Cultural traditions in Iceland are linked to the unique nature and its inhabitants, by this we mean inhabitants of different kinds of species who interact and create a close bond with the people of this country. One of the vivid illustrations of this fact is the Annual Sheep gathering celebration also known as the Réttir festival.
Honoured from the earliest of times, it is both an important date in the calendar cycle of livestock keepers and a celebration of family and friendship, kinship and neighbourly solidarity and unity. This is when sheep farmers across the entire country invite relatives and friends to help them round up and take sheep from their summer pastures in the plains and mountains to wintering places closer to the farms. Activities take place over one weekend during the period late September and early October.
Icelandic sheep farming
Bred and raised for centuries, Icelandic sheep are a very specific breed. Their breed is extremely pure, mainly because they have been kept and preserved in isolation for more than 11 centuries. During this time they have survived subarctic frosts and have adapted to survive. They vary in colour – there are said to be over 30 colours in sheep, including yellow, black and brown, but white is the dominant colour. Their wool is soft and warm, breathable and airy, light and waterproof. That’s why the popular lopapeysur wool sweaters knitted from it spread the fame of Icelandic sheep all over the world.
Sheep herds are an integral part of the Icelandic symbol – numbering around 800 000, or double the population here. For centuries, they have provided people with vital products and raw materials for which they have their attention, care and love. Unlike in European countries, after the lambs are born in May, the sheep are let loose for the summer on high mountain grazing. This continues until September when the réttir occurs.
Sheep gathering – Réttir
On the day of the gathering, sheep owners, relatives and friends accompanied by their faithful sheepdogs and horses, and set about grouping and guiding the sheep to the specified location. Oftentimes, physical effort is required for days to successfully round all the sheep therefore the surrounding and more distant communities pitch in to help.
The march of cascades of white-horned sheep with heavy wool, surrounded by riders, high-wheeled machines, walkers and dogs is truly a sight to remember. A peculiar and interesting moment is the sorting of the sheep at the réttir, which is also an ancient tradition: circular pens with diverse sections are set up so that individual farmers can separate their own sheep.
They are identified mainly by earmarks, and then each person decides which sheep go to shearing and which to slaughter. The effort is followed by a great celebration, with music, picnics, dancing and singing, each farmer helping the other to lead his flock. These moments are shared by the many tourists present, with some coming especially for the celebration. Local and foreign good horse riders are specially invited both to help and join in the fun on the night of the feast and to sing and dance at the local round-up shindig or Réttaball. After the hard work, dishes of sheep meat – svið (sheep’s head) and lamb chops – are put on the table.
Places where Réttir takes place
The event is anticipated and its programme is usually widely publicised through the local press: here and now, if you open Icelandic websites and media, you will see detailed invitations to attend Réttir on certain dates, with a detailed hour-by-hour programme of activities and entertainment in many parts of Iceland, more than 150.
Although Réttir happens all over the country, some areas that have preserved this tradition for decades are settlements and places in the north of Iceland, e.g. the Skagafjörður settlement, places around Akureyri, the Svartárdalur valley and the historic Eyjafjörður fjord, the Bjarteyjarsandur farm close to the capital.
The next possible encounter of Réttir is in the markets of the towns and villages. Restaurants also serve dishes made from organically reared lambs based on old recipes such as the black pudding blóðmör and the sheep liver sausage lifrapylsa.