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.)