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Art. VIII. Travels in the Island of Iceland, during the Summer
of the year 1810. By Sir GEORGE MACKENZIE, Bart. 4to. Constable & Co. Edinburgh. Longinan & Co. &c. London.
1811. ICELA CELAND is perhaps the country in the whole world where civi
lization has proceeded the greatest length, considering the physical difficulties it has had to encounter. In a remote island, situate on the farthest verge of the habitable globe ; encompassed by polar ice, and ravaged by volcanic fire in a climate where a long winter, cold, dark and tempestuous, is succeeded by a short summer, so little genial that it is insufficient to ripen grain of any species :- In such a country, it is wonderful that the industry of man has been able to do more than to supply the most urgent of his wants. Yet, here, learning flourished at a very early period ; poetry was cultivated ; and here the mythology of the northern nations was first reduced into a systematic form. A people, independent and free, enacting their own laws, and choosing their own magistrates, found, in the possession of these inestimable blessings, what was more than a compensation for all the physical evils which they endured." Accordingly, while feudal tyranny, by the bloodshed and oppression to which it everywhere gave birth, retained the finest countries of Europe in a state of barbarism;-liberty and peace, with learning and the arts in their train, took refuge in this inhospitable clime; and found, on the confines of the polar circle, an asylum which the plains of France or Italy could not have afforded them;-a memorable example how much worse the sufferings are, produced by art, than those produced by nature.
Iceland, indeed, in the state to which it is now reduced, does not exhibit so agreeable a spectacle. The physical evils remain, and perhaps have increased ; but the moral and political resources, by which their bitterness was allayed, have nearly vanished. The conquest of Iceland by the Norwegian princes, and the union of Norway to the crown of Denmark, have converted Iceland into the poor appendage of an absolute monarch. In the ignorance of political economy, or the contempt for it which always prevails in such governments, even the means devised for promoting the advantage of this unfortunate island, have proved fatal to its prosperity, and the exclusive privilege of a commercial company-an engine of such destructive power, that even the wealth of India is, as has been found by experiment, hardly able to withstand it-quickly proved ruinous to Iceland. The arts, however, the knowledge and the learning, which once flourished so remarkably in that island, have not entirely abandoned it; and there still remains much to
excite and to gratify the curiosity of an enlightened traveller. The manners of ciyilized nations, however much they may resemble one another, must assume a different aspect in countries of which the natural history is very different; and it must be always interesting to observe, when the change is great, how the former of these accommodate themselves to the latter, and how they contrive to diminish the evils which they cannot remove. In the instance of Iceland, there is added to all this the peculiarities of its natural history, derived from the extensive operation of volcanic fire.
It has accordingly been three times visited by travellers from Britain, within the last forty years. In 1772, Sir Joseph Banks, who had already circumnavigated the globe, thought it worth while to visit the shores of Iceland, being willing, it would seem, after having seen the most delightful dwelling of savage life, to look on civilization in its poorest abode. He was accom. panied by Drs Solander and Lind, and by M. Yon Troil, who afterwards, in a series of letters, gave some account of Iceland. - In the year : 1739, Iceland was again visited by Sir John Stanley, accompanied by some other gentlemen, who sailed with him from Leith. An analysis of the water of the Geyser, so remarkable for the silicious incrustations it produces, made by Dr Black, was a consequence of this voyage. To the account of this analysis was added a letter of Sir John Stanley, which caused much regret that the author of such a lively and picturesque description should not have favoured the public with a fuller account of his observations.
In the beginning of summer 1810, Sir George Mackenzie, accompanied by Dr Holland and Mr Bright, performed the same voyage; and the voluine before us gives an account of the part of Iceland visited by these gentlemen. Iceland is a very large island; but its coasts only are inhabited, and of these the part that is most accessible and best known, is that which fronts the south-west. It was for this part that our travellers shaped their course; and the tract they visited comprehends an extent of about 120 miles in length along the coast in a direction nearly porth-west, by a breadth that varies from 40 to 20 miles. In a country, consisting almost entirely of rocks or of marshes, where there are no roads, the horses weak, and the people slow, motion must needs be difficult; and to have visited so large a tract of country, in the course of an Icelandic sumner, required no small share of activity. The line of the coast being deeply indented by the sea, is, in fact, much longer than could be inferred from the measures above mentioned.
The south-west corner of the island sends out two extensive promontories, between which a deep gulph, called the Faxé Fi
ord, is included. The south promontory, called the Guldbringé Syssel, is about 45 miles long, by 10 or 12 broad, and stretches a little to the south of west. The northern promontory, the Snæfell Syssel, or the district of Snowy Mountains, is somewhat longer, considerably broader, and nearly parallel to the fórmer. The distance of these promontories, measured along the bottom of the gulph, is about 40 miles in a straight line. Our travellers went round the shores of these promontories, and also along those of the intervening country, besides traversing them in several directions, and extending their excursion also inland north-east to the Geyser, and east to Hecla and the Obsidian rock, distant about 90 geographical miles from Reikavic, the place where they landed, and the metropolis of Iceland, situated on a point of land on the north side of the Guldbringe Syssel.
This is the country examined; but it is not from the extent of the field, but from the minuteness, the accuracy, and the selection of the observations, that the merits of a traveller are to be estimated. In this respect, great praise, we think, is due to Sir George Mackenzie and his associates. The objects to which their attention has been directed, appear to have boen well ehosen; and no opportunity has been lost of acquiring information concerning either the past or the present state of the country, the manners of the inhabitants, their arts, education, laws, &c.; or concerning the natural history of a country rendered interesting by the very severity with which nature has treated it, and by the unparalleled extent to which volcanic fire has carried its operations. On the spirit, therefore, the activity, and the judgment with which these travels have been conducted, we mean to bestow our unqualified approbation, and to point them out as highly worthy of imitation. The account with which the public is here presented, is written with great plainness and simplicity. The narrative is clear and lively; and the pictures it draws, whether moral or phyaa sical, carry with them every appearance of accuracy and good faith.
