Letters From High Latitudes
The Marquess of Dufferin (Lord Dufferin)

Part 1 out of 5


Being some account of a voyage in 1856 of the schooner yacht "Foam"
to Iceland, Jan Meyen, and Spitzbergen.

By the Marquess of Dufferin Sometime Governor-General of the Dominion
of Canada and afterwards Viceroy of India.



Glasgow, Monday, June 2, 1856.

Our start has not been prosperous. Yesterday evening, on
passing Carlisle, a telegraphic message was put into my
hand, announcing the fact of the "Foam" having been
obliged to put into Holyhead, in consequence of the sudden
illness of my Master. As the success of our expedition
entirely depends on our getting off before the season is
further advanced, you can understand how disagreeable it
is to have received this check at its very outset. As
yet, of course, I know nothing of the nature of the
illness with which he has been seized. However, I have
ordered the schooner to proceed at once to Oban, and I
have sent back the Doctor to Holyhead to overhaul the
sick man. It is rather early in the day for him to enter
upon the exercise of his functions.



Greenock, Tuesday, June 3, 1856

I found the Icelander awaiting my arrival here,--pacing
up and down the coffee-room like a Polar bear.

At first he was a little shy, and, not having yet had
much opportunity of practising his English, it was some
time before I could set him perfectly at his ease. He
has something so frank and honest in his face and bearing,
that I am certain he will turn out a pleasant companion.
There being no hatred so intense as that which you feel
towards a disagreeable shipmate, this assurance has
relieved me of a great anxiety, and I already feel I
shall hereafter reckon Sigurdr (pronounced Segurthur),
the son of Jonas, among the number of my best friends.

As most educated English people firmly believe the
Icelanders to be a "Squawmuck," blubber-eating,
seal-skin-clad race, I think it right to tell you that
Sigurdr is apparelled in good broadcloth, and all the
inconveniences of civilization, his costume culminating
in the orthodox chimney-pot of the nineteenth century.
He is about twenty-seven, very intelligent-looking,
and--all women would think--lovely to behold. A high
forehead, straight, delicate features, dark blue eyes,
auburn hair and beard, and the complexion of--Lady S--d!
His early life was passed in Iceland; but he is now
residing at Copenhagen as a law student. Through the
introduction of a mutual friend, he has been induced to
come with me, and do us the honours of his native land.

"O whar will I get a skeely skipper,
To sail this gude ship o' mine?'

Such, alas! has been the burden of my song for these last
four-and-twenty hours, as I have sat in the Tontine Tower,
drinking the bad port wine, for, after spending a fortune
in telegraphic messages to Holyhead, it has been decided
that B-- cannot come on, and I have been forced to rig up
a Glasgow merchant skipper into a jury sailing-master.

Any such arrangement is, at the best, unsatisfactory,
but to abandon the cruise is the only alternative. However,
considering I had but a few hours to look about me, I
have been more fortunate than might have been expected.
I have had the luck to stumble on a young fellow, very
highly recommended by the Captain of the Port. He returned
just a fortnight ago from a trip to Australia, and having
since married a wife, is naturally anxious not to lose
this opportunity of going to sea again for a few months.

I start to-morrow for Oban, via Inverary, which I wish
to show to my Icelander. At Oban I join the schooner,
and proceed to Stornaway, in the Hebrides, whither the
undomestic Mr. Ebenezer Wyse (a descendant, probably, of
some Westland Covenanter) is to follow me by the steamer.



Oban, June 5, 1856

I have seldom enjoyed anything so much as our journey
yesterday. Getting clear at last of the smells, smoke,
noise, and squalor of Greenock, to plunge into the very
heart of the Highland hills, robed as they were in the
sunshine of a beautiful summer day, was enough to make
one beside oneself with delight, and the Icelander enjoyed
it as much as I did. Having crossed the Clyde, alive
with innumerable vessels, its waves dancing and sparkling
in the sunlight, we suddenly shot into the still and
solemn Loch Goil, whose waters, dark with mountain shadows,
seemed almost to belong to a different element from that
of the yellow, rushing, ship-laden river we had left. In
fact, in the space of ten minutes we had got into another
world, centuries remote from the steaming, weaving,
delving Britain, south of Clyde.

After a sail of about three hours, we reached the head
of the loch, and then took coach along the worst mountain
road in Europe, towards the country of the world-invading
Campbells. A steady pull of three hours more, up a wild
bare glen, brought us to the top of the mica-slate ridge
which pens up Loch Fyne, on its western side, and disclosed
what I have always thought the loveliest scene in Scotland.

Far below at our feet, and stretching away on either hand
among the mountains, lay the blue waters of the lake.

On its other side, encompassed by a level belt of
pasture-land and corn-fields, the white little town of
Inverary glittered like a gem on the sea-shore, while to
the right, amid lawns and gardens, and gleaming banks of
wood, that hung down into the water, rose the dark towers
of the Castle, the whole environed by an amphitheatre of
tumbled porphyry hills, beyond whose fir-crowned crags
rose the bare blue mountain-tops of Lorn.

It was a perfect picture of peace and seclusion, and I
confess I had great pride in being able to show my
companion so fair a specimen of one of our lordly island
homes--the birthplace of a race of nobles whose names
sparkle down the page of their country's history as
conspicuously as the golden letters in an illuminated

While descending towards the strand, I tried to amuse
Sigurdr with a sketch of the fortunes of the great house
of Argyll.

I told him how in ancient days three warriors came from
Green Ierne, to dwell in the wild glens of Cowal and
Lochow,--how one of them, the swart Breachdan, all for
the love of blue-eyed Eila, swam the Gulf, once with a
clew of thread, then with a hempen rope, last with an
iron chain, but this time, alas! the returning tide sucks
down the over-tasked hero into its swirling vortex,--how
Diarmid O' Duin, i.e. son of "the Brown," slew with his
own hand the mighty boar, whose head still scowls over
the escutcheon of the Campbells,--how in later times,
while the murdered Duncan's son, afterwards the great
Malcolm Canmore, was yet an exile at the court of his
Northumbrian uncle, ere Birnam wood had marched to
Dunsinane, the first Campbell i.e. Campus-bellus,
Beau-champ, a Norman knight and nephew of the Conqueror,
having won the hand of the lady Eva, sole heiress of the
race of Diarmid, became master of the lands and lordships
of Argyll,--how six generations later--each of them
notable in their day--the valiant Sir Colin created for
his posterity a title prouder than any within a sovereign's
power to bestow, which no forfeiture could attaint, no
act of parliament recall; for though he cease to be Duke
or Earl, the head of the Clan Campbell will still remain
Mac Calan More,--and how at last the same Sir Colin fell
at the String of Cowal, beneath the sword of that fierce
lord, whose granddaughter was destined to bind the honours
of his own heirless house round the coronet of his slain
foeman's descendant;--how Sir Neill at Bannockburn fought
side by side with the Bruce whose sister he had married;
how Colin, the first Earl, wooed and won the Lady Isabel,
sprung from the race of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, thus
adding the galleys of Lorn to the blazonry of Argyll;--
how the next Earl died at Flodden, and his successor
fought not less disastrously at Pinkie;--how Archibald,
fifth Earl, whose wife was at supper with the Queen, her
half-sister, when Rizzio was murdered, fell on the field
of Langside, smitten not by the hand of the enemy, but
by the finger of God; how Colin, Earl and boy-General at
fifteen, was dragged away by force, with tears in his
eyes, from the unhappy skirmish at Glenlivit, where his
brave Highlanders were being swept down by the artillery
of Huntley and Errol,--destined to regild his spurs in
future years on the soil of Spain.

Then I told him of the Great Rebellion, and how, amid
the tumult of the next fifty years, the Grim Marquis--
Gillespie Grumach, as his squint caused him to be called--
Montrose's fatal foe, staked life and fortunes in the
deadly game engaged in by the fierce spirits of that
generation, and losing, paid the forfeit with his head,
as calmly as became a brave and noble gentleman, leaving
an example, which his son--already twice rescued from
the scaffold, once by a daughter of the ever-gallant
house of Lindsay, again a prisoner, and a rebel, because
four years too soon to be a patriot--as nobly imitated;--
how, at last, the clouds of misfortune cleared away, and
honours clustered where only merit had been before; the
martyr's aureole, almost become hereditary, being replaced
in the next generation by a ducal coronet, itself to be
regilt in its turn with a less sinister lustre by him--

"The State's whole thunder born to wield,
And shake alike the senate and the field;"

who baffled Walpole in the cabinet, and conquered with
Marlborough at Ramilies, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet;--
and, last,--how at that present moment, even while we
were speaking, the heir to all these noble reminiscences,
the young chief of this princely line, had already won,
at the age of twenty-nine, by the manly vigour of his
intellect and his hereditary independence of character,
the confidence of his fellow-countrymen, and a seat at
the council board of his sovereign.

Having thus duly indoctrinated Sigurdr with the Sagas of
the family, as soon as we had crossed the lake I took
him up to the Castle, and acted cicerone to its pictures
and heirlooms,--the gleaming stands of muskets, whose
fire wrought such fatal ruin at Culloden;--the portrait
of the beautiful Irish girl, twice a Duchess, whom the
cunning artist has painted with a sunflower that turns
FROM the sun to look at her;--Gillespie Grumach himself,
as grim and sinister-looking as in life.--the trumpets
to carry the voice from the hall door to Dunnaquaich;--the
fair beech avenues, planted by the old Marquis, now
looking with their smooth grey boles, and overhanging
branches, like the cloisters of an abbey the vale of
Esechasan, to which, on the evening before his execution,
the Earl wrote such touching verses; the quaint old
kitchen-garden; the ruins of the ancient Castle, where
worthy Major Dalgetty is said to have passed such uncom-
fortable moments;--the Celtic cross from lone Iona:--all
and everything I showed off with as much pride and
pleasure, I think, as if they had been my own possessions;
and the more so as the Icelander himself evidently
sympathised with such Scald-like gossip.

Having thoroughly overrun the woods and lawns of Inverary,
we had a game of chess, and went to bed pretty well tired.

The next morning, before breakfast, I went off in a boat
to Ardkinglass to see my little cousins; and then returning
about twelve, we got a post-chaise, and crossing the
boastful Loch Awe in a ferry-boat, reached Oban at
nightfall. Here I had the satisfaction of finding the
schooner already arrived, and of being joined by the
Doctor, just returned from his fruitless expedition to



Stornaway, Island of Lewis, Hebrides, June 9, 1856.

