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List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
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black sand mounting slowly into the heavens, accompanied
by subterranean thunders, and all the other symptoms
which precede volcanic disturbances. Then a coronet of
flame encircled the crater; masses of red rock, pumice,
and magnetic stones were flung out with tremendous violence
to an incredible distance, and in such continuous multitudes
as to resemble a swarm of bees clustering over the
mountain. One boulder of pumice six feet in circumference
was pitched twenty miies away; another of magnetic iron
fell at a distance of fifteen. The surface of the earth
was covered, for a circuit of one hundred and fifty miles,
with a layer of sand four inches deep; the air was so
darkened by it, that at a place one hundred and forty
miles off, white paper held up at a little distance could
not be distinguished from black. The fishermen could not
put to sea on account of the darkness, and the inhabitants
of the Orkney islands were frightened out of their senses
by showers of what they thought must be black snow. On
the 9th of April, the lava began to overflow, and ran
for five miles in a southwesterly direction, whilst, some
days later,--in order that no element might be wanting
to mingle in this devil's charivari,--a vast column of
water, like Robin Hood's second arrow, split up through
the cinder pillar to the height of several hundred feet;
the horror of the spectacle being further enhanced by an
accompaniment of subterranean cannonading and dire reports,
heard at a distance of fifty miles.

Striking as all this must have been, it sinks into
comparative tameness and insignificance, beside the
infinitely more terrible phenomena which attended the
eruption of another volcano, called Skapta jokul.

Of all countries in Europe, Iceland is the one which has
been the most minutely mapped, not even excepting the
ordnance survey of Ireland. The Danish Government seem
to have had a hobby about it, and the result has been a
chart so beautifully executed, that every little crevice,
each mountain torrent, each flood of lava, is laid down
with an accuracy perfectly astonishing. One huge blank,
however, in the south-west corner of this map of Iceland,
mars the integrity of its almost microscopic delineations.
To every other part of the island the engineer has
succeeded in penetrating; one vast space alone of about
four hundred square miles has defied his investigation.
Over the area occupied by the Skapta Jokul, amid its
mountain-cradled fields of snow and icy ridges, no human
foot has ever wandered. Yet it is from the bosom of this
desert district that has descended the most frightful
visitation ever known to have desolated the island.

This event occurred in the year 1783. The preceding winter
and spring had been unusually mild. Toward the end of
May, a light bluish fog began to float along the confines
of the untrodden tracts of Skapta, accompanied in the
beginning of June by a great trembling of the earth. On
the 8th of that month, immense pillars of smoke collected
over the hill country towards the north, and coming down
against the wind in a southerly direction, enveloped the
whole district of Sida in darkness. A whirlwind of ashes
then swept over the face of the country, and on the 10th,
innumerable fire spouts were seen leaping and flaring
amid the icy hollows of the mountain, while the river
Skapta, one of the largest in the island, having first
rolled down to the plain a vast volume of fetid waters
mixed with sand, suddenly disappeared.

Two days afterwards a stream of lava, issuing from sources
to which no one has ever been able to penetrate, came
sliding down the bed of the dried-up river, and in a
little time,--though the channel was six hundred feet
deep and two hundred broad,--the glowing deluge overflowed
its banks, crossed the low country of Medalland, ripping
the turf up before it like a table-cloth, and poured into
a great lake whose affrighted waters flew hissing and
screaming into the air at the approach of the fiery
intruder. Within a few more days the basin of the lake
itself was completely filled, and having separated into
two streams, the unexhausted torrent again recommenced
its march; in one direction overflowing soiree ancient
lava fields,--in the other, re-entering the channel of
the Skapta, and leaping down the lofty cataract of
Stapafoss.  But this was not all; while one lava flood
had chosen the Skapta for its bed, another, descending
in a different direction, was working like ruin within
and on either side the banks of the Hverfisfliot, rushing
into the plain, by all accounts, with even greater fury
and velocity. Whether the two issued from the same crater
it is impossible to say, as the sources of both were far
away within the heart of the unapproachable desert, and
even the extent of the lava flow can only be measured
from the spot where it entered the inhabited districts.
The stream which flowed down Skapta is calculated to be
about fifty miles in length by twelve or fifteen at its
greatest breadth; that which rolled down the Hverfisfliot,
at forty miles in length by seven in breadth.  Where it
was imprisoned, between the high banks of Skapta, the
lava is five or six hundred feet thick; but as soon as
it spread out into the plain its depth never exceeded
one hundred feet. The eruption of sand, ashes, pumice,
and lava, continued till the end of August, when the
Plutonic drama concluded with a violent earthquake.

