As I was growing up in Gimli, Manitoba, nearly everything I was told about Iceland was incorrect. Memories of Iceland were distorted by time and distance. Events and social conditions were filtered through a lens of misunderstanding. In the days of my childhood, people didn’t fly over the pole to Iceland. People seldom flew anywhere. When one person moved to Gimli from Iceland, it was the talk of the town.
Perhaps one of the largest distortions was the picture of Iceland as a country so far from everything that it was completely isolated. While Iceland wasn’t a hub of activity like Denmark or Norway, it certainly wasn’t an isolated place with no communication with the outside world. The Danish traders had stores in Iceland and Danish families lived at some of these posts. Danish trading ships came to Icelandic ports in the summer. Well-to-do Icelandic farmers and officials travelled to Denmark and sent their children to school in Copenhagen.
However, contact wasn’t just with the Danes. Europeans were fascinated by Iceland. Germans and French came but most of all, English people came. Not just men but women as well. Summer after summer, they came to study the geology, the fisheries, the bird life. They came to see if the sulphur beds could be mined. They came, time and again to see the geysers for the geysers were one of the wonders of the world. Some came to travel to the places described in the sagas. When the Danish trade restrictions were lifted, the English came to buy horses and sheep. They also fished offshore.
Most of those visiting Iceland came with a serious purpose. Many were members of the Royal Society of England. They came to learn about volcanoes and lava and glaciers. They took the temperature of the Great Geyser and of Strokkur. They pondered how the geysers worked. They recorded daily life on the isolated farms. They wrote reports on the fisheries. They came to sell Bibles and spread the word of God.
However, one person who came in 1878, during the time of emigration, didn’t come for a serious purpose. He and his fifteen companions came to party and visit the geysers. They did both. He was Anthony Trollope, Victorian England’s most popular novelist. When he returned to England he wrote a short account of this excursion. His account is deceiving because it says nothing about the importance of the visitors. A quick read through might leave the reader thinking these were just ordinary, everyday people who came to ride Icelandic horses and party with the elite of Reykjavik.
No ordinary people could afford to visit Iceland. If ordinary people saw Iceland it was sailors like the thirty-four crew on the yacht, The Mastiff that brought Trollope. The owner of the yacht was Mr. John Burns, the owner of the Cunard Lines. He lived at Castle Wemyss with his wife. He paid for the entire trip. The yacht, the supplies, the horses and guides. His fourteen guests were allowed to buy antique Icelandic jewelry and other trinkets but, otherwise, were not to mention money.
Trollope lists those guests but says nothing much about their social station or their accomplishments. For example, in the list of the members of the party, he simply says there is a Mrs. H. Blackburn. He doesn’t tell us that the lady is Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909) a Scottish painter who was one of the most popular illustrators in Victorian Britain. She illustrated 27 books. She provides the illustrations for Trollope’s book, How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland.
The party’s two Nautical Advisors are Admiral Ryder and Admiral Farquhar. These are not honourary titles. Ryder is Sir Phillips Ryder, Admiral of the Fleet. Farquhar is a Scottish rear-admiral. One guest is simply described as Mr. Albert Grey. He is Earl Grey, the son of a former prime minister of England and a member of Parliament.
Besides Jemima, there are three other women, Miss Campbell, Miss Stuart and Miss Reddie along to keep Mrs. Burns company. These are no helpless, shrinking Victorian violets. They’re horsewomen and manage to outride all but the Icelandic guide.
In the next excerpt, I’ll tell you about the beginning of this madcap adventure to Iceland. But before we get to Reykjavik, we’ll visit a couple of interesting ports along with the distinguished partiers.
(with notes from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went To Iceland and Wickipedia)