We reached these Islands of the West the day before
yesterday, after a fine run from Oban.

I had intended taking Staffa and Iona on my way, but it
came on so thick with heavy weather from the south-west,
that to have landed on either island would have been out
of the question. So we bore up under Mull at one in the
morning, tore through the Sound at daylight, rounded
Ardnamurchan under a double-reefed mainsail at two P.M.,
and shot into the Sound of Skye the same evening, leaving
the hills of Moidart (one of whose "seven naen" was an
ancestor of your own), and the jaws of the hospitable
Loch Hourn, reddening in the stormy sunset.

At Kylakin we were obliged to bring up for the night;
but getting under weigh again at daylight, we took a fair
wind with us along the east coast of Skye, passed Raasa
and Rona, and so across the Minch to Stornaway.

Stornaway is a little fishing-town with a beautiful
harbour, from out of which was sailing, as we entered,
a fleet of herring-boats, their brown sails gleaming like
gold against the dark angry water as they fluttered out
to sea, unmindful of the leaden clouds banked up along
the west, and all the symptoms of an approaching gale.
The next morning it was upon us; but brought up as we
were under the lea of a high rock, the tempest tore
harmlessly over our heads, and left us at liberty to make
the final preparations for departure.

Fitz, whose talents for discerning where the vegetables,
fowls, and pretty ladies of a place were to be found, I
had already had occasion to admire, went ashore to forage;
while I remained on board to superintend the fixing of
our sacred figure-head--executed in bronze by Marochetti--
and brought along with me by rail, still warm from the

For the performance of this solemnity I luckily possessed
a functionary equal to the occasion, in the shape of the
second cook. Originally a guardsman, he had beaten his
sword into a chisel, and become carpenter; subsequently
conceiving a passion for the sea, he turned his attention
to the mysteries of the kitchen, and now sails with me
in the alternate exercise of his two last professions.
This individual, thus happily combining the chivalry
inherent in the profession of arms with the skill of the
craftsman and the refinement of the artist--to whose
person, moreover, a paper cap, white vestments, and the
sacrificial knife at his girdle, gave something of a
sacerdotal character--I did not consider unfit to raise
the ship's guardian image to its appointed place; and
after two hours' reverential handiwork, I had the
satisfaction of seeing the well-known lovely face, with
its golden hair, and smile that might charm all malice
from the elements, beaming like a happy omen above our

Shortly afterwards Fitz came alongside, after a most
successful foray among the fish-wives. He was sitting in
the stern-sheets, up to his knees in vegetables, with
seven elderly hens beside him, and a dissipated-looking
cock under his arm, with regard to whose qualifications
its late proprietor had volunteered the most satisfactory
assurances. I am also bound to mention, that protruding
from his coat-pocket were certain sheets of music, with
the name of "Alice Louisa," written therein in a remarkably
pretty hand, which led me to believe that the Doctor had
not entirely confined his energies to the acquisition of
hens and vegetables. The rest of the day was spent in
packing away our newly-purchased stores, and making the
ship as tidy as circumstances would admit. I am afraid,
however, many a smart yachtsman would have been scandalized
at our decks, lumbered up with hen-coops, sacks of coal,
and other necessaries, which, like the Queen of Spain's
legs, not only ought never to be seen, but must not be
supposed even to exist, on board a tip-top craft.

By the evening, the gale, which had been blowing all day,
had increased to a perfect hurricane. At nine o'clock we
let go a second anchor; and I confess, as we sat comfortably
round the fire in the bright cheerful little cabin, and
listened to the wind whistling and shrieking through the
cordage, that none of us were sorry to find ourselves in
port on such a night, instead of tossing on the wild
Atlantic--though we little knew that even then the
destroying angel was busy with the fleet of fishing-boats
which had put to sea so gallantly on the evening of our
arrival. By morning the neck of the gale was broken, and
the sun shone brightly on the white rollers as they chased
each other to the shore; but a Queen's ship was steaming
into the bay, with sad news of ruin out to seaward;--towing
behind her, boats, water-logged, or bottom upwards,--while
a silent crowd of women on the quay were waiting to learn
on what homes among them the bolt had fallen.

About twelve o'clock the Glasgow packet came in, and a
few minutes afterwards I had the honour of receiving on
my quarter-deck a gentleman who seemed a cross between
the German student and swell commercial gent. On his head
he wore a queer kind of smoking-cap, with the peak cocked
over his left ear; then came a green shooting-jacket,
and flashy silk tartan waistcoat, set off by a gold chain,
hung about in innumerable festoons,--while light trousers
and knotty Wellington boots completed his costume, and
made the wearer look as little like a seaman as need be.
It appeared, nevertheless, that the individual in question
was Mr. Ebenezer Wyse, my new sailing-master; so I accepted
Captain C.'s strong recommendation as a set-off against
the silk tartan; explained to the new comer the position
he was to occupy on board, and gave orders for sailing
in an hour. The multitudinous chain, moreover, so lavishly
displayed, turned out to be an ornament of which Mr. Wyse
might well be proud; and the following history of its
acquisition reconciled me more than anything else to my
Master's unnautical appearance.

Some time ago there was a great demand in Australia for
small river steamers, which certain Scotch companies
undertook to supply. The difficulty, however, was to get
such fragile tea-kettles across the ocean; five started
one after another in murderous succession, and each came
to grief before it got half-way to the equator; the sixth
alone remained with which to try a last experiment. Should
she arrive, her price would more than compensate the
pecuniary loss already sustained, though it could not
bring to life the hands sacrificed in the mad speculation;
by this time, however, even the proverbial recklessness
of the seamen of the port was daunted, and the hearts of
two crews had already failed them at the last moment of
starting, when my friend of the chain volunteered to take
the command. At the outset of his voyage everything went
well; a fair wind (her machinery was stowed away, and
she sailed under canvas) carried the little craft in an
incredibly short time a thousand miles to the southward
of the Cape, when one day, as she was running before the
gale, the man at the wheel--startled at a sea which he
thought was going to poop her--let go the helm; the vessel
broached to, and tons of water tumbled in on the top of
the deck. As soon as the confusion of the moment had
subsided, it became evident that the shock had broken
some of the iron plates, and that the ship was in a fair
way of foundering. So frightened were the crew, that,
after consultation with each other, they determined to
take to the boats, and all hands came aft, to know whether
there was anything the skipper would wish to carry off
with him. Comprehending the madness of attempting to
reach land in open boats at the distance of a thousand
miles from any shore, Wyse pretended to go into the cabin
to get his compass, chronometer, etc., but returning
immediately with a revolver in each hand, swore he would
shoot the first man who attempted to touch the boats.
This timely exhibition of spirit saved their lives: soon
after the weather moderated; by undergirding the ship
with chains, St. Paul fashion, the leaks were partially
stopped, the steamer reached her destination, and was
sold for 7,000 pounds a few days after her arrival. In
token of their gratitude for the good service he had done
them, the Company presented Mr. Wyse on his return with
a gold watch, and the chain he wears so gloriously outside
the silk tartan waistcoat.

And now, good-bye. I hear the click-click of the chain
as they heave the anchor; I am rather tired and exhausted
with all the worry of the last two months, and shall be
heartily glad to get to sea, where fresh air will set me
up again, I hope, in a few days. My next letter will be
from Iceland; and, please God, before I see English land
again, I hope to have many a story to tell you of the
islands that are washed by the chill waters of the Arctic



Reykjavik, Iceland, June 21, 1856.

We have landed in Thule! When, in parting, you moaned so
at the thought of not being able to hear of our safe
arrival, I knew there would be an opportunity of writing
to you almost immediately after reaching Iceland; but I
said nothing about it at the time, lest something should
delay this letter, and you be left to imagine all kinds
of doleful reasons for its non-appearance. We anchored
in Reykjavik harbour this afternoon (Saturday). H.M.S.
"Coquette" sails for England on Monday; so that within
a week you will get this.

For the last ten days we have been leading the life of
the "Flying Dutchman." Never do I remember to have had
such a dusting: foul winds, gales, and calms--or rather
breathing spaces, which the gale took occasionally to
muster up fresh energies for a blow--with a heavy head
sea, that prevented our sailing even when we got aslant.
On the afternoon of the day we quitted Stornaway, I got
a notion how it was going to be; the sun went angrily
down behind a bank of solid grey cloud, and by the time
we were up with the Butt of Lewis, the whole sky was in
tatters, and the mercury nowhere, with a heavy swell from
the north-west.

As, two years before, I had spent a week in trying to
beat through the Roost of Sumburgh under double-reefed
trysails, I was at home in the weather; and guessing we
were in for it, sent down the topmasts, stowed the boats
on board, handed the foresail, rove the ridge-ropes, and
reefed all down. By midnight it blew a gale, which
continued without intermission until the day we sighted
Iceland; sometimes increasing to a hurricane, but broken
now and then by sudden lulls, which used to leave us for
a couple of hours at a time tumbling about on the top of
the great Atlantic rollers--or Spanish waves, as they
are called--until I thought the ship would roll the masts
out of her. Why they should be called Spanish waves, no
one seems to know; but I had always heard the seas were
heavier here than in any other part of the world, and
certainly they did not belie their character. The little
ship behaved beautifully, and many a vessel twice her
size would have been less comfortable. Indeed, few people
can have any notion of the cosiness of a yacht's cabin
under such circumstances. After having remained for
several hours on deck, in the presence of the tempest,--
peering through the darkness at those black liquid walls
of water, mounting above you in ceaseless agitation, or
tumbling over in cataracts of gleaming foam,--the wind
roaring through the rigging,--timbers creaking as if the
ship would break its heart,--the spray and rain beating
in your face,--everything around in tumult,--suddenly
to descend into the quiet of a snug, well-lighted little
cabin, with the firelight dancing on the white rosebud
chintz, the well-furnished book-shelves, and all the
innumerable nick-nacks that decorate its walls,--little
Edith's portrait looking so serene,--everything about
you as bright and fresh as a lady's boudoir in May
Fair,--the certainty of being a good three hundred miles
from any troublesome shore,--all combine to inspire a
feeling of comfort and security difficult to describe.

