Friday, July 11, 2003


As a footnote to earlier posts have discovered that there is a pub in Reykjavik called the Gaukur a Stong. so the Gaukur story would seem to live on in popular memory. The pub seems a little on the lively side, but perhaps not quite axe fights, at least not on most nights.

And as a footnote to Reykholt, thirteenth century scholarly activity there surely counts as the renaissance that didn't quite happen. Or the renaissance that was supressed - through the murder of Snorri and the termination of both the Icelandic and Greenlandic commonwealths.

Have discovered that this site is now listed on Google.

University of Iceland library today is very quiet - I have the feeling that every Icelander is on holiday. Top destinations for Icelanders seem to be Iceland - this is a home-loving nation - Faroes (almost Iceland), the Nordic countries, Canada (where there is an Icelandic community) and Italy (because there is now a charter flight there).

Thursday, July 10, 2003


To Reykholt and the super mediaeval studies library there.

This is a remarkable collection - very mediaeval, even down to being uncatalogued. Lookking along lots of shelves is an interesting way to find the unexpected. I´ve come across a book published 1780 which has something original to say on Old Icelandic syntax and which really doesn´t seem to have been picked up by anyone since, so I guess I´m saying that this idea from 1780 is state of the art!

Which says something about the neglect for philological studies.

The route out included only 15 miles or so of gravel road, so I´m not too juddered today.

Stopped off at a hot spring on the way back, which shoots out 180 litres per SECOND of water at a tad below boiling point - 97 degrees. It is used as the hot water supply for Borgarnes and Akranes.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003


Have just seen the results of a road accident, one of several since I’ve been in Iceland. This one was a shunt which led to some broken glass and bent metal, but presumably little else. The police were on the scene when I got there.

Indeed a policeman signalled the car in front of me to stop, but the driver apparently didn’t see him and as good as drove through him. The policeman gave a clear stop signal to my passenger seat, and as I stopped seemed amazed at seeing what he thought was a driverless car. At least that’s how I interpret his mouth falling open. Unless it was just shock that someone had taken notice of a stop signal. He had a broom, and wanted to sweep up the mess.

Icelandic driving standards are not good. Speeds are slow, and the driving just has to be better than say Italy, but Icelanders behind the wheel leave much to be desired. Issues are:

OVER-TAKING. I think I can safely say that the average Icelander has not been taught how to overtake, and has only the haziest notion how to do it. Icelandic overtaking is lethal. The favourite seems to be a car doing 89kmph being overtaken by a car doing the legal limit of 90kmph. So they run parallel for half an hour.

DISTANCE. Maybe Icelanders think it is just friendly, but they do like to sit on the bumper of the car in front. Perhaps they use less petrol in the slip stream of another car.

INDICATOR LIGHTS. Rarely used. Nor does anyone take much notice of them when they are used. In fact I’ve been so convinced mine can’t be working I’ve checked them several times.

LACK OF POLITENESS. Given the habitual politeness of everyone in Iceland, the aggro of the Icelandic driver comes as a surprise. Get in the wrong lane at a junction and that’s just tough, as no Icelander is going to hold back to let you change lane.

TOO MUCH POLITENESS. The guy on a roundabout who decides to stop half way round and wave a car on from an entry road. The guy at a green light on a junction on a dual carriageway who decides to wave pedestrians across, into the path of traffic in the other lane.

BIG IS BEST. Drivers of Reykjavik yellow busses have right of way at all times. I’ve decided it must be written in the laws of Iceland. Drivers of 4x4s with massive tyres think they are king of the road. After all their contraption has cost more than the road they are driving on. Toad of toad hall is alive and well in Reykjavik.

THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD. Iceland once drove on the left, as all sensible nations. After all driving on the left is psychologically easier, and safer. Then in a spirit of doing the wrong thing in company with their Nordic brethren they changed to drive on the wrong side. An older generation of Icelanders have found a compromise – they drive down the middle. At all times.

DAFT JUNCTIONS. Top prize for what may well be Europe’s daftest junction goes to Reykjavik’s clover-leaf. This land-guzzler is not only an environmental disaster zone in that it covers acres (that’s Imperial acres, not European hectares) of green land with asphalt, but it is also downright dangerous. How about a roundabout? If junction 1, London, where Britain’s M1 meets the North Circular and half the trunk roads of London, can be a roundabout then there is no possible reason why a roundabout wouldn’t work here. A fraction of the land, and far safer.

