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

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.