These pleasures, indeed, for the first days of our voyage,
the Icelander had pretty much to himself. I was laid up
with a severe bout of illness I had long felt coming on,
and Fitz was sea-sick. I must say, however, I never saw
any one behave with more pluck and resolution; and when
we return, the first thing you do must be to thank him
for his kindness to me on that occasion. Though himself
almost prostrate, he looked after me as indefatigably as
if he had already found his sea legs; and, sitting down
on the cabin floor, with a basin on one side of him, and
a pestle and mortar on the other, used to manufacture my
pills, between the paroxysms of his malady, with a decorous
pertinacity that could not be too much admired.

Strangely enough, too, his state of unhappiness lasted
a few days longer than the eight-and-forty hours which
are generally sufficient to set people on their feet
again. I tried to console him by representing what an
occasion it was for observing the phenomena of sea-sickness
from a scientific point of view; and I must say he set
to work most conscientiously to discover some remedy.
Brandy, prussic acid, opium, champagne, ginger, mutton-
chops, and tumblers of salt-water, were successively
exhibited; but, I regret to say, after a few minutes,
each in turn re-exhibited itself with monotonous
punctuality. Indeed, at one time we thought he would
never get over it; and the following conversation, which
I overheard one morning between him and my servant, did
not brighten his hopes of recovery.

This person's name is Wilson, and of all men I ever met
he is the most desponding. Whatever is to be done, he is
sure to see a lion in the path. Life in his eyes is a
perpetual filling of leaky buckets, and a rolling of
stones up hill. He is amazed when the bucket holds water,
or the stone perches on the summit. He professes but a
limited belief in his star,--and success with him is
almost a disappointment. His countenance corresponds
with the prevailing character of his thoughts, always
hopelessly chapfallen; his voice is as of the tomb. He
brushes my clothes, lays the cloth, opens the champagne,
with the air of one advancing to his execution. I have
never seen him smile but once, when he came to report to
me that a sea had nearly swept his colleague, the steward,
overboard. The son of a gardener at Chiswick, he first
took to horticulture; then emigrated as a settler to the
Cape, where he acquired his present complexion, which is
of a grass-green; and finally served as a steward on
board an Australian steam-packet.

Thinking to draw consolation from his professional
experiences, I heard Fitz's voice, now very weak, say in
a tone of coaxing cheerfulness,--

"Well, Wilson, I suppose this kind of thing does not last

The Voice, as of the tomb. "I don't know, Sir."

Fitz.--"But you must have often seen passengers sick."

The Voice.--"Often, Sir; very sick."

Fitz.--"Well; and on an average, how soon did they

The Voice.--"Some of them didn't recover, Sir."

Fitz.--"Well, but those that did?"

The Voice.--"I know'd a clergyman and his wife as were,
ill all the voyage; five months, Sir."

Fitz.--(Quite silent.)

The Voice; now become sepulchral.--"They sometimes dies,


Before the end of the voyage, however, this Job's comforter
himself fell ill, and the Doctor amply revenged himself
by prescribing for him.

Shortly after this, a very melancholy occurrence took
place. I had observed for some days past, as we proceeded
north, and the nights became shorter, that the cock we
shipped at Stornaway had become quite bewildered on the
subject of that meteorological phenomenon called the Dawn
of Day. In fact, I doubt whether he ever slept for more
than five minutes at a stretch, without waking up in a
state of nervous agitation, lest it should be cock-crow.
At last, when night ceased altogether, his constitution
could no longer stand the shock. He crowed once or twice
sarcastically, then went melancholy mad: finally, taking
a calenture, he cackled lowly (probably of green fields),
and leaping overboard, drowned himself. The mysterious
manner in which every day a fresh member of his harem
used to disappear, may also have preyed upon his spirits.

At last, on the morning of the eighth day, we began to
look out for land. The weather had greatly improved during
the night; and, for the first time since leaving the
Hebrides, the sun had got the better of the clouds, and
driven them in confusion before his face. The sea, losing
its dead leaden colour, had become quite crisp and
burnished, darkling into a deep sapphire blue against
the horizon; beyond which, at about nine o'clock, there
suddenly shot up towards the zenith, a pale, gold aureole,
such as precedes the appearance of the good fairy at a
pantomime farce; then, gradually lifting its huge back
above the water, rose a silver pyramid of snow, which I
knew must be the cone of an ice mountain, miles away in
the interior of the island. From the moment we got hold
of the land, our cruise, as you may suppose, doubled in
interest. Unfortunately, however, the fair morning did
not keep its promise; about one o'clock, the glittering
mountain vanished in mist; the sky again became like an
inverted pewter cup, and we had to return for two more
days to our old practice of threshing to windward. So
provoked was I at this relapse of the weather, that,
perceiving a whale blowing convenient, I could not help
suggesting to Sigurdr, son of Jonas, that it was an
occasion for observing the traditions of his family; but
he excused himself on the plea of their having become

The mountain we had seen in the morning was the south-east
extremity of the island, the very landfall made by one
of its first discoverers. [Footnote: There is in Strabo
an account of a voyage made by a citizen of the Greek
colony of Marseilles, in the time of Alexander the Great,
through the Pillars of Hercules, along the coasts of
France and Spain, up the English Channel, and so across
the North Sea, past an island he calls Thule; his further
progress, he asserted, was hindered by a barrier of a
peculiar nature,--neither earth, air, nor sky, but a
compound of all three, forming a thick viscid substance
which it was impossible to penetrate. Now, whether this
same Thule was one of the Shetland Islands, and the
impassable substance merely a fog,--or Iceland, and the
barricade beyond, a wall of ice, it is impossible to say.
Probably Pythias did not get beyond the Shetlands.] This
gentleman not having a compass, (he lived about A.D.
864,) nor knowing exactly where the land lay, took on
board with him, at starting, three consecrated ravens--as
an M.P. would take three well-trained pointers to his
moor. Having sailed a certain distance, he let loose one,
which flew back: by this he judged he had not got half-way.
Proceeding onwards, he loosed the second, which, after
circling in the air for some minutes in apparent
uncertainty, also made off home, as though it still
remained a nice point which were the shorter course toward
terra firma. But the third, on obtaining his liberty a
few days later, flew forward, and by following the
direction in which he had disappeared, Rabna Floki, or
Floki of the Ravens, as he came to be called, triumphantly
made the land.

The real colonists did not arrive till some years later,
for I do not much believe a story they tell of Christian
relics, supposed to have been left by Irish fishermen,
found on the Westmann islands. A Scandinavian king, named
Harold Haarfager (a contemporary of our own King Alfred's),
having murdered, burnt, and otherwise exterminated all
his brother kings who at that time grew as thick as
blackberries in Norway, first consolidated their dominions
into one realm, as Edgar did the Heptarchy, and then
proceeded to invade the Udal rights of the landholders.
Some of them, animated with that love of liberty innate
in the race of the noble Northmen, rather than submit to
his oppressions, determined to look for a new home amid
the desolate regions of the icy sea. Freighting a
dragon-shaped galley--the "Mayflower" of the period--with
their wives and children, and all the household monuments
that were dear to them, they saw the blue peaks of their
dear Norway hills sink down into the sea behind, and
manfully set their faces towards the west, where--some
vague report had whispered--a new land might be found.
Arrived in sight of Iceland, the leader of the expedition
threw the sacred pillars belonging to his former dwelling
into the water, in order that the gods might determine
the site of his new home: carried by the tide, no one
could say in what direction, they were at last discovered,
at the end of three years, in a sheltered bay on the west
side of the island, and Ingolf [Footnote: It was in
consequence of a domestic feud that Ingolf himself was
forced to emigrate.] came and abode there, and the place
became in the course of years Reykjavik, the capital of
the country.

Sigurdr having scouted the idea of acting Iphigenia,
there was nothing for it but steadily to beat over the
remaining hundred and fifty miles, which still separated
us from Cape Reikianess. After going for two days hard
at it, and sighting the Westmann islands, we ran plump
into a fog, and lay to. In a few hours, however, it
cleared up into a lovely sunny day, with a warm summer
breeze just rippling up the water. Before us lay the
long wished-for Cape, with the Meal-sack,--a queer stump
of basalt, that flops up out of the sea, fifteen miles
south-west of Cape Reikianess, its flat top white with
guano, like the mouth of a bag of flour,--five miles on
our port bow; and seldom have I remembered a pleasanter
four-and-twenty hours than those spent stealing up along
the gnarled and crumpled lava flat that forms the western
coast of Guldbrand Syssel. Such fishing, shooting, looking
through telescopes, and talking of what was to be done
on our arrival! Like Antaeus, Sigurdr seemed twice the
man he was before, at sight of his native land; and the
Doctor grew nearly lunatic when after stalking a solent
goose asleep on the water, the bird flew away at the
moment the schooner hove within shot.

The panorama of the bay of Faxa Fiord is magnificent,
--with a width of fifty miles from horn to horn, the one
running down into a rocky ridge of pumice, the other
towering to the height of five thousand feet in a pyramid
of eternal snow, while round the intervening semicircle
crowd the peaks of a hundred noble mountains. As you
approach the shore, you are very much reminded of the
west coast of Scotland, except that everything is more
INTENSE--the atmosphere clearer, the light more vivid,
the air more bracing, the hills steeper, loftier, more
tormented, as the French say, and more gaunt; while
between their base and the sea stretches a dirty greenish
slope, patched with houses which themselves, both roof
and walls, are of a mouldy green, as if some long-since
inhabited country had been fished up out of the bottom
of the sea.

The effects of light and shadow are the purest I ever
saw, the contrasts of colour most astonishing,--one square
front of a mountain jutting out in a blaze of gold against
the flank of another, dyed of the darkest purple, while
up against the azure sky beyond, rise peaks of glittering
snow and ice. The snow, however, beyond serving as an
ornamental fringe to the distance, plays but a very poor
part at this season of the year in Iceland. While I write,
the thermometer is above 70. Last night we remained
playing at chess on deck till bedtime, without thinking
of calling for coats, and my people live in their
shirt-sleeves, and--astonishment at the climate.

And now, good-bye. I cannot tell you how I am enjoying
myself, body and soul. Already I feel much stronger, and
before I return I trust to have laid in a stock of health
sufficient to last the family for several generations.

