Snaefellsnes

I was travelling out along the peninsula of Snaefellsnes with a friendly Icelander who had picked me up, wet and dirty after my trek around Hítardalur, and particularly my second river crossing, which had soaked me to above the waist.  After reassuring me cheerfully that the car belonged to his son, ‘an expert at cleaning cars’, Elías took care to point out and stop at many of the stunning natural features along our route.  When he learned that I was planning to camp that night, he even invited me to stay with him in the holiday cottage he had booked from his worker’s union.  I gratefully accepted, and with my night’s accomodation sorted settled down to enjoy the scenery.

Eldborg - the extinct volcano of 'Fire Fortress'

Eldborg – the extinct volcano of ‘Fire Fortress’

Mineral rich and naturally sparkling spring at Ölkelda

Mineral rich and naturally sparkling spring at Ölkelda

Volcanic rock in the sand dunes at Búðir

Volcanic rock in the sand dunes at Búðir

As you travel west along the Snaefellsnes peninsula the landscape seems to become greener and undefinably richer and more vigorous in life.  Perhaps the soil is better on this long arm of land that stretches out into the sea; perhaps the sea makes the climate slightly milder.  The medieval Icelanders had their own tradition about Snaefellsnes that might explain the phenomenon.  According to Bard’s saga, one of the settlers in that area was Bard, who was part human, part giant, and part troll.  As he grew older he became increasingly retiring, and in the end Bard moved away from other men altogether, and went to live on the glacier on the summit of Snaefell.  He became a guardian spirit of sorts, exerting his benign influence over the landscape, and appearing when his friends or relatives were in trouble.

Waterfall on Snaefellsnes

Waterfall on Snaefellsnes

We stopped to buy fresh mackerel from the fishing boats in the harbour at Arnarstapi, where Bard had his farm before he disappeared, and where he is celebrated in a larger than life stone statue:

Bard at Arnarstapi

Bard at Arnarstapi

Arnarstapi - a paradise for seabirds

Arnarstapi – a paradise for seabirds

We were staying in the next village, and as the next morning was a Saturday, and Elías was on holiday, he offered to help me explore the peninsula.  We started just outside the village we had stayed in, Hellnar, where a small lake in a remarkable hidden crater is known to have been Bard’s bathing spot of choice.  In fact the lake was once naturally heated, and though not hot, was warm, or at least lukewarm, so there is almost certainly some truth in the story of the lake’s historic use.

Bard's bathing spot of choice

Bard’s bath

A short distance further along the road is the site of the farm Laugarbrekka where Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir was born in the tenth century, famed for being the most widely travelled Icelandic woman until the twentieth century.  This extraordinary claim to fame was achieved partly due to her participation in one of the Vínland expeditions, when a group of intrepid Icelanders set up a settlement in North America.  Her place in the history books was assured when in later life she made a pilgrimage to Rome.

Laugarbrekka

Laugarbrekka

It all sounds very egalitarian, and indeed, Viking society is often celebrated for its progressive attitude to women, who kept ownership of their property in a marriage, ruled for all practical purposes their household, and could even demand a divorce, provided the discontented wife had some male relatives to handle the legal and physical business of recovering her property.  And there are only a couple of instances of physical violence towards women (except witches, naturally) in all the forty odd family sagas.  But it is too easy, especially for a Viking enthusiast, to idealise this, and to forget that for women many of the practicalities and attitudes in daily life were, well… medieval.

Lónbjörg, western end of Snaefellsnes

Lónbjörg, western end of Snaefellsnes

Bard’s saga provides some excellent examples of this inequality, largely through the story of Bard’s daughter, Helga.  When Helga was young, perhaps in her early teens, she was playing a competitive game with her sisters and cousins, and became stranded on an ice floe that blew out to sea.  Miraculously it carried her to Greenland, where Eirik the Red had recently established a settlement.  Her life was saved, but the extraordinary way in which she had arrived in Greenland and her unusual strength, equal to that of a man in everything, prevented her full acceptance into the community there.  Some of the men called her ‘troll’ (and to be sure, according to her ancestry given in the saga she did have troll blood in her, but that is not the point!), and she longed to return to Snaefellsnes.  But when she did finally return to Iceland her father took her away from the man she loved, and she was left to travel the country alone.  Her experiences meant she had difficulty sleeping, hid her identity, and always distrusted men.  At one farm a fellow traveller, a Norwegian, tried to take advantage of her, and was left with a broken arm and leg – but it was Helga who slipped away in embarrassment soon afterwards.

Kirkufell in Grundarfjörður

Kirkjufell in Grundarfjörður

Bard himself was no angel in his treatment of women.  On one of his returns to the human world he spent the winter with a family and seduced the fifteen-year-old daughter.  Soon after he left the following summer she gave birth, and from then on the girl’s father more-or-less ignored her, as if he had not facilitated the whole situation.  Not the egalitarian society we occasionally like to imagine!  As always, we can rely on the sagas to combine fantasy with gritty reality and a truly human element in their accounts of medieval life.  And to be fair to the Vikings, I’m not sure we’ve come so very much further in these matters than they did – except perhaps in Iceland itself.

