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may have been a too hasty generalization, in concluding that all
basalt is of submarine formation.
Surturbrand is to be found in Borgarfjordar and Myra sysla.
At Herathvatn, west of Northurá, is a bed two feet thick, black
and lustrous. -
At Tandarasel there crops out a considerable amount, so also
in the Hitárdalr.
In the Barthastrandar, Dala, Isafjarthar and Strandar sysla,
are three beds at different levels, extending through the whole
peninsula at the heights respectively of 150 and 600 feet above
the sea. At Loekir on the Barthastrand, at Forsdalr, in the
Arnarfjord, they are found alternating with beds of leaves. Sur-
turbrand has also been noticed at Svínadalr, Gnipurfell, Bar-
mahlith, Rauthasand, Stigahlith, Steingrims-fjord, &c.
In Skagafjarthar, Eyjafjarthar, and Thingeyjar sysla it occurs;
at Hofsgil in Gothdalr, Tinná in Skaga-fjord, Ulfä in Eyja-fjord,
near Húsavik, the headland Tjörnes, between Skjalfunda and Axar
fjords, in the Wapna-fjord, and at Thussahöfthajóta, near Eski-fjord.
Few metals have hitherto been met with in Iceland. Copper
is found in some places, but in small quantities; plumbago has
been discovered near Krafla. Magnetic iron is undoubtedly very
widely dispersed through the volcanic rocks of the island; it occurs
at Esja; and I found some near Eylifr, north-east of Myvatn.
A vast and inexhaustible supply of sulphur is deposited by
vapour jets in four spots—Hengill, near Thingvalla Lake,
Krisuvik, Hlithar-nāmar, and Fremri-nāmar, near Myvatn.
None of this is now exported.
The most remarkable boiling springs in Iceland are the
Geysir at Haukadalr and at Reykir, Uxahver, the numerous
fountains of Reykholtsdalr, and those of Hveravellir. These
by no means constitute all in the island, for there is hardly a
valley without hot springs; and the natives have learned to dis-
tinguish their varieties by appropriate names.
Hver is a general term expressing a warm or boiling spring ;
geysir is one which spouts; reykir, one which sends up clouds
of steam; laug is a warm fountain which will serve as a bath;
olkelda is a mineral spring; and nama a pit of boiling mud.
The characteristics of these fountains have changed within
historic times. Tunguhver, which Sir George Mackenzie men-
tions as sending intermittent jets twelve or fourteen feet high,
no longer alternates: it boils furiously, but its jets have been
spoiled by travellers, who have choked its bore with stones.
Hveravellir, spoken of by Olafsen and Povelsen as the most
wondrous sight in Iceland, with its roaring mountain of steam,
is now reduced to a dozen caldrons of boiling water. The geysir
which Henderson saw in the crater of Krafla plays no longer;
and its place is occupied by a still green pool of cold water.
Some further instances will be adduced in the course of the
Numerous lakes, either single or in groups, are scattered
over the surface of the country. The largest are Thingvalla-,
My-, and Hvítár-vötn; the principal groups are those of the Arnar-
vatn-heithi, and those at the foot of the Skapta, the remains of
a considerable lake which existed previous to the great erup-
tion of 1783.
Myvatn was formerly considered the largest lake in the
island, and so it may have been till it was nearly filled and
dried up by the influx of lava from Krafla in 1724–1730.
Thingvalla-vatn is now the most considerable sheet of water—it
is ten miles long and between four and five miles wide. The
contorted shape and irregularities of outline in Myvatn preclude
one from giving any correct account of its dimensions. The
Lagarfjöt, in the east, is thirty miles long, but its width is only
from half a mile to a mile and a quarter. On the Arnarvatn-
heithi, Gunnlaugson marks fifty-three lakes; but, from what I
saw there, I am satisfied that not a fifth of those actually exist-
ing appear on the map, which, with regard to that district, is
The rivers of Iceland are both numerous and large. The
Jökulsá is the longest—it rises in the Watna jökull, receives a
tributary from Herthubreith, and, after a course of 125 miles,
reaches the sea in the Axa-fjord, having passed exactly ten
houses in its way, and having plunged into a chasm in a water-
fall, the like of which is not to be seen in Europe. Other fine
rivers are the Thiorså, Skjálfandafljót, Hvítá, and Jökulsá á brá.