Remember me to --, and tell her she looks too lovely;
her face has become of a beautiful bright green--a
complexion which her golden crown sets off to the greatest
advantage. I wish she could have seen, as we sped across,
how passionately the waves of the Atlantic flung their
liquid arms about her neck, and how proudly she broke
through their embraces, leaving them far behind, moaning
and lamenting.



Reykjavik, June 28, 1856.

Notwithstanding that its site, as I mentioned in my last
letter, was determined by auspices not less divine than
those of Rome or Athens, Reykjavik is not so fine a city
as either, though its public buildings may be thought to
be in better repair. In fact, the town consists of a
collection of wooden sheds, one story high--rising here
and there into a gable end of greater pretentions--built
along the lava beach, and flanked at either end by a
suburb of turf huts.

On every side of it extends a desolate plain of lava that
once must have boiled up red-hot from some distant gateway
of hell, and fallen hissing into the sea. No tree or bush
relieves the dreariness of the landscape, and the mountains
are too distant to serve as a background to the buildings;
but before the door of each merchant's house facing the
sea, there flies a gay little pennon; and as you walk
along the silent streets, whose dust no carriage-wheel
has ever desecrated, the rows of flower-pots that peep
out of the windows, between curtains of white muslin, at
once convince you that notwithstanding their unpretending
appearance, within each dwelling reign the elegance and
comfort of a woman-tended home.

Thanks to Sigurdr's popularity among his countrymen, by
the second day after our arrival we found ourselves no
longer in a strange land. With a frank energetic cordiality
that quite took one by surprise, the gentlemen of the
place at once welcomed us to their firesides, and made
us feel that we could give them no greater pleasure than
by claiming their hospitality. As, however, it is necessary,
if we are to reach Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen this summer,
that our stay in Iceland should not be prolonged above
a certain date, I determined at once to make preparations
for our expedition to the Geysirs and the interior of
the country. Our plan at present, after visiting the hot
springs, is to return to Reykjavik, and stretch right
across the middle of the island to the north coast--scarcely
ever visited by strangers. Thence we shall sail straight
away to Jan Mayen.

In pursuance of this arrangement, the first thing to do
was to buy some horses. Away, accordingly, we went in
the gig to the little pier leading up to the merchant's
house who had kindly promised Sigurdr to provide them.
Everything in the country that is not made of wood is
made of lava. The pier was constructed out of huge
boulders of lava, the shingle is lava, the sea-sand is
pounded lava, the mud on the roads is lava paste, the
foundations of the houses are lava blocks, and in dry
weather you are blinded with lava dust. Immediately upon
landing I was presented to a fine, burly gentleman, who,
I was informed, could let me have a steppe-ful of horses
if I desired, and a few minutes afterwards I picked myself
up in the middle of a Latin oration on the subject of
the weather. Having suddenly lost my nominative case, I
concluded abruptly with the figure syncope, and a bow,
to which my interlocutor politely replied "Ita." Many of
the inhabitants speak English, and one or two French,
but in default of either of these, your only chance is
Latin. At first I found great difficulty in brushing up
anything sufficiently conversational, more especially as
it was necessary to broaden out the vowels in the high
Roman fashion; but a little practice soon made me more
fluent, and I got at last to brandish my "Pergratum est,"
etc. in the face of a new acquaintance, without any
misgivings. On this occasion I thought it more prudent
to let Sigurdr make the necessary arrangements for our
journey, and in a few minutes I had the satisfaction of
learning that I had become the proprietor of twenty-six
horses, as many bridles and pack-saddles, and three

There being no roads in Iceland, all the traffic of the
country is conducted by means of horses, along the bridle-
tracks which centuries of travel have worn in the lava
plains. As but little hay is to be had, the winter is
a season of fasting for all cattle, and it is not until
spring is well advanced, and the horses have had time to
grow a little fat on the young grass, that you can go a
journey. I was a good deal taken aback when the number
of my stud was announced to me, but it appears that what
with the photographic apparatus, which I am anxious to
take, and our tent, it would be impossible to do with
fewer animals. The price of each pony is very moderate,
and I am told I shall have no difficulty in disposing of
all of them, at the conclusion of our expedition.

These preliminaries happily concluded, Mr. J-- invited
us into his house, where his wife and daughter--a sunshiny
young lady of eighteen--were waiting to receive us. As
Latin here was quite useless, we had to entrust Sigurdr
with all the pretty things we desired to convey to our
entertainers, but it is my firm opinion that that gentleman
took a dirty advantage of us, and intercepting the choicest
flowers of our eloquence, appropriated them to the
advancement of his own interests. However, such expressions
of respectful admiration as he suffered to reach their
destination were received very graciously, and rewarded
with a shower of smiles.

The next few days were spent in making short expeditions
in the neighbourhood, in preparing our baggage-train,
and in paying visits. It would be too long for me to
enumerate all the marks of kindness and hospitality I
received during this short period. Suffice it to say,
that I had the satisfaction of making many very interesting
acquaintances, of beholding a great number of very pretty
faces, and of partaking of an innumerable quantity of
luncheons. In fact, to break bread, or, more correctly
speaking, to crack a bottle with the master of the house,
is as essential an element of a morning call as the making
a bow or shaking hands, and to refuse to take off your
glass would be as great an incivility as to decline taking
off your hat. From earliest times, as the grand old ballad
of the King of Thule tells us, a beaker was considered
the fittest token a lady could present to her true-love--

Dem fterbend feine Buble
Einen goldnen Becher gab.

And in one of the most ancient Eddaic songs it is written,
"Drink, Runes, must thou know, if thou wilt maintain thy
power over the maiden thou lovest. Thou shalt score them
on the drinking-horn, on the back of thy hand, and the
word NAUD" (NEED--necessity) "on thy nail." Moreover,
when it is remembered that the ladies of the house
themselves minister on these occasions, it will be easily
understood that all flinching is out of the question.
What is a man to do, when a wicked little golden-haired
maiden insists on pouring him out a bumper, and dumb show
is his only means of remonstrance? Why, of course, if
death were in the cup, he must make her a leg, and drain
it to the bottom, as I did. In conclusion, I am bound
to add that, notwithstanding the bacchanalian character
prevailing in these visits, I derived from them much
interesting and useful information, and I have invariably
found the gentlemen to whom I have been presented persons
of education and refinement, combined with a happy,
healthy, jovial temperament, that invests their conversation
with a peculiar charm.

At this moment people are in a great state of excitement
at the expected arrival of H.I.H. Prince Napoleon, and
two days ago a large full-rigged ship came in laden with
coal for his use. The day after we left Stornaway, we
had seen her scudding away before the gale on a due west
course, and guessed she was bound for Iceland, and running
down the longitude, but as we arrived here four days
before her, our course seems to have been a better one.
The only other ship here is the French frigate "Artemise,"
Commodore Dumas, by whom I have been treated with the
greatest kindness and civility.

On Saturday we went to Vedey, a beautiful little green
island where the eider ducks breed, and build nests with
the soft under-down plucked from their own bosoms. After
the little ones are hatched, and their birthplaces
deserted, the nests are gathered, cleaned, and stuffed
into pillow-cases, for pretty ladies in Europe to lay
their soft, warm cheeks upon, and sleep the sleep of the
innocent, while long-legged, broad-shouldered Englishmen
protrude from between them at German inns, like the ham
from a sandwich, and cannot sleep, however innocent.

The next day, being Sunday, I read prayers on board,
and then went for a short time to the cathedral church,--
the only stone building in Reykjavik. It is a moderate-sized,
unpretending place, capable of holding three or four
hundred persons, erected in very ancient times, but lately
restored. The Icelanders are of the Lutheran religion,
and a Lutheran clergyman, in a black gown, etc., with a ruff
round his neck, such as our bishops are painted in about
the time of James the First, was preaching a sermon. It
was the first time I had heard Icelandic spoken continuously,
and it struck me as a singularly sweet caressing language,
although I disliked the particular cadence, amounting almost
to a chant, with which each sentence ended.

As in every church where prayers have been offered up
since the world began, the majority of the congregation
were women, some few dressed in bonnets, and the rest in
the national black silk skull-cap, set jauntily on one
side of the head, with a long black tassel hanging down
to the shoulder, or else in a quaint mitre of white linen,
of which a drawing alone could give you an idea, the
remainder of an Icelandic lady's costume, when not
superseded by Paris fashions, consists of a black bodice
fastened in front with silver clasps, over which is drawn
a cloth jacket, ornamented with a multitude of silver
buttons; round the neck goes a stiff ruff of velvet,
figured with silver lace, and a silver belt, often
beautifully chased, binds the long dark wadmal petticoat
round the waist. Sometimes the ornaments are of gold
instead of silver, and very costly.

Before dismissing his people, the preacher descended from
the pulpit, and putting on a splendid cope of crimson
velvet (in which some bishop had in ages past been
murdered), turned his back to the congregation, and
chanted some Latin sentences in good round Roman style.
Though still retaining in their ceremonies a few vestiges
of the old religion, though altars, candles, pictures,
and crucifixes yet remain in many of their churches, the
Icelanders are staunch Protestants, and, by all accounts,
the most devout, innocent pure-hearted people in the
world. Crime, theft, debauchery, cruelty, are unknown
amongst them; they have neither prison, gallows, soldiers,
nor police; and in the manner of the lives they lead
among their secluded valleys, there is something of a
patriarchal simplicity, that reminds one of the Old World
princes, of whom it has been said, that they were "upright
and perfect, eschewing evil, and in their hearts no

The law with regard to marriage, however, is sufficiently
peculiar. When, from some unhappy incompatibility of
temper, a married couple live so miserably together as
to render life insupportable, it is competent for them
to apply to the Danish Governor of the island for a
divorce. If, after the lapse of three years from the date
of the application, both are still of the same mind, and
equally eager to be free, the divorce is granted, and
each is at liberty to marry again.