Waterfall at Grundarfjörður, northern Snaefellsnes

Waterfall at Grundarfjörður, northern Snaefellsnes

Besides, nobody wants too much reality in stories, so it is not surprising that Bard is primarily remembered as a benevolent father figure who always appeared when needed, the guardian spirit of the Snaefell glacier.  And even just passing by, one does sense some kind of supernatural power emanating from the almost always cloud-covered glacier peak of the mountain.  Perhaps it is just the magic of the bleak but enchanting landscape that surrounds the mountain.

Grundarfjörður

Grundarfjörður, looking west in direction of the glacier

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Grettir’s Cave

I had come as close as I could to the world in which Bjorn lived, but my work in Hítardalur was not yet over.  For Hítardalur is also the setting for a number of stories about one of the best-loved Icelandic heroes of them all, Grettir ‘the Strong’ Asmundarson.  Having accidentally burnt to the ground a house full of people after being shipwrecked in Norway, Grettir spent much of his life as an outlaw, roaming the mountains of his native Iceland.  He was exceedingly tough, and the strongest man in Iceland at the time, and yet he had a curiously human failing: he was afraid of the dark, and as a result hated being on his own.  On several occasions Grettir’s desperation for human company while living up on the moors led him to offer the shelter of his little hut to strangers who then tried to kill him, an occupational hazard of being an outlaw.  However, Grettir’s desire for company also resulted in some more cheerful stories, as when he came to visit Bjorn here in Hítardalur.

Although Bjorn recognised Grettir’s worth as a man, he did not want to actually take the outlaw into his household, which would have jeopardised his own safety and position.  Instead he directed Grettir to a cave in the mountain at the western end of the valley which was fairly safe from attack, well positioned to rob travellers on the road below, and close enough that Bjorn could provide assistance should Grettir get into any serious trouble.  The two soon became good friends, and spent a good deal of time competing with each other in various trials of strength and endurance, including a several kilometre swim down the river Hítará to the sea.

The upper Hítará river, flowing out of Hítardalur

The upper Hítará river, flowing out of Hítardalur

The river is generally regarded as being too shallow for such a feat to be possible, and probably at its upper end it is too shallow.  However, my route as I left the little-trod for the un-trod path involved fording the river twice.  The water first came up to my knees, and then further downstream perilously high up my thighs – the force of the river at that seemingly mild depth was a good lesson in when not to ford rivers!  I could well imagine Bjorn and Grettir swimming their way down the river, particularly in a spring flood, and provided that the heroes wouldn’t mind a few knocks on the occasional large rock.

Hítará and Fagraskógarfjall

Hítará and Fagraskógarfjall

Across the river the mountain of Fagraskógarfjall rose before me, apparently riddled with caves, any one of which could have been Grettir’s.  I set off up the mountainside towards one of the more promising blocks of shadow, walking through lush grass, past grazing sheep, scrambling up the loose scree and eventually climbing hand and foot up solid rock.  Only to be met by a sheer rock face and a trickling waterfall – no cave here.  The loose rocks in the scree did, however, offer a few consolatory treasures:

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Treasure in the scree

Treasure in the scree

I enjoyed the whimsical notion that the last person to have this obscure view over Hítardalur may have been Grettir himself.  Indeed, perhaps the sheep grazing below me were direct descendants of the sheep Grettir carried off from the surrounding area when he lived here – though as part of Grettir’s agreement with Bjorn these particular sheep would probably have been safe.  Bjorn made Grettir agree to leave alone the people under his protection, but encouraged him to provide for himself from Bjorn’s enemy Thord.  As Grettir’s saga says, with characteristic understatement, ‘Bjorn did not think it was entirely futile if Grettir were to cause trouble to Thord’s men or livestock.’

Hítardalur from waterfall gully

Hítardalur from waterfall gully

I was fast coming to the realisation that I could spend days climbing up to what looked like caves from the valley floor, without ever finding a cave that matched the description in the saga.  I am sure if I had met a local they could have pointed me to it without hesitation, but I hadn’t seen any person for hours, nor was I likely to.  I decided to have one more go, climbing up towards the most promising shadow of all:

Grettir's 'hole right through the mountain'?

Grettir’s ‘hole right through the mountain’?

But once again, on close inspection the great mass of darkness resolved itself into a decidedly uncave-like cleft in the mountain:

Or not!

Or not!

It was five o’ clock, I had a long and challenging walk back to the main road and my rucksack ahead of me, so I knew I had to give up on the cave.  According to the saga it should have been somewhere very near where I was, ‘in the mountain beside the river at Hítará’, but as is often the case in temperamental Iceland, finding it is a pleasure I reluctantly decided to save for my next trip.

