My Oldest Book: 1752-1757

Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson traveled through Iceland during 1752-1757 at the king’s bidding and recorded all that they observed. Their document is called Travels in Iceland.

It says, at the beginning, “Containing Observations on the manners and customs of the inhabitants, a description of the lakes, rivers, glaciers, hot-springs and volcanoes; of the various kinds of earths, stones, fossils and petrifications; as well as of the animals, insects, fishes, & c.”

It is this book that forms the basis for much that is later written by travelers. Travel writers read available sources and what they do not see with their own eye or hear with their own ear, they extract from the work of previous writers. Before Olafsson and Pálsson there were stories and poems written about Iceland but most were fantastical tales with little in them that was true. O & P actually did travel the quarters of Iceland to obtain information for the Danish king.

Travels In Iceland begins by saying, “In the month of July, 1752, Messrs. Ólafsson and Pálsson set off from Copenhagen and arrived at Laugarnes, in the district of Gullbringusýsla: they thence passed into that of Kjósarsýsla, but being desirous of entering the northern quarter before the approach of winter, by crossing the mountains via Kjölur, they at first went through a very small portion of this southern district. They however returned thither in the following year, and concluded their vast undertaking by completing their observations of the southern part of Iceland.“

How easy to say. One paragraph. It is 1752, more than a hundred years before our ancestors begin their journey to Amerika. Travelers accounts from the 1800s detail how difficult travel is. There are no roads, no bridges. Iceland is a vast tract of lava desert, volcanic rock, rushing rivers, vast bogs, treacherous mountains. There is nothing soft or easy about the landscape. This isn‘t the world of Thomas Gray and his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard“.

There are no wheeled vehicles. Ólafsson and Pálsson, like the travelers who follow them, will travel the length and breadth of Iceland on horseback. They´ll trust in local guides to get them from one isolated place to another. They´ll trust locals to get them safely across dangerous rivers. They´ll stay in farmhouses. They´ll drink milk, eat skyr, dried fish, pudding made from Icelandic moss, smoked meat, bread when it is available. They´ll be wet a lot of the time. Time and again, they´ll hunker down and wait out storms.

Always, they´ll observe. Early in the book, they say this about turf (Humus bituminosus). “Beneath this swampy or putrid soil, is found a bituminous earth, which the inhabitants call Mór or Torf; its layers are from six to eight feet deep. It is dug up with a kind of spade, and being cut into cubes and dried, is used as fuel.

“This bituminous earth is here of great advantage as well as in the whole southern part of the island; because it is a substitute for wood. In digging it they meet with branches of trees, and sometimes even with lumps of wood of a considerable size; and the places where this bitumen is found, were, according to the accounts of the ancient historians, once covered with forests.”

“At low water, there is also obtained on the shore of Kjalarnes another kind of turf, which the inhabitants call Sjótorf; it burns well, but sparkles and emits a sulphurous smell. It is likewise remarkable, that this turf contains branches of trees, which proves that the place where it is found was formerly a part of the land”.

Remember, it is 1752. Think of the primitive travel conditions, the primitive accommodations, the sheer energy necessary to ride from place to place in Iceland’s constantly changing weather where, as other travelers report, you can be broiling in the sun, then drenched by rain, then freezing in winds from the glaciers or the North Sea, all in one day.

No one travels Hollywood style, galloping alone on a horse. Everything that is needed has to be brought on horseback, packed and unpacked. The horses have to be fed and, from the tales of other travelers, that can mean, along with supplies needed by the riders, hay for the horses.

Anyone who has traveled through Iceland’s lava deserts knows grass is seldom seen.

Travels in Iceland. Could I have done it? I wonder. Somehow, I doubt it. Could you have done it? If the king had said to you, “Off to Iceland and bring me back a detailed report on these strange Icelanders.” Could you have done it? Faced the isolation, the weather, the accommodation, the food, the danger, the loneliness and then put together a report worthy of a king?

As much as I admire and am interested in the report, I find myself more interested in these two travelers, wish I could watch them as they make their way to the far corners of Iceland. They must have been exceptional individuals. I’d like to see them fording rivers, traveling over the hraun, heading into the horizontal rain, getting off their horses at some farmhouse that looked like it was part of the earth itself. It’s too bad they didn’t have their own Boswell to bring them alive for us.

Travels in Iceland, Ólafsson and Pálsson. 1752-1757. Jim Anderson found me this copy on the internet. This English copy was published in 1975. It’s a handsome book with many illustrations, some of them in color. There might be another one around. It’s worth taking a look.