The next day it had been arranged that we were to take
an experimental trip on our new ponies, under the guidance
of the learned and jovial Rector of the College.
Unfortunately the weather was dull and rainy, but we were
determined to enioy ourselves in spite of everything,
and a pleasanter ride I have seldom had. The steed Sigurdr
had purchased for me was a long-tailed, hog-maned, shaggy,
cow-houghed creature, thirteen hands high, of a bright
yellow colour, with admirable action, and sure-footed
enough to walk downstairs backwards. The Doctor was not
less well mounted; in fact, the Icelandic pony is quite
a peculiar race, much stronger, faster, and better bred
than the Highland shelty, and descended probably from
pure-blooded sires that scoured the steppes of Asia, long
before Odin and his paladins had peopled the valleys of

The first few miles of our ride lay across an undulating
plain of dolorite, to a farm situated at the head of an
inlet of the sea. At a distance, the farm-steading looked
like a little oasis of green, amid the grey stony slopes
that surrounded it, and on a nearer approach not unlike
the vestiges of a Celtic earthwork, with the tumulus of
a hero or two in the centre, but the mounds turned out
to be nothing more than the grass roofs of the house and
offices, and the banks and dykes but circumvallations
round the plot of most carefully cleaned meadow, called
the "tun," which always surrounds every Icelandic farm.
This word "tun" is evidently identical with our own Irish
"TOWN-LAND," the Cornish "TOWN," and the Scotch
"TOON,"--terms which, in their local signification, do
not mean a congregation of streets and buildings, but
the yard, and spaces of grass immediately adjoining a
single house, just as in German we have "tzaun," and in
the Dutch "tuyn," a garden.

Turning to the right, round the head of a little bay, we
passed within forty yards of an enormous eagle, seated
on a crag; but we had no rifle, and all he did was to
rise heavily into the air, flap his wings like a barn-door
fowl, and plump lazily down twenty yards farther off.
Soon after, the district we traversed became more igneous,
wrinkled, cracked, and ropy than anything we had yet
seen, and another two hours' scamper over such a track
as till then I would not have believed horses could have
traversed, even at a foot's pace, brought us to the
solitary farm-house of Bessestad. Fresh from the neat
homesteads of England that we had left sparkling in the
bright spring weather, and sheltered by immemorial
elms,--the scene before us looked inexpressibly desolate.
In front rose a cluster of weather-beaten wooden buildings,
and huts like ice-houses, surrounded by a scanty plot of
grass, reclaimed from the craggy plain of broken lava
that stretched--the home of ravens and foxes--on either
side to the horizon. Beyond, lay a low black breadth of
moorland, intersected by patches of what was neither land
nor water, and last, the sullen sea; while above our
heads a wind, saturated with the damps of the Atlantic,
went moaning over the landscape. Yet this was Bessestad,
the ancient home of Snorro Sturleson!

On dismounting from our horses and entering the house
things began to look more cheery; a dear old lady, to
whom we were successively presented by the Rector, received
us, with the air of a princess, ushered us into her best
room, made us sit down on the sofa--the place of honour--and
assisted by her niece, a pale lily-like maiden, named
after Jarl Hakon's Thora, proceeded to serve us with hot
coffee, rusks, and sweetmeats. At first it used to give
me a very disagreeable feeling to be waited upon by the
woman-kind of the household, and I was always starting
up, and attempting to take the dishes out of their hands,
to their infinite surprise; but now I have succeeded in
learning to accept their ministrations with the same
unembarrassed dignity as my neighbours. In the end,
indeed, I have rather got to like it, especially when
they are as pretty as Miss Thora. To add, moreover, to
our content, it appeared that that young lady spoke a
little French; so that we had no longer any need to pay
our court by proxy, which many persons besides ourselves
have found to be unsatisfactory. Our hostess lives quite
alone. Her son, whom I have the pleasure of knowing, is
far away, pursuing a career of honour and usefulness at
Copenhagen, and it seems quite enough for his mother to
know that he is holding his head high among the princes
of literature, and the statesmen of Europe, provided only
news of his success and advancing reputation shall
occasionally reach her across the ocean.

Of the rooms and the interior arrangement of the house,
I do not know that I have anything particular to tell
you; they seemed to me like those of a good old-fashioned
farmhouse, the walls wainscoted with deal, and the doors
and staircase of the same material. A few prints, a
photograph, some book-shelves, one or two little pictures,
decorated the parlour, and a neat iron stove, and massive
chests of drawers, served to furnish it very completely.
But you must not, I fear, take the drawing-room of
Bessestad as an average specimen of the comfort of an
Icelandic interieur. The greater proportion of the
inhabitants of the island live much more rudely. The
walls of only the more substantial farmsteads are wainscoted
with deal, or even partially screened with drift-wood.
In most houses the bare blocks of lava, pointed with
moss, are left in all their natural ruggedness. Instead
of wood, the rafters are made of the ribs of whales. The
same room but too often serves as the dining, sitting,
and sleeping place for the whole family; a hole in the
roof is the only chimney, and a horse's skull the most
luxurious fauteuil into which it is possible for them to
induct a stranger. The parquet is that originally laid
down by Nature,--the beds are merely boxes filled with
feathers or sea-weed,--and by all accounts the nightly
packing is pretty close, and very indiscriminate.

After drinking several cups of coffee, and consuming at
least a barrel of rusks, we rose to go, in spite of Miss
Thora's intimation that a fresh jorum of coffee was being
brewed. The horses were resaddled; and with an eloquent
exchange of bows, curtseys, and kindly smiles, we took
leave of our courteous entertainers, and sallied forth
into the wind and rain. It was a regular race home, single
file, the Rector leading; but as we sped along in silence,
amid the unchangeable features of this strange land, I
could not help thinking of him whose shrewd observing
eye must have rested, six hundred and fifty years ago,
on the selfsame crags, and tarns, and distant mountain-tops;
perhaps on the very day he rode out in the pride of his
wealth, talent, and political influence, to meet his
murderers at Reikholt. And mingling with his memory would
rise the pale face of Thora,--not the little lady of
the coffee and buscuits we had just left, but that other
Thora, so tender and true, who turned back King Olaf's
hell-hounds from the hiding-place of the great Jarl of

In order that you may understand why the forlorn barrack
we had just left, and its solitary inmates, should have
set me thinking of the men and women "of a thousand
summers back," it is necessary I should tell you a little
about this same Snorro Sturleson, whose memory so haunted

Colonized as Iceland had been,--not, as is generally the
case, when a new land is brought into occupation, by the
poverty-stricken dregs of a redundant population, nor by
a gang of outcasts and ruffians, expelled from the bosom
of a society which they contaminated,--but by men who in
their own land had been both rich and noble,--with
possessions to be taxed, and a spirit too haughty to
endure taxation,--already acquainted with whatever of
refinement and learning the age they lived in was capable
of supplying, it is not surprising that we should find
its inhabitants, even from the first infancy of the
republic, endowed with an amount of intellectual energy
hardly to be expected in so secluded a community.

Perhaps it was this very seclusion which stimulated into
almost miraculous exuberance the mental powers already
innate in the people. Undistracted during several successive
centuries by the bloody wars, and still more bloody
political convulsions, which for too long a period rendered
the sword of the warrior so much more important to European
society than the pen of the scholar, the Icelandic
settlers, devoting the long leisure of their winter nights
to intellectual occupations, became the first of any
European nation to create for themselves a native
literature. Indeed, so much more accustomed did they get
to use their heads than their hands, than if an Icelander
were injured he often avenged himself, not by cutting
the throat of his antagonist, but by ridiculing him in
some pasquinade,--sometimes, indeed, he did both; and
when the King of Denmark maltreats the crew of an Icelandic
vessel shipwrecked on his coast, their indignant countrymen
send the barbarous monarch word, that by way of reprisal,
they intend making as many lampoons on him as there are
promontories in his dominions. Almost all the ancient
Scandinavian manuscripts are Icelandic; the negotiations
between the Courts of the North were conducted by Icelandic
diplomatists; the earliest topographical survey with
which we are acquainted was Icelandic; the cosmogony of
the Odin religion was formulated, and its doctrinal
traditions and ritual reduced to a system, by Icelandic
archaeologists; and the first historical composition ever
written by any European in the vernacular, was the product
of Icelandic genius. The title of this important work is
"The Heimskringla," or world-circle, [Footnote: So called
because Heimskringla (world-circle) is the first word in
the opening sentence of the manuscript which catches the
eye.] and its author was--Snorro Sturleson! It consists
of an account of the reigns of the Norwegian kings from
mythic times down to about A.D. 1150, that is to say,
a few years before the death of our own Henry II.; but
detailed by the old Sagaman with so much art and cleverness
as almost to combine the dramatic power of Macaulay with
Clarendon's delicate delineation of character, and the
charming loquacity of Mr. Pepys. His stirring sea-fights,
his tender love-stories, and delightful bits of domestic
gossip, are really inimitable;--you actually live with
the people he brings upon the stage, as intimately as
you do with Falstaff, Percy, or Prince Hal; and there is
something in the bearing of those old heroic figures who
form his dramatis person, so grand and noble, that it is
impossible to read the story of their earnest stirring
lives without a feeling of almost passionate interest--an
effect which no tale frozen up in the monkish Latin of
the Saxon annalists has ever produced upon me.

As for Snorro's own life, it was eventful and tragic
enough. Unscrupulous, turbulent, greedy of money, he
married two heiresses--the one, however, becoming the
COLLEAGUE, not the successor of the other. This arrangement
naturally led to embarrassment. His wealth created envy,
his excessive haughtiness disgusted his sturdy
fellow-countrymen. He was suspected of desiring to make
the republic an appanage of the Norwegian crown, in the
hope of himself becoming viceroy; and at last, on a dark
September night, of the year 1241, he was murdered in
his house at Reikholt by his three sons-in-law.

The same century which produced the Herodotean work of
Sturleson also gave birth to a whole body of miscellaneous
Icelandic literature,--though in Britain and elsewhere
bookmaking was entirely confined to the monks, and merely
consisted in the compilation of a series of bald annals
locked up in bad Latin. It is true, Thomas of Ercildoune
was a contemporary of Snorro's; but he is known to us
more as a magician than as a man of letters; whereas
histories, memoirs, romances, biographies, poetry,
statistics, novels, calendars, specimens of almost every
kind of composition, are to be found even among the meagre
relics which have survived the literary decadence that
supervened on the extinction of the republic.

It is to these same spirited chroniclers that we are
indebted for the preservation of two of the most remarkable
facts in the history of the world: the colonization of
Greenland by Europeans in the 10th century, and the
discovery of America by the Icelanders at the commencement
of the 11th.

The story is rather curious.

