Why A. J. Symington loves Iceland

picture provided by Jósep H Jósepsson

picture provided by Jósep H Jósepsson

It is 1862 and A. J. Symington has come to Iceland. He’s traveled to the usual places Thingvella and the Geysers. He’s a good artist and has made many sketches of the priest’s house at Thingvalla, of crossing the Bruara, of Mount Hekla, and Snaefell Jokull, among others. On Aug. 3, he has returned to Reykjavik and is back on board the Arcturus, the ship that brought him to Iceland. The ship has lifted anchor and is heading for the “east of the island.”

On the Iceland Review site today, there is a request that people write in and tell them why they love Iceland. Since A.J.S. is not able to do that, I’ll do it for him. Here is what he has to say about the bay at Reykjavik.

“The bay at Reykjavik is very lovely. Every crevice of the Esian mountains is distinctly shown; while the positive colours and delicate tints of these and other heights rising far inland, which the eye takes in, in sweeping round the semicircle from Snaefell to Skagi, are bright, varied, and beautiful beyond description. Deep indigoes dashed with purple, violet peaks, pale lilac ranges; and, relieved against t hem, cones of dazzling snow and ice glittering like silver, side by side with rosy pinks and warm sunny brown, all rising over a foreground of black lava. The sky overhead is blue; and the northern horizon lit up with a mellow glow of golden light.

The frigate Artemise, the brig Agile, the Danish schooner Emma and several trading vessels lying at anchor, animate the scene.

Snaefell Jokul—rising to the north-west on the extreme of yonder narrow ridge that runs out due west into the sea for nearly fifty miles separating the Faxa from the Breida fiord—dome-shaped, isolated and perpetually covered with snow, is now touched with living rosy light.

At its foot lie the singular basaltic rocks of Stappen, somewhat like the Giant’s Causeway, or the island of Staffa in the Hebrides. Indeed, stapp is the same word as staff, and indicates the character of the columnar formation.

For the first time, since leaving home, we see the stars. One or two, only, are shining in the quivering blue overhead, with a quiet, subdued, pale golden light. I made a sketch of Snaefell as it appeared from the quarter deck of the steamer at a distance of fifty miles; it seems a low cone rising from the sea. As the evening was calm and beautiful, ere retiring, we walked the deck till a late hour, musing on the structure and marvelous phenomena of this half-formed chaotic island, where Frost and Fire still strive for the mastery before our very eyes.

Mackenzie, 1810: Danish war


In 1810, Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, Baronet and Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh went on an expedition to Iceland. He later wrote a book, Travels in the Island of Iceland. He took with him a number of other distinguished or, soon to be distinguished, men. One of whom was Dr. Holland who wrote his own book.

None of these people were your average English or Scotsman. You note that good old George was “Sir” and he was a Baronet and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Not exactly a laborer on a farm or a clerk in retail business. Getting to Iceland was expensive. There were no steamships, no tourist packages. You either had to rent a yacht and crew or own a yacht. When you got to Iceland, you had to hire guides and horses. You would bring most of your food with you. You would come with letters of introduction which would instruct the important figures in Iceland, government appointees, religious figures and Danish traders, to provide you with all assistance possible.

I don’t know about your ancestors but my ancestors certainly weren’t the people providing assistance to the important visitors. If they got a glimpse of them, it would be among the indentured servants who throng about the visitors’ tents inspecting everything, clothes, food, utensils, because they probably had never seen a foreigner. Sort of like us if someone dropped in from Mars.

It’s 1810 when Mackenzie, that is Sir and Baronet, arrives in Reykjavik and starts to make forays with his team of scientists into the countryside. Thank goodness he is intelligent, educated, and curious and while he and his companions collected rock samples, plants, female costumes, just about anything they can, to take back to Scotland, he also carefully records his impressions of the farms where they stay. Not all of his descriptions are flattering, especially his descriptions of the Icelandic farmhouses. However, you have to keep in mind that in Scotland, he wasn’t spending much, if any, time visiting the homes of the local peasants.

One place he is quite complimentary about is Stappen. He says

“Stappen…is a trading station, and consists of a merchant’s house, two or three storehouses, and a few cottages inhabited by fishermen. We were met at the door of the house by Madam Hialtalin, a Danish lady, whose husband, brother to our friend the priest at Saurbar, had been absent for some years. He had been taken prisoner on a voyage to Denmark, and had afterwards contrived to reach Norway; but since his arrival in that country he had not been heard of. The situation of his wife, and her family consisting of six children, was highly deserving of pity; and we had but a melancholy satisfaction in receiving the numerous marks of hospitality which they lavishly bestowed upon us. The manners of Madam Hialtalin were those of a lady, and appeared to us, who had seen no one in Iceland entitled to this appellation, to the greatest advantage. The house was perfectly clean, and the rooms neatly furnished. The principal bedroom was really a most refreshing sight to us, after the places of nightly abode to which we had for some time been accustomed. From the roof was suspended a small glass chandelier. There were three windows with festooned curtains of white muslin; a handsome canopy bed, with very neat cotton furniture, sheets white as snow, and as usual a heap of Eiderdown upon it.”

Sir George Mackenzie and his companions explore the Stappen area and he comments on how unique is the landscape. He adds that “It was our original design to have attempted the ascent of the Snæfell Jokul from the side of Stappen; but having been disappointed in this by the foggy state of the weather, we took leave of our kind hostess on the 2d July, and set out for Olafsvik, situated on the northern coast of Snæfell’s Syssel, to visit Mr. Clausen. On our leaving the house at Stappen, we were honoured by the displayof the Danish flag, which was hoisted on the roof.”

England is at war with Denmark. Mrs. Hialtalin is Danish. In spite of that, in spite of the fact that her husband was taken prisoner, has managed to make his way to Norway but has disappeared there and his wife is left with six children in an isolated trading station in Iceland, Mrs. Hialtalin plays the good host and Mackenzie is sympathetic about her plight. When Mackenzie and his companions leave, she has the Danish flag raised in their honour. Mackenzie is unstinting in his praise of her managing of her household.

There seems to be no awareness of any irony in their actions or awareness of how the trading station has luxuries unavailable to the vast majority of Icelanders. Those luxuries are provided by the profits made by the Danish traders who have a monopoly on trade in Iceland and can set both the price they´ll charge for goods they bring and the price they´ll pay for the goods Icelanders provide.

The war is between two important countries, Denmark and England. Iceland has no army and, although merchants licensed by the Danish king are able to make money, not much gets back to the crown. Iceland is a distant problem and, when all is balanced out, perhaps, a liability.

Iceland is a curiosity because of its geology and the state of scientific knowledge. It´s people are a curiosity because they live in a time warp, still medieval although it is 1810.

Mackenzie in his journal does not make as much mention of the war with Denmark as his companion, Henry Holland, but he can´t avoid seeing its effects, either. The effects are everywhere.