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.”
As our young English painter, S. E. Waller continues his journey sketching saga sites, he goes to Kross.
While he is there, he is told that a wedding is going to take place. He wants to see as much about the manners and customs of the country as possible so he is keen to attend. The wedding is to occur at twelve o’clock. All he has is his traveling clothes so he combs his hair and puts a coloured handkerchief around his neck.
When he goes out of the house, he sees a lot of little dots on the horizon but they quickly turn into trains of horsemen. They’re the wedding guests of course, and they come in parties of five or six, dressed in every sort of Icelandic costume.
Everyone in the house is busy so Waller, the gregarious fellow that he is, goes down the muddy pathway and greets the guests as they arrive. He can’t speak a lot of Icelandic but he says he shook hands with the men, took off his hat to the women, and kissed the children and it all worked out fine.
The guests have had long, wet rides. Some are muddy and they sit on the grass to change their stockings before going into the house. There’s a fair amount of drinking going on in the house and after everybody has had something to help them overcome the fatigue of their trip, they march out of the house in couples, led by the bride and groom to the tune of one of the most dismal songs that Waller has ever heard.
The women, he says, are wearing wadmal dresses but the bride wore a large faldr. The bridegroom was old and fat but good-natured. The bride was much younger and a dreadful shrew. Waller said he felt sorry for the bridegroom. Because he is English, he doesn’t understand that a man cannot marry unless he is worth four hundreds, that is, the worth of four cows. Seldom would any young man be worth four hundreds. The young woman will not have chosen her husband. Her father will have arranged the marriage and she will be under great pressure to marry and move out for it is likely that her parent’s home is crowded. With her gone, there is one less mouth to feed. Behind the picturesqueness of the landscape, the clothes, the language, is always the need to survive. It is 1872, the mass migration to America has just begun.
The ceremony takes about three quarters of an hour. There’s a prayer, hymn, exhortation, and blessing.
The wedding dinner took place at a house ten miles away. Sixty men, women and children, he says, start off “trotting, galloping, and tumbling, over hills, through water, and into the bogs, amidst plenty of good-natured laughter. And talking of the children, how they do ride! Behind me for ten miles of most difficult country rode two little girls astride, with halters for bridles, on two raw-boned Iceland ponies. One was nine years old, the other seven, and they went splendidly, and enjoyed the journey more than any of us.
“When we reached the farm where the feast was to be held we found tents had been erected to accommodate the numerous company, and in one of these (a spacious marquee about four feet high, in which we were obliged to sit because we simply could not stand) the dinner was prepared.”
Everyone wants him to stay. He’s obviously made a good impression on the Icelanders. However, he explains that he has to get to Selja that evening. He says the countryside they had to cross was nasty for riding and they had much difficulty in crossing two rivers swollen by rain. At each river crossing, they had to hire a local guide to show them how to get across safely.
What risks Waller takes, riding through the heaths and bogs, risking quicksand and bottomless mud, crossing rivers with rocks rolling along the bottom that could break a horse’s leg or sweep its legs from under it, getting soaked in glacial water, riding for miles soaking wet, putting his life completely into his Icelandic guide’s hands, confident that they’ll find shelter. Yet, what rewards.
Before the wedding, he has attended a confirmation. He has seen things and met people like he’s never met before. He’s taken into people’s homes, shared meals with them, sung with them, struggled to communicate with his limited Icelandic. He’s been wakened in the morning by, as he says, a very pretty young woman, bringing him coffee and something to eat for breakfast. What young man wouldn’t want these experiences? How could life be any more interesting or thrilling? He’s living a mad, romantic adventure as he rides from place to place so that he can make sketches of the places in Njal’s saga. He’s treading on the ground of his heroes.
What young man’s heart wouldn’t beat faster when faced with a dangerous river crossing, his guide a pretty young woman who, when she gets him safely to the other side, turns on her horse, kisses him on the cheek and, before he can react, plunges her horse into the current and makes her way to the far bank?
1872. More than a hundred years ago, approaching one hundred and fifty years, but Waller singing with his hosts, sharing their meals, riding over vast expanses of wasteland, being kissed, all come alive as if it were yesterday. There is nothing ornate about his writing, thank goodness. It is heartfelt, honest and enriched by an artist’s eye for details.
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.
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.