ocean wilderness, which is untouched by roads or power cables. In fact, the residence itself is the only obvious sign that human beings have ever stepped foot there.
Though someone has obviously been on Elliðaey. So, the question is: who was this person or group of people? And why exactly did they seek out such an isolated place to build a house? Many people have given this some thought over the years and have proposed some pretty wild theories.
Stories involving everything from pop stars to zombies have been told to account for the enigmatic house on Elliðaey. Yet do any of these eccentric tales ring true? Well, the island and the wider Vestmannaejar archipelago both have an interesting history.
The Westman Islands – as the archipelago is known in English – has quite a dark past. And its history of human inhabitation begins with the man whose family are believed to have been the first to settle in Iceland. This was a slave owner called Ingólfr Arnarson. Apparently, two of his subjects once tried to desert their master and ended up on the Westman Islands. Though Arnarson managed to track these poor souls down again and dispose of them, according to the Guide to Iceland website.
These two slaves had been from Ireland – an island which was once thought to be the world’s most westerly piece of land. The discovery of Iceland later disproved this theory, but Irish people were nonetheless known as “Westmen.” So, it’s these two men to which the aforementioned islands owe their name.
The island of Heimaey – which is the biggest in the chain – later saw a population begin to develop. The place, after all, offered a good supply of food thanks to its abundant seawaters and significant puffin population. Though Guide to Iceland notes that in 1627 the island was invaded by Algerian pirates, who wreaked havoc and took prisoners.
This pirate invasion had been a dark chapter in the history of the Westman Islands. But things in the archipelago seemed to stabilize over the years. And as the 20th century rolled on, the archipelago modernized and became more connected to the mainland. But in a flash, life was uprooted once again in 1974. Without warning, a previously unnoticed volcano erupted to life on Heimaey.
Molten hot lava and toxic chemicals were spewed forth from the volcano and spread all over Heimaey. Yet the island had already concocted a special plan should any emergencies arise. And it seemed to work! According to Guide to Iceland, not a single person was killed by the disaster.
Still, though, it’s not like the eruption was harmless. The residents of the island had been able to leave, but their homes were still there and needed protection. So, a clever scheme was enacted which saw the authorities pump seawater onto the lava. This cooled it down and even helped to steer its flow away from the houses.
Nonetheless, around 20 percent of Heimaey’s buildings had been wiped out by the eruption, Guide to Iceland notes. And not everyone who’d been evacuated actually came back to stay. The website claims that the island’s population only recovered to roughly 85 percent of its previous count. Having said all that, there was one surprising benefit of the disaster. All the lava that’d been released eventually cooled and created new land. Plus, the volcano itself became a tourist attraction.
In more recent times, the islands have retained their status as a tourist hotspot. The volcano is a great source of interest for people, and the crater that emerged in the wake of the eruption is now open to visitors. But the nature present in the archipelago is also a huge draw.
Puffin-watching is apparently a big activity throughout the Westman Islands. The eye-catching birds show up across Iceland and the nearby archipelago in huge numbers during the warmer months of the year. They set up along the rocky edges of the islands and sea stacks – enthralling any visitors to the area.
Many other species of bird make the Westman Islands their home, but puffins are far and away in the majority. There is plenty of pretty incredible wildlife in the sea, too. A variety of different whale species can be spotted in the waters of the region – including orcas, humpbacks and fin whales.
But despite all these animal inhabitants, the Westman Islands tend to be very sparsely populated in terms of people. Heimaey is the only landmass here with permanent residents, and the others only ever host animals and tourists. Though that begs the question: why is that solitary house on Elliðaey island?
Elliðaey wasn’t always devoid of human inhabitants. According to Earthporm.com, five different families lived there three centuries ago – surviving through farming, fishing and hunting birds. So, the house that stands there today must have been built by these people, right? Well, no, as they actually set up in huts.
The families had also apparently abandoned the island by some point in the 1930s, Earthporm.com notes. Supposedly, they had decided that better opportunities lay elsewhere – despite the abundant supply of puffins on Elliðaey.
Since that time, nobody has been known to live on the island – so what’s with the house that stands there? That’s a question that many people have asked themselves, as an image of the place went viral. With that, of course, some interesting thoughts were put forward by internet users.
Plenty of the ideas were pretty out-there, but one in particular probably blows the rest out of the water. Basically, this line of thinking suggested that the house on Elliðaey had been constructed by a profoundly wealthy person. And the reason they did this was so they’d have a safe place to go to should zombies take over the world.
Another idea claimed that the house had been built by an extremist religious figure seeking solitude. Yet another went so far as to suggest that the place wasn’t really there at all, that the house was a trick of image editing software. The thinking was that somebody did this in order to generate a story for the media.