A very curious phenomenon is the broad short river which is
found in the south of Watna jökull. In that portion of the
island violent torrents, a couple of miles wide, and only eight or
ten from their source to the sea, whirl down with frightful
velocity, carrying with them masses of ice dislodged from the
glaciers which are their feeders, and volumes of sand from the
volcanic mountains which they drain. In passing Icelandic
rivers, the traveller trusts either to his horse or to a ferry.
The ponies swim well; but if the current be too strong there
is considerable danger of their not being able to carry their
rider across. Fords are continually shifting; and it is of the
utmost importance for a stranger to secure a guide from a neigh-
bouring farm, before venturing into the river. The beds are, in
many cases, composed of quicksands, and the pebbly bottom on which the horses can find a sure footing changes with every spring. The fjords into which the rivers empty themselves may be Fjords. divided into two classes—the friths proper, and the bights or bays. The former are indentations in the line of coast, extending for a considerable distance into the land between precipitous mountains, whose tops are snow-covered, or continually veiled in mist, which the sea-breeze brings up with it. The noblest of these is the Isa-fjord in the north-western peninsula, fifty-two miles long, and winding between magnificent mountains, rising in inaccessible walls of basalt many thousand feet above the water's edge. Ten lesser friths open out of it, piercing the barrier crags, and stretching to the roots of the great barrelheaded jökulls of Dränga and Glåmu. Other magnificent fjords are Hvamms, Skaga, Eyja, and Arnarfjords, all with distinct characteristics. The bays of Iceland are very extensive; the noble Faxafjord, sixty-five miles across, opens between capes Reykjanes and the silver sugarloaf of Snoefell. Breithi-fjord, studded with innumerable islets, the home of myriads of eider and wild duck, is forty-five miles wide; and Húnaflói, into which the Arctic sea rolls without a break, is forty-six miles long and twenty-seven wide. Other bights are the Axar, Skjálfanda, and Thistil fjords. A peculiar feature of Iceland is the gjá, pronounced gee-ow. cham, This is a fissure in the crust of the earth, formed by earthquakes, or volcanic upheavals and sinkings of the land. These zig-zag rents run from north-east to south-west. The most remarkable are the Allmanna and Hrafna gjás, at Thingvellir, the huge chasm in Katla, the rift into which pours the Jökulsá at Dettifoss, and the Stapa, Hauksvörthu, and Hrafna giás, in Gullbryngu sysla. The first-mentioned extends for four miles, and is, in one spot, a hundred and thirty feet deep. The Hrafna già, or Raven rift, is somewhat longer, but only fifty feet deep. In 1728 there opened a chasm in the Oroefa of immeasurable depth. The Archdeacon Jón Thorlaksson, who visited it, found a large stone at one spot crossing the lip of the gulf. He and a companion dislodged it, and sent it down into the abyss, but, though they listened attentively, they could not hear it reach the bottom. The great fissure of Katla has never been properly examined. It runs south-west to north-east, then turns at a right angle from south-east to north-west. This is probably the crater of the volcano. The only person who has been near the chasm is an Icelandic priest, Jón Austman, who ascended the mountain in 1823. He describes it as quite inaccessible, all
Frratic blocks and glacial grooves.
