« PreviousContinue »
“‘Whence got you that stone 2' asked Solomon. “‘It is the stone Samur,’ answered the raven. “It comes from a desert in the uttermost east.’ So the monarch sent some giants to follow the raven, and bring him a suitable number of stones.” The same stone reappears in several household tales, and is mentioned in the thirty-ninth story of the Gesta Romanorum.” Up the mountains are low birch bushes, and a line of blue smoke, from among them, showed that charcoal-burners were at work,+a farce surely, burning these twigs for charcoal. “Now we shall go slow !” called Grímr from behind; but Jón regardlessly cracked his whip, and we spun along. A pitch-black rock at the end of the lake, scooped into by the stream, and continually crumbling away, was surmounted, and we rode through moss and fen to the Skjalfanda fljót, or Flood of quivering waves. A mile up the river is Gótha-foss, a noble waterfall, bearing a striking resemblance to Niagara, in miniature. It is a horse-shoe, and has its Goat island, to which it is possible to wade; and then a quaint peep of the landscape is obtained through a watery arch, spouted from a hollow, into which one arm of the river pours. Below the falls, the grotesqueness of the rocks, and their ironblack colour, add wildness to a scene, in itself, very impressive.
* I wish that I had space to give the origin of some of our popular superstitions and nursery tales, and to show what assistance is afforded by Icelandic literature in the clearing up the difficulties with which they are surrounded. I can only instance one:—
“Jack and Jill went up a hill
These two children are mentioned in the Younger Edda, under the names of Hjúki and Bil (which have become, in course of time, Jack and Jill), as fetching water from the well Byrgir in the bucket Soeg, on the pole Simul. These children were taken up into heaven to follow the moon. Hjúki signifies “the quickening,” Bil “the failing;" and their attendance on the moon simply means that the moon becomes full and wanes. By the bucket of water I presume is signified the effect of the orb on the weather.
Gotha-foss is generally considered to be the finest fall in Iceland, but the priest at Häls assured me that there is another in the desert east of Myvatn, incomparably its superior.
The river below the falls is too deep to be forded, it is also of considerable breadth. We called to a ferry-man on the farther shore, and whilst he was rowing across, I amused myself with gathering flowers.
In swampy spots clustered the white heads of the mountain asphodel (Tofieldia palustris), and the drier ground was starred with white and pink Alpine flea-bane (Erigeron Alp.), looking like large daisies; butter-grass is the meaning of its Icelandic name. Clumps of rich purple flowers, against a bed of low whortleberry, attracted me, and I gathered my hand full of Alpine bartsia (Icel. Lokasjóths-bróthir). Iceland may almost be called a land of flowers, for they cover the soil, where grass will not grow. The brave little moss campion (Silene acaulis), flourishes everywhere, pushing its bonny pink face close to the snow, dappling sand tracts otherwise barren, clinging to rock crannies, where no other plant can get a footing, or planting itself on mud slopes which are torn and swept into gullies by the melting snows in spring. The traveller falls quite in love with the pretty pink flower, the last to take leave of him on his entering a lifeless wilderness, the first, fresh and smiling, to greet him as he reaches the desert's limits. The blossoms grow in dense clusters, of all shades, from carmine to white, growing close to the root, so that no gale can injure them; some of the flowers are male, others female, and others seem to be hermaphrodite. This catchfly blossoms about the end of May, and remains in flower till August. The pale mountain avens (Dryas octopetala), with its sunny heart, opens rather later, and withers earlier; it is the traveller's second love. In the ground where it blossoms, are the tremulous dancing flowers of the Alpine meadow-rue (Thalictrum Alp.); also the loveliest of Icelandic beauties, the Alpine speed-well (Veronica Alp.), the loveliest and frailest, for its intensely blue petals fade in the hand as one gazes admiringly at them. Where the soil is lighter appear the common blaeberry and bog-whortle (Vac