Other people bought into a theory concerning the Icelandic pop star Björk. This idea was based on newspaper reports that the musician had been in the market for an island of her own. Apparently, she was even engaged in talks with the government of Iceland about constructing a recording studio and house on Elliðaey.
Claims even surfaced that the government had actually given Elliðaey to Björk without receiving any compensation in return. The island had apparently been a present to one of Iceland’s most famous citizens. This was a compelling tale, of course, but in reality it wasn’t the truth.
The story, it seems, emerged out of a pretty simple misunderstanding. You see, Björk reportedly was actually interested in finding an island for herself. And she even had her eye on one in particular. This place, coincidentally, was also called Elliðaey. So, it’s clear to see how the confusion first originated.
But even though Björk was apparently considering this other Elliðaey, she never actually ended up with it. That seems to be because the public was largely against it. So, after a while, the singer reportedly gave up on the idea of her secluded haven.
So, if Björk isn’t behind the house – and if it isn’t owned by a zombie-fearing billionaire or a reclusive religious leader – then what’s the real story? Well, the real answer might not be as ostentatious as some of these theories that have spread. But it’s still pretty dark and sad.
Basically, the house can all be traced to the high numbers of puffins that end up nesting on the island. A group known as the Elliðaey Hunting Association reportedly constructed the property on the island to help in their activities. These individuals apparently hunt puffins and collect their eggs after they’ve been laid.
This is a grim idea, as puffins are undoubtedly charming creatures. The manner with which they move and their colorful beaks have, after all, proven to be a source of fascination for people for generations. And their likeness has even been used by the book publisher Penguin for its Puffin range of kids’ books.
But hunting puffins isn’t just grizzly in and of itself. The practice is ultimately an existential threat to the species at large. Their numbers have been falling in recent times, which is a huge concern for conservationists. Also, puffins reproduce quite slowly, so the consequences of hunting could be dire.
Puffin meat is regarded as a culinary luxury in places like the Faroe Islands and Iceland. That’s a concern, as most of the birds can actually be found in Iceland itself. According to The Conversation, somewhere close to 90 percent of puffins live in Europe. And 60 percent of them arrive in Iceland specifically during the mating season.
Like in many other countries, bird hunting is in some way regulated. Though the rules for puffins and certain other species are looser in Iceland. So, at certain times of the year, it’s perfectly within the boundaries of the law to kill puffins. It’s actually a practice with roots in Icelandic culture going back generations.
Puffin hunting remains legal in Iceland – even though the animal is classified as “Critically Endangered” on the country’s Red List of Birds. So, the threat of total extinction is very real. This is a stark contrast to the year 2000, when the species was ranked as “Least Concern.”
So, given the threats that face puffins, we can view the house on Elliðaey as a particularly dark place. It was, after all, built with the sole purpose of allowing puffin-hunting excursions to run as smoothly as possible. It’s essentially just a base for hunters to rest and refuel.
The house even boasts a sauna for the people who come to the island for a hunt, according to News.com.au. Having said that, the property isn’t particularly luxurious elsewhere. The building is without electricity or running water, and the sauna itself makes use of rainwater that’s been collected from the island.
Actually reaching the island can be something of a challenge for hunters. Naturally, you have to sail there, but actually climbing onto the isle is quite difficult. Given the steep cliff edges, you can only get up with the help of a zip line. And the usage of this is strictly afforded to the Elliðaey Hunting Association community.
Opposition to the puffin-hunting activities has emerged in recent times. For instance, in 2018 a group known as Fuglavernd BirdLife Iceland called for the practice to be forbidden by law. Fuglavernd is a fee-paying NGO made up of around 1,300 people who seek to protect Iceland’s birds and their ecosystems, according to Protectpuffins.is.
Hunting puffins is a very real problem for the species, and it could ultimately contribute towards its extinction. Having said that, the good news is that the practice does seem to have lessened over the last two and a half decades. From 1995 to 2017, Protectpuffins.is notes that there was a more than 90 percent drop.
Sadly, a hunting ban wouldn’t entirely solve the problems that are presently facing puffins. While the practice is a big issue for the species, it’s far from the only one. Changes to the climate are making life very difficult for puffins, too. Alterations to global temperatures and over-fishing are particularly dangerous.
The increasing temperature of the ocean is one issue that scientists have also called attention to. The problem with this is that certain fish that puffins prey on are forced to migrate to colder waters in the north. This means that the birds’ conventional habitat has less food than before.
So, the threats facing puffins are multiple, and hunting certainly doesn’t help matters. Given this context, then, we can say that the whimsical-looking house on Elliðaey actually represents something quite dark. Though given the birds’ declining numbers, pressure will likely continue to limit or even outlaw hunting puffins in Iceland.