Ultima Thule; or A Summer in Iceland

by Richard Francis Burton.

First edition of 1875 in two volumes.
William P. Nimmo: London.

Volume 1 PDF Page Images.
Volume 2 PDF Page Images (courtesy of http://www.wollamshram.ca).


ACCORDING to the fashion of the day, this volume should have been published two years ago, shortly after my return from Iceland. The truth is that before the second third had been written, I found a large fallow of pre-historic- study, the Castellieri of Istria, and I could not help putting hand to the work at " Iceland's " expense. But this much of delay is, methinks, a disadvantage rather in popular prejudice than in point of fact. The loss of freshness brings with it not a little gain. Whilst all the scenes and events of a journey, during and immediately after its progress, appear like an unartistic sketch, confused and without comparative distance; time gives perspective, and relation of details, and distinction of light and shade. Moreover, in treating of Iceland there is present danger of misleading the reader, unless due reflection correct hasty work. The subject is, to some extent, like Greece and Palestine, of the sensational type: we have all read in childhood about those " Wonders of the World," Hekla and the Geysir, and, as must happen under the circumstances, we have all drawn for ourselves our own Iceland -- a distorted and exaggerated mental picture of what has not met, and will not meet, the eye of sense. Moreover, the travellers of the early century saw scenes of thrilling horror, of majestic grandeur, and of heavenly beauty, where our more critical, perhaps more cultivated, taste finds very humble features. They had " Iceland on the brain," and they were wise in their generation: honours and popularity await the man who ever praises, the thorough partisan who never blames. But not the less our revulsion of feeling requires careful coercion: it always risks under-rating what we have found so much over-valued, of tinging neutral-hued sobriety with an angry flush of disappointment. I went to Iceland feeling by instinct that many travellers had prodigiously exaggerated their descriptions, possibly because they had seldom left home. "The most difficult and expensive country in the world" would certainly prove cheap and easy after the Andes and the Haurdn. What could be made of "giddy rapid rivers" at most three feet deep, and if deeper provided with ferries? Yet the "scare" had succeeded in making a deep impression: one tourist came to Iceland prepared to cross the streams "in buff," and firmly determined on no account to climb a scaur. "The ruts are only one danger of Icelandic travelling, the danger is crossing the streams," says a modern author--how his descriptions were derided by a couple of English officers who had ridden about the Himalayas! What could I think of the "stupendous precipice of Almannagja," of the "frightful chasm," of the "dreadful abyss, causing the most disagreeable emotions," when also told that men ride up and down the side ? Yet another says, "rush for your life" from the unfortunate Strokkr; whilst we are actually threatened with perils of polar bears--half-starved wretches floated ashore upon ice-floes to be slaughtered by the peasants with toy scythes before they can stretch their cramped and numbed limbs. The "horrific deep chasms" of the Reykjavik-HafnafjorS road, and the popular sketches, affected me with extreme incredulity. A friend described to me life in Iceland as living in a corner, the very incarnation of the passive mood; and travelling there as full of stolid, stupid risks, that invite you to come and to repent coming, not like the swiftly pursuing or treacherously lurking perils of tropical climes, but invested with a horror of their own -- such was not my experience.

Shortly after returning to England, I published, in the columns of the Morning Standard (October to November 1872), two letters for the benefit of intending tourists and explorers. Written in the most sober and realistic style, and translated into many of the languages of Europe, they gained for me scant credit at home. " Old Identity " again kicked against the goad of " New Iniquity," and what could I expect? Mackenzie and Henderson, who would " feast wondering eyes " upon everything and everybody, had set the example of treating Iceland as an exceptional theme. They found followers: even the hard-headed Scot gallops between Reykjavik and Thingvellir along the edge of a " dreadful precipice," where I saw only the humblest ravine; and travellers to the age-weary, worn-out Geysir rise at midnight in their excitement to sing those " grand old psalm-tunes, such as York and the Old Hundredth." Need it be said that Mr. Cook's pilgrim-tourists have done exactly the same thing in the Holy Land?

My matter-of-fact notions were set down as the effects of "Peter Porcupine," over-"combativeness," and the undue "spirit of opposition" that characterises an Objector-General, with the " morbid object of gaining popularity by stating something "new" -- a hasty judgment, which justifies me in writing these volumes, and in supporting my previously expressed views. I can appeal for confirmation to the dozen intelligent English tourists who were in Iceland at the same time as myself: all united with me in deriding their previous conceptions, and in forming the estimate here offered to the public.

