List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

the North Sea, past an island he calls Thule; his further
progress, he asserted, was hindered by a barrier of a
peculiar nature,--neither earth, air, nor sky, but a
compound of all three, forming a thick viscid substance
which it was impossible to penetrate. Now, whether this
same Thule was one of the Shetland Islands, and the
impassable substance merely a fog,--or Iceland, and the
barricade beyond, a wall of ice, it is impossible to say.
Probably Pythias did not get beyond the Shetlands.] This
gentleman not having a compass, (he lived about A.D.
864,) nor knowing exactly where the land lay, took on
board with him, at starting, three consecrated ravens--as
an M.P. would take three well-trained pointers to his
moor. Having sailed a certain distance, he let loose one,
which flew back: by this he judged he had not got half-way.
Proceeding onwards, he loosed the second, which, after
circling in the air for some minutes in apparent
uncertainty, also made off home, as though it still
remained a nice point which were the shorter course toward
terra firma. But the third, on obtaining his liberty a
few days later, flew forward, and by following the
direction in which he had disappeared, Rabna Floki, or
Floki of the Ravens, as he came to be called, triumphantly
made the land.

The real colonists did not arrive till some years later,
for I do not much believe a story they tell of Christian
relics, supposed to have been left by Irish fishermen,
found on the Westmann islands. A Scandinavian king, named
Harold Haarfager (a contemporary of our own King Alfred's),
having murdered, burnt, and otherwise exterminated all
his brother kings who at that time grew as thick as
blackberries in Norway, first consolidated their dominions
into one realm, as Edgar did the Heptarchy, and then
proceeded to invade the Udal rights of the landholders.
Some of them, animated with that love of liberty innate
in the race of the noble Northmen, rather than submit to
his oppressions, determined to look for a new home amid
the desolate regions of the icy sea. Freighting a
dragon-shaped galley--the "Mayflower" of the period--with
their wives and children, and all the household monuments
that were dear to them, they saw the blue peaks of their
dear Norway hills sink down into the sea behind, and
manfully set their faces towards the west, where--some
vague report had whispered--a new land might be found.
Arrived in sight of Iceland, the leader of the expedition
threw the sacred pillars belonging to his former dwelling
into the water, in order that the gods might determine
the site of his new home: carried by the tide, no one
could say in what direction, they were at last discovered,
at the end of three years, in a sheltered bay on the west
side of the island, and Ingolf [Footnote: It was in
consequence of a domestic feud that Ingolf himself was
forced to emigrate.] came and abode there, and the place
became in the course of years Reykjavik, the capital of
the country.

Sigurdr having scouted the idea of acting Iphigenia,
there was nothing for it but steadily to beat over the
remaining hundred and fifty miles, which still separated
us from Cape Reikianess. After going for two days hard
at it, and sighting the Westmann islands, we ran plump
into a fog, and lay to. In a few hours, however, it
cleared up into a lovely sunny day, with a warm summer
breeze just rippling up the water.  Before us lay the
long wished-for Cape, with the Meal-sack,--a queer stump
of basalt, that flops up out of the sea, fifteen miles
south-west of Cape Reikianess, its flat top white with
guano, like the mouth of a bag of flour,--five miles on
our port bow; and seldom have I remembered a pleasanter
four-and-twenty hours than those spent stealing up along
the gnarled and crumpled lava flat that forms the western
coast of Guldbrand Syssel. Such fishing, shooting, looking
through telescopes, and talking of what was to be done
on our arrival! Like Antaeus, Sigurdr seemed twice the
man he was before, at sight of his native land; and the
Doctor grew nearly lunatic when after stalking a solent
goose asleep on the water, the bird flew away at the
moment the schooner hove within shot.

The panorama of the bay of Faxa Fiord is magnificent,
--with a width of fifty miles from horn to horn, the one
running down into a rocky ridge of pumice, the other
towering to the height of five thousand feet in a pyramid
of eternal snow, while round the intervening semicircle
crowd the peaks of a hundred noble mountains. As you
approach the shore, you are very much reminded of the
west coast of Scotland, except that everything is more
INTENSE--the atmosphere clearer, the light more vivid,
the air more bracing, the hills steeper, loftier, more
tormented, as the French say, and more gaunt; while
between their base and the sea stretches a dirty greenish
slope, patched with houses which themselves, both roof
and walls, are of a mouldy green, as if some long-since
inhabited country had been fished up out of the bottom
of the sea.

