Iceland,1929: the great adventure

Olive with her Icelandic horses

Olive Murray Chapman went to Iceland in 1929. She wrote a book, Across Iceland, about her adventure. Nineteen twenty-nine. Between the wars. WWI had ended in 1918, eleven years before her visit. WWII would begin in 1939, ten years after her visit.

Much has changed in Iceland. The most noticeable changes are roads and motor cars, although as her book makes clear, the roads sometimes were dried stream beds and the roads often ended abruptly. Waiting at the end of such road were horses, ready to take her and others to their destinations.

Think of it. An Englishwoman, on her own, not knowing the language, having only a pocket dictionary that was given to her by a friend. Her assets are self-confidence, good health and flexibility.

She starts out by taking a taxi from Edinburgh to the docks at Leith. She finds the Brúarfoss which she describes as “beautifully clean and very well appointed.” Two hours later, the ship sets sail. There is a lot of cargo, chiefly timber. The weather is so bad that during the first twenty-four hours no one eats. However, the next day, the weather improves and the passengers all come to breakfast.

She says, “It is the custom in an Icelandic boat to have tea or coffee at 8, breakfast at 11:30, coffee at 3:30, dinner at 5:30, and tea and biscuits at 8 o’clock.”
One of the great charms of Olive’s book, if I may be so familiar as to call her by her first name, is its naivety.

She meets “a cheery little Icelander” on board who speak English. She says to him that she is going to Iceland because “some years before I had met a charming Icelandic girl, and her description of the wonders and beauties of her native land had filled me with a desire to go and paint there. Also I was anxious to travel right across country from south to north if possible and to get to know something about the people and customs”.

The Icelander explains that she’ll need a tent and a guide. Olive says that she hopes to not have a regular guide but, instead, to travel from farm to farm, “taking ponies from different places, and local guides form stage to stage.”
The Icelander wants to know how she’ll manage since she doesn’t speak Icelandic. She shows him her pocket dictionary and says she’s going to ask someone to write out the phrases she will need. The Icelander goes over a map with her.

The ship, after stopping in the Westman Islands, reaches Reykjavik in four days. Given the early journeys of the sailing ships of the British explorers or even the ships that took the Icelandic emigrants to Leith, this is remarkable.

Her description of the four hour stop in the Westman Islands contains some nice details. She describes how the local fowlers risk their lives to capture birds. She also describes the drying of cod. However, it is her description of the taking on of passengers that I found most interesting.

“We remained at the islands four hours to unload cargo, and I watched a lot of timber being taken off in small boats; and after a party of Westman Islanders, who were coming to Reykjavik, were taken on board from a rowing-boat. The sea was rough and it was a wonder how they ever managed to get on board! The men would wait till a big wave would lift the boat on a level with the iron steps up the side of the “Brúarfoss”, they would then make a wild jump for it and land safely on the steps. The women were lifted up by a man in the rowing-boat and half thrown into the arms of two others who waited to catch them on the steps. One woman had a baby; it was thrown across and caught in the same casual way! Another had a crutch and her leg in irons, but somehow or other she was hauled aboard, and to my admiration none of the women showed the slightest fear or consternation whatever during this risky proceeding!One or two of them wore the national dress, with their hair in long plaits down their backs, but others wore quite fashionable coats with fur collars, and thin high-heeled shoes!”

I’ll write more about her journey. Although she is inclined to use adjectives with great abandon, she has a sharp eye and a good heart. By the time I finished this little book, I admired her greatly and wished that I could have known her. Her adventure is, perhaps, a small adventure, but it is definitely an adventure and took courage and resourcefulness. It is, after all, 1929. Travel in Iceland, in spite of motor cars, a few roads, and plucky little steamships, was still demanding . I’m not sure that I would have gone off to an unknown land with nothing but a pocket book of phrases.