… was enjoyed by a great number of our authors, from Sir Joseph Banks to William Morris. These days, one thinks of volcanic ash and financial meltdown. For scholars and scientists like Banks and his Swedish assistant, friend and librarian Daniel Solander, Iceland was as fascinating a destination as any in the South Seas (and was the only destination outside Britain to which Banks travelled after his epoch-making voyage with Captain Cook).
Banks was accompanied on the voyage by Uno von Troil, the son of the archbishop of Uppsala in Sweden. Himself later archbishop too, in 1772 he was a twenty-six-year-old student and enthusiastic traveller. His account of the trip to Iceland, determined on by Banks when his original plan to sail again with Cook was thwarted, is in epistolary form, and covers the geology and botany of the island, as well as its history since the first settlements from Scandinavia, the people, their way of life, their health problems, their customs and their literature. According to Patrick O’Brian’s eminently readable biography of Banks, von Troil was as keen on the literature as on the science – he was steeped in Norse poetry, and was a friend of James Macpherson, the Scottish poet whose ‘translations’ of the alleged Celtic bard Ossian were at the time regarded as authentic.
By the way, two more examples of Banks’s endless willingness to share his work and his ideas came out of this journey. The party stopped on the voyage north to visit Fingal’s Cave, but the measurements and geological notes made by Banks were later given to Thomas Pennant, who made use of them in later editions of his Tour of Scotland – his own efforts to get to Staffa had been frustrated by the weather. And when in 1809 the young botanist William Jackson Hooker lost all his notes and specimens in a fire on board his returning ship, Banks gave him his own notes from the earlier trip to refresh his memory. Hooker published an account of his expedition privately in 1811, and we have reissued the two-volume 1813 edition. (A strange episode which also happened in Iceland in 1809 is recounted in The Convict King.)
In the nineteenth century, journeys to Iceland by savants and explorers became more frequent. The expedition of Sir George Steuart Mackenzie in 1810 is recorded not only in his own account but also in the autobiography of Sir Henry Holland, who accompanied him as a young doctor. The other doctor on the trip was Richard Bright, later ‘the father of nephrology’, after whom Bright’s disease is named: he dealt with the zoology and botany in an appendix to Mackenzie’s book, while Holland commented on the health of the Icelanders (and also vaccinated them against smallpox).
Many studies of and expeditions to Iceland were for specific scientific purposes. The number of active volcanoes fascinated geologists such as the French pair, Zurcher and Margollé, and the Germans Landgrebe and Sartorius von Waltershausen, who made a specific comparison of material from Icelandic volcanoes with those of Sicily. And of course Iceland was often a stopping off point, whether voluntarily or otherwise, for many of the European expeditions towards the Arctic regions.
Later in the century, travel to Iceland for ‘touristic’ purposes became more common. The account of zoologist and geologist Karl Vogt, who went into northern waters in 1861 in the manner of a guest lecturer on a private voyage, is anecdotal as well as scientific. At about the same time, the British naval officer Charles Stuart Forbes was also visiting the island. His published account is an entertaining travelogue, but it is interesting that he paid very little regard to the growing movement for independence from Denmark, given that his next work was an eye-witness account of Garibaldi’s campaign in the Two Sicilies.
In 1874, Iceland (or rather Denmark) celebrated 1000 years since the first Scandinavian colonist, one Ingólfr Arnarson, arrived. (More recent archaeological evidence suggests that Celtic monks may have lived there earlier, but left when the pagan Norsemen arrived…) An American doctor, Samuel Kneeland, travelled though the Scottish isles and Iceland at the time of the celebrations. He was fascinated by volcanoes, their geology and ecology, but gives a lively account of the Icelandic people, with a coda on Icelanders in America.
Meanwhile, Icelandic and Old Norse literature was increasingly becoming studied in Britain, both as a scholarly adjunct to Anglo-Saxon studies, and also (in translation) as an adjunct (or perhaps antidote) to the classical mythology which continued to be part of a gentleman’s education. In 1814, Sir Walter Scott and two colleagues published the rather ponderously titled Illustrations of Northern Antiquities from the Earlier Teutonic and Scandinavian Romances, Being an Abstract of the Book of Heroes, and Nibelungen Lay, one of the first attempts to bring genuine (as opposed to Ossianic or Chattertonian) early poetry and prose before the public.
Later, two Icelandic scholars, Eiríkr Magnússon and Gudbrandur Vigfússon, worked on the Icelandic documents published in the Rolls Series – scholarly editions of the most important medieval manuscripts relating to the history of Great Britain and Ireland. (The Icelandic Life of Thomas à Becket contains the fascinating detail that he stammered, which is not recorded anywhere else: is it true?) Magnússon became a great friend of William Morris, accompanying him to Iceland in 1871, in the first of his two hugely influential journeys, and working with him on the translations published in Volume 7 of the Collected Works.
Almost exactly 100 years passed between Banks’s and Morris’s journeys to Iceland. For Banks, it was a potentially perilous adventure to an unknown land. Morris was less of a pioneer, and considerably more informed, both because of the writings of travellers who had preceded him and also because of his study of Icelandic literature. Both of them, however, encountered difficulty and danger: Morris almost died, but survived the experience with his characteristic gusto. If our worldwide air travel is disrupted again in the future by a cloud of ash from an unpronounceable volcano, we ought to remember how easy we have it compared to the people setting out in wooden boats towards the perils of Ultima Thule.