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

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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