Ten Days in Iceland (2013-08-02/08-12)

Creative Commons License
Ten Days in Iceland, and all the linked pictures, by Andy Pepperdine is made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Iceland - the Country and History

For three weeks in the summer of 2013 I visited Iceland. After the conference, which was one of my aims, I first occupied myself around the city of Reykjavik, before I met a group of holidaymakers from the Ramblers to go walking and seeing more of the country.

According to the Icelandic historian Ari Þorgilsson (1067 - 1148) history started in 874. He was writing at about 1130 and is thought to be the mist trustworthy, and often called “fróði”, or the Learned.

We are almost sure of the date. In 871 +/- 2, the Icelandic volcano Hekla erupted ejecting a great deal of ash. Some of it fell on Greenland, where recently boreholes in the ice show layers by which we can count the years. In Iceland the layer of dust from Hekla lies under all the ruined walls and other evidence, with only one exception. Rumours of Irish monks living there earlier are probably only rumours, because no certain trace of them has ben found.

The first definite inhabitant was Ingólfur Arnarson, who named the bay in the southwest Reykjavik, the smoky bay, due to many steam emitting hot springs in the area.

In 880 Haraldar united Norway, and with stability came self-confidence. Soon several hundred moved onto the island. Now we have DNA analysis, we discover that 80% of the men came from Scandinavia, and two-thirds of the women from Ireland and the islands off northwest Scotland.

So Friday found me waiting for my fellow holidaymakers at the airport in Keflavik, and then we immediately travelled by bus to the village of Reykholt, where once lived Snorri Sturluson, one of the most well-known poets, historians and lawmakers. He wrote an excellent work on poetry, and became in the early 1200s the chief diplomat for Iceland at the court of King Haakon IV. Unfortunately the friendship did not last and Haakon ordered his death at his home in Reykholt. Supposedly he is buried nearby, but we do not know where.

His most famous work, the so-called “Snorra Edda”, was written in three parts, the first about Nordic myths, the second about the language, and the third about metre and rhythm in poetry. Although he wrote it in 1225, nearly 800 years later it is still relevant to Icelandic literature.

For a long time, the village was a centre of learning, but nowadays the building is a museum in front of which stands the statue of Snorri, and behind it one finds the Snorralaug, or the hot bath where he washed, and is described well in the notice in Icelandic and English. The water comes from a hot spring Skrifla nearby, which is now covered and decorated with a sculpture. You can also see greenhouses, since everywhere hot water occurs, the Icelanders will use it.

The old village church has a simple interior.

The following day we took our first excursion into the landscape, mostly along well-made tracks under a pleasant sky. Lakes abound and the hillsides show how they were formed through seismic activity and erosion.

The island is very geologically. It sits across the gap between Europe and America, on the mid-Atlantic ridge where there is a lot of seismic disturbance and volcanoes. The widening is at the rate of about 2 cm per year. If you count backwards, you will see that the country cannot be more than 20 million years old; in fact the best estimate is 17 million years, which makes it the youngest country in the world.

We do not know exactly when the first people arrived there. It is possible that the ancient Greek Pytheas visited in about 350 B.C.E. However we do not ahve his book, only some quotes by other writers in the intervening centuries. If he did, then the people of northern Scotland knew of the place, because he set sail north from there with them. Although his description of an island fits Iceland, it's not east to understand that the voyage took only five days to get there.

Iron is found in many places, after it has been carried up by seismically, and one can see the results in a few rusty streams. At first the islanders found the iron in marshes (the so-called bog iron), which enabled them to make their farm implements. However, smelting iron demands a lot of fuel, so 100 years after they arrived, the forests had disappeared, forests which it is estimated occupied 30% of the area of the island.

We ate lunch in quiet surroundings looking across a lake on which swam a pair of Whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus); but they did not sing for us.

In the morning we had got off the coach at Bifröst. I felt I had heard the name before, and when I enquired of the bus driver, he explained it was where, according to the old sagas, one could climb to the Gods up a rainbow, or perhaps Bifröst was the name of the rainbow. While we were walking back there in the afternoon we saw the strange shapes of the mountains, including the arc-like cliff behind the village. I could not help wondering whether the story came from the mountain, or the name of the mountain from the story.

The clouds hid the sun all day Sunday, but that did not present us from ascending along the side of Raucsgill and on to the top of Burfell. Raucsgill is a strange name, since it contains the letter “c”, that is what was on the map our guide was carrying; it looked more like a name from northern England. A river flows through it across several waterfalls.

As we went further it got more difficult, the weather got colder, and the wind stronger. Some found shelter to eat their sandwiches, others retreated somewhat to do likewise. Only four reached the very top due to the conditions.

