On To Oddi, Waller, 1874

S. E. Waller is a young English artist. He doesn’t have much money but is determined to go to Iceland to sketch and paint the scenes of Njal’s Saga. He has had some hard riding before he reached Eyrarbakki but he finds there wonderful accommodation and kind hosts.
With his three horses and his guide, Bjarni, he leaves for Oddi which is thirty miles away. However, because of the bogs and heaths, the need to cross a river, the distance they have to travel is sixty miles. It becomes the hardest journey they have had so far. Bjarni nearly is killed when he rides into some quicksand. However, his horse manages to thrash his way out of it.
The river Thjórsá is in flood. It is so wide at this time of year that it takes them more than an hour to cross it. It is hard to imagine today what it must have been like to travel where there were no roads, only trails, over land so treacherous, filled with hidden dangers, that, time and again, a local guide had to be hired to show the traveler how to cross a river.
They start the crossing of the Thjórsá by going from sandbank to sandbank. To make matters more dangerous, most of the sandbanks are under two or three feet of water. The horses wade and even swim for twenty minutes to get to the middle of the river. Here they stop on a gravel bank that feels like it could suddenly disintegrate. They are now surrounded by water. Ahead of them is deep water, a half-mile wide.   
The melting snow in the interior has turned the river into a torrent.
In the distance, they can see a boat coming toward them. Some drovers are bringing over a herd of horses. As the boat and horses come closer, he can hear how frightened the horses are as they swim across the current.
Once the boat arrives, they put their saddles and baggage. They tie ropes to the horses and Bjarni takes two ropes and Waller takes the other. Waller’s self-confidence is not increased by Bjarni saying that horses are often lost while crossing a river.
They reach the other side, after which they have to cross two smaller rivers on their own. They left Eyrarbakki at half-past twelve in the morning and don’t reach Oddi until half-past eight at night. Waller is delighted that the priest has some good pasture and allows the three horses to graze there.
Waller says, “The little house at Oddi was exceedingly comfortable, the food good, the bed clean, our host kindness itself. All this we were very grateful for; but to make the evening complete, I found, to my intense joy, a Shakespeare lying in a dusty corner. I had brought no books with me, fearing they might tend to idleness, so that, on discovering this treasure, my delight was great.”
Rain pours down during the night. He hopes that the morning will bring clear skies but, instead, it is still pouring rain. Since there is little he can do, he tries to learn some Icelandic. Bjarni helps him learn some Icelandic words. He says, “I made desperate efforts to talk with the son of our host, who was physician to the district and had spent some years in Copenhagen. He was exceedingly good natured over my blunders, and produced a Danish-English phrase-book, which helped us along considerably.
“I shall always remember the kindness of both father and son. They begged me to stay a week with them, an invitation I was very sorry to refuse. When leaving on the Friday morning, Sr. Jonson positively refused to allow me to give compensation to any member of his household.”
On Friday, the weather is good so Waller decides to stay at Oddi all day and travel at night. All morning he works on a sketch of their white horse, then a view of Thryhriningr.
Their next destination is Kross, on the extreme south coast.
The hardship, the danger, the weather, the dangerous river crossing, are nothing exceptional in Iceland in 1874. These were the conditions everyone encountered. People buying and selling horses or sheep experienced these difficulties. Farmers and their families, t heir workers, faced these conditions on a daily basis.
In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses, goes searching for sheep. He gets caught in a blizzard. “but still the blizzard assailed him with undiminished fury when he reached the next ridge, clawed at his eyes and the roots of his beard, howled vindictively in his ears, and tried to hurl him to the ground….he forced his way at first with lowered  head against the storm, but when he reached the ridge above the gully, he could no longer make any headway in this fashion, so he slumped forward on to  his hands and knees and made his way through the blizzard on all fours.”
In Indridason’s novels, the main character Erlender is obsessed with the loss of his younger brother in a storm. He realizes that with the bogs and quicksand that his brother could simply have disappeared and his body would never be found.

In 1810, Mackenzie says that he had begun to ascend near several craters larger than any we had yet seen. “While examining some of the fissures, we found the remains of a woman who had been lost about a year before, and of whom there had hitherto been no tiding. Her clothes and bones were lying scatttered about; the bones of one leg remained in the stocking. It is probably that she had missed the path during a thick shower of snow, and had fallen over the precipice, where her body was torn to pieces by eagles and foxes.It’s astonishing how the Icelanders find their way during winter across these trackless deserts.”

The weather, in every traveler’s book, is front and centre. It determines what can and can’t be done. It brings good grass or no grass, a full belly or starvation. There is no escaping it. Even if people are at a farm, it imprisons them just as it imprisons Waller. Once a journey has begun, it can, as with Bjartur, bring the traveler close to death or to death itself.
A ten day journey, sleeping in churches, farmhouses, tents, even in good weather , was demanding. As Waller discovers, as-the-crow-flies meant nothing in terms of the distance to be covered for bogs had to be skirted, rivers crossed where there were ferries or fords.
No wonder Icelandic families were used to getting up at any time during the night to provide refuge for a traveler. Their farm may have been the only place of shelter in the area. When Bjartur finally makes it to Brun, it is night, everyone is in bed, but the farm wife hears someone groaning, hammering on the door. They go to the door with a light and Bjartur topples in. He’s covered in ice.
This is later in the season but the weather that Waller and many others describe during June, July, August, can be a deadly. That makes the welcome that Waller has had at Eyrarbakki and Oddi all the warmer, all the more appreciated, all the more remembered. What feels better than to be safe in a warm house as a storm rages outside
(Quotes from Six Weeks in the Saddle, S. E. Waller, 1874)
Waller gives the priest’s name as Sr. Jonson but there are many Jonsons. Nor does he give the name of the priest’s son who is the doctor for the district. If anyone reading this knows who these two were, would you please write to let me know.  If they are relatives, I’d like to hear about that.