Shortly after the arrival of the first settlers in Iceland,
a mariner of the name of Eric the Red discovers a country
away to the west, which, in consequence of its fruitful
appearance, he calls Greenland. In the course of a few
years the new land has become so thickly inhabited that
it is necessary to erect the district into an episcopal
see; and at last, in 1448, we have a brief of Pope Nicolas
"granting to his beloved children of Greenland, in
consideration of their having erected many sacred buildings
and a splendid cathedral,"--a new bishop and a fresh
supply of priests. At the commencement, however, of the
next century, this colony of Greenland, with its bishops,
priests and people, its one hundred and ninety townships,
its cathedral, its churches, its monasteries, suddenly
fades into oblivion, like the fabric of a dream. The
memory of its existence perishes, and the allusions made
to it in the old Scandinavian Sagas gradually come to be
considered poetical inventions or pious frauds. At last,
after a lapse of four hundred years, some Danish
missionaries set out to convert the Esquimaux; and there,
far within Davis' Straits, are discovered vestiges of
the ancient settlement,--remains of houses, paths, walls,
churches, tombstones, and inscriptions. [Footnote: On
one tombstone there was written in Runic, "Vigdis M. D.
Hvilir Her; Glwde Gude Sal Hennar." "Vigdessa rests here;
God gladden her soul." But the most interesting of these
inscriptions is one discovered, in 1824, in an island in
Baffin's Bay, in latitude 72 degrees 55', as it shows
how boldly these Northmen must have penetrated into
regions supposed to have been unvisited by man before
the voyages of our modern navigators:--"Erling Sighvatson
and Biomo Thordarson, and Eindrid Oddson, on Saturday
before Ascension-week, raised these marks and cleared
ground, 1135:" This date of Ascension-week implies that
these three men wintered here, which must lead us to
imagine that at that time, seven hundred years ago, the
climate was less inclement than it is now.]

What could have been the calamity which suddenly annihilated
this Christian people, it is impossible to say; whether
they were massacred by some warlike tribe of natives, or
swept off to the last man by the terrible pestilence of
1349, called "The Black Death," or,--most horrible
conjecture of all,--beleaguered by vast masses of ice
setting down from the Polar Sea along the eastern coast
of Greenland, and thus miserably frozen, we are never
likely to know--so utterly did they perish, so mysterious
has been their doom.

On the other hand, certain traditions, with regard to
the discovery of a vast continent by their forefathers
away in the south-west, seems never entirely to have died
out of the memory of the Icelanders; and in the month of
February, 1477, there arrives at Reykjavik, in a barque
belonging to the port of Bristol, a certain long-visaged,
grey-eyed Genoese mariner, who was observed to take an
amazing interest in hunting up whatever was known on the
subject. Whether Columbus--for it was no less a personage
than he--really learned anything to confirm him in his
noble resolutions, is uncertain; but we have still extant
an historical manuscript, written at all events before
the year 1395, that is to say, one hundred years prior
to Columbus' voyage, which contains a minute account of
how a certain person named Lief, while sailing over to
Greenland, was driven out of his course by contrary winds,
until he found himself off an extensive and unknown coast,
which increased in beauty and fertility as he descended
south, and how, in consequence of the representation Lief
made on his return, successive expeditions were undertaken
in the same direction. On two occasions their wives seem
to have accompanied the adventurers; of one ship's company
the skipper was a lady: while two parties even wintered
in the new land, built houses, and prepared to colonize.
For some reason, however, the intention was abandoned;
and in process of time these early voyages came to be
considered as aprocryphal as the Phoenician
circumnavigation of Africa in the time of Pharaoh Necho.

It is quite uncertain how low a latitude in America the
Northmen ever reached; but from the description given of
the scenery, products, and inhabitants,--from the mildness
of the weather,--and from the length of the day on the
21st of December,--it is conjectured they could not have
descended much farther than Newfoundland, Nova Scotia,
or, at most, the coast of Massachusetts. [Footnote: There
is a certain piece of rock on the Taunton river, in
Massachusetts, called the Deighton Stone, on which are
to be seen rude configurations, for a long time supposed
to be a Runic inscription executed by these Scandinavian
voyagers; but there can be now no longer any doubt of
this inscription, such as it is, being of Indian execution.]

But to return to more material matters.

Yesterday--no--the day before--in fact I forget the date
of the day--I don't believe it had one--all I know is,
I have not been in bed since,--we dined at the Governor's;--
though dinner is too modest a term to apply to the

The invitation was for four o'clock, and at half-past
three we pulled ashore in the gig; I, innocent that I
was, in a well-fitting white waistcoat.

The Government House, like all the others, is built of
wood, on the top of a hillock; the only accession of
dignity it can boast being a little bit of mangy
kitchen-garden that hangs down in front to the road, like
a soiled apron. There was no lock, handle, bell, or
knocker to the door, but immediately on our approach, a
servant presented himself, and ushered us into the room
where Count Trampe was waiting to welcome us. After having
been presented to his wife, we proceeded to shake hands
with the other guests, most of whom I already knew; and
I was glad to find that, at all events in Iceland, people
do not consider it necessary to pass the ten minutes
which precede the announcement of dinner, as if they had
assembled to assist at the opening of their entertainer's
will, instead of his oysters. The company consisted of
the chief dignitaries of the island, including the Bishop,
the Chief justice, etc. etc., some of them in uniform,
and all with holiday faces. As soon as the door was
opened, Count Trampe tucked me under his arm--two other
gentlemen did the same to my two companions--and we
streamed into the dining-room. The table was very prettily
arranged with flowers, plate, and a forest of glasses.
Fitzgerald and I were placed on either side of our host,
the other guests, in due order, beyond. On my left sat
the Rector, and opposite, next to Fitz, the chief physician
of the island. Then began a series of transactions of
which I have no distinct recollection; in fact, the events
of the next five hours recur to me in as great disarray
as reappear the vestiges of a country that has been
disfigured by some deluge. If I give you anything like
a connected account of what passed, you must thank
Sigurdr's more solid temperament; for the Doctor looked
quite foolish when I asked him--tried to feel my
pulse--could not find it--and then wrote the following
prescription, which I believe to be nothing more than an
invoice of the number of bottles he himself disposed of.

[Footnote: Copy of Dr. F.'s prescription :--
vin: claret: iii btls.
vin: champ: iv btls.
vin: sherr: 1/2 btl.
vin: Rheni: ii btls.
aqua vitae viii gls.
trigint: poc: aegrot: cap: quotid:
C. E. F.
Reik: die Martis, Junii 27.]

I gather, then, from evidence--internal and otherwise--
that the dinner was excellent, and that we were helped
in Benjamite proportions; but as before the soup was
finished I was already hard at work hob-nobbing with my
two neighbours, it is not to be expected I should remember
the bill of fare.

With the peculiar manners used in Scandinavian skoal-
drinking I was already well acquainted. In the nice
conduct of a wine-glass I knew that I excelled, and having
an hereditary horror of heel-taps, I prepared with a firm
heart to respond to the friendly provocations of my host.
I only wish you could have seen how his kind face beamed
with approval when I chinked my first bumper against his,
and having emptied it at a draught, turned it towards
him bottom upwards, with the orthodox twist. Soon, however,
things began to look more serious even than I had expected.
I knew well that to refuse a toast, or to half empty your
glass, was considered churlish. I had come determined to
accept my host's hospitality as cordially as it was
offered. I was willing, at a pinch, to payer de ma
personne; should he not be content with seeing me at his
table, I was ready, if need were, to remain UNDER it!
but at the rate we were then going it seemed probable
this consummation would take place before the second
course: so, after having exchanged a dozen rounds of
sherry and champagne with my two neighbours, I pretended
not to observe that my glass had been refilled; and, like
the sea-captain, who, slipping from between his two
opponents, left them to blaze away at each other the long
night through,--withdrew from the combat. But it would
not do; with untasted bumpers, and dejected faces, they
politely waited until I should give the signal for a
renewal of HOSTilities, as they well deserved to be
called. Then there came over me a horrid, wicked feeling.
What if I should endeavour to floor the Governor, and so
literally turn the tables on him! It is true I had lived
for five-and-twenty years without touching wine,--but
was not I my great-grandfather's great-grandson, and an
Irish peer to boot? Were there not traditions, too, on
the other side of the house, of casks of claret brought
up into the dining-room, the door locked, and the key
thrown out of the window? With such antecedents to sustain
me, I ought to be able to hold my own against the staunchest
toper in Iceland! So, with a devil glittering in my left
eye, I winked defiance right and left, and away we went
at it again for another five-and-forty minutes. At last
their fire slackened: I had partially quelled both the
Governor and the Rector, and still survived. It is true
I did not feel comfortable; but it was in the neighbourhood
of my waistcoat, not my head, I suffered. "I am not well,
but I will not out," I soliloquized, with Lepidus [footnote:
Antony and Cleopatra.]-- (Greek) "Sos moi ro prepov," I
would have added, had I dared. Still the neck of the
banquet was broken--Fitzgerald's chair was not yet
empty,--could we hold out perhaps a quarter of an hour
longer, our reputation was established; guess then my
horror, when the Icelandic Doctor, shouting his favourite
dogma, by way of battle cry, "Si trigintis guttis, morbum
curare velis, erras," gave the signal for an unexpected
onslaught, and the twenty guests poured down on me in
succession. I really thought I should have run away from
the house; but the true family blood, I suppose, began
to show itself, and with a calmness almost frightful, I
received them one by one.

After this began the public toasts.