As for the outlaw, after three years Grettir’s banditry and sheep-rustling had earned him so many enemies that Bjorn warned Grettir that he could no longer protect him.  So Grettir left, disappearing into the mountains in central Iceland to live for a time among the trolls and giants of the interior.  I was to catch up with Grettir and his misadventures several more times on my journey around Iceland, but a variety of circumstances meant he was always to remain (to me) frustratingly intangible.  However, I left Fagraskógarfjall with the strong feeling that his powerful presence had made its mark on the mountain in a surprisingly visible sense.  Like the Icelandic chieftains during his nineteen years of outlawry, I couldn’t quite pin Grettir down, but I certainly knew he’d been there…

Can you see Grettir?

Can you see Grettir?

The Poetry of Insults

As Gunnlaug’s career showed, being a poet was one of the most honourable and highest status activities a medieval Icelander could partake in.  However, successful poets often turned their talent to less dignified demonstrations of their skill with words.  Perhaps the best example of this is Bjorn, the Champion of Hítardalur, a long valley a little further up the west coast from Borgarnes, and my next destination.

Looking east into Hítardalur

Looking east into Hítardalur

A lift from Borgarnes with a Swedish businessman/amateur orchestral conductor and his son left me standing in the rain at the beginning of the Hítardalur road.  The unpaved road works its way eastwards from the main road past three or four farms and a couple of holiday cottages, into a narrow valley flanked by steep scree-like mountains, and covered across much of its width by an ancient lava flow.  Twenty-one kilometres away at the top of the valley lies the lake of Hítarvatn, where Bjorn settled; I would need lifts to get all the way to the end and back to my rucksack lying behind a rock by the main road in one day.  I didn’t know that as I jogged the next fourteen kilometres to the end of the ‘good’ track only two vehicles would pass me (one going the wrong way), or with the rain pouring at regular intervals I might not even have attempted the journey to Bjorn’s farm of Hólmur.

Hítardalur, looking north over lava field (dark green).

Hítardalur, looking north over lava field (dark green).

After a number of daring exploits as a young man abroad, fighting a perilous duel in Russia, and slaying a dragon while serving on one of King Canute’s warships in England, Bjorn eventually settled on a farm in Hítardalur.  Although farming then occupied most of his time, Bjorn became engaged in an increasingly slanderous dispute with another local poet, Thord.  Much like in Gunnlaug’s saga, this other poet had deceived Bjorn’s fiancée and her family, convincing them that Bjorn was dead, and had married the girl himself.  Thord invited Bjorn to spend his first winter with them to try and patch things up, but then lost his temper when Bjorn spent much of his time talking with Thord’s wife, Oddny.  He composed a verse bragging of his theft of Oddny from Bjorn:

From Bjorn – Bjorn will remember –
the bracelet-Grund, proud lady,
from the hands of Hitardal’s
hero has slipped now.
Fate has deemed me for a wife
the fir-tree with her headband;
that rogue won’t win the slender
woman – the gain is mine.

And with that the medieval equivalent of a rap battle began.  Bjorn quickly came up with three verses about an earlier encounter on an island off the Danish coast, where Thord had tried unsuccessfully to hide from Bjorn in a bush, including this one:

I think vengeance has been done
for making the brooch-bed your bride.
Your honour now only
ebbs, Thord, and dwindles
since by a bridge you grovelled
in Branno islands, to dodge me,
under a bank, dishonoured,
on Oddaeyri, you braggart.

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Things didn’t improve, and when Bjorn left Thord’s farm the following spring their relationship was worse than ever.  Some time later word got around that Thord had been bitten on the thigh by a seal he was trying to kill, and because he had attempted to keep the embarrassing wound a secret, it had become infected and forced Thord to his bed.  Bjorn composed a verse about this, which became popular in the area:

The wealth-warder lies wounded,
wise men here have heard it;
scratched by a seal, the pallid
suet-gobbler’s injured.
When waves come rushing roughly
on rocks – like a pebble
the sluggard goes skimming
smartly over the mudflats.

Not long after this Bjorn visited his cattle one night with a farmhand, who tripped over a new-born calf in the dark, and then refused to lift it up into the stall.  Bjorn shrugged his shoulders and did the job himself, which would have been fine if the farmhand hadn’t then told his friends how Bjorn had performed this menial job when he himself had refused to do it.  The story became known in the district, and came back to Bjorn from Thord in this form:

Why must you, O mighty
mud-dweller, keep casting
(though a seal has scratched me)
scorn on my wounding?
You’ll be sorry, soldier
at sight of shield shaking,
you clutched a twisted calf beneath
a cow’s tail, dung-encrusted.

Hítardalur, looking west.

Hítardalur, looking west.

Bjorn took Thord to court for this verse and forced him to pay compensation, after which things were quiet for a while.  Not for too long, however, for the saga continues with masterly understatement:

It is further related that something appeared on Thord’s harbour mark which hardly seemed a token of friendship.  It represented two men, one of them with a black hat on his head.  They were standing bent over, one facing the other’s back.  It seemed to be an indecent encounter, and people said that the position of neither standing figure was good, and yet that of the one in front was worse.  Then Bjorn spoke a verse: 

Here stand the helmsmen
of harbour landing-places,


suited is the stalwart
spear-pointer for this work.
The weapon-wielder’s anger
weighs on Thord foremost.

