The Wild Westfjords

On top of the cliff outside Bolungarvík the next morning, I had a much stronger sense than at Látrabjarg of standing on the edge of the world. It was partly knowing that I was almost as far north and west as Iceland allows, but mostly the tremendous scale of the cliff itself. Almost 600m of vertical cliff face runs for several kilometres along the outermost part of the fjord Ísafjarðardjúp, topped by a lunar plateau of loose dirt and rock. Some distance away across the fjord to the north and east is the peninsula of Hornstrandir, the remotest place in all Iceland, while between due north and almost to due west the troubled waters of the Denmark Strait appear to go on forever. Knowing that somewhere out there over the sea is the coast of Greenland seemed to only heighten my sense of being on the edge of the world, attuned as I was to the Saga Age ideas of a treacherous and mysterious Greenland, the most hostile environment of all the lands in which the Vikings settled.

Looking west-north-west, out to sea.

Looking west-north-west from Bolafjall

Valley outside Bolungarvík

Valley outside Bolungarvík

Outside Bolungarvík

Looking south from Bolafjall

Looking across at Hornstrandir I recalled a story that takes place there on a cliff probably rather like the one on which I was standing, though not so high. It is from the Saga of the Sworn Brothers, which is a fun read mostly because unlike the other sagas it seems to confirm every stereotype and malicious rumour you ever heard about the Vikings. It is important to consider that their behaviour and especially their casual violence seemed as wrong and inappropriate to the medieval Icelanders who told these stories as it does today – and often just as funny! The story that a cliff edge brings to mind describes a day the sworn brothers Thorgeir and Thormod spent picking angelica on a cliff top over on Hornstrandir.

Bolafjall cliff top, looking north to Hornstrandir

Bolafjall cliff top, looking north to Hornstrandir

Thormod was carrying a bundle of angelica away from the cliff face when the loose ground suddenly gave way beneath Thorgeir’s feet. As he slipped from the cliff edge Thorgeir managed to grab hold of a large angelica plant near its base, and hung there with a hundred metre drop onto sharp rocks below him. However, he was so completely fearless that he refused to call to Thormod to help him, and continued to hang from the cliff edge as the angelica plant slowly came out by the roots. Thormod meanwhile began to wonder what was taking Thorgeir so long, and shouted back to him, asking if he hadn’t collected enough angelica yet. The reply came back, unwavering and with no trace of fear:

“I reckon I’ll have enough once I’ve uprooted this piece I’m holding.”

Luckily Thormod realised from the delay that something was wrong and hurried back to help Thorgeir to safety – by which time the angelica plant was all but uprooted.

Bolafjall

Bolafjall

A local gave me a lift around the bay from Isafjörður, and dropped me off on the side of the road outside his farm. He told me this was the very farm mentioned in the Saga of the Sworn Brothers where Thormod used to go and recite poetry to a young woman known as Kolbrun while the rest of his household were at work catching seals. An innocent enough occupation, you might think, but it caused Thormod plenty of trouble later on when he tried to pass off his Kolbrun verses as if he had written them for another woman. Kolbrun appeared in his dreams that night, threatening to blind him if he didn’t tell the truth about who he had composed the poems for. His eyes began to burn, and he spent the night in excruciating agony, fearing that they might burst from their sockets at any moment; the next morning he confessed publicly that the verses had originally been dedicated to Kolbrun, and the pain left him.

The site of Kolbrun's farm.

The site of Kolbrun’s farm.

It seemed to me, travelling in a series of lifts eastwards along Ísafjarðardjúp, that this particularly remote and challenging landscape must have been partly responsible for the unruly characters of Thorgeir and Thormod, as well as the toughness of Kolbrun and many characters in other sagas as well. Perhaps the lower population density also contributed to make the inhabitants of the northern part of the Westfjords tougher and more independent, for there seems to have been less social pressure to conform and behave than in other parts of the country. It is particularly noticeable that with chieftains fewer and further between in this area the checks and balances that kept the rest of Iceland largely peaceful did not function so well up here; tyrants, whether chieftains or not, seem to have gotten away with oppressing their neighbours worse and for longer than elsewhere.