On a hill outside Reykjavik there is a pole with a couple of wrecked cars on top of it, and a sign which gives the number of deaths in road accidents since 1st January. When I first noticed it the figure was 6 – now it is 8. This suggests a dozen or more deaths a year. I have it in mind the figure for Britain is something around the 100 mark. Iceland has a population 1/200th of ours, so by comparison should have a single road accident death only every other year. I rather doubt that the gravel roads, ghastly though they are, are often the cause of deaths. Maybe it is months of darkness and ice in the winter. Or maybe it is just plain stupid driving.


Today should see the book reach 50,000 words. Somehow this seems a significant figure - if 50,000 words have been written the rest will be.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003


A very good day indeed, though perhaps not the most promising of starts.

Rain this morning was heavy, at times torrential. I was heading out for Thjorsadalur and Stong, and it was becoming clear that it was a longer journey than I had expected. And when I pulled in at Selfoss to check opening times for Stong the tourist office somehow managed to imply that they couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go there.

But the rain turned off suddenly, leaving a bright day with breathtaking views. Breathtaking is a bit of a cliché, and I’m not at all sure that any views can be described easily or even at all. These were very special. The Thjosa - the Bull River – is a large river, as wide as the Thames at Dartford. It runs on a lava base formed in what was one of the world’s biggest ever lava-flows about 8,000 years ago, and therefore has an un-eroded course full of islands and jagged bits of lava.

Then into the Stong access road, which is a good excuse for a digression on Icelandic roads. Many of them are excellent, and there is a massive programme of road-building. The road up Thjorsadale is one of the excellent ones, brand new, with stretches of the old gravel road sometimes running parallel. But many Icelandic roads are as far as Brits are concerned unimaginably bad. You’ve got to see them to believe them. I met an American in Reykjavik who was going to hire a car to drive round Iceland. I said something about the road quality, to which he replied that the roads in Chicago are terrible. He then said he had been to Scotland where the roads are really bad, indeed they just couldn’t be any worse, and Iceland could have nothing on the terrible roads of Scotland. I managed not to tell him I’ld lived in Scotland for nine years and could compare the roads there with Iceland. I imagine him duly humbled by the roads he will have found. For the final stretch to Stong the only access is 5 miles along a road which is one of Iceland’s category two roads (and supposedly not even the worst category for an ordinary car). The road was 5 miles of car-juddering, bone-shaking ghastliness. No one in Britain would take a 4x4 on such a “road” – they would be worried about stone chips on the expensive paintwork. And as for the Land Rovers and Discoveries that run around Wimbledon, well they and their drivers would just give up and go home. Imagine a mud track, transversely corrugated like a ploughed field, covered with stones of very varying size, and deeply potholed. That’s the surface, and its much worse than I’ve seen off the beaten track in Turkey or anywhere else - though by no means as bad as some of the stretches of route 1 in eastern Iceland. Then add the hills – one on this stretch must have been 1:3 – the blind summits, bends, drops at the side of the road. This road had a novel twist – about 2 miles across sand. Not Bamburgh Beach, but volcanic sand, a mix of rocks of varying sizes overlayed with grit. There really wasn’t a road, just a direction. The trick seemed to be to avoid where most of the other cars had been. At the end of the road a car park, with three very ordinary cars and a bus. That’s right, a bus, which I can only assume had come in by flying saucer.

Stong must be one of the world’s biggy archaeological sites, though just about no-one seems to have heard of it. A bit like Nemrut Dagi in Turkey, another hard-to-get-to stupendous archaeological site which no-one seems to have heard of. In 1104 Mount Hekla erupted and buried under tephra the farm at Stong and a couple of dozen others. In fact everything in a 30 mile radius was destroyed. Archaeology has therefore been presented with the remarkably good remains of farms of 1104. This is the clearest archaeological guide to how people were then living in Iceland, and throughout the Germanic world – a farm in England of 1104 would not have been so very different.

Stong is particularly remarkable in that we know the names of people who lived there. In the tenth century it had been the farm of Gaukur Trandilsson, a farmer and warrior who seems to have managed a remarkably prosperous life in what must have been a very comfortable farm house. A mediaeval ballad tells of an affair between Gaukur and a woman in a neighbouring farm, Steinastadir – neighbouring in Icelandic terms, miles away in ours. The affair got out of hand, and Gaukur was killed in a duel with Asgrimur Ellida-Grimsson, who was a relative of the woman at Steinastadir – and as it happens also Gaukur’s foster brother. The weapons were axes – the intention of such duels was that one or both would be killed. As victor, Asgrimur would have kept the axe used by Gaukur, which would in effect become an heirloom.