For a whole year a canopy of cinder-laden cloud hung over
the island. Sand and ashes irretrievably overwhelmed
thousands of acres of fertile pasturage. The Faroe islands,
the Shetlands, and the Orkneys were deluged with volcanic
dust, which perceptibly contaminated even the pure skies
of England and Holland. Mephitic vapours tainted the
atmosphere of the entire island;--even the grass, which
no cinder rain had stifled, completely withered up; the
fish perished in the poisoned sea. A murrain broke out
among the cattle, and a disease resembling scurvy attacked
the inhabitants themselves. Stephenson has calculated
that 9,000 men, 28,000 horses, 11,000 cattle, 190,000
sheep, died from the effects of this one eruption. The
most moderate calculation puts the number of human deaths
at upwards of 1,300; and of cattle, etc. at about 156,000.

The whole of this century had proved most fatal to the
unfortunate people of Iceland. At its commencement smallpox
destroyed more than 16,000 persons; nearly 20,000 more
perished by a famine consequent on a succession of
inclement seasons; while from time to time the southern
coasts were considerably depopulated by the incursions
of English and even Algerine pirates.

The rest of our day's journey lay through a country less
interesting than the district we had traversed before
luncheon.  For the most part we kept on along the foot
of the hills, stopping now and then for a drink of milk
at the occasional farms perched upon their slopes.
Sometimes turning up a green and even bushy glen, (there
are no trees in Iceland, the nearest approach to anything
of the kind being a low dwarf birch, hardly worthy of
being called a shrub,) we would cut across the shoulder
of some projecting spur, and obtain a wider prospect of
the level land upon our right; or else keeping more down
in the flat, we had to flounder for half an hour up to
the horses' shoulders in an Irish bog.  After about five
hours of this work we reached the banks of a broad and
rather singular river, called the Bruara.  Halfway across
it was perfectly fordable; but exactly in the middle was
a deep cleft, into which the waters from either side
spilt themselves, and then in a collected volume roared
over a precipice a little lower down. Across this cleft
some wooden planks were thrown, giving the traveller an
opportunity of boasting that he had crossed a river on
a bridge which itself was under water. By this time we
had all begun to be very tired, and very hungry;--it was
11 o'clock P.M.  We had been twelve or thirteen hours on
horseback, not to mention occasional half-hours of pretty
severe walking after the ptarmigan and plover. Many were
the questions we addressed to Sigurdr on the distance
yet remaining, and many the conjectures we hazarded as
to whether the cook would have arrived in time to get
dinner ready for us.  At last, after another two hours'
weary jogging, we descried, straight in front, a low
steep brown rugged hill, standing entirely detached from
the range at the foot of which we had been riding; and
in a few minutes more, wheeling round its outer end, we
found ourselves in the presence of the steaming Geysirs.

I do not know that I can give you a better notion of the
appearance of the place than by saying that it looked as
if--for about a quarter of a mile--the ground had been
honey-combed by disease into numerous sores and orifices;
not a blade of grass grew on its hot, inflamed surface,
which consisted of unwholesome-looking red livid clay,
or crumpled shreds and shards of slough-like incrustations.
Naturally enough, our first impulse on dismounting was
to scamper off at once to the Great Geysir. As it lay at
the furthest end of the congeries of hot springs, in
order to reach it we had to run the gauntlet of all the
pools of boiling water and scalding quagmires of soft
clay that intervened, and consequently arrived on the
spot with our ankles nicely poulticed.  But the occasion
justified our eagerness. A smooth silicious basin,
seventy-two feet in diameter and four feet deep, with a
hole at the bottom as in a washing-basin on board a
steamer, stood before us brimful of water just upon the
simmer; while up into the air above our heads rose a
great column of vapour, looking as if it was going to
turn into the Fisherman's Genie. The ground about the
brim was composed of layers of incrusted silica, like
the outside of an oyster, sloping gently down on all
sides from the edge of the basin.

[Figure: fig-p067.gif with caption
   A  Basin.
   B  Funnel.]

Having satisfied our curiosity with this cursory inspection
of what we had come so far to see, hunger compelled us

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