Although up to this time I had kept a certain portion of
my wits about me, the subsequent hours of the entertainment
became henceforth developed in a dreamy mystery. I can
perfectly recall the look of the sheaf of glasses that
stood before me, six in number; I could draw the pattern
of each remember feeling a lazy wonder they should always
be full, though I did nothing but empty them,--and at
last solved the phenomenon by concluding I had become a
kind of Danaid, whose punishment, not whose sentence,
had been reversed: then suddenly I felt as if I were
disembodied,--a distant spectator of my own performances,
and of the feast at which my person remained seated. The
voices of my host, of the "Rector, of the Chief Justice,
became thin and low, as though they reached me through
a whispering tube; and when I rose to speak, it was as
to an audience in another sphere, and in a language of
another state of being: yet, however unintelligible to
myself, I must have been in some sort understood, for at
the end of each sentence, cheers, faint as the roar of
waters on a far-off strand, floated towards me; and if
I am to believe a report of the proceedings subsequently
shown us, I must have become polyglot in my cups. According
to that report it seems the Governor threw off (I wonder
he did not do something else), with the Queen's health
in French: to which I responded in the same language.
Then the Rector, in English, proposed my health, under
the circumstances a cruel mockery,--but to which, ill as
I was, I responded very gallantly by drinking to the
beaux yeux of the Countess. Then somebody else drank
success to Great Britain, and I see it was followed by
really a very learned discourse by Lord D., in honour of
the ancient Icelanders; during which he alluded to their
discovery of America, and Columbus' visit. Then came a
couple of speeches in Icelandic, after which the Bishop,
in a magnificent Latin oration of some twenty minutes,
a second time proposes my health; to which, utterly at
my wits' end, I had the audacity to reply in the same
language. As it is fit so great an effort of oratory
should not perish, I send you some of its choicest

"Viri illustres," I began, "insolitus ut sum ad publicum
loquendum, ego propero respondere ad complimentum quod
recte reverendus prelaticus mihi fecit, in proponendo
meam salutem: et supplico vos credere quod multum
gratificatus et flattificatus sum honore tam distincto.

"Bibere, viri illustres, res est, quae in omnibus terris,
'domum venit ad hominum negotia et pectora:'

[Footnote: As the happiness of these quotations seemed
to produce a very pleasing effect on my auditors, I
subjoin a translation of them for the benefit of the

1. "Comes home to men's business and bosoms."
--Paterfamilias, Times.

2. "A long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all
together."--Nelson at the Nile.

3. "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."
--Jeremy Bentham.

4. Apothegm by the late Lord Mountcoffeehouse.

5. "Love rules the court, the camp, the grove."
--Venerable Bede.]

(1) requirit 'haustum longum, haustum fortem, et haustum
omnes simul:' (2) ut canit Poeta, 'unum tactum Naturae
totum orben facit consanguineum,' (3) et hominis Natura
est--bibere (4).

"Viri illustres, alterum est sentimentum equaliter
universale: terra communis super quam septentrionales
et meridionales, eadem enthusiasma convenire possunt:
est necesse quod id nominarem? Ad pulchrum sexum devotio!

"Amor regit palatium, castra, lucum: (5) Dubito sub quo
capite vestram jucundam civitatem numerare debeam.
Palatium? non Regem! Castra? non milites! lucum? non
ullam arborem habetis! Tamen Cupido vos dominat haud
aliter quam alios,--et virginum Islandarum pulchritudo,
per omnes regiones cognita est.

"Bibamus salutem earum, et confusionem ad omnes bacularios:
speramus quod eae carae et benedictae creaturae invenient
tot maritos quot velint,--quod geminos quottanis habeant,
et quod earum filiae, maternum exemplum sequentes, gentem
Islandicam perpetuent in saecula saeculorum."

The last words mechanically rolled out, in the same "ore
rotundo" with which the poor old Dean of Christchurch
used to finish his Gloria, etc. in the Cathedral.

Then followed more speeches,--a great chinking of glasses,
--a Babel of conversation,--a kind of dance round the
table, where we successively gave each alternate hand,
as in the last figure of the Lancers,--a hearty embrace
from the Governor,--and finally,--silence, daylight, and
fresh air, as we stumbled forth into the street.

Now what was to be done? To go to bed was impossible.
It was eleven o'clock by our watches, and as bright as
noon. Fitz said it was twenty-two o'clock; but by this
time he had reached that point of enlargement of the
mind, and development of the visual organs, which is
expressed by the term "seeing double,"--though he now
pretends he was only reckoning time in the Venetian
manner. We were in the position of three fast young men
about Reykjavik, determined to make a night of it, but
without the wherewithal. There were neither knockers to
steal, nor watchmen to bonnet. At last we remembered
that the apothecary's wife had a conversazione, to which
she had kindly invited us; and accordingly, off we went
to her house. Here we found a number of French officers,
a piano, and a young lady; in consequence of which the
drum soon became a ball. Finally, it was proposed we
should dance a reel; the second lieutenant of the "Artemise"
had once seen one when his ship was riding out a gale in
the Clyde;--the little lady had frequently studied a
picture of the Highland fling on the outside of a copy
of Scotch music;--I could dance a jig--the set was
complete, all we wanted was the music. Luckily the lady
of the house knew the song of "Annie Laurie,"--played
fast it made an excellent reel tune. As you may suppose,
all succeeded admirably; we nearly died of laughing, and
I only wish Lord Breadalbane had been by to see.

At one in the morning, our danseuse retiring to rest,
the ball necessarily terminated; but the Governor's dinner
still forbidding bed, we determined on a sail in the
cutter to some islands about three-quarters of a mile
out to sea; and I do not think I shall ever forget the
delicious sensation of lying down lazily in the
stern-sheets, and listening to the rippling of the water
against the bows of the boat, as she glided away towards
them. The dreamy, misty landscape,--each headland silently
sleeping in the unearthly light,--Snoefell, from whose
far-off peaks the midnight sun, though lost to us, had
never faded,--the Plutonic crags that stood around, so
gaunt and weird,--the quaint fresh life I had been lately
leading,--all combined to promise such an existence of
novelty and excitement in that strange Arctic region on
the threshold of which we were now pausing, that I could
not sufficiently congratulate myself on our good fortune.
Soon, however, the grating of our keel upon the strand
disturbed my reflections, and by the time I had
unaccountably stepped up to my knees in the water, I was
thoroughly awake, and in a condition to explore the
island. It seemed to be about three-quarters of a mile
long, not very broad, and a complete rabbit-warren; in
fact, I could not walk a dozen yards without tripping up
in the numerous burrows by which the ground was honeycombed:
at last, on turning a corner, we suddenly came on a dozen
rabbits, gravely sitting at the mouths of their holes.
They were quite white, without ears, and with scarlet
noses. I made several desperate attempts to catch some
of these singular animals, but though one or two allowed
me to come pretty near, just as I thought my prize was
secure, in some unaccountable manner--it made unto itself
wings, and literally flew away! Moreover, if my eyesight
did not share the peculiar development which affected
that of the Doctor's, I should say that these rabbits
flew in PAIRS. Red-nosed, winged rabbits! I had never
heard or read of the species; and I naturally grew
enthusiastic in the chase, hoping to bring home a choice
specimen to astonish our English naturalists. With some
difficulty we managed to catch one or two, which had run
into their holes instead of flying away. They bit and
scratched like tiger-cats, and screamed like parrots;
indeed, on a nearer inspection, I am obliged to confess
that they assumed the appearance of birds, [Footnote:
The Puffin (Alca arctica). In Icelandic, Soe papagoie;
In Scotland, Priest; and in Cornwall, Pope.] which may
perhaps account for their powers of flight. A slight
confusion still remains in my mind as to the real nature
of the creatures.

At about nine o'clock we returned to breakfast; and the
rest of the day was spent in taking leave of our friends,
and organizing the baggage-train, which was to start at
midnight, under the command of the cook. The cavalcade
consisted of eighteen horses, but of these only one-half
were laden, two animals being told off to each burthen,
which is shifted from the back of the one to that of the
other every four hours. The pack-saddles were rude, but
serviceable articles, with hooks on either side, on which
a pair of oblong little chests were slung; strips of turf
being stuffed beneath to prevent the creature's back
being galled. Such of our goods as could not be conveniently
stowed away in the chests were fitted on to the top, in
whatever manner their size and weight admitted, each pony
carrying about 140 lbs. The photographic apparatus caused
us the greatest trouble, and had to be distributed between
two beasts. As was to be expected, the guides who assisted
us packed the nitrate of silver bath upside down; an
outrage the nature of which you cannot appreciate. At
last everything was pretty well arranged,--guns, powder,
shot, tea-kettles, rice, tents, beds, portable soups,
etc. all stowed away,--when the desponding Wilson came
to me, his chin sweeping the ground, to say--that he very
much feared the cook would die of the ride,--that he had
never been on horseback in his life,--that as an experiment
he had hired a pony that very morning at his own
charges,--had been run away with, but having been caught
and brought home by an honest Icelander, was now lying
down--that position being the one he found most convenient.

As the first day's journey was two-and-thirty miles, and
would probably necessitate his being twelve or thirteen
hours in the saddle, I began to be really alarmed for my
poor chef; but finding on inquiry that these gloomy
prognostics were entirely voluntary on the part of Mr.
Wilson, that the officer in question was full of zeal,
and only too anxious to add horsemanship to his other
accomplishments, I did not interfere. As for Wilson
himself, it is not a marvel if he should see things a
little askew; for some unaccountable reason, he chose to
sleep last night in the open air, on the top of a hen-
coop, and naturally awoke this morning with a crick in
his neck, and his face so immovably fixed over his left
shoulder, that the efforts of all the ship's company have
not been able to twist it back: with the help of a tackle,
however, I think we shall eventually brace it square

At two we went to lunch with the Rector. The entertainment
bore a strong family likeness to our last night's dinner;
but as I wanted afterwards to exhibit my magic lantern
to his little daughter Raghnilder, and a select party of
her young friends, we contrived to elude doing full
justice to it. During the remainder of the evening, like
Job's children, we went about feasting from house to
house, taking leave of friends who could not have been
kinder had they known us all our lives, and interchanging
little gifts and souvenirs. With the Governor I have left
a print from the Princess Royal's drawing of the dead
soldier in the Crimea. From the Rector of the cathedral
church I have received some very curious books--almost
the first printed in the island; I have been very anxious
to obtain some specimens of ancient Icelandic manuscripts,
but the island has long since been ransacked of its
literary treasures; and to the kindness of the French
consul I am indebted for a charming little white fox,
the drollest and prettiest little beast I ever saw.

Having dined on board the "Artemise," we adjourned at
eleven o'clock to the beach to witness the departure of
the baggage. The ponies were all drawn up in one long
file, the head of each being tied to the tail of the one
immediately before him. Additional articles were stowed
away here and there among the boxes. The last instructions
were given by Sigurdr to the guides, and everything was
declared ready for a start. With the air of an equestrian
star, descending into the arena of Astley's Amphitheatre,
the cook then stepped forward, made me a superb bow, and
was assisted into the saddle. My little cabin-boy
accompanied him as aide-de-camp.

The jovial Wilson rides with us tomorrow. Unless we get
his head round during the night, he will have to sit
facing his horse's tail, in order to see before him.