Fox outside the Arctic Fox Center in Súðavík

Fox outside the Arctic Fox Center in Súðavík

Elf house near Ísafjarðardjúp

Elf house near Ísafjarðardjúp

Seals in Ísafjarðardjúp

Seals in Ísafjarðardjúp

Eventually Thorgeir did become too unpopular to stay in the Ísafjarðardjúp region, and decided to take a trip abroad while things cooled off a bit. My own route southwards out of the Westfjords and across Dalir over that day and the next followed that of Thorgeir as he travelled to a ship that was waiting for him in Borgarfjorður. Even on his way into exile Thorgeir could not help causing trouble, and his companions became increasingly frustrated as they paid off the families of a servant and then a farmer’s son who Thorgeir murdered for the crimes of ‘not hearing a question shouted at him’ (due to the rustling of the firewood he was carrying), and ‘borrowing Thorgeir’s horse and not returning it immediately he was asked.’ The third and funniest of these incidents took place in a field just opposite a lay-by where I waited the following afternoon for a lift northwards along Route 1.

Route south from Dalir to Borgarfjörður, same as taken by Thorgeir.

Route south from Dalir to Borgarfjörður, same as taken by Thorgeir.

Thorgeir came riding down out of the same valley that the road from Dalir passes through today, and coming into a hayfield ahead of his companions saw a group of servants standing chatting in the late afternoon sunshine. In their midst was an old shepherd leaning on his stick who particularly attracted Thorgeir’s attention:

‘It was a short staff, and the shepherd was tired. Thus he was rather hunched over, with his tired legs bent and his neck sticking out. When Thorgeir saw this he drew his axe in the air and let it fall on the man’s neck. The axe bit well and the head went flying off and landed some distance away. Then Thorgeir rode off and the rest of the men in the field stood there helpless and amazed.

Shortly afterwards, Illugi and Thorgils (Thorgeir’s companions) came by. They were told what had happened and were not pleased. It is said that they provided compensation for Thorgeir’s deed and then rode on to meet him. He greeted them warmly. They asked him why he had slain the man and what possible fault he had found with him.

Thorgeir replied, “He had committed no wrong against me. If you want the truth I couldn’t resist the temptation – he stood so well poised for the blow.”

“One can tell from this,” said Thorgils, “that your hands will never be idle. We have already paid compensation for the man’s life.”

After that they all rode together to the ship.’

Route 1.  Across road to right fields where Thorgeir slew the old shepherd.

Route 1. Across road to right fields where Thorgeir slew the old shepherd.

To the farmhands in that (relatively!) lush and bountiful valley Thorgeir’s actions were as incomprehensible and unexpected as they seem to us today. But fresh from the wild and lonely landscape of the Westfjords myself, I thought I could understand part at least of the personality difference between brutal and fearless Thorgeir and the gentler, nobler folk of the valleys. Once again the landscape itself acts as a silent but significant contributor to both telling and understanding the story, and landscape and story are certainly each richer for the other.

Hestfjörður, off Ísafjarðardjúp

Hestfjörður, off Ísafjarðardjúp

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Gisli

The story of the outlaw hero Gisli is one of my favourite of all the Icelandic sagas.  I can’t be sure why this is, but it may be due to the compact and well-crafted structure and style of the work – it certainly strikes me as one of the better sagas from a literary point of view.  It may also, or even more so, be due to the realism and relevance of the story, the family orientated drama of which, apart from an exaggerated comic interlude and a bloody climax, could be transposed almost without alteration to modern Western society.  And Gisli himself is a strangely magnetic character, apparently straight-forward but hiding complex depths and paradoxes – a warrior and a poet, sometimes a friend to the friend of an enemy and sometimes an enemy to the friend of a friend, a murderer and yet clearly a good man.