The missing lines may have been even more indecent than the rest of the verse, for at some early point in the passing down of the saga they disappeared!  This time Bjorn had to pay compensation, but Thord still felt aggrieved, and much of the rest of the saga describes his various attempts to catch Bjorn unprepared and kill him.  There are still comic moments, such as the inclusion of three verses from a poem Bjorn composed.  In it he suggested that Thord’s mother had become pregnant with Thord as a result of eating a washed-up lumpsucker fish:

A fish came to land
with the flood on the sand,
a lump-sucker seeming,
slimy flesh gleaming.
She-wolf of the gown
gulped grey-belly down,
poisoned; you’ll see
bad things in the sea.

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A final attempt was made to reconcile the two rivals, but just as a peaceful settlement seemed to be within their grasp, Thord insisted on composing one final verse to even the score:

Boldly Bjorn each morning
brews some scheme for evil,
the dolt, jaws dropping, always
dazed by every slander;
and the white-talking windbag,
wide of arse and loathsome,
stripped of sense and reason,
stays a useless loser.

Needless to say, the settlement was abandoned.

Hítardalur, looking east towards Hólmur.

Hítardalur, looking east towards Hólmur.

Meanwhile I had arrived at the end of the regular track, beyond the last farm, with my rucksack already fourteen kilometres away back down the road, and no probability of a lift back to it.  It was clear that I was not going to make it the extra seven kilometres to the abandoned farm Hólmur and the lake Hítarvatn, so I contented myself with climbing a steep scree-sided hill beside the road there and surveying the rest of the valley from there.  I couldn’t quite see to where Bjorn lived, or to the hill pasture where Thord and a large gang of his friends eventually caught Bjorn, armed only with a pair of shears, and killed him.  But I had no doubt I was looking over the land he farmed, the path he took when he rode around the district, and a valley that once rang with the laughter of his household and neighbours when he took his place by the fire and spoke his verses.

Hítardalur in an almost sunny moment.

Hítardalur in an almost sunny moment, looking east towards Hólmur.

Drama in the Dales

Inland from Borgarnes lies some of the best farmland in Iceland, and as you might expect, this also made it the home region of a number of important saga characters.  I was staying with a colourful young Icelandic man who I had found on couchsurfing.org.  He was a native of the region, and he took me out the next day to visit some of the most interesting places in the valleys to the east of Borgarfjörður.

Farmland near Reykholt

Farmland near Reykholt

First, by my request, was the farm called Indriðastaðir, where the brother-in-law and sister of Hord (of the island Geirshólmi in Hvalfjörður) lived, according to the saga.  Hord wasn’t on the best of terms with his brother-in-law Indridi, and in fact Indridi was one of the leaders of the group that finally killed Hord and the outlaws. This was fair enough really, as he and his neighbours had suffered from the depredations of the outlaws for a long time.  Although Hord was sometimes disloyal to the outlaws so that he could help his sister, her husband was one of the main chieftains in the area, and inevitably there came a time when Hord could no longer stand between the two forces.  He was with the outlaws when they walked over the ridge from the south one night, planning to catch Indridi unawares and burn his house down around him.  Fortunately Hord’s sister foresaw the attack in a dream, and told Indridi to redirect the nearby stream so that it filled the house with water and would not burn.  I wanted to assess the plausability of this strategy, and sure enough, two streams still flow down the mountainside behind the farm.  If this doesn’t make the story likely, it at least makes it possible.

Indriðastaðir

Indriðastaðir

Throughout these conflicts Hord and his sister Thorbjorg remained friends, and when the local chieftains gathered to plot the destruction of the outlaws, Thorbjorg rode to the gathering and declared that she would see dead the man who killed Hord.  This Thorbjorg later accomplished, and she was also able to protect Hord’s wife and sons when they came to her after swimming to safety from the island.

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Our route led northwards across the mouths of several valleys, the good farmland alternating with rougher moorland where the ground was higher.  We stopped at Deildartunguhver, where the biggest hot spring by volume in Europe produces an incredible 180 litres of boiling water every second.  This single spring provides hot water to the towns of Hvanneyri, Borgarnes and even to Akranes over seventy kilometres away, as well as everything in between.  It also heats several greenhouses locally, producing large quantities of tomatoes.

Secondary springs at Deildartunguhver

Secondary springs at Deildartunguhver

East of Deildartunguhver is the settlement of Reykholt, where Snorri Sturluson lived.  Snorri is one of the few medieval Icelandic authors about whom we know anything.  He and his family were the most important Icelanders of their time, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and feature in a contemporary saga of their own, Sturlunga saga.  Though for much of his life he was deeply involved in Icelandic politics, Snorri is today most famous for writing Heimskringla (a history of the kings of Norway) and the Prose Edda, a guide to writing poetry that recounts many of the myths of Norse pagan religion.  He is also thought to have written our old friend, Egil’s saga.