cinium myrtillus and Vacc. uliginosum), whose white flowers, pink-tipped, stuff the ptarmigan's crop, and in this halfdigested condition are used by the Icelanders for tea. The berries are employed for flavouring skyr or curd, and are eaten as a preserve with mutton. Dwarf willows grow with the whortle, and of these there are seventeen kinds in the island. The dandelion and devil’s-bit gild depressions in the skog or thicket, and a quiet strawberry-flower, yellow centred, lies in the birch shadow on its leaves, so dear to Gothic architect. Horsetails are abundant in Iceland; I found six or seven varieties; of these, the commonest (Equisetum Arvense), or ellting, as the natives call it, grows on the roofs of houses and cowsheds to a considerable size. Its roots are very useful, as the long red filaments, thrown from its root, bind the loose soil together, and prevent it from being swept away when the snows thaw. The root-fibres have tubers like cherries hanging to them, covered with a dirty black skin, but are white within, and have a sweet taste. Grimr told me that horses go mad if they eat ellting, but I had no opportunity of verifying this statement. Below the birchwood, in spots too swampy for the willow to grow in, and where buttercups and marsh-marigolds can hardly take root, the broad leaves of the buck-bean (Menyanthes trifoliata, Icel. Alstarkólavir, or swan's clapper) float on the red water, and the slim stem shoots high, holding its whorl of ruffed white flowers beyond the reach of soil or stain from the mire. Close by, tufts of cotton grass (Eriophorum capitatum) flicker in the wind, their pods bursting with silver hair; this the native plaits into wicks for candle or lamp, and stuffs into pillows when he cannot afford eiderdown. Hereabouts the leafless horsetail (Equisetum limosum) thrusts its spears, the rods like those of an ordinary equisetum, with the whorl of leaves stripped off. The bladder campion (Silene inflata) grows in profusion on the sand by the water-edge; the golden Ranunculus glacialis studs the
bank; and among the pebbles grows the red alpine catchfly (Lychnis alpina). I picked one of the latter, and taking it to Grímr, asked its Icelandic name. “Lambagrass,” he replied. “Nonsense, Grímr ' " I exclaimed ; “you told me that the moss campion was so called.” “Both are pink!” said my guide, pouting at having his opinion disputed. “Yes; but compare the flowers, the shape is different.” “My nose is not like your nose, yet they are both noses,” answered Grímr, in a sulky tone. Gótha-foss is the scene of one of Grettir's exploits. He is said to have plunged under the falls, and to have discovered a cave behind the water. I asked the boatman who ferried across to us, whether any one had seen this cave since the times of Grettir. “A few winters back,” he answered, “the cascade was frozen, and then we went below it and looked for the cavern, but it was not visible. This does not disprove anything ! it only shows that the undermined rock has fallen in from the press of water rolling over it.” We now removed packs and saddles from our horses, and stowed them in the boat, then drove the horses into the river; they waded on till the stream lifted them off their legs, but then turned with one consent, and came back towards the shore. With stones and shouts, and cracking of whips, we sent them back, and then they swam boldly for the farther bank, their heads showing like dark specks above the water. The ferryman rowed us across, and we supped, as it was eight o'clock, on German sausage and hard biscuit. Then, having saddled the horses, we ascended the heithi, and got a view of long rolling hills stretching north, without a mountain peak. From the side of one a column of steam rose into the air, and was blown in a southerly direction, as it reached the top of the hill. “That is Uxahver,” said Jón. As we passed farms at a gallop, the tinkle of the bell on
our leader must have startled the sleepers; it certainly roused the dogs, which barked furiously behind the closed doors. A bell on a horse was an innovation which produced great searchings of heart among the Icelanders, and it was only after two days' deliberation that Jón came to the opinion that it was a success. At eleven o'clock we met two natives on horseback, who stopped and asked our names. On our compliance with this request, they gave theirs, and then flung their arms round Grímr, with every demonstration of affection. Jón dashed ahead with the packs, and I followed, leaving the model student locked in the embraces of his friends. “Pray who were those loving people 2 " I asked when Grimr rejoined me. “I know the elder of the two very intimately,” he answered; “he held me in his arms twenty-four years ago, when he visited Reykjavík.” “How old were you then 2 ” “Six months, and I have not seen him since.” “And the other man 2 ” “He is likewise an old acquaintance; his father was apprentice to my grandfather.” “Have you met before ?” I inquired. “Never: it was quite delightful to meet him now.” At twelve o'clock we skirted strange parallel lines of lava blocks, running with such regularity that at first sight I thought they must be the fallen stones of an avenue like that of Karnac or Avebury. On riding up to them, and on examining the blocks, I found that they overlay rifts, now all but choked up, miniature gjás, and that the force which had snapped the lava bed had tilted the fragments of the broken edges, so that some blocks lay wedged in the crack, whilst others had dropped across it, and others again had fallen against each other. Having ridden along one of these lines for half a mile, I came upon a point where they diverged; and on climbing over the rocks I found a circular patch of turf girt with stones, another point of resemblance to the Druidical