On the way down, the guide mentioned “arctic stone circles, in which you can see that the small regions of ground consisting of very small particles surrounded by larger pebbles. Ten years ago scientists suggested an explanation for them. Each year the earth freezes and melts. No earth is completely dry, and in fact the smaller the stones, the damper they remain. So when the winter comes, there is created between the finer particles more ice, which pushes the larger stones away. Over a long time, these formations appear.

On that day we also got a close up view of the Icelandic horses, which have a reputation of being the most sure-footed, which means that they are very popular throughout the world, and are an important export. When you see the broken terrain on which they live, you quickly understand that putting a foot down a hole is not a good idea.

We began Monday with a visit to the hot spring at Deildartunguhver, which supplies hot water at 100 C at a rate of 180 litres per second to the town of Akranes 74 kilometres away, where it arrives at 73 degrees. Despite its utility function the architecture is imaginative.

The enxt stop brought us to the kilometre long Kola Canyon (Kolugljúfur), which according to folklore was dug by the troll. In some places it is 40 or 50 metres deep, but no one jumped in. According to the stories she and her treasure ware buried under a nearby hayfield and the hill is protected by her curse.

Later we came to a museum, which reminded me of the fact that the Icelanders had chopped down almost all the trees early in their occupation of the island. Without wood, how did they build houses? The answer can be seen at  Glaumbær, where there are several reconstructed houses of stone and turf, using wood only where necessary. Inside it is dark, but the examples had some wood for a roof and walls, the turf was used for insulation against the cold.

Finally we arrived at our destination Akureyri, which was our base for the next four nights. Akureyri stands at the southern end of a fjord on the northern coast and is known as Iceland's second "city", but really has only 18.000 inhabitants.

In the morning we set off under low cloud to climb Sulur a nearby mountain. As we gained height we got good views of the town. The clouds stayed just above us for the morning, but finally we got into them and it began to snow. Nine of us, me among them, decided it was not worth continuing the ascent and returned to the town. I spent the rest of the day walking around the place looking at the obligatory art work. I will leave it to you to translate the attached plaque.

The shone on the town while the clouds covered the hilltops.

Wednesday found us on another excursion, when the first stop on the other side of the fjord was short while we took photographs over to the town. The place clearly expects a lot of tourists, because the map there is very useful, and shows Sulur the mountain we were climbing the day before.

The next stop occurred at Goðafoss on the river Skjálfandafljót the fourth longest in Iceland. The name means the "Waterfall of the Gods". According to their history in the year 1000 the Norwegian authorities insisted that Icelanders decided whether they were Christians or not. The legend is that Þorgeir the lawspeaker at that time thought the matter over one night, and in the morning announced that the laws would be on Christian principles, but people had the right to do at home whatever they wanted. Afterwards he threw away the books on the ancient Nordic customs into the waterfall at Goðafoss. When the church was founded of course they collected the taxes.

After we moved on to the lake Myvatn, or Lake of Midges, named from the abundance of midges and flies there, which attract in summer lots of birds. Also there are several formations that look like volcanic craters, but in reality are not. Instead they were formed by exploding steam when lava from deep underground rose and reached the water near the surface. The Earth was blowing bubbles which burst.

From there it is not far to the lava field at Dimmuborgir, a popular tourist attraction with several paths and strange shapes in the rocks, like this almost human profile, some even with a hole through them. One is called The Church, in which is even a beam to support it.

Back on the bus and further on the road we passed a piece of pipe showing that the island is still expanding, in contrast to Britain where the sea is wearing away the land. Such cracks are found in many places; another one is at Grjótagjá is next to several caves containing warm pools, but after the last earthquake they became dangerous. The Icelandic idea of “health and safety” consists of putting up a notice, which says: “Warning! Rocks have recently fallen from the roof of the cave, not for the last time!”.

Back to the bus, back onto the road,another stop, out of the bus, and what a stink! Námafjall is a region of very hot temperatures, fumaroles and mud pools. (Please excuse me, I haven't learnt how to capture a smell on a picture, just imagine the hydrogen sulphide from an enormous heap of rotting eggs.) The ground around is so hot that plants cannot survive, but at one time sulphur was mined here, and at other sites in Iceland, for use in gunpowder.

It was good to come back to fresh air at the geothermal electricity generating plant. The pipes across the picture carry hot water to the plant from boreholes, each covered by a protective dome. Close by lies Víti another burst bubble, but much bigger than the ones we saw before. The poplar name for it is “Hell's Crater” and it was formed in historical times in 1724; I wondered whether it deafened any local sheep or horses.

The local area is called Krafla, where a lava flow appeared between 1975 and 1984, after they had started building the electricity plant, and so the finishing of it was delayed. Unfortunately the flow was running in the direction of the buildings; but luckily it did not quite reach them.