Snorri's Pool

Snorri’s Pool

In the end politics (and specifically the enmity of the Norwegian king) caught up with Snorri, and the old man was murdered in a cellar passage beneath his house.  Snorri usually used this passage as a route to the stone-lined hot pool in his garden, and both pool and passage have survived in one form or another to this day.

Snorri's last view?

Snorri’s final view?

I was excited to discover that my host and guide had been brought up on the third saga site I wanted to visit, the farm of Gilsbakki.  At Gilsbakki the poet Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue also grew up, a millennium earlier.  Gunnlaug followed the career path of many Icelanders in the medieval period, that of a court poet.  He travelled all over Scandinavia and Britain, winning fame and wealth for the praise poems he composed for various kings and earls.  However, his very first attempt to win favour failed comically when Gunnlaug couldn’t restrain his obstinacy and sharp tongue in front of Earl Eirik of Norway.  He started squabbling with a pushy follower of the Earl, prompting Earl Eirik to predict a short life for Gunnlaug.  Gunnlaug only muttered a reply to this, but when the Earl asked Gunnlaug to repeat himself he stubbornly did just that:

Gunnlaug:            I said what I thought fit, that you should not call curses down on me, but                               should pray more effective prayers for yourself.

Earl Eirik:            (Menacingly) What should I pray for then?

Gunnlaug:            (Boldly) That you don’t meet your death in the same way as your father                                  Earl Hakon did.

Earl Hakon had been murdered by a servant while hiding in a pigsty!  Earl Eirik turned bright red and ordered Gunnlaug’s immediate arrest.  Only the intercession of a friend at court preserved Gunnlaug’s life long enough for him to get away to England, where he had better fortune with King Ethelred.  Tragically, Gunnlaug was so busy being a success that he failed to return to Iceland in time to honour his engagement to Egil’s granddaughter, the beautiful Helga.  Her father agreed to marry her to another poet who Gunnlaug had insulted when they had met previously abroad, and when Gunnlaug finally returned to Iceland the rivals fought a series of duels that ended in both their deaths.

Ravine at Gilsbakki

Ravine at Gilsbakki

The farm of Gilsbakki is situated high up on the valley side, looking out over the last part of a great lava flow which extends a long way inland.  There was no sign of Gunnlaug there, but my host directed me to a mound in a field above the ravine for which Gilsbakki is named, said to be the burial mound of Gunnlaug’s more prudent older brother.  Gunnlaug’s brother was an important chieftain, and therefore worthy of a large burial mound – but he was also a Christian, and so should have been buried according to the Christian tradition.  So who is really in the mound?  Or is this an example of early Christian and pagan practices being mixed?  What is interesting is that the historical fictions of the saga and its characters are treasured and remembered, despite their improbabilities, in the way people today experience the landscape.

Hermund's burial mound at Gilsbakki

Hermund’s burial mound at Gilsbakki

Lava flow beyond Gilsbakki

Lava flow beyond Gilsbakki

Surtshellir lava caves

Surtshellir lava caves

Egil

On a calm, clear evening the sunset at Borgarnes campsite is spectacular.  There is a clear view to the west, and the sun sets over the shore of the fjord, lighting up the tide-washed mud of the inlet.  Here, so goes the story, the coffin of Kveldulf washed ashore sometime in the late ninth century after the old man died on the voyage from Norway.  Usually when they were approaching Iceland the settlers would throw overboard the ‘high seat pillars’ from their hall back in Norway, and found a new farm wherever they washed up.  Kveldulf was a darker character altogether; he gave instructions that his son should set up a farm where his coffin came ashore.  And that was in this bay, by which I was going to camp after my day on Esja and around Hvalfjörður.

Sunset at Borgarnes campsite

Sunset at Borgarnes campsite

A short time after the sun had set, a tremendous full moon rose above the mountains across the fjord to the southeast (Borgarnes lies on a peninsula that juts into Borgarfjörður from the northeast).  This seemed somehow fitting, for as anyone familiar with the Scandinavian languages will have noticed, Kveldulf means ‘Evening Wolf’.  Shape-shifting was generally looked down on by the saga writers, and Kveldulf’s werewolf reputation is little more than hinted at.  But he certainly was a berserk, and the two things often went together.  Friendly and hardworking in the mornings, he had a reputation for becoming increasingly difficult and even violent as night approached.

Moonrise

Moonrise

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His son Skallagrim (Bald Grim!) inherited much of his father’s character, but was generally able to keep it under control.  Occasionally it would break out, as on one occasion at a local gathering, again near the campsite at the northern end of the peninsula.  Skallagrim was competing in a game against his twelve-year old son Egil, and Egil’s older friend, and he seemed to be losing.  However, as evening came on he was filled with a tremendous strength; he grabbed Egil’s friend and dashed him to the ground so hard that he died instantly.  Egil would have suffered the same fate, but his childhood nurse Brak shouted at Skallagrim, shaming him with his bestial lack of control.  Skallagrim turned on her instead, chasing her the length of the peninsula, and then hurling a great rock to drown her as she tried to swim to safety on an island just offshore.

