By Emily Lethbridge, Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies
Patreksfjörður 1983 and 2023
Earlier this year, the 40-year anniversary of a traumatic avalanche event in the West Fjords of Iceland was marked. On the 22nd January 1983, the town of Patreksfjörður was hit by two avalanches a couple of hours apart. Four people were killed, others were injured, and there was great damage to buildings. This year, just a few days after the 1983 disaster was commemorated by a memorial service on the 22nd January 2023, the past repeated itself when a slush flood (Icel. krapaflóð) fell down the same route, reaching the town. Thankfully on this occasion no houses were hit and the damage was limited. Nonetheless, trauma and anxiety must have been renewed for some local residents, just when the community effort to mark the passing of two decades from the earlier avalanche was intended to help ease psychological and emotional pain.
Subsequently, place-names have become part of the local and national discussion about future avalanche threats and plans to build avalanche barriers in Patreksfjörður, amongst other related aspects. On the 15th February 2023, the regional municipality for the area, Vesturbyggð sveitarfélag, posted a short article on their website in which attention was drawn to the fact that the channel of the avalanche, a gully in the mountain above the town, has several alternative names. After information about each name variant, local residents were invited to complete an online poll, voting either for one of the existing names, or suggesting another one.
Stekkjargil, Stekkagil, Geirseyrargil, Gilið
In each of the variant names, the generic element, gil (gully/ravine), is present. Two of the names are essentially different grammatical versions of the same specific element stekkur (a sheep-pen used during the spring lambing period to separate lambs from their mothers when they were milked), Stekkjargil being a singular form and Stekkagil a plural form. Place-name records for the area from 1969 that are kept in the place-name archive at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies use the form Stekkagil. But the National Land Survey of Iceland database and corresponding online map have the primary form Stekkjargil.
A third name, Geirseyrargil, has a different modifier: the name of a farm, Geirseyri, that was located on the site of the present town of Patreksfjörður which only began to form around 1900. Geirseyrargil is, according to Vesturbyggð sveitarfélag, a form that people not local to the area (e.g. meteorologists, scientists, emergency response officials and news reporters) who were involved in the aftermath of the 1983 avalanche took up. Finally, a fourth name, the generic element preceded by the definite article, Gilið (The Gully/Ravine), is apparently used by locals in daily speech. Gilið is not in fact given as an option in the online poll, but the opportunity to suggest any other name than Stekkjargil/Stekkagil/Geirseyrargil might have been included with the name Gilið in mind.
Place-names can unite and divide
Examples can be found from all parts of the globe where a specific geographical feature has more than one alternative name-form. Sometimes, these forms can co-exist without particular problems or outright conflict though one or another stakeholder will believe the name they champion is the more “correct“ or “better“ form. One or another form may also be preferred in formal or administrative discourse, and complex political/historical contexts may play a role here.
Discussion about alternative names for existing or new geographical features in Iceland is not infrequently found in the Icelandic media, and on social media forums such as Facebook. This is not surprising since as Anders Sandin (2016, 8) writes, “names are more than just a practical label that people need to find their way about. They mean many other things to us. Names have many roles and functions“: as well as being practical, they convey feelings, capture ideologies, and create community.
Reading between the lines of the municipal account of alternative names for the gully above Patreksfjörður, though, it seems that a lack of consensus over which name to use (and a difference in local vs outsiders’ choice of name) is causing social tension at a time when it is crucial for members of the local community to be united. The specifics of this situation — the collective and individual trauma associated with the gully and the impact of the 1983 avalanche on the local community – clearly make it especially sensitive.
Since the results have not yet been announced, it remains to be seen whether the poll will help build local and national solidarity or cause further disagreement and/or confusion. It is interesting to see an example of a local authority utilising a place-name debate as part of a strategy to cope collectively with a community’s past losses and present fears. Symbolically, too, inviting participation in the vote for one or another of the names is arguably something more than encouraging individuals to take part in a process involving consensus: it is a way of bringing together all affected parties in an effort to (re-)assert control over natural forces that threaten the safety of the community.
Sandin, Anders, 2016. Good Place-Name Practice: The Swedish Place-Names Advisory Board’s Guide to the Standardisation and Preservation of Place-Names. Ortnamn og namnvård 6. Gävle. Online here.
Sarnowski, Michael, 2018. Revisiting the Sites of Trauma: The War Poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, and Richard Hugo. Journal of Literature and Trauma Studies 7.2: 1-20.
 As Michael Sarnowski (2018, 1) noted in his study of World War One poets and their references to places and place-names, “Understanding history and the processing of memory often relies on the perspective generated from one’s sense of place. The prevailing memories of a war and the events of monumental and often catastrophic change are captured in place names. Cities, towns, rivers, hills, beaches, and other geographical landmarks have become synonymous with victory, devastation, horror, and inhumanity.”