« PreviousContinue »
A Little Town—New Church—Site of the Town injudiciously chosen—The Post—Grimsey—An Island Cure—Danish Hospitality—The Newspaper Office—Supper—English Vessels—Jack Tar in Iceland—Trees—MSS. —Icelandic Poetry—The Dream-Ballad.
Akureyri on the Eyja-fjord, the second largest town in Iceland, contains eight hundred souls. It consists of a straggling line of tarred wooden shanties and hovels, extending along the beach, the doorsteps being just above high-water mark, and the backs of the houses abutting on a precipitous hill rising three hundred feet to an extensive plateau, out of which soar a chain of snowy mountains, called "The home of the wind Jokull," and the less elevated belt of Siilur, three thousand feet high, with its quaint peaks called the Bonder and the Old Woman.
To the north of Akureyri, the hill throws out a spur, which shuts off the sea-winds, and shelters the town. The fjord is thirty-eight miles long, and ten miles wide at its mouth, but contracts to one mile and a quarter opposite Akureyri. On the farther side of the fjord rises the precipitous Vathla-heithi, over which lead the roads to Husavik and My-vatn. In the distant north-east, at the mouth of the estuary, like a pale blue cloud, is a jokull with its head almost invariably covered with mist. South of the fjord lies a mountain district through which flows the Eyja-fjord river, which enters the frith after a short course of thirty miles.
In the fjord is a holm named Ramsey or the Isle of frost, on which are two farms; and, twenty-six miles off the mouth of the frith lies Grimsey, a small island, two and a half miles long by one mile broad, on which live several fishermen and a pastor.
There is no church at Akureyri, but one is in course of erection, built of wood, with large round-headed sash-windows, and a turret over the sanctuary at the east end. The edifice is somewhat pretentious, but it is in no Christian style of architecture. It is much to be regretted that the Icelanders have no idea of the capabilities of wood for constructional beauty*
There are six or seven merchant stores at Akureyri, long wooden buildings, fitted up with a counter and furnished with
* The natives were more skilful in olden times, apparently. The Pals Biskups Saga gives the following account of a steeple erected at Skilaholti in the year 1196:—" Paul the bishop soon saw, after his enthronization at Skalaholti, that it was necessary for him to strengthen, and improve, and finish the work which the holy Thorlak, the bishop, had planned. So he purchased what was requisite. Now he had to set up the bells which he had bought for the cathedral of Skalaholti, and they were the best in all Iceland. He had brought with him also four pine timbers twenty ells long. Paul the bishop sent for the most skilful artisan in wood in all Iceland, and he was Amund Arnason. He made him erect a steeple so cunningly that it surpassed all the woodwork in Iceland, and also the church itself. In the steeple he built a chapel, with a stair leading to it. He consecrated this chapel to 8. Thorlak, the bishop, on the 10th day after Yule, and he adorned the chapel in the finest manner, providing it with everything that was necessary. He made Atli the priest paint all the roofing within the steeple and also the pediment of the gable; and he hung all the lower part with three sets of drapery, very beautiful; so, also, he had inscriptions set up over the tombs of those who slept in the steeple. He laid out as much money on the steeple as though it were for himself, spending four thousands of silver at the least. He bought three bells for the steeple—a treasure of bells they are!—from a Norwegian, hight Kolr. There were also several bells which he bought for the steeple; also two pitched on the same note for the church; and he decorated both church and steeple alike with all that could be fancied, with ornaments requisite for a church—crosses, scrolls, images, lamps, and glass windows—as also with all the episcopal vestments. He had also a stone coffin, made very skilfully, in which he might be laid after death; and he buried in the steeple, in the best style, all such men as he thought most deserving."—Biskupa Sdgur, i. 182.
SITUATION OF THE TOWN ILL-CHOSEN. 173
everything that an Icelander can want. At these stores can be procured corn-brandy, rum, beer, fox and swan skins, eiderdown, ready-made clothes, hats, shoes, saddles, crockery, timber, ironmongery, and provisions.
Some of the merchants winter at Copenhagen and come out to Iceland in spring, but two or three remain at Akureyri throughout the year.
The average temperature of the whole year in Eyja-fjord is Fahr. 32°, or freezing point; in winter the thermometer sinks as low as—32°; but the houses are kept warm by stoves, supplied with coal by English smacks from Leith. The winter is spent in convivial parties, at which the principal amusements are card-playing, and dancing to the sound of a guitar. A library has been established, but, as yet, it is quite in embryo, and contains only about a hundred volumes. The houses of the merchants are comfortable within, well papered and furnished; the walls are hung with prints, such as views of Copenhagen, portraits of the king, or of Thorwaldsen or Ohlenschlager. A few objects of vertu adorn the side-tables, and pots of flowers, which do not blossom, stand in the windows.
When Henderson visited Akureyri in 1815, he found it to consist of three stores, and from fifteen to twenty fishing hovels; since then it has much increased, though perhaps not situated in the most advantageous position for a town, as the routes to it lie over some of the worst passes in Iceland. On the east is a thinly populated district cut off from the settlement by a steep pass and two fierce and dangerous rivers; on the west is a belt of snowy mountains pierced by rugged passes at Hjaltadals, Oxnadals, Heljardals heithies. On the south is one moderately populated dale of no great extent.
The site of all others for a town would have been the Skaga-fjord, within easy access of the rich Hjalta, Vans, and Langa dales, in the midst of Iceland's most populous and fertile district, instead of being at its extreme limit, in Eyjafjord. The post arrives from Reykjavik once a month, except during the winter, and takes about five days on the road. The postman passes by Thingvellir, Kaldidalr, the Arnarratn heitlii, then branches off from the road I had gone, and comes direct to Akureyri, over the Storisandur. In autumn and spring the postman has to do the greater part of the journey on foot, and sleeps, when benighted, in snow-pits, which he digs for himself. The privations which this poor man has to undergo are often very great; his predecessors have perished in the snows or have been lost in crossing half-frozen rivers.
There are two other ways to Reykjavik besides that taken by the postman, these are the Kjal-vegr and Sprengisandur vegr. The former follows the Eyja-fjord river to its source near the Hofs jokull, then passes between that and Lang jokull, skirts the large Hvitiir lake, and passing the Geysir and Thingvellir, enters Reykjavik. The Sprengisandur road is longer and more arduous. Leaving Akureyri, it passes the Vathla skarth, follows up the Fnijoska dale, then crosses to that of the Skjalfanda-fljot, "or flood of quivering waves;" this it follows to the little grass patch of Kithagil, after which there is a gallop of twenty-two hours over a lifeless desert of black sand to the roots of Tungnafells and Arnarfells jokulls, where there is a grass patch called Eyvindarkofaver. Thence it passes along the Thjorsa, near Hekla, to the Geysir, and so by Thingvellir to Reykjavik.
The great event of the year at Akureyri, is the arrival of the first ship from Copenhagen. Many a lady expects by it her spring and summer dresses, some article of ornament, or a long wished for piece of furniture; the merchants await some additions to their stock, and the natives are looking for various articles which they have ordered through the Danish traders.
Last autumn a farmer came to one of the merchants, with the request that he would procure him a clock. The order was transmitted to Copenhagen, and by the first vessel in the spring there arrived a clock, but it proved to be such an inferior article, that the merchant returned it and demanded another. The new one had not arrived when I was at