We do not seem to run any danger of falling short of
provisions, as by all accounts there are birds enough in
the interior of the country to feed an Israelitish



Reykjavik, July 7, 1856.

At last I have seen the famous Geysirs, of which every
one has heard so much; but I have also seen Thingvalla,
of which no one has heard anything. The Geysirs are
certainly wonderful marvels of nature, but more wonderful,
more marvellous is Thingvalla; and if the one repay you
for crossing the Spanish Sea, it would be worth while to
go round the world to reach the other.

Of the boiling fountains I think I can give you a good
idea, but whether I can contrive to draw for you anything
like a comprehensible picture of the shape and nature of
the Almannagja, the Hrafnagja, and the lava vale, called
Thingvalla, that lies between them, I am doubtful. Before
coming to Iceland I had read every account that had been
written of Thingvalla by any former traveller, and when
I saw it, it appeared to me a place of which I had never
heard; so I suppose I shall come to grief in as melancholy
a manner as my predecessors, whose ineffectual pages
whiten the entrance to the valley they have failed to

Having superintended--as I think I mentioned to you in
my last letter--the midnight departure of the cook,
guides, and luggage, we returned on board for a good
night's rest, which we all needed. The start was settled
for the next morning at eleven o'clock, and you may
suppose we were not sorry to find, on waking, the bright
joyous sunshine pouring down through the cabin skylight,
and illuminating the white-robed, well-furnished
breakfast-table with more than usual splendour. At the
appointed hour we rowed ashore to where our eight
ponies--two being assigned to each of us, to be ridden
alternately--were standing ready bridled and saddled, at
the house of one of our kindest friends. Of course, though
but just risen from breakfast, the inevitable invitation
to eat and drink awaited us; and another half-hour was
spent in sipping cups of coffee poured out for us with
much laughter by our hostess and her pretty daughter. At
last, the necessary libations accomplished, we rose to
go. Turning round to Fitz, I whispered, how I had always
understood it was the proper thing in Iceland for travellers
departing on a journey to kiss the ladies who had been
good enough to entertain them,--little imagining he would
take me at my word. Guess then my horror, when I suddenly
saw him, with an intrepidity I envied but dared not
imitate, first embrace the mamma, by way of prelude, and
then proceed, in the most natural manner possible, to
make the same tender advances to the daughter. I confess
I remained dumb with consternation; the room swam round
before me; I expected the next minute we should be packed
neck and crop into the street, and that the young lady
would have gone off into hysterics. It turned out, however,
that such was the very last thing she was thinking of
doing. With a simple frankness that became her more than
all the boarding-school graces in the world, her eyes
dancing with mischief and good humour, she met him half
way, and pouting out two rosy lips, gave him as hearty
a kiss as it might ever be the good fortune of one of us
he-creatures to receive. From that moment I determined
to conform for the future to the customs of the inhabitants.

Fresh from favours such as these, it was not surprising
we should start in the highest spirits. With a courtesy
peculiar to Iceland, Dr. Hjaltelin, the most jovial of
doctors,--and another gentleman, insisted on conveying
us the first dozen miles of our journey; and as we
clattered away through the wooden streets, I think a
merrier party never set out from Reykjavik. In front
scampered the three spare ponies, without bridles, saddles,
or any sense of moral responsibility, flinging up their
heels, biting and neighing like mad things; then came
Sigurdr, now become our chief, surrounded by the rest of
the cavalcade; and finally, at a little distance, plunged
in profound melancholy, rode Wilson. Never shall I forget
his appearance. During the night his head had come
partially straight, but by way of precaution, I suppose,
he had conceived the idea of burying it down to the chin
in a huge seal-skin helmet I had given him against the
inclemencies of the Polar Sea. As on this occasion the
thermometer was at 81 degrees, and a coup-de-soleil was
the chief thing to be feared, a ton of fur round his
skull was scarcely necessary. Seamen's trousers, a bright
scarlet jersey, and jack-boots fringed with cat-skin,
completed his costume; and as he proceeded along in his
usual state of chronic consternation, with my rifle slung
at his back and a couple of telescopes over his shoulder,
he looked the image of Robinson Crusoe, fresh from having
seen the foot-print.

A couple of hours' ride across the lava plain we had
previously traversed brought us to a river, where our
Reykjavik friends, after showing us a salmon weir, finally
took their leave, with many kind wishes for our prosperity.
On looking through the clear water that hissed and bubbled
through the wooden sluice, the Doctor had caught sight
of an apparently dead salmon, jammed up against its wooden
bars; but on pulling him out, he proved to be still
breathing, though his tail was immovably twisted into
his mouth. A consultation taking place, the Doctors both
agreed that it was a case of pleurosthotonos, brought on
by mechanical injury to the spine (we had just been
talking of Palmer's trial), and that he was perfectly
fit for food. In accordance with this verdict, he was
knocked on the head, and slung at Wilson's saddle-bow.
Left to ourselves, we now pushed on as rapidly as we
could, though the track across the lava was so uneven,
that every moment I expected Snorro (for thus have I
christened my pony) would be on his nose. In another hour
we were among the hills. The scenery of this part of the
journey was not very beautiful, the mountains not being
remarkable either for their size or shape; but here and
there we came upon pretty bits, not unlike some of the
barren parts of Scotland, with quiet blue lakes sleeping
in the solitude.

After wandering along for some time in a broad open
valley, that gradually narrowed to a glen, we reached a
grassy patch. As it was past three o'clock, Sigurdr
proposed a halt.

Unbridling and unsaddling our steeds, we turned them
loose upon the pasture, and sat ourselves down on a sunny
knoll to lunch. For the first time since landing in
Iceland I felt hungry; as, for the first time, four
successive hours had elapsed without our having been
compelled to take a snack. The appetites of the ponies
seemed equally good, though probably with them hunger
was no such novelty. Wilson alone looked sad. He confided
to me privately that he feared his trousers would not
last such jolting many days; but his dolefulness, like
a bit of minor in a sparkling melody, only made our
jollity more radiant. In about half an hour Sigurdr gave
the signal for a start; and having caught, saddled, and
bridled three unridden ponies, we drove Snorro and his
companions to the front, and proceeded on our way rejoicing.
After an hour's gradual ascent through a picturesque
ravine, we emerged upon an immense desolate plateau of
lava, that stretched away for miles and miles like a
great stony sea. A more barren desert you cannot conceive.
Innumerable boulders, relics of the glacial period,
encumbered the track. We could only go at a foot-pace.
Not a blade of grass, not a strip of green, enlivened
the prospect, and the only sound we heard was the croak
of the curlew and the wail of the plover. Hour after hour
we plodded on, but the grey waste seemed interminable,
boundless; and the only consolation Sigurdr would vouchsafe
was, that our journey's end lay on this side of some
purple mountains that peeped like the tents of a demon
leaguer above the stony horizon.

As it was already eight o'clock, and we had been told
the entire distance from Reykjavik to Thingvalla was only
five-and-thirty miles, I could not comprehend how so
great a space should still separate us from our destination.
Concluding more time had been lost in shooting, lunching,
etc., by the way than we had supposed, I put my pony into
a canter, and determined to make short work of the dozen
miles which seemed still to lie between us and the hills,
on this side of which I understood from Sigurdr our
encampment for the night was to be pitched.

Judge then of my astonishment when, a few minutes
afterwards, I was arrested in full career by a tremendous
precipice, or rather chasm, which suddenly gaped beneath
my feet, and completely separated the barren plateau we
had been so painfully traversing from a lovely, gay,
sunlit flat, ten miles broad, that lay--sunk at a level
lower by a hundred feet--between us and the opposite
mountains. I was never so completely taken by surprise;
Sigurdr's purposely vague description of our halting-place
was accounted for.

We had reached the famous Almanna Gja. Like a black
rampart in the distance, the corresponding chasm of the
Hrafna Gja cut across the lower slope of the distant
hills, and between them now slept in beauty and sunshine
the broad verdant [Footnote: The plain of Thingvalla is
in a great measure clothed with birch brushwood.] plain
of Thingvalla.

Ages ago,--who shall say how long?--some vast commotion
shook the foundations of the island, and bubbling up from
sources far away amid the inland hills, a fiery deluge
must have rushed down between their ridges, until, escaping
from the narrower gorges, it found space to spread itself
into one broad sheet of molten stone over an entire
district of country, reducing its varied surface to one
vast blackened level.

One of two things then occurred: either the vitrified
mass contracting as it cooled,--the centre area of fifty
square miles burst asunder at either side from the
adjoining plateau, and sinking down to its present level,
left the two parallel Gjas, or chasms, which form its
lateral boundaries, to mark the limits of the disruption;
or else, while the pith or marrow of the lava was still
in a fluid state, its upper surface became solid, and
formed a roof beneath which the molten stream flowed on
to lower levels, leaving a vast cavern into which the
upper crust subsequently plumped down. [Footnote: I feel
it is very presumptuous in me to hazard a conjecture on
a subject with which my want of geological knowledge
renders me quite incompetent to deal; but however incorrect
either of the above suppositions may be justly considered
by the philosophers, they will perhaps serve to convey
to the unlearned reader, for whose amusement (not
instruction) these letters are intended, the impression
conveyed to my mind by what I saw, and so help out the
picture I am trying to fill in for him.]

[Figure: fig-p050a.gif]

The enclosed section will perhaps help you a little to
comprehend what I am afraid my description will have
failed to bring before you.

[Figure: fig-p050.gif with following caption:
1 Gjas.
2 Lava deluge.
3 Original surface.
4 Thingvalla sunk to a lower level.
5 Astonished traveller.]

1. Are the two chasms called respectively Almanna Gja,
[Footnote: Almanna may be translated main; it means
literally all men's; when applied to a road, it would
mean the road along which all the world travel.] or Main
Gja, and Hrafna Gja, or Raven's Gja. In the act of
disruption the sinking mass fell in, as it were, upon
itself, so that one side of the Gja slopes a good deal
back as it ascends; the other side is perfectly
perpendicular, and at the spot I saw it upwards of one
hundred feet high. In the lapse of years the bottom of
the Almanna Gja has become gradually filled up to an even
surface, covered with the most beautiful turf, except
where a river, leaping from the higher plateau over the
precipice, has chosen it for a bed. You must not suppose,
however, that the disruption and land-slip of Thingvalla


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