With a population of about 180 people, Bíldudalur is the smallest of the three towns in the southwestern part of the Westfjords. It is also the northernmost of the three, being situated on the southern coast of Arnarfjörður. The region around the town has a long history, dating back to the Viking era. And just north and east of the town are several sites that were home to events in the Gísli Saga. Historically, Bíldudalur was a thriving fishing center, being the harbor for the first fishing steam powered ship in the early 1900s. (More information is available at bildudalur.is). Currently, however, the main industries in town are the calcium plant (Kalkþörungafélagið) and a small shrimp processing plant.
In addition to these and the various residences located above and adjacent to the town´s harbor, its school, post office, and boat and machine workshops, Bildudalur is home to several key enterprises that are rather entrepreneurial in nature. Located in the town centre is the Vegamót, or cross roads, a small restaurant and coffee shop which is owned by Hannes Friðriksson and his daughter Birna, and which opened in 1986. Although the shop does most of its business during the summer time, they keep it open year round for the townspeople, several of whom visit it daily for lunch. In addition to beverages and food, Hannes and Birna try to stock items that meet the needs of the townspeople. This past holiday season, for instance, they provided a variety of Christmas gifts and decorations.
Vegamót like the N1 shops and gas stations that one finds in all of the towns in the Westfjords, places like Vegamót play a critical role in the life of the community. In addition to being a source of supplies that can be acquired on short notice (without having to drive to a bigger town) it also serves as a place where people meet and chat and sit for coffee.
One of the interesting items that can be had at the Vegamót is a bottle of beer adorned with labels that are decorated with paintings of some of the old townspeople, who have some colorful stories attached to them. When we visited, Hannes told us the story of Siggi Ben, for whom the local tavern in the towns hostel is named (there is a picture of Siggi Ben also on the corner outside of the Vegamót.) The beer is made every other year for the town festival, Bíldudals-grænar.
Siggi was a carpenter from Bíldular who cut his finger off with a saw one day. In fact, Hannes showed us a photograph that he took of him standing with his finger on a plate. While the finger was attached successfully, SB told his wife that the doctor told him he had to have a drink everyday until it heeled. So she went around town and collected all the wine she could to keep him in good spirits (so to speak) until he was healed. As the town carpenter, he was responsible for building coffins when the occasion demanded. He built one for himself, which he kept in his shop to rest in during the day. As the story goes a woman was looking for him to have some work done and she was directed to his workshop. When she went in, he sat up in his coffin, and spooked off his prospective client.
There are also three cultural centers located in Bíldudalur. One, a music museum, is in the basement of the home of Jón Kr. Ólafsson. A small private museum, it hosts a considerable collection of LPs and other musical paraphernalia that Jón collected of his many years as one of Iceland½s noted vocalists, and who sang during the 60s for the band Facon. During his career, he befriended and performed with such noteworthy Icelandic vocalists as Haukur Morthens and Raggi Bjarna.
Just across the road from the music museum is the Skrímslasetur or Sea Monster museum. While the idea of sea monsters in Bíldudalur might seem a little far-fetched, there is a substantial tradition of around 200 stories of encounters with monsters coming out of the fjord and crossing paths with people in the area. Constructed in 2008 by volunteers interested in preserving and developing the town, the museum is located in the old canning factory in town (where beans and other local items were canned). Whether one believes or not, the museum offers a collection of books, displays and unusual items related to the sea monster tradition.
The third cultural center is the Dynjandi Gallery (named for the waterfall about 45 minutes to the north), which is owned and operated by Jón Þórðarson. A venue with a studio and gallery, Dynjandi has summer exhibitions of regional artists. Jón is currently in the process of a developing a threefold multimedia project involving painting, video, poetry and photography.
With the fishing industry on the decline in the Westfjords, townspeople who are concerned about seeing their villages survive have sought a variety of ways to create a sustainable livelihood in the region. By developing the cultural capital of a particular town, these three cultural centers represent a significant approach to the issue of surviving in tough times. They work to bring travelers to the area (there were about 5000 visitors to Bíldudalur in summer 2009).