The effects of light and shadow are the purest I ever
saw, the contrasts of colour most astonishing,--one square
front of a mountain jutting out in a blaze of gold against
the flank of another, dyed of the darkest purple, while
up against the azure sky beyond, rise peaks of glittering
snow and ice. The snow, however, beyond serving as an
ornamental fringe to the distance, plays but a very poor
part at this season of the year in Iceland. While I write,
the thermometer is above 70. Last night we remained
playing at chess on deck till bedtime, without thinking
of calling for coats, and my people live in their
shirt-sleeves, and--astonishment at the climate.

And now, good-bye. I cannot tell you how I am enjoying
myself, body and soul. Already I feel much stronger, and
before I return I trust to have laid in a stock of health
sufficient to last the family for several generations.

Remember me to --, and tell her she looks too lovely;
her face has become of a beautiful bright green--a
complexion which her golden crown sets off to the greatest
advantage. I wish she could have seen, as we sped across,
how passionately the waves of the Atlantic flung their
liquid arms about her neck, and how proudly she broke
through their embraces, leaving them far behind, moaning
and lamenting.



Reykjavik, June 28, 1856.

Notwithstanding that its site, as I mentioned in my last
letter, was determined by auspices not less divine than
those of Rome or Athens, Reykjavik is not so fine a city
as either, though its public buildings may be thought to
be in better repair. In fact, the town consists of a
collection of wooden sheds, one story high--rising here
and there into a gable end of greater pretentions--built
along the lava beach, and flanked at either end by a
suburb of turf huts.

On every side of it extends a desolate plain of lava that
once must have boiled up red-hot from some distant gateway
of hell, and fallen hissing into the sea. No tree or bush
relieves the dreariness of the landscape, and the mountains
are too distant to serve as a background to the buildings;
but before the door of each merchant's house facing the
sea, there flies a gay little pennon; and as you walk
along the silent streets, whose dust no carriage-wheel
has ever desecrated, the rows of flower-pots that peep
out of the windows, between curtains of white muslin, at
once convince you that notwithstanding their unpretending
appearance, within each dwelling reign the elegance and
comfort of a woman-tended home.

Thanks to Sigurdr's popularity among his countrymen, by
the second day after our arrival we found ourselves no
longer in a strange land. With a frank energetic cordiality
that quite took one by surprise, the gentlemen of the
place at once welcomed us to their firesides, and made
us feel that we could give them no greater pleasure than
by claiming their hospitality. As, however, it is necessary,
if we are to reach Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen this summer,
that our stay in Iceland should not be prolonged above
a certain date, I determined at once to make preparations
for our expedition to the Geysirs and the interior of
the country. Our plan at present, after visiting the hot
springs, is to return to Reykjavik, and stretch right
across the middle of the island to the north coast--scarcely
ever visited by strangers.  Thence we shall sail straight
away to Jan Mayen.

In pursuance of this arrangement, the first thing to do
was to buy some horses. Away, accordingly, we went in
the gig to the little pier leading up to the merchant's
house who had kindly promised Sigurdr to provide them.
Everything in the country that is not made of wood is
made of lava.  The pier was constructed out of huge
boulders of lava, the shingle is lava, the sea-sand is
pounded lava, the mud on the roads is lava paste, the
foundations of the houses are lava blocks, and in dry
weather you are blinded with lava dust. Immediately upon
landing I was presented to a fine, burly gentleman, who,
I was informed, could let me have a steppe-ful of horses
if I desired, and a few minutes afterwards I picked myself
up in the middle of a Latin oration on the subject of
the weather. Having suddenly lost my nominative case, I
concluded abruptly with the figure syncope, and a bow,
to which my interlocutor politely replied "Ita." Many of
the inhabitants speak English, and one or two French,
but in default of either of these, your only chance is
Latin. At first I found great difficulty in brushing up
anything sufficiently conversational, more especially as
it was necessary to broaden out the vowels in the high
Roman fashion; but a little practice soon made me more
fluent, and I got at last to brandish my "Pergratum est,"

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: