If you were in Gimli, Manitoba, and said that you were going to visit Eyrarbakki, most people would assume you were going to visit Nelson Gerrard at Hnausa. His home and his cultural centre for all things Icelandic is called Eyrarbakki. But in 1874 when S. Waller, a young English painter who had fallen in love with Njal’s Saga, went to Eyrarbakki, it was a prosperous farm in Iceland that stood in contrast to most of the farms in the country.
Most people who went to Iceland in the 1800s were wealthy, they hired yachts, or owned them, brought large amounts of supplies, hired large numbers of horses and guides. However, in 1874, S. Waller, a painter earning is living from his art didn’t have much money.
He took the train to Edinburgh, then went to Granton. He wanted to go on a small Danish steamer (it was inexpensive), the Diana, that made six trips each year from Copenhagen to Reykjavik, stopping at Leith.
Waller arrives in Reykjavik, hires Bjarni Finnbogason for two rigs-dalers a day and food. He discovers that English traders have been buying up so many horses that renting or buying them has doubled the price of only a few months before. He should really have six horses but can only afford three. This later causes him problems.
He has come to sketch and paint so he goes alone onto the heaths and into the deserts, just him and his guide. He decides against traveling with a group because h knows he won’t get as much sketching done. Over his six weeks in the saddle, he has many adventures, both good and bad, but nearly everyone treats him kindly for they realize that he is not one of the rich tourists but just a young man in love with the sagas.
He is living hard, his bed is often uncomfortable, food scarce, so when he reaches Eyrarbakki, he is delighted. I’ll let him describe his visit.
“We reached the other side (of the river) quite safely, and after a great deal of land riding through miles of morass we sighted Eyrarbakki. So bad were the bogs that we simply dare not push on without something to guide us, so we bethought ourselves of making “Sudden Death” eminently useful. We drove him on ahead, and as long as he kept above ground we followed him, and wherever we saw him get into the last stage of difficulty we took warning by his errors and gracefully avoided the spot. Poor beast! He was in no danger, for whenever he sunk in up to the girths the travelling boxes slung at his sides came to h is rescue and kept him from getting utterly involved, as they projected at least eighteen inches from the saddle.
“At about three o’clock we reached Mr. Thorgrimsen’s, in time for an excellent dinner.
“This house at Eyrarbakki is the central store of the south coast of Iceland, and consists of a dwelling, surrounded by some wooden warehouses, standing close down up the beach.
“It is the last vestige of civilization that the traveller meets with in journeying east, and moreover, as it has the reputation of being the best establishment in Iceland, I determined to avail myself of m y host’s kind invitation to stop a day or two and enjoy a few hours’ comfort before attempting a month of desert life; a desert indeed so complete, that I always used to say, that if three people were seen together some great excitement must be on hand.
“The luxury of this house must really seem extraordinary to a native Icelander. It is quite European in style, and possesses several exceedingly nice rooms and, wonderful to relate, a piano, upon which my host’s daughters played remarkably well. I can never forget the kindness with which I was treated. The free and easy style pervading the whole place was most delightful. I have seen rich things in great quantities in England, but never saw cream brought to table in a huge washing ewer before dining here. It must have contained at least two gallons, and this in a country where pasture (of any quality) is so scarce.
“When we had finished dinner Mrs.Thorgrimson and her daughters took care to make the evening pass most agreeably, and tough our conversation was extremely limited, we got on very well. I played several games with one of the young ladies, and was beaten every time.
“On retiring to bed I discovered that the window of my room looked out upon Ingolfs fiall, a magnificent old mountain, and which, although of no great size, is always ful of interest on account of its prominent position, both on the face of the landscape, a nd in the early history of the country.
“Next morning, I was aroused by the rain coming down in torrents, and, as it looked like continuing for a long period, was much annoyed. My time was so very limited that a day was a very considerable loss. However, there was no help for it, and I had to content myself with taking hurried notes, in the intervals of the storms, all day long. It so happened that some Scotch merchants were buying ponies for exportation in this neighbourhood…there were nearly 200 ponies….I was interested in the “Fiskr-mann-lestir,” or “fish carriers,” who made most effective and original subjects as they came riding in form the country, half a-dozen at a time, with fifteen or twenty heavily-laden ponies, all running in single-file. The dried fish, which strongly resemble parchment, are tied together in great bundles, and slung upon the pack-saddles, towering up three or four feet above the horse’s head.
“As we were going to make a start on the morrow, I took the opportunity of buying few necessities before leaving all civilization behind me, and some brandy, spare girths, etc., found their way into the travelling boxes.
“Mr. Thorgrimsen appeared really sorry that I did not make a longer stay, but on explaining that my sole reason for wishing to push on was the little time at my disposal, he said he would not detain me, but exacted a promise to call upon him again on our return fi we came within a day’s journey.
“So on Wednesday morning, after the stirrup-cup and all the good wishes of this kind family, Bjarni and I again were on the move. We were bound for Oddi.”
This is just one of Waller’s memories. Iceland lives up to his expectations. Unfortunately, it rains a lot and rains hard, pours down, and he has to make sketches inside, but then there are good days and he is free to seek out the places in Njal’s Saga and capture them in his paintings.
It is a trip he will obviously remember both as an artist and a person for the rest of his life.
From Six Weeks In The Saddle by S. E. Waller, 1874.