Bayard Taylor was a famous American travel writer and lecturer. He was in Egypt when he received notice from his employer that he should immediately go to Iceland to cover the visit of Christian IX. The king’s visit and Iceland receiving its constitution was that important.
Look at the illustration accompanying this article. Imagine the contrast between Egypt in 1874–palm trees, sand, heat, blue skies, warm ocean—and then Iceland. In this five part series, you’ll read about Taylor and his journey to join the Icelanders as the king of Denmark gives them their constitution.
He first travels to London, England. He finds London much changed since he visited six years previously. There is so little coal smoke that “the dome of St. Paul’s can be seen six miles away, with new thoroughfares cut through the narrow and tangled old alleys, and gay suburbs planted wherever you remember a field or common, the city seems to have become a soberer Paris. The embankment along the Thames, with its spacious drive, its trees and gardens.”
In Iceland, conditions are dire. It’s 1874 and Iceland is still suffering the effects of disastrous weather, volcanic calamity, oppressive Danish trade laws and its own rigid adherence to the past.
Meanwhile, Taylor says, he travelled four hundred and one miles from England to Scotland in less than ten hours by rail but complains that there are no sleeping cars and baggage isn’t checked in.
In Edinburgh he is joined by his travelling companions and Herr Hjaltalin. The Edinburgh and London Shipping Company has offered the use of their steam yacht, the Albion, to make this historic journey.
On the Albion, they first make their way to the Orkneys, then the Shetlands and, finally, the Faroes (the sheep islands).
“On approaching Thorshavn, two Danish men-of-war showed themselves through the mist. The royal standard floating at the stern showed that we had overtaken His Majesty Christian IX., on his way to Iceland. It was nearly nine o’clock, and cloud and twilight combined dimmed the picture of the town; yet its roofs of grassy turf were so bespangled with the white cross of Denmark on its red field, that the effect was something like that of an illumination. Our boats were lowered as soon as the anchor held, and we made for the shore. There are one or two small and rude landing-places, and at one of them a group of friendly
Faroese assisted us to get ashore.
“There are no streets, properly speaking, but a multitude of irregular lines, winding and climbing among the houses, some roughly paved, some leading over the natural rock. The buildings are all of wood, tarred for better preservation, with roofs of birch bark, upon which is a sod a foot thick, always kept green and luxuriant by this moist, temperate air. The poorer dwellings, into which I glanced as we passed, are often but a single room, in which the whole family cooks, eats, and sleeps.
“Fields of grass, oats and potatoes, inclosed by stone walls, stretched for a mile or two back of the town.
“At eleven we went to church, a neat white building, large enough to accommodate five hundred persons. The people flocked in until all the seats were taken—sturdy, sun-burnt frames, women apparently as hardy as men.
“The bells chimed, not very musically ; the front door of the church—the portal of state—was unbolted, and finally Gov. Finsen, in full uniform, holding a white-plumed chapeau on his arm, entered, preceding the King. Christian IX. and Prince Waldemar followed, the latter in a plain morning suit of gray. The King must be near sixty years of age, but looks considerably younger. He has a good nose and chin, wears a heavy mustache, and would be quite handsome but for a lack of expression in the eyes. He walked quickly up the aisle, nodding to the right and left, and took his place near the altar, whereon (as is customary in the Lutheran Church of Denmark and Sweden) large wax candles were burning. Prince Waldemar is a ruddy, gray-eyed, stout young man of twenty-one. The Minister of Justice, Klein, a chamberlain or two, naval officers, Carl Andersen the poet, and others, about twenty in all, followed the royal personages, took their seats, and the service began.
“The people, I noticed, all saluted the King very respectfully, but with a simple, quiet dignity of their own. There was no running after him, no pressing to get near, no cheering, or any other token of special enthusiasm. Personally, I believe be is liked; but he represents a dynasty almost new, and possesses no traditions of loyalty. The Faroese have always been more liberally treated by Denmark than the Icelanders, and they have no important favors to ask at this season. This is, it is true, the first time a King of Denmark has visited the islands ; but it hardly has a further significance.
“Stromoe has a length of fifteen or twenty miles, but very little of the soil can be cultivated, and the population is mostly centered in the little coves where fishing boats can find shelter.
“There were many visitors to the royal frigate Jylland during the afternoon, including a number
of Faroese ladies, and, to judge from the tunes played by the band, there must have been much and lively dancing on deck. A dozen boat-loads of exceedingly merry human freight were carried to shore, and then the King followed, to pass another night at the Governor’s house.
“Their (the Faroese) lives are rude and hard, for high waves and furious currents in the fiords,
and windy hurricanes on the hills, limit even their possible labor, and the best fortune barely gives them enough barley, fish, and milk to live upon.
“Thorshavn lies in latitude 62° north, yet the Winter temperature never falls below 14 , rarely below 20 , and the sheep continue to pasture in the valleys. There were formerly forests of birch trees in sheltered parts, but they have long since been exterminated, and peat is used for fuel. A vein of coal has been discovered on one of the islands. Barley grows tolerably well, up to a height of about three hundred feet above the sea : beyond that line it will not ripen.
“The summits of the mountains, which are broad, flat table-lands from one to three thousand feet high, are swept by such furious gusts of wind that no vegetation can exist there. The earth and hardy herbage are torn from the rock, rolled up like a sheet of paper, and hurled far into the valleys.
“For the sum of three English shillings the obliging postmaster sent off a boat, at two in the morning, for our last letters, and then we got up steam for departure.
“The two frigates were to sail in the afternoon, and it was necessary that we should get the start
of them, in order to secure the simplest accommodations in Iceland. “
(With notes and quotes from Bayard Taylor’s Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874. A slightly different version of this series appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. If you don’t have a subscription, you miss out on some good stuff.)