The island has had a turbulent and bloody history. The Landnámabók recounts that Ingólfur Arnarson originally came to Iceland with his blood-brother Hjörleifur, who was murdered by his Irish slaves (Westmen) shortly after landing. The slaves then fled to Heimaey, but Ingólfur hunted them down and killed them all.
Over the centuries the island was a marauders’ favourite. The English raided Heimaey throughout the 15th century, building Iceland’s stone fort Skansinn as their HQ. In 1627 Heimaey suffered the most awful attack by Algerian pirates, who went on a killing spree around the island, murdering 36 islanders and kidnapping 242 more (almost three-quarters of the population). The rest managed to escape by abseiling down cliffs or hiding in caves along the west coast. Those who were kidnapped were taken as slaves to north Africa; years later, 27 islanders had their freedom bought for them…and had a long walk home.
The volcanoes that formed Heimaey have come close to destroying the island on several occasions. The most famous eruption in modern times began unexpectedly at 1.45am on 23 January 1973, when a vast fissure burst open, gradually mutating into the volcano Eldfell, and prompting the island’s evacuation.