The Skaftárhreppur district, the eastern part of West Skaftafellssýsla, stretches from the river Blautakvísl at Mýrdalssandur in the west, to the Sandgígjukvísl river at Skeiðarársandur in the east. The district derives its name from the Skaftá river, which rises beneath the Skaftárjökull glacier and flows down to the sea at Veiðiós and Kúðaós. The river is about 115 kilometres in length. The Skaftárhreppur district was formed in 1990 with the unification of five rural districts: Hörgslandshreppur, Kirkjubæjarhreppur, Leiðvallahreppur, Skaftártunguhreppur and Álftavershreppur.
The cornerstone of the local economy is agriculture and animal husbandry, while tourism is a growing sector. Kirkjubæjarklaustur is a centre of commerce, services and industry. The population of Skaftárhreppur is 467, as of December 1, 2008. The district spans a great variety of landscape and vegetation, with a natural environment of striking contrasts. Landscapes and vegetation in the district are quite varied, and the natural contrasts astounding. Skaftárhreppur enjoys a pleasant climate, with mild winters and warm, sunny summers.
Natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and sudden floods from beneath the glacier have through the centuries shaped the nature and society of the region. In 1783, a huge lava flow streamed from Lakagígar in what became known as the “Laki eruption”. This is believed to have been one of the greatest lava flows in a single eruption in the history of the world: the molten lava filled the gorges through which the Skaftá and Hverfisfljót rivers flowed, and swept down in two branches into inhabited areas, to spread over the lowlands where it laid waste to many farms.
The eruption produced large quantities of volcanic ash. For residents of the region, and Iceland as a whole, the results of the eruption were catastrophic: this period is known as “Móðuharðindin” (the Haze Famine). Beneath the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap lies Mt. Katla, which has erupted repeatedly in historic times, most recently in 1918. Eruptions have also taken place in historic times in Eldgjá and under the Öræfajökull glacier, as well as at smaller volcanic sites. Kirkjubæjarklaustur in Síða was known in olden times as “Kirkjubær” (Church Farm) and was an important farming estate. Kirkjubæjarklaustur has developed into a village, the only centre of population in the district, with about 120 inhabitants.
Kirkubæjarklaustur, often abbreviated to “Klaustur” is centrally located in the district. Roads radiate from Kirkjubæjarklaustur in many different directions. The Ring Road (No.1) runs through the district. The Laki road, just west of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, leads into the highlands. The circular Landbrot/Meðalland road serves the southern part of the district. The Fjallabak roads (north and south) lead from the Ring Road into the interior via Skaftártunga. The Álftaver road is a circular route serving Álftaver on Mýrdalssandur.
Kirkjubæjarklaustur has a long and interesting history. Irish hermits, “papar,” are believed to have lived at Kirkjubær before the Norse settlement of Iceland. Tradition says that it has always been inhabited by Christians, and that pagans were unwelcome. The 9th century settler Ketill the Foolish made his home at Kirkjubær. After Ketill’s time, Hildir Eysteinsson from Meðalland, a pagan, attempted to move to Kirkjubær. When he set foot on the estate, he fell down dead, and was buried in Hildishaugur (Hildir’s Mound), a rocky hillock just east of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. In 1186, a Benedictine convent was founded at Kirkjubær. The convent was active until disbanded during the Reformation in 1550. Many local place names and folk tales reflect the presence of the nuns and ecclesiastical history down the centuries.