Icelandic hospitality

In 1872, Robert Francis Burton spent a summer in Iceland. He was a famous world traveler. During his travels, he took great risks. He was the only non-Muslim to participate in the hajj, traveling to Mecca in disguise at risk of his life. He learned twenty-eight languages plus the customs of many cultures. He came to Iceland obsessed with the idea of re-starting the sulfur mines as he saw them as a way to create employment in Europe’s poorest country. He was a keen observer, highly educated, an experienced traveller who was interested in everything about the countries he visited. His two volume book, Ultima Thule, describes, in great detail, the Iceland that our ancestors were shortly to leave. The first volume is crammed with statistics about Iceland. The second volume is an expanded diary about his travels around Iceland by horse.

When we travel, we all must stay somewhere and, in the Iceland of 1872, there were few commercial places to stay. Reykjavik was the size of a small town. Travelers went from farm to farm and church to church for churches served as storehouses and places of shelter.

Here are three descriptions by Burton of the places he stayed.

“We sat, after reaching Hruni, amongst the graves, which had just been utilized by mowing. Seeing our forlorn plight, the Prófastr, Síra Johann Brím or Briem, came out of his house, kindly greeted us in Latin and did the honours of his little church. On the right of the entrance was a small library, containing the oldest Icelandic translation of the New Testament…Better still, he led us to his home and, enlarging on the mal paso before us, he adhibited a most copious feed of Hvíta salmon, smoked beef, cheese, biscuits and white bread, with golden sherry and sundry cups of cafe au lait. And as we mounted with many vales and gratias agimus, he insisted upon a final Hesta-skál (stirrup cup) of distilled waters. I afterwards learned that we were not the only travellers the good Prófaster has sent on their way rejoicing, he extends a similar hospitality to all strangers.”

“At half-past nine P.M. we entered the Thingvellir church: the altar-piece, a Last Supper, is old: the pulpit dates from 1683; and the loft is not, as usual, a store-room for the farm, but a sleeping apartment for travellers, provided with pillows and mattresses, decently clean. Prófaster Bech was happily absent: his wife sent us forelles and Kaka, thin rye cakes, but Icelandic modesty did not admit of our seeing the lady.”

“Returning to our horses, we descended one of those staircases of earth and stone now so familiar, and fell into the valley of a northern Laxá, called for distinction, “of Reynivellir“ (the sorb-apple plains). The surface, so fair to sight, is swampy, despite its main-drain, and must be traversed by earthen dykes. The lower part is protected to the north by the Reynivallaháls (neck of Reynivellir), and to the south by the Miðfell (mid-mount) and other outliers of the Esja. Here many houses are scattered about; we recognize the sweet scent of hay; and the dock-fringed plots of potatoes and cabbages look exceptionally flourishing. In winter all freezes, but as the grass never protrudes from the ice, however, shallow, the neighbouring farmers visit one another on skates, which are those of Europe generally.

“At eleven P.M. we reached the parsonage, which showed three gables pointing southwards and a fourth to the east. A cart and a wheel-jack gave signs that improvements were not unknown. The hour was unusual for calling, but Iceland knows nothing of these fine distinctions: the house dogs bayed the alarm; the host awoke the household; and, before turning in, we supped comfortably at the parsonage.

“On the next day Síra Thorvaldr could not accompany us, having service to read. The only son of a widow, he entered the Church at her desire, but his heart is book-hunting at Copenhagen…He kindly gave me a copy of the Reykholtskirkumáldagi, the Authentic Inventory of the Reykholt Kirk, facsimile’d by the Icelandic Literary Society: the three specimens bear no date, but the Sagas fix the time between A.D. 1143 and A.D. 1222.”

Burton travelled to Iceland and around Iceland with great difficulty. S On the way to Iceland travellers often encountered storms so violent that ships pitched and rolled violently, so much so that people were thrown out of their bunks, were plagued with seasickness, were often in danger of their lives.The trip from England to Iceland could take a week or more. Today, we get on IcelandAir or Iceland Express and are in Iceland in a matter of hours. In Burton’s day there were n o roads, no country inns. He travelled everywhere on horseback, often in pouring rain and high winds. After riding a horse all day, soaking wet, cold, hungry, Burton found farmhouses where he could rest, dry his clothes, be fed, be given a hot cup of coffee, be given a place to sleep. Some farmers took payment. Others refused it. They all shared that most precious commodity of all: grass for the horses.

The kindness to visitors Burton describes is in 1872. That was a long time ago, just before our ancestors emigrated. That kindness is still evident today. People returning from visiting Iceland praise their relatives, many of whom have just been discovered. Generations have passed, the distances in miles are great, but whatever our physical destination in Iceland, to the North, South, East or West, we come home not just with our luggage full of Icelandic souvenirs, but with memories of how kindly we’ve been treated. It’s a long tradition and may we have many opportunities to reciprocate.

(This article in slightly different form appeared originally in Logberg-Heimskringla. LH is 125 years old this year. Consider giving her a birthday gift and buying a subscription.)