Brákarsund, scene of Skallagrim's least worthy killing; the cairn reads 'Here Skallagrim drowned Brák'.

Brákarsund, scene of Skallagrim’s least worthy killing; the cairn reads ‘Here Skallagrim drowned Brák’.

That evening the twelve-year-old Egil walked into their hall with an axe and drove it into the skull of Skallagrim’s foreman and favourite servant.  Then he sat down and they ate as if nothing had happened; but father and son didn’t speak to each other all winter.  As you may have realised, Egil was not your average child.  He had already committed his first killing aged six following a playground squabble.  Amusingly, his mother didn’t even scold him for this first killing, instead proclaiming proudly that he had the makings of a great Viking.

Borg in the Marshes, site of Skallagrim and Egil's farm.

Borg in the Marshes, site of Skallagrim and Egil’s farm.

Egil certainly was a terrific Viking, and won great renown and wealth fighting for Athelstan of England at the battle of Brunanburh.  However, at the site of his home, just outside Borgarnes, it is not as a warrior, but as a poet that he is remembered.  An abstract statue in front of the church there recalls a poem Egil wrote following the drowning of one of his sons, a short time after the death of another.  It is a long poem, but I will quote a few verses:

4.
My stock
stands on the brink,
pounded as plane trees
on the forest’s rim,
no man is glad
who carries the bones
of his dead kinsman
out of the bed.

7.
The sea-goddess
has ruffled me,
stripped me bare
of my loved ones:
the ocean severed
my family’s bonds,
the tight knot
that ties me down.

25.
Now my course is tough:
Death, close sister
of Odin’s enemy
stands on the ness:
with resolution
and without remorse
I shall gladly
await my own.

Egil and Bodvar

Egil and Bodvar

The poem and the story behind its composition reveal great sensitivity and deep anguish.  These seem quite at odds with his tough exterior, but this contrast is just what makes Egil real to me; people’s characters are often contradictory.  It is the warrior who is not capable of sadness or ‘poetry’ that is frightening and unnatural to us today, and the sagas seem to suggest that the Vikings felt the same way.  The greatest warriors in the sagas are poets like Bjorn of Hitardal, or are afraid of the dark like Grettir and Gisli, or in Gunnar of Hliðarendi’s case suffer confusion because they feel guilt at killing, though society tells them this is unmanly.  The few characters who are simply the psychopathic killing machines we tend to imagine when we think of the Vikings are eventually shunned even by their closest friends and relatives.

A moment of sun at the campsite; Borg in the distance

A moment of sunshine at the campsite; Borg in the distance, where the church stands today.

After visiting Borg in the rain the next morning, the site of Skallagrim and Egil’s farm below the rocky outcrop in the marshland that is the ‘borg’ (fortress), I headed back into Borgarnes.  I swam in the almost empty swimming pool, where gratuitous use of the water slides, steam bath, and hot pools counteracted the rain that continued to fall throughout.  Clean, warm, and briefly dry, I returned to the main street through a park where I came across the burial mound of Skallagrim, in which Egil also buried his son Bodvar.  A bronze cast in relief beside the cairn showed the devastated Egil carrying Bodvar’s limp body, and again I reflected that it is this moment of vulnerability in Egil’s life that we are most drawn to today.  And if reading it now moves us, it can only be because it moved the medieval Icelanders who told and wrote the stories about Egil.  Read it, and the emotion you feel connects you directly to those people and that time; and inevitably we realise that we are those same people.

Skallagrim's burial mound

Skallagrim’s burial mound

Up Mountain, Along Fjord

The mountain range of Esja lies across the fjord to the north of Reykjavík, and is a popular destination for walking amongst locals and tourists.  Peaking at 914m, it is a serious climb, though most walkers are happy to stop when they reach the top of one of the outlying ridges.  At about 800m, after a final hands and feet climb, the mountainside levels off and disappears up towards the central ridge; but it is rough, difficult ground further up, and the view is already fantastic at 800m.

Esja from Mógilsá

Esja from Mógilsá

I took the main path from Mógilsá up to the ridge of Þverfellshorn.  It was the last day of good weather for three weeks, and the view over Reykjavík and the fjords was superb.  In the distance I could see the entire northern coast of Reykjanes Peninsula, even out to the lighthouses at Garður where I had camped my first night, 50km away across the fjord.  Only the industrial shoreline of northern Reykjavík marred the view, but I was more interested in looking down the valley to the west of Þverfellshorn.