On some occasions, the detail perhaps is more minute than was quite necessary; and circumstances are now and then dwelt on, which, though they might affect the comu? fort of the travellers at the time, do not throw much light ein ther upon the natural or moral history of the country. Yet, this does not frequently occur; and as it only makes the pic ture more complete, and serves as a security that nothing material is omitted, it is in reality better than the opposite extreme, where a narrative, meagre and bare of circumstances, always produces a suspicion that something, essential, and tendo
ing to develop characters, moral or physical, has been omitted.
We shall first present our readers with an account of what relates to the manners of the inhabitants; and next of what respects the natural history of the country.
On landing at Reikavic, they'were received with kindness and hospitality; and as it was yet too carly in the season (7th May) for setting out on any distant excursion, they remained there for some time, and had an opportunity of becoming well acquainted with the principal people, among whom they found several men of learning and information. They gave a ball to the ladies åt Reikavic, of which the account is amusing, as it shows how differently the same object is pursued in different situations. At length, they became impatient to set out; and in this first tour they walked on foot, and only used horses for carrying their baggage. A young man who had been educated as a priest, and who spoke Latin tolerably well, was hired to attend them as their guide.
Early in the morning,' says Sir George, the preparation for pur journey began; but the motions of the Icelanders were so slow, and there were so many discussions about distributing the loads on the horses, that it was past two in the afternoon before all was ready. The pack-saddles consist of square pieces of light spungy tyrf cụt from the bogs. These are tied on with a rope ; and a piece of wood, fitted to the horse's back with a peg projecting from each side, is fastened over the turf, and from these pegs the baggage is şuspended. The Icelanders, pretend to be very nice in balancing the loads ; but I do not recollect to have ever travelled two miles without stopping ten times to rectify the baggage. When all the horses are loaded, they are fastened to each other, head to tail, and thus pro: ceed in order. The horses are very hardy, and patient of fatigue, but easily startled. Every Icelander, of whatever rank, can shoe a horse; the shoes are plain, and the nails, which are very large, are driven firmly througin the hoof, and carefully doubled over. In this simple state the shoes remain firm, till worn out or broken. Travellers always carry a supply of shoes and nails on long journeys: When iron is scarce, the horns of sheep are made use of for horse shoes. The day we set out on was fine ; but snow showers were falling on the mountains round us. We passed through a bare, dismal country, among low hills; till, not far from Havnefiord, we entered a rough path, where we saw the first marks of subterraneous fire. The melted masses of lava seemed to have been heaved
di. rection, and had assumed all sorts of fantastic forms ;---on every side chasms and caverns presented themselves. When we least expected it, we descried the town of Havnefiord situated in the midst of the kava, and so placed, that the houses, obtained complete shelter from masses of matter that had formerly carried destruction in their eourse.
The following account seems well calculated to give an idea of an Icelandic landscape, and of the face of this very singular country.
Having passed a low ridge of hills, we descended into a valley filled with lava, which is connected with that about Havnefiord, and has evidently proceeded from the same source. Along the edge of this we travelled for about two miles, and then began to ascend a ridge covered with light slags. We observed that the lava had run down on the east side of the valley, and, in some places, it appeared as if it had ascended. The ascending of lava is a well known fact, though in examining a cold mass, this circumstance strikes an inexperienced observer as something wonderful. It is caused by the formation of a crust on the cooling of the surface; and a case or tube being thus produced, the lava rises in the same manner as water in a pipe. Beyond this spot' we saw the most dreadful effects of subterraneous heat all around us; and, as far as the
could reach over a wide extended plain, nothing appeared to relieve it from the black rugged lava, which had destroyed the whole of the district. The surface was swelled into knobs, from a few feet in diameter to forty or fifty, many of which had burst, and disclosed caverns lined with melted matter in the form of stalactites. Near this place we went to visit a cave which had been described to us. It was nothing more than an extensive hollow, formed by one of those blisters or bubbles in the lava, hundreds of which we ħad walked over. The bottom of it was covered with ice, and númerous icicles hang from the roof. The distance to the farther end was 55 yards”; the height not more than 7 or 8 feet. The inside was lined with melted matter disposed in many singular forms.
• In our progress to-day, we passed by the source of the river Kaldaa, which is a large basin at the bottom of a hollow, into which numer. ous streams empty themselves. After running about two miles, this river entirely disappears, and is lost among the lava. We met with a number of little craters, in a stream of lava less rugged than the rest. In one of them, the melted matter had formed a sort of dome, about 25 feet in diameter, and open at one side. Within, it was lined with an asscnblage of stalactites, hanging in groups, very Curious and fantastic.
• The houses of the Icelanders are all constructed nearly on the same plan. An outer wall of turf, about four feet and a half high, and six feet thick, encloses all the apartments. On the side facing the south are doors serving as entrances to the dwelling-house, smithy, dairy, &c. From the door of the house is a long narrow passage, into which, on each side, the different apartments open. Betweep each of these is a thick partition of turf; and every apartment has a separate roof, through which light is admitted by pieces of glass four or five inches square. The principal rooms of the better sort of houses have windows in front, consisting of several panes of glass. The turf walls, the earthen floors damp and filthy, make the smell