progress being stopped by enormous walls of basalt and obsidian;
while other profound chasms radiate from the grand trunk or
The general aspect of Iceland is one of utter desolation. The
mountains are destitute of herbage, and the valleys are filled
with cold morasses. Grass springs on the slight elevations
above the swamps, in the dells, and around the lakes. By
drainage, a large percentage of marsh might be reclaimed ; but
some must always remain hopeless bog. The extraordinary
amount of swamp is due to the fact that the ground is frozen at
the depth of six or eight feet, so that, when there is a thaw,
the valleys are flooded, and the water, unable to drain through, rots
the soil. In many places a stream is thus completely absorbed,
and a considerable tract of land rendered impassable, where the
labour of a few weeks would give it a channel, and transmute
marsh into productive meadow land. Many bottoms are filled
with an amazing depth of rich soil, the wear of volcanic rock,
abounding in the constituents necessary for vegetable life. Yet
the ignorance of agriculture prevailing in the island has deterred
any from turning them to advantage, by draining off the icy
water which nips and destroys the tender grass, ready enough to
Besides these swamps, there are stone bogs on all high land,
caused by the breaking up of the tufa rocks, through the united
action of frost and snow: a bed of soft mud and stone is thus
formed, which is particularly trying to the horses, who sink in it
to their knees, and cut their hoofs with the rocky splinters.
There are a considerable number of caves in Iceland, formed
in the lava by the generation of gases during the process of
cooling. Few of them have been explored; and, indeed, they
hardly repay the labour of investigation. Their bottoms are
strewn with immense angular fragments of vitreous rock, making
the toil of traversing them very considerable. The few caverns
which have been examined, are those already known as having
been resorted to by outlaws and bandits in historic times. Of
these the most interesting are — Surtshellir; that of Bárdr
Snoefelsås ; one in the Hallmundar Hraun; and Paradísarhellar,
long regarded by the superstitious as the entrance to regions like
those in S. Patrick's purgatory. The openings to similar caves
are visible near Myvatn, and in the lava tract above the Raven
rift, near Thingvellir.
Over the whole surface of the country are to be seen blocks
of stone placed in singular positions, much resembling the Logan
rocks of Cornwall. These go by the name of Grettistaks, and are
perched on high moors or in valleys. That they have been brought by ice can hardly be doubted; the uplands bear many evidences of having been covered by water, and traversed by floating icebergs. In one spot alone did I find unmistakable glacial grooving, and that was along the hill above Bjarg, in Mith-fjord: a complete description of this will be given in Chapter XVII. One of the Grettistaks I have sketched; it will be seen in Plate III. In no case did I find them belonging to other rock formation than that already existing in the island. There are no traces of moraines, except at the skirts of modern glaciers. Rock needles, which abound on the coasts, are named Drängir by the natives. Some of these are very noble. The entrance of the Isa-fjord is guarded by one such, standing up from a platform of basalt high above the water; it goes by the name of “the Sentinel.” A curious spire of rock above the Hörgárdalr is illustrated in Plate XI. There are needles in the Skaga-fjord off Drangey, and in the Breithi-fjord. Of roads, there is not one in the whole island; tracks are all that mark a vegr or way, and these are obliterated at every thaw. The routes are, consequently, indicated by vörthur and occasional kerlingar. The former are heaps of turf, or simply a stone or two placed on a rock, in a manner which the eye will recognize as artificial. The latter are stone pyramids, bearing a fanciful resemblance to old women. Many of these marks are out of repair, and others are too far apart to be of much practical advantage. A few feeble attempts have, in some spots, been made to clear the path of the larger stones, but with little result. The natives complain that the Danish Government does nothing for the roads; but surely each hrepp ought to look after its thoroughfares; and Government is like Providence, it only helps those who help themselves. It is essential for the prosperity of the island that these ways should be kept open for traffic; and Althing might well devote its session to a consideration of the means by which money might be raised for improvements of this nature, instead of frittering away its time in idle grumblings against the mild and merciful rule of Denmark. In certain spots on the surface of Iceland are forests, skogar, as they are termed by the natives. These consist of low coppices of birch; the trees being mere shrubs, from one to twelve feet high. The Icelanders believe that in former times the growth of birch was much loftier: woods were undoubtedly more abundant, as the Sagas mention forests where no trees grow at the present day, and the underwood still existing rapidly