Reykjavík from Þverfellshorn

Reykjavík from Þverfellshorn

At the bottom of this valley lies the ancient saga site of Esjuberg, a farm established by some of the first Irish Christians to arrive after the Norse settlement had begun (speculation abounds as to whether Irish monks or even settlers had made it to Iceland before the vikings arrived, only to think better of it when they met their new neighbours).  They were initially welcomed by the open-minded local chieftain, the pagan Helgi Bjolan, whose father had ruled the extensively Christianised Scottish islands for a time.  However, when his more aggressive son and grandson took over relations soon deteriorated.  According to the Saga of the People of Kjalarnes a young man of Irish descent called Bui lived at Esjuberg with his Irish foster-mother Esja, a Christian and a magic-user.  This was an unusual combination in the world of the sagas, but very useful to Bui.

Esjuberg just out of sight at foot of valley; Seltjarnarnes at the end of Reykjavík Peninsula in middle distance; Garður and Reykjanes Peninsula just below horizon.

Esjuberg just out of sight at foot of valley; Seltjarnarnes at the end of Reykjavík Peninsula in middle distance; Garður and Reykjanes Peninsula just below horizon.

With her help Bui fought back against the new chieftain and his son when they tried to exile him for refusing to pay taxes to their temple to Thor.  He killed the son while he was worshipping in the temple, and then set it alight.  With Esja’s help he hid in a cave high up in the mountainside, somewhere above the valley I was now looking down 1100 years later.  Meanwhile down at the foot of the valley the chieftain set out to avenge his son, but when he couldn’t find Bui he instead killed his old friend and sworn-brother, Bui’s father.  So, as is the nature of a feud, no one really won.  However, years later Bui and the chieftain were reconciled, and Bui married his daughter, so there seemed to be a happy ending; until Bui was killed wrestling a son he had fathered on a beautiful troll princess in the mountains of Norway.  This may serve as a timely reminder to treat all the stories in the sagas with healthy suspicion!

Driving along the road afterwards I was able to see the site of Esjuberg, still an active farm, off to the right against the mountain.  Further on there is good farmland in the area where Helgi Bjolan and his descendants had their farm.  This area was once heavily wooded, according to the saga, but like around Reykjavík, it was all used up and destroyed in the first centuries of occupation.

Akrafjall at mouth of Hvalfjörður

Akrafjall at mouth of Hvalfjörður

To the north of the mountain range Esja lies Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord), a long, narrow fjord that carves its way into south-western Iceland.  I wanted to get to the head of the fjord, for two reasons: the waterfall Glymur, and the island of Geirshólmi.  I got a lucky lift with a young Austrian man who had no fixed schedule and thought Glymur sounded interesting.  After driving the 35km to the end of the fjord, we set off on foot together on the two-hour return walk to Glymur, Iceland’s highest waterfall at 198m.  And the waterfall did not disappoint; spilling over the end of a terrifying gorge that climbed suddenly from the gentle valley floor, the fall disappeared out of sight into the depths of the chasm.  Seagulls flew around, below me in the gorge as often as above, and when I dared to peak over the crumbling edge I could see gull chicks in nests below me.  It was exhilarating, impressive, terrifying, and well worth the walk.

Viewing point for Glymur

Viewing point for Glymur

Glymur

Glymur

Back at the fjord Geirshólmi poked its tiny cliffs out of the water, silhouetted by the sinking sun.  On this islet, 50m across and only slightly longer, between 80 and 200 outlaws lived for a time, according to the Saga of Hord and the People of Holm.  From the mainland the island looked far too small to accommodate so many people, but the longhouses at Hafnir and in the 871±2 museum had taught me that the medieval Icelanders could sleep a lot of people in a very small space, so I reserved judgement on the truthfulness of the story.  Undeniably it was a good defensive position, surrounded by steep cliffs several metres high, and with a clear view over the fjord in every direction.

Geirshólmi from west

Geirshólmi from west

It is no wonder the local farmers found the outlaws difficult to deal with, when it was impossible for them to retaliate for all the cows, sheep, and pigs they had stolen.  In the end though the stronghold was self-defeating.  The outlaws got so bored sitting on their rock that they allowed themselves to be duped into coming ashore with a promise of an amnesty, where every last one of them was killed.  The hero, Hord, was the last to leave, and his wife stayed behind with her two sons.  When he didn’t return she set out to swim ashore with the children, escaping just before the vengeful farmers turned up to complete the job by killing Hord’s sons.

Hvalfjörður from Glymur path; Geirshólmi beyond narrow peninsula from north shore.

Hvalfjörður from Glymur path; Geirshólmi beyond narrow peninsula from north shore.