Einhamar, where Gisli was killed.

Einhamar, where Gisli was killed.

I began my physical journey into Gisli’s saga on a rainy Sunday morning in late August, and I began it in the middle of his story, with the comic interlude.  Somewhere in the drizzle and fog around the ferry that was taking me to the Westfjords was an island on which Gisli sought refuge with a friend some years after he had first been outlawed.  His friend had an idiot son, a giant of a man who, in line with the highest humanitarian standards of the day, lived outside, ate grass, and was kept chained to a heavy rock with a collar.  Gisli made good use of this circumstance one day when he was caught out at sea in a little fishing boat by his enemies and fooled them by playing the fool.  While his host rowed quickly to the island in another boat, convincing Gisli’s would-be killers that he was in that other boat, Gisli rolled around in the fishing nets and even jumped overboard a couple of times, still wrapped up, and was dragged along through the water.  His enemies thought this was hilarious, but their leader called them to order and they rushed off to the island, allowing Gisli to make his escape.  It didn’t take the astonished and then furious villains long to realise their error, and in their larger boat they caught up with Gisli just as he reached shore and disappeared into the woods, across the bay from where the ferry dropped me at Brjánslækur.

North-western edge of Látrabjarg

North-western edge of Látrabjarg Peninsula

I spent the rest of that day doing ‘normal’ sightseeing, having got a lift with a young Israeli man who was pleased to have company as his little car bumped and juddered its way along more than 40km of rough dirt road to Látrabjarg, and the same back.  In the end we had to abandon his vehicle, and hitch a lift with a local in a big 4WD for the last five kilometres to the end of the peninsula, Iceland’s (and, excluding the Azores, Europe’s) most westerly point.

Approach to Látrabjarg

Approach to Látrabjarg

At Europe's end.

At Europe’s end.

That night when I was about to get my tent out I was lucky enough to be invited to stay with an elderly couple in their holiday cottage in Bíldudalur.  This turned out to be doubly fortunate, because although they now live near Reykjavík, they were originally from this area and were able to give me a good indication of where I could find the site of Gisli’s death, and how to get there.  So the next morning that is what I set out to do – but for the sake of the story I will skip ahead for now to the evening of that day, and the events and setting that precipated Gisli’s outlawry in the first place.

By a fortunate coincidence I had met my Israeli friend again at the spectacular Dynjandi waterfall, a blessing for both of us as Dynjandi is definitely a place you need a friend to take photographs of each other, though even so it is hard to get an idea of the overwhelming scale of the falls.

Dynjandi

Dynjandi

Dynjandi

Dynjandi, on crag to right of falls

He drove me to the end of the paved road by an airstrip west of the little town of Þingeyri, and after hiding my rucksack by the side of the road I jogged the couple of kilometres to Haukadalur.  In this peaceful valley the two brothers Gisli and Thorkel shared a farm, and a couple of hundred metres away across the valley lived their sister and brother-in-law – all very cosy.  Thorkel was particularly good friends with his sister’s husband, Thorgrim, while Gisli had a good friendship with his own wife’s brother, Vestein.  The four of them together made a fine show when they turned up at the local assembly, but a rumour spread that they were not such good friends as they appeared to be.  To quash this rumour they undertook to swear an oath of brotherhood all four, but this oath became the first serious crack in their friendship, for at the critical moment Thorgrim decided it would be enough trouble being so bound to his brothers-in-law and that he had no obligation to Vestein.  He withdrew his hand, and Gisli then did the same, refusing to tie himself to a man who had rejected his own best friend and brother-in-law.  The prophetic rumour had become self-fulfilling.

Haukadalur

Haukadalur

Things became properly complicated when Thorkel overheard his wife and Gisli’s wife accusing each other of having been romantically involved each with the best friend of the other’s husband.  When Gisli heard about this he only shrugged and left it to fate to decide, but Thorkel kept his council to himself.  At that time Vestein was away voyaging, so all that happened was that Thorkel decided to move out and live with Thorgim across the valley.