On the local hills you can clearly see the yellow sulphur pushed out by the pressure of steam from below.

I spent Thursday wandering around Akureyri. One of the first sights was the many heart shaped red traffic lights. I had heard that the financial collapse in 2008 hit the town so hard that they wanted something which could cheer them up. Someone suggested a heart as a symbol, and ig appeared in many locations as well as the red lights. I think it is a charming idea, and I hope that it will become a tradition.

Due to a favourable climate the botanical gardens contains much which, one would imagine, could not grow there. Near the footpath behind the town they grow several vegetables in the open, among other things potatoes, cabbages, rhubarb, turnips, and red currants.

The church stands proudly on the hill overlooking the town, but the chimes are out of tune. During the second world war the cathedral in Coventry, Britain, suffered great damage through the bombing. Some of the stained glass windows had been saved, and afterwards were transported to behind the altar in Akureyri. Iceland now ensures they are not lost. The firm of Wippel & Co of Exeter, Britain, designed and made the other newer  windows.

One of the museums was showing sculptures by Aðalhieður Eysteinsdóttir, which she made from pieces of waste wood. From such simple resources she gives them very expressive faces.

Ffriday us a long shaking noisy jarring journey along rough roads thjrough the centre of the island on the way back to the south western corner of the map. We stopped at Hveravellir (Hot Spring Field) which is one of the largest hot regions and sits at 650 metres above sea level. It has always been a stopping point for travellers going between the north and Þingvellir.

One of the fumaroles, perhaps this one, was named by two scientists en 1752 Óskurhóll (Shrieking mound) because of the noise it gave out, but now it is silent. No one has lived here apart from a period of 20 years around 1760 when the outlaw Eyvindar and his wife was on the run by living in a small cave and natural fort. Nowadays here there are good tourist facilities, a hot bath, camp sites, etc.

After a quick visit to Gullfoss we continued to the most important place en Icelandic history.

At the beginning the local chiefs ruled their local population alone. But in 930 they realised that needed some sort of meeting, somewhere where they could answer questions about the law in a standard manner across the country. The set up the parliament Alþing after they decided that they would never have a king. They chose a plain, where everyone could fairly easily get to and that became Þingvellir or the Parliament Field. Although of course they did not know at the time, it is situated between two tectonic plates, where Europe and America are moving away from one an other. The gap between them is seven kilometres wide, and also contains the largest lake in Iceland.

Under the American cliff stands the Law Rock, where important matters were discussed. Now a flagstaff shows the place.

Because in the beginning nothing was written down, a typical Scandinavain official, the Law Speaker, had the job of memorising the laws, and announcing them when they were debated. It was the most important post, and each usually served for three years at a time. Later, when they began to write the laws, he became the person who interpreted the law, said what it was intended for.

Over the centuries diverse churches have been constructed at Þingvellir, and one of the interesting functions of it relates to commerce and trade. It was necessary that they agreed on how long a unit of length was. On the wall of the church stood the standard measuring stick of the length of 20 "ell". One ell began as the distance from elbow to fingertip, which obviously differs from person to person. So they normalised it with a stick at Þingvellir church.

Despite the earth continually changing, some things did not change. The language is almost the same as when Ari wrote it. The horses, sheep, cows are direct descendants of the first ones on the island, which the early inhabitants kept and ate. When the trees had been chopped down, the earth was very suitable for cultivation initially. Nut slowly it deteriorated through erosion and over-use, until now when more trees are being planted.

During the middle ages they traded in wool and walrus tusks until 1700 when new ideas had to be found, after the Europeans discovered cheaper ivory from elephants. So they started to produce leather, textiles, to use better farming methods. Being on an island, they always caught fish, and despite them trading fish since 1300, it was not until 1600 that a fisherman was a proper job and someone could support themselves through it.

Famines were common in such a severe climate, but they always kept very good records. The carried out the first census in the world in 1703 finding 50.000 people in the country, but after 100 years only 47,000 were left after three periods of severe shortages that had occurred during the century.

In the evening we arrived at the hotel in Hveragerði, the centre for glasshouse cultivation which sits on an active seismic region of hot pools. Even further up the valleys there are more hot springs.

Saturday brought with it more mist and drizzle saturating the usual outdoor art works. Elsewhere there were artistic seats. In a local shopping mall you can see walk over a split in the ground covered by thick dark glass, through which can be seen the deep hole. The church designed by Jónindur Pálsson is another piece of impressive architecture; Everywhere the Icelanders have made their surroundings good and interesting.

We spent Sunday in Reykjavik, which I had seen before, and I flew away on Monday from a fascinating place with good memories of a strong and clever individuals.

Andy Pepperdine


Creative Commons License
Ten Days in Iceland, and all the linked pictures, by Andy Pepperdine is made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.