Hvalfjörður and Esja are both beautiful places in their own right, with excellent walking and rewarding views.  There is, however, something extra special about the area when you know that this peaceful mountain valley, or that apparently insignificant little rock out in the fjord were the central sites of such dramatic events.  Even if you dismiss the stories as entirely fictional, the landscape still has something to say.  For when you then read the story again you can imagine the events in their natural setting, as the original saga audience would have done, and you become a part of that thousand-year old tradition.  And there is after all nothing in the landscape to say they didn’t happen…

Hvalfjörður; sun sinking behind Geirshólmi

Hvalfjörður; sun sinking behind Geirshólmi

Reykjavík

Laugardalur Tjaldsvæði (campsite) in Reykjavík is a bit of a hike from the centre, but it has two things going for its location, and I knocked them both off the list the same afternoon I arrived.  There is the massive public swimming pool Laugardalslaug, where a soak in the hot pools and a swim are a great way to recover after a hard day’s travelling.  And there is the Reykjavik Botanical Garden, which I had also visited on my previous visit, but which was on much better form now in mid August than it had been in late April.

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Laugardalur

It is a beautiful spot, and the perfect antidote to a day spent among the barren lava flows and mud pools of Reykjanes Peninsula or the busy streets of Reykjavík.  In the outer area flowery bushes line the perimeter fence, and little groves of trees line paths that run either side of a series of duck ponds, ending in a rockery.  Through another fence the garden gets serious, with more trees, shrubs and flowers of every kind organised by family and geographical origin, and in the farthest corner more rockeries and an extensive area of raised beds full of flowers.  The flowers were at their best on that sunny afternoon, and there were just enough families out enjoying the garden to give it a holiday atmosphere without it feeling crowded.  Tucked away behind a wooden office building I was particularly pleased to find a very extensive rhubarb collection – somebody obviously had good taste.

Reykjavik Botanical Garden

Reykjavik Botanical Garden

It is interesting how desirable a place the partially wooded valley around the Botanical Garden has become in the artificial world of modern Reykjavík, though I didn’t appreciate the tragic poignancy of this until I visited the museum ‘871±2’ the next day.  The name 871±2 is a reference to a thin archaeological layer of volcanic ash from a large eruption at some time in that five-year window.  It is known as the settlement layer because it is simultaneous with the earliest archaeological signs of human inhabitation on Iceland.  It can therefore be used to date the first buildings in Iceland fairly accurately, depending on whether the ash traces of the layer are found below or above the structure being excavated.  The museum is entirely below modern street level and has been carefully constructed around an excavation of a real longhouse built in about the year 930 AD, the remains of which are actually fairly comparable with its less celebrated uncle in Hafnir.

871±2

871±2

The longhouse, or rather its stone foundation wall, forms the centrepiece of the museum, brought to life by a clever optical trick that makes it looks like there are actual flames burning in the central hearth.  To one side a section of wall that just predates the ash layer demonstrates that it was a site in occupation for several generations at the very least.  Panels in the museum wall set the scene of the original settlement with descriptions and illustrations of landscape, nature, and the human activities of the settlers.  Particularly interesting is the assertion that the hills around Reykjavík were originally covered with birch woods.  The woods were all destroyed in the first hundred years of occupation for grazing, burning, and charcoal production, which must have been devastating to the local economy – a lesson we now seem to insist on learning all over again on a global scale.  And in Reykjavík of course it means our instinctive gravitation towards more natural environments has required the artificial recreation of an ancient wooded landscape around the lake Tjörnin, and around and in the Botanical Garden.

I spent my time in Reykjavík wandering the streets and visiting the other saga-related museums, and was left with a more favourable impression of the city than my first visit had given me – though I was still horrified that streets like these could be named for some of the greatest heroes of Iceland’s literary golden age:

Skarphédinsgata

Skarphédinsgata

 

... and Skarpheðin as depicted outside the lively Saga Museum at Perlan.

… and Skarpheðin as depicted outside the lively Saga Museum at Perlan.

After a night at the campsite, two nights in a youth hostel in the centre gave me a chance to reread the sagas from the areas I would be travelling to next.  I also found a solution to the eternal problem of hearing any Icelandic in a city where you are always identified as a tourist and addressed in English before the shop or café door has even closed.  This is the 11am Sunday service at the magnificent Hallgrimskirkja, where an hour of flowing spoken and sung Icelandic seems too short a time, even if you don’t understand a word of it!  It is a beautiful language to read and to listen to, and all the more interesting for its antiquity.  It must be one of the least changed modern languages in the last thousand years, at least in Europe.  Though the pronunciation has no doubt changed greatly, much of the vocabulary is the same the Vikings used, and one can readily imagine the settlers of the ninth century, and indeed the Anglo-Saxons in England, speaking in much the same way, with liberal scatterings of ‘eth’ and ‘thuh’ sounds.

Hallgrimskirkja

Hallgrimskirkja

After two days of museums, saga reading, another swim (this time in my preferred Vesturbæjarlaug west of the centre) and two nights of good sleep, on the Tuesday morning after my arrival I was finally both ready and eager to begin my journey proper; my first destination was Kjalarnes and the dramatic mountain range of Esja.

Kjalarnes and Esja beyond Reykjavík's most iconic statue.

Kjalarnes and Esja beyond Reykjavík’s most iconic statue.

... and the same view 18 months earlier in April sunshine.

… and the same view 18 months earlier in April sunshine.