Haukadalur

Haukadalur; deceptively peaceful

To cut a long story short, when Vestein returned to Haukadalur he stayed with Gisli; one night a great storm struck, threatening the house and haystacks, and in the confusion someone slipped into the house and thrust a spear through Vestein as he lay in bed.  Though nobody declared responsibility for the murder, Gisli’s brother-in-law Thorgrim dropped a few hints that he had been involved, and some time later Gisli crept out one night, down through the hayfield and across the stream, and into his brother’s house.  He killed Thorgrim secretly and escaped, but he too was not careful enough with his words afterwards, and when it became apparent that he was the guilty party he was outlawed and doomed to spend the rest of his life on the run.

The site of Gisli and Thorkel's farms, with the stream between.

The site of Gisli and Thorkel’s farms, with the stream and hayfields between.

Gisli survived as an outlaw for thirteen years, longer than anyone except Grettir the Strong, but for the last seven years of his life he was plagued by dreams in which two women came to him, one good and kind, the other terrible and always smearing him with blood and gore.  In the dreams seven fires were burning, and Gisli understood that these represented the years left to him.

Geirþjófsfjörður

Geirþjófsfjörður from Einhamar

When the seven years were up Gisli was staying with his wife on a farmstead she had established in the remote valley of Geirþjófsfjörður, where I arrived on a Monday morning a good thousand years later.  The road runs around the top of the valley, and the valley sides are steep and rocky at first, and then boggy and wooded further down.  Crowberries and bilberries grow in abundance, and the scrubby willow trees form a thick natural barrier three metres tall, all soaking wet on that morning.  But I could see poking out through the trees a great slab of rock that I just knew was Einhamar, on which Gisli fought his heroic final battle.  A cairn on top of the rock was the best indication that this was a place of significance, but when I climbed up onto the rock I could see how well it matched the description in the saga.  Down below is a steep ridge where Gisli first turned on his fifteen attackers, and then on rough cliffs several metres high rises the crag Einhamar that he suddenly scrambled up onto to resume his defence.

Einhamar from behind

Einhamar from behind

But it wasn’t just the cairn or the physical resemblance to the story that persuaded me that this was the very spot on which Gisli bravely met his fate; there was something in the atmosphere of the place.  With a beautiful waterfall running past the crag, the mountains above and the fjord below, it is a truly special spot, remote and apparently untouched by the passing centuries.  There more than anywhere else in Iceland I felt a direct connection to the world of the sagas, and to Gisli himself, and that place and moment alone made the entire journey worthwhile.

Behind Einhamar

Behind Einhamar

Breiðafjörður

One morning in the late ninth century a Viking ship sailed up Breiðafjörður.  The leader of the small group of people on the ship had been a nobleman’s daughter in Norway, a Viking queen in Dublin, the mother of a Viking king in the Hebrides and Scotland, and now she was about to become the one of the most distinguished of the original settlers of Iceland.  Her name was Aud, sometimes called Unn, and she was known as ‘the Deep-Minded’.

Breiðafjörður from above Stykkishólmur harbour.

Breiðafjörður from above Stykkishólmur harbour.

The ship sailed along the southern shore of the wide fjord until it began to narrow, and there they stopped for breakfast on a peninsula still known as Dagverðanes – ‘Breakfast Headland’.  Then they continued past a series of little islands, and on down what would become known as Hvammsfjörður.  At the end of the fjord they stopped again on another headland, where Aud happened to lose one of her bone-tooth combs.  This place is today known as Kambsnes – ‘Comb Point’.  They made their final journey northwards along the end of the fjord until they came to a protected valley with the fjord in front of it and high heathland around it.  Here Aud established a farm, and on a hill above the settlement she raised crosses for the strange new religion she had brought from the British Isles.  She called her farm Hvammur, and that is still its name, eleven hundred years later.   In 1965 a stone cross was raised in commemoration of the tradition Aud started:

