Pioneers

The southern coast of Iceland is among the most beautiful and dramatic parts of Iceland. It is also one of the least hospitable areas, dominated by washed-out sand and lava flows, and an exposed coastline with no natural harbours for hundreds of kilometres west of Höfn. Inevitably given its location, it was the first part of Iceland that many travellers came to, including the very first Norse settler, Ingolf Arnarson. It shows either confidence or desperation that Ingolf and the settlers that followed him pushed on past this unpromising beginning to find good land and safe harbours further round the coast.

Ingólfshöfði

Ingólfshöfði

In 874, according to The Book of Settlements, Ingolf Arnarson and his sworn-brother Hjorleif arrived in Iceland and were separated as they approached land. Ingolf spent his first winter on Ingólfshöfði, a distinctive 77m high headland in a vast expanse of flat sand. During that first winter they must have explored the surrounding area and found some of the pearls of the Icelandic landscape.

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Svartifoss

Svartifoss

A short way to the north of Ingólfshöfði they would have stumbled upon magical Svartifoss, framed by its overhanging basaltic cliff; like many thousands of visitors since they must have been entranced by the delicate waterfall in its wooded gully.  From Svartifoss they would have continued up the mountain behind what is now the main centre for Vatnajökull National Park at Skaftafell, until they came out onto a viewpoint like this over the glacier Skaftafellsjökull:

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Skaftafellsjökull

Skaftafellsjökull

Probably Ingolf and his followers would have continued up the mountain until the vast bulk of the Vatnajökull ice cap appeared before them, Europe’s biggest by volume. On other expeditions they might have travelled east along the coast until they came to Jökulsárlón, a glacier lake made famous by several films and television programs, including two James Bonds. They would surely have been as enthralled as I was by the landscape, but they must also have been worried by the apparent lack of good land – though a couple of successful farms were later established along the foot of the mountains here.

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Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

On Kvíárjökull

On Kvíárjökull

I hitched my way westwards along the coast from Höfn, stopping to visit glacial lakes, waterfalls, and for an ill-advised scramble onto a treacherously ridged glacier. My aim was to get to Vík that night, near where Hjorleif landed and spent his first winter. Here too natural wonders abound; the petrified trolls of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks and the basalt cave at Reynir. And not least the miles and miles of perfectly black beaches, emphasised by the white foam of endless waves breaking on them.

Black beaches at Vík

Black beaches at Vík

On the cliff above Vík

On the cliff above Vík

Reynisdrangar from cliff

Reynisdrangar from cliff

Reynisdrangar from Vík

Reynisdrangar from Vík

Basalt cave at Reynir

Basalt cave at Reynir

Further west is the waterfall Skógafoss, among the most distinctive and postcard friendly of Iceland’s waterfalls; it was even the scene chosen for Iceland’s Eurovision introduction this year. The land around Vík and westwards along the coast is better, though natural harbours are still lacking, and Hjorleif decided to settle permanently. The story goes that having no oxen he forced some recently captured Irish slaves to pull a plough before sowing the first crop the following spring. They weren’t overjoyed by this task, and at the first opportunity they killed Hjorleif and his followers, took his boat, and rowed out to some islands they could see offshore.

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Skógafoss

Skógafoss

Later that spring Ingolf discovered his sworn-brother’s body, and noting the absence of the boat, correctly guessed where the slaves had gone. He followed them there with his men, and catching them unprepared slaughtered the lot. The islands are still called the Vestmannaeyjar (Westmen Islands) after their first unfortunate inhabitants, and they have a history of disaster.

First of the Vestmannaeyjar the ferry passes.

First of the Vestmannaeyjar the ferry passes.

In the seventeenth century the islands were targeted by raiding Algerian pirates and a large proportion of the islanders were killed or captured and forced into slavery. Then in 1973 a two-hundred metre high volcano appeared on the edge of the main town literally overnight, and spewed out vast quantities of lava for months. The entire population of about five thousand people was evacuated in a few hours that first night, and then a desperate battle began to halt the lava by cooling it with seawater before it overran the town and blocked the only entrance to the harbour. The total area of the island was increased by one fifth during the eruption, but the cooling efforts were eventually successful and both the harbour entrance and most of the town were preserved.

Interior of Heimaey

Interior of Heimaey

I spent a night camping on Heimaey, the main island of the Vestmannaeyjar, and an afternoon climbing the steep ridges that line the nothern side of the island, and the young volcano Eldfell. Today it looks as innocent as Hverfell by Mývatn, just a pile of black and red shingle in a U-shape around a burst crater, and makes a great viewing point for looking over the islands.

Heimaey town and harbour from Eldfell

Heimaey town and harbour from Eldfell

Vestmannaeyjar from Eldfell

Vestmannaeyjar from Eldfell

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

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?

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