Pilgrimage - Riding trails of Iceland

17.02 2015

Riding trails around Iceland, both in the populated areas and up in the highlands, are an important and perhaps underestimated part of the history and culture of Icelanders. Many of these trails were discovered soon after settlement in the 9th century and served a major role in the formation of the Icelandic Commonwealth.  Other trails were established by sheep herders or by other necessities in the nations’ struggle for existence throughout the centuries.  We should also keep in mind that the characteristics of the Icelandic horse were shaped first and foremost by these trails, as the main measure of the quality of a horse used to be its courage and endurance in travelling.  The riding trails are often mentioned in our ancient literature and in our folklores, in fact the riding trails are interrelated with impenetrable ties to the history of Iceland. Therefore, they lend themselves especially well to the fascinating concept of pilgrimage travels. Pilgrimage travels are usually connected to visits to holy places or some events from the religious history, but in fact the term is just as well suited for travels connected to cultural or historical interest where the pilgrim visits places which are connected to certain events and persons from the past and obtains an intimate connection to the underlying history.

Riding Iceland has regularly offered such tours, for example around the region of Njáls Saga - the most important of the Icelandic Sagas, as well as - a memorable tour to Beinhóll in Kjalhraun in the dead of the winter 2011 in order to commemmemorate commemorate the fate of the Reynistaðir brothers and their companions who died there in November 1780.

One extremely interesting way of organizing these kinds of tours is to read old travel journals and traverse the exact same trails described in them. Who were these travelers and how was their experience from the country and the nation? Such travels are somewhat a rendezvous with the past.

In the early ages there were not many actual travelers that visited Iceland. Those who came here were mostly people that had official business to tend to but in the latter part of the 19th century this changed. English steamliners started sailing to the country on a regular basis shortly after 1850, but what probably had the greatest impact was the publication of Njáls Saga in the English translation of Sir George Dasent in 1861.  This was an important turning point as it opened the world of Nordic literature and history to the English speaking world and consequently the country became a popular travel destination.  The English steamship companies marketed Iceland especially for pilgrims traveling to visit the historical places of the Icelandic Saga.  Sir Dasent visited the country in 1861 and traveled widely.  Along with him on his travels was the Icelandic poet Grímur Thompsen.  They rode across the ancient route of Sprengisandur in record time and during that ride, Grímur wrote the poem "Á Sprengisandi" which is well known to all Icelanders and most visitors that have ever been on a riding tour in Iceland.

The art of the English painter William Collingwood is widely known.  He visited Iceland in 1879 and travelled to many historical places and painted many important paintings.  His travel log "A Pilgrimage to the Sagas of Iceland" was released in 1899.

It is also is right to mention the English poet and industrial designer William Morris who visited the country twice. in 1871 and 1873 and travelled through the saga trails of Njáls Saga, Egils Saga and Laxdæla Saga.  He became a master of the Icelandic language and translated both Egils Saga and Bandamannasaga into English.  Morris' travel logs from this time are very interesting reading material and it is especially interesting to see how impressed he was with the Icelandic customs, where it was considered a natural thing to help anyone who needed assistance and absurd to accept a payment for it.  This kind of helpfulness became a great inspiration for him and is an important influence when he wrote his book News from Nowhere, which describes a kind of visit to the utopian society of the future.

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