Krosshólar - the cross hill

Krosshólar – the cross hill

Aud’s importance as one of the most prominent early settlers is clear.  Her story, in rather abbreviated forms, is told at the beginning of both the Saga of the People of Laxardal, and the Saga of Eirik the Red.  She was the daughter of Ketil Flat-nose, a Norwegian lord who became king over the Hebrides following the supposed unification of Norway by Harald Fine-hair in the late 9th century.  The accounts differ on how this came about – some say he went west to escape the tyranny of King Harald, the same reason given for much of the early settlement of Iceland.  Others say Harald sent him to extend Norwegian rule into the Western Isles, but having established himself there Ketil then felt little compulsion to send any taxes back to Norway.  Certainly he fell out with the king, and with their Norwegian lands confiscated Ketil’s descendants ended up living all over the western part of the Viking world.

Hvammur, site of Aud's farm

Hvammur, site of Aud’s farm, seen from Laxárdalur

Aud had a number of adventures, including a desperate escape to Orkney in a hastily built little boat, following her son’s defeat and death at the hands of a Scottish army in Caithness – a story reminiscent of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape to Skye.  Eventually Aud arrived in Iceland, where two of her brothers had already settled.  She stayed her first winter with her brother Bjorn, further out along the southern shore of Breiðafjörður.  The following spring she set out to claim some land of her own, and somewhere just outside Stykkishólmur her route transected my own, as my early morning ferry steamed out of the harbour and northwards across the fjord.

Visibility was poor, but in the distance beyond the islands I could see a dark smudge of land that I fancied was Aud’s Dagverðanes:

Dagverðanes at foot of ridge.

Dagverðanes at foot of ridge.

To the west of the ferry we passed Elliðaey, now home only to a lighthouse and a large colony of seabirds, nesting on the basalt cliffs.  At one time, however, Elliðaey was an important waymark for voyagers leaving Iceland.  Out in the middle of the fjord, it was the perfect spot to wait for the right wind to begin a journey, particularly if you had killed a few too many people to be safe on the mainland.  If a wind blew up that could bring an outlaw’s enemies out to attack him there, the same wind would carry him out to the relative safety of the ocean long before they got there.

Elliðaey

Elliðaey

Nesting site on basalt cliffs, Elliðaey.

Nesting site on basalt cliffs, Elliðaey.

An open stretch of ocean followed, and with the weather worsening I retired to the middle deck to read up on the outlaw Gisli Sursson, whose realm I was about to enter – only to be called back up on deck by a garbled message from the speaker system, the only intelligible word of which was echoed all over the ship – ‘dolphins!’  They were far away and dropping back further as the ferry ploughed on, but unmistakable as their fins and backs broke the surface.  By the time the ferry steamed up to the jetty at Flatey we were mostly pretty cold and wet, but excited too.  Breiðafjörður is a teeming haven for numerous bird species, as well as seals, dolphins, and whales, and I was keeping a particular look out for the latter,  though without success.

Dolphin!

Dolphin!

Flatey is the only one of the thousands of islands in Breiðafjörður still inhabited year round, albeit only just – its winter population is reputed to be five people and a dog.  For centuries it was an important monastic and then trading centre, and the home of the invaluable medieval manuscript collection Flateyjarbók, but these days it is advertised primarily as a place to stroll among the attractive painted houses and birdwatch – on a nice day.

Flatey

Main settlement on Flatey

This day was wet and windy, and the next ferry wasn’t for another five hours, so I did my admiring from the upper deck of the ship as it continued northwards through fog and rain to the remote Westfjords, homeland of one of my favourite of all the saga characters, Gisli Sursson.

Cormorants/shags and gulls near Flatey jetty.

Cormorants/shags and gulls near Flatey jetty.