Icelandic genealogies have been preserved in amazing detail, and we know that two-hundred years later Asgrimur had a direct descendant, Thorhallur Asgrimsson, who in the 1150s went on a crusade to Jerusalem led by the Viking Earl of Orkney. On return to Orkney en route for Iceland it seems that Thorhallur and his Icelandic companions became a little bored (if Orkney on a wet evening then was anything like Lerwick now that’s easy to understand!) and decided to break in to the burial mound of Maes Howe, presumably looking for treasure. They then spent quite a time carving graffiti on the walls. When the mound was first excavated in 1861 the Viking graffiti was found, including the inscription: These runes were carved by the greatest rune-master in the west, with the axe once owned by Gaukur Trandilsson in the south of Iceland.

With real-life stories like this it is clear where JRR Tolkien got his ideas from! It does seem quite amazing that Thorhallur knew his descent over 200 years – six or seven generations – and had an axe which his ancestor had won in single combat. And Thorhallur’s own achievement in travelling from Iceland to Jerusalem and back again is quite a saga in its own right!

Stong is sited in rugged countryside. A half mile away is an impressive gorge which I’ld like to explore better. Today the flies were maddening and did not encourage lingering. It can never have been particularly fertile, and no-one seems to be farming it now. Yet Stong was a large and comfortable home. On a very fast-flowing stream nearby I saw three Harlequin ducks, all female (in contrast with the five male I saw a few weeks back at Jokulsarlon). No sign of ducklings.

The Icelanders have reconstructed Stong on a site close to the main road – and gone out of their way only to do what is supported by the historic record rather than create a Disney-style long-house. The result is fascinating. Among the sources they have used for information on doors and other timber are Viking remains in Greenland, which in some cases have been better preserved than anywhere in Europe.

Also in the vicinity is Hjalparfoss, yet another superb Icelandic waterfall. And views of Mount Hekla, today snow-covered and never clear of clouds. It seems to have a big eruption about every 30 years, the most recent in 2000, some more violent than others. Since 1104 it has blown its top off no less than 15 times. The 1947 eruption lasted 13 months. It is a popular climb and can be done in about eight hours I’m told ….. though not the safest of climbs.

Back to base, and this evening I’ve written my 1000 words of book (just over 1000 in fact) – plus as much again for this Blog! So all in all a very satisfactory day.




Posting on my way to Stong. This is a real link with the saga-age as it is a settlement that was buried in volcanic ash when Mt Hekla erupted - the tourist office insists it is the Icelandic Pompeii.

I´m proposing an emendation of meodsetla "mead benches" in the opening lines of Beowulf to midsetla, "mid benches" and the groundplan of the long house at Stong does seem to make this plausible. Will see what it looks like in the real. Mead benches is very colourful with its image of mead-guzzling Danes, but it really doesn´t make sense.


Monday, July 07, 2003

Been making a few changes to this Blog site, but still the archives don't seem to work....


Started the week with a dip in the Blue Lagoon. Now in the library and wondering where I'm ever going to find examples of some of the more weird and wonderful word order patterns in half a dozen Germanic languages. One of the most promising but also most frustrating areas is the old runic inscriptions - promising because they are so early, frustrating because they are short, and there is a pretty general lack of consensus on what a lot of them mean.

Sunday, July 06, 2003


Over 2,000 words written today! If I could just manage that everyday …


An early start, out to Laxnes on Mossfell. This is the farm where the writer Halldor Laxness was born, and from which he took a surname (somehow he added another s). It is now a horse farm - what we would call stables, but as Icelandic horses are never stabled, rather spending their whole lives outdoors, I guess their name is best. Went for a two-hour ride, about eight miles, over the inevitable lava fields and through a couple of rivers. Also took in a waterfall, Troll Falls. All told a jolly good morning.

The horses are in the process of shedding their winter coats just now, so they all look scruffy. Information points show that almost all roads in the interior are now open – just a very few spurs off one of the cross-Iceland roads are still impassable through snow. Roads will start closing again in about six weeks as the first winter snows come. The year is moving on. The midges are suddenly in swarms – I haven’t used it yet, but the midge net I’ve brought with me will soon be essential. Tonight at midnight there is a hint of darkness.

From Laxnes to Thingvellirvatn, where the highlight was a pair of Red Throated Divers. Also several Godwits.

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