My plan throughout this volume has been as follows: The reader, not the critic, is assumed to know as little about the island as its author did before visiting it; and the first impressions are carefully recorded, not only as a raise en sc&ne, but for conciseness' sake, so that only differences, not resemblances, may require subsequent notice. Thus the capital and its environs are painted at some length, whilst most authors simply land at the little port, and set out at once for the interior. The cruise to the north coast, and the "Cockney trip" to Hekla and the Geysir are related with less circumstance, but I have added itineraries, as such details have not yet appeared in English. The journey through the eastern country claims considerable space. Critics tell us that African travellers have so much trouble to reach the Unexplored Regions, that they are apt to report all they see at wearying length, and to empty the contents of their journals upon the public. But every mile of new, or even comparatively new, ground deserves careful topographical notices: let the general reader "skip" such photos if he likes, but let them be written at least for the purpose of future comparison. Again, the Icelanders may complain, like the Swiss, that, whilst their country has become a touring-field to Europe, scant attention is paid to themselves. I have endeavoured to remedy this grievance by ethnological descriptions; and though it has been my desire to speak of things, and states of things, not of persons, it has been impossible at times to avoid personalities. And, whilst a wanderer knowing only enough of the language to express his humble wants, whose travels have been limited to a single fine season, has little right ex cathedra to pronounce, even in this scanty community, upon religion and politics, upon commerce and civilisation; he is fully justified in quoting as his own the judgments formed by consulting experts and authorities, upon whom his experience, and that " sixth sense" developed by the life-long habit of observation, have taught him to rely.

There is still much to be done in Iceland, and I flatter myself that the fifteenth chapter, which shows my only attempt at actual exploration, will supply adventurous men with useful hints. The geography, especially of that huge white blot, the south-eastern part, is unknown; and a tyro can be usefully employed there in collecting specimens of botany. The meteorology, again, is highly interesting--does the cold in the " Insula quse glacialis dicitur" increase, as some have supposed, the effect of the " precession of the equinoxes, the revolution of the apsides, variations in the excentricity of the earth's orbit," etc.? Or has it increased at all since Saga times? Evidently it would be most interesting to compare the Icelandic glacier-formations with those of Switzerland; and to determine if the rules laid down by the " De Saussure of Great Britain," the late Professor David Forbes, by Professor Tyndall, and by Mr. Whymper, the conqueror of the mighty Matterhorn, are here applicable. As anthropologists, we ask why a people once so famed for arms, if not for arts, has almost disappeared from the world's history--is the change caused by politics or religion; is it the logical sequence of monarchy or " media," of icy winters, of earthquakes and volcanoes, of pestilence and famine ? We are curious to learn why a noble poetry should have ceased to sing. And as we have dwelt upon the past, so we would speculate upon the future of the Scandinavian race, which is supposed to be tending to reunion in its old homes, and which, as it enlarges its education, will, like the Slav, take high rank in the European family. The main object of the book, however, has been to advocate the development of the island. Sensible Icelanders freely con fess that the life-struggle at home is hard, very hard, and that the "Alma Mater" is a "Dura Mater," but they have not suggested any remedy for the evil. I hold three measures to be absolutely necessary; the first is the working of the sulphur deposits--not to mention the silica--now in English hands; the second, a systematic reform of the primitive means and appliances with which the islanders labour in their gold mines, the fisheries; and, thirdly, the extension of the emigrating movement, now become a prime need when the population is denser than at any period of its thousand-year history. Concerning that " make-shift," the pony traffic, and the ill-judged export of sheep and black cattle, ample details will also be found. No care has been omitted in securing for these pages as much correctness as the reader can expect. Mr. Robert Mackay Smith, of Edinburgh, whose name I have placed, with permission, at the beginning of this volume, obliged me with the details of his own travels. Dr Richard S. Charnock, whose extensive reading and access to libraries fit him well for the task, assisted me in the Introductory Section, which treats of Thule. Mr. Gwyn Jeffreys kindly examined my little collection of shells; Mr Alfred Newton was good enough to suggest hints concerning a possible "last of the Gare-fowl;" and Mr Watts, of Vatna-, or rather Klofa-, Jokull fame, gave me a list of his stages. My fellow-traveller, Mr Alfred G. Lock of Roselands, kept me thoroughly well posted, at great trouble to himself, in ephemeral literature concerning Iceland. When preparing my manuscript for the press, I found that the notes showed various lacunae and want of details resulting from lack of time: Mr Jon A. Hjaltalin of the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, whose name is sufficient recommendation, consented to become my collaborateur in working up the Introduction; and Mr A. H. Gunlogsen has revised the sheets in my absence from home. Of the late Dr Cowie I shall speak in another place. Mr Vincent courteously placed his paper on " Sulphur in Iceland," at my disposal; and Mr P. le Neve Foster, Secretary of the Society of Arts, allowed me to borrow from it or to reprint it. Mr William P. Nimmo has brought out the book in the most handsome and liberal form. I thank these gentlemen from my heart, and, at the same time, I warn my readers that all sins of commission and omission occurring in these pages, must be charged upon the author, and the author alone.

Allow me to conclude this necessary preliminary ramble with the lines of good " old Dan Geffty:"

"For every word men may not chide or pleine,
For in this world certain ne wight there is
That he ne doth or sayth sometime amis."