At the National Museum of Iceland, I read about the daring rescue of the crew of a British trawler in the winter of 1947. Local men and farmers left early in the day and trekked through the treacherous trails to reach the site of the stricken ship, below the Látrabjarg cliffs. By then, the stranded sailors were suffering from cold and exhaustion. A storm prevented rescue from the sea, so the only way to bring the men to safety was to climb down the 200 metre cliffs with ropes – a method traditionally used to collect nesting sea birds and their eggs from the cliff face. Men who could not be rescued before dark had to spend the night at the bottom of the cliffs, while the rest camped up top as others trekked back through snow-covered trails to fetch supplies. I wander through the gallery and linger at every sepia-toned photograph. The story is full of pathos and returns my faith in the resilience of the human spirit and the kindness and generosity of strangers.
Did you know that the majority of females in the Icelandic founding population have Gaelic ancestry, whereas the majority of males have Scandinavian ancestry? This comes from analysis of mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed through matrilineal lines and analysis of Y chromosomes, obviously only present in males. The theory goes that the Norse Vikings on invading and settling in the British Isles took wives there and their descendants then forged a new life in the uncharted land of Iceland.
Best friend goes: “What do they mean by ‘took’?
In Iceland, the major shaping elements of nature are so prevalent around you that you cannot fail to ignore their effects.
In Iceland, Mother Nature is not the gentle, nurturing presence you might get elsewhere. Here she hammers her point home, like a mother disciplining a stubborn child who refuses to obey. You will behave!
The land undulates around us and is interrupted by hills that rise suddenly from the flat earth. Black lava rock is punctuated by vivid green moss. Driving through the countryside, you really get the sense of the birth of a new land, most of it occurring violently courtesy of this or that volcano eruption, or the more gentle but still havoc-wreaking movement of glaciers.
At Þingvellir National Park you can literally stand witness to the movement of the earth beneath your feet. Iceland lies bang on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. These plates are drifting apart by 2cm every year. The enormity of this is almost too grand to comprehend as you walk along the valley of the mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Mist envelopes the land around and it’s not hard to imagine a Viking setting off on a long boat to conquer lands more westerly. Or in full battle regalia, fighting because it was in their blood and because it was what they lived for. They relied on the triumvirate of warrior gods Óðinn, Þórr and Týr, to give them protection. They carried carved talismans for this purpose. They were fearless – if they died, they would only join their slain comrades in Valhalla, to fight endless battles and await for the end of days, the final showdown with the Ice Gods. And that was glorious.