ALTHOUGH celebrations have been going on all year, today is the 100th anniversary of the island of Iceland gaining its independence as a sovereign nation. As the Icelandic Parliament, the Althing, states: “Iceland became a free and sovereign state on 1 December 1918, when the Union Treaty with Denmark came into effect. “ There were some who said the equivalent of Iceland being too wee, too poor and too stupid to go it alone. No one says that now.

FIRST settled by Norwegians in the ninth century, Iceland was effectively its own country for hundreds of years, ruled over by the Althing. Internal wars ended with Norway taking over in the 13th century. The Kalmar Union of Norway, Sweden and Denmark ruled from 1415, then Denmark-Norway in the 16th century, before Denmark alone ruled Iceland until 1918 though successive Danish monarchies and governments tended to leave the Icelanders to their own devices.

THE French Revolution sparked thoughts of change in many European countries and Iceland was no different. Being ranked as a dependency of Denmark never sat well with a democracy-loving people who could trace their history back a thousand years, so throughout the 19th century a growing independence movement emphasised Iceland’s different culture and social mores of harmony and cooperation.

Jon Sigurdsson came to the fore in the Icelandic nationalist movement in the 1840s and 50s, leading the country’s opposition to the changes in Denmark’s constitution that was rejected by the Icelandic National Assembly in 1851. He lived mostly in Denmark but his influence on Icelandic thought was massive and his birthday, June 17, was chosen as Iceland’s National Day.

Denmark granted Iceland some autonomy in 1874, and the clamour grew for full independence, with a Minister for Iceland being created in 1904. The island’s politicians pressed for full independence and in 1918, the Denmark-Iceland union was passed by both Parliaments, recognising Iceland as a free country under the Danish monarchy from December 1, 1918.

IT is key to understanding Icelandic independence that while nominally in a union with Denmark from 1918 for a guaranteed 25 years, in effect the country was independent from the start. In 1944, after the Union expired, the people voted in a referendum to make Iceland an independent republic. In 1918, the population of Iceland was around 92,000 and now it is nearly 350,000 – had Scotland’s population of 4.9 million in 1918 grown at the same rate we would now have 17m people instead of 5.3m.

Iceland started with precious few natural resources except renewable energy from its hot geysers, and some of the richest fishing grounds on the planet. With Denmark, Iceland declared neutrality at the outbreak of World War II, but after the German occupation of Denmark, Britain invaded Iceland due to its strategic importance, though the US became responsible for its defence. The country’s industries diversified but the importance of fishing was such that Iceland fought, and won, the Cod Wars with the UK.

The nation’s banks were liberalised at the start of this century and became the main factor in Iceland’s explosion of economic growth before they infamously and ignominiously collapsed – unlike Britain, however, the Icelanders jailed their greedy bankers. Iceland remains a beacon of democratic social harmony and is frequently ranked high in the ratings for prosperity, environmentalism and social justice.

IN keeping with the national culture, they are having a modest shindig or two today. Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir will host a celebration ceremony in front of the Cabinet House with music and poetry readings.

The President of Iceland Gudni Th. Johannesson will attend along with Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen. The Red Cross will provide hot cocoa for all spectators, but we rather suspect there will be something stronger drunk at the many parties planned for tonight. We should raise a glass to our neighbours and say Skal.