The Days of My Life, by H. Rider Haggard

Chapter 12


To Iceland on the Copeland — William Morris — Njal Saga — Golden Falls — Bergthorsknoll — Salmon and trout fishing — Copeland again — Cargo of ponies — Gale — Off Thurso — Fog — Wrecked in Pentland Firth — Escaped to Stroma Island — Subsequently to Wick.

On June 14, 1888, in the company of a friend, Mr. A. G. Ross, I sailed from Leith on my long contemplated visit to Iceland. The steamer was called the Copeland, a trading vessel of about 1000 tons. What she carried on our outward voyages I do not know, but her return cargoes consisted alternately of emigrants to America, of whom, if I remember right, four or five hundred were packed in her hold, and of Iceland ponies. On her last voyage she had brought emigrants, so this time it was to be the turn of the ponies. Poor Copeland! As I shall tell in due course, she was doomed never to see Leith again.

Before I started for Iceland I called upon the late Mr. William Morris, some of whose poetry I admire as much as any that has been written in our time. Also I find his archaic and other-world kind of romances very pleasant and restful to read. It was the only time that I ever saw Morris, and the visit made an impression on me. My recollection is of a fair-haired man with a large head and very pleasant manners. As will be remembered, he was a great Socialist and lived up to it — to a certain extent. Thus there was no cloth on the tea-table, but that table itself was one of the most beautiful bits of old oak furniture that I ever saw. The cups, I think, had no saucers to them, but certainly they were very fine china. No servant came into the room, but then ladies, most artistically arrayed, handed the bread and butter. The walls were severely plain, but on them hung priceless tapestries and pictures by Rosetti and others. I remember that when I departed I rather wished that Fate had made me a Socialist also.

Mr. Morris, who had visited Iceland many years before, kindly gave me some letters of introduction, and as a result of one of these we engaged a certain Thorgrimmer Gudmunson as a guide. In winter time Mr. Gudmunson was a schoolmaster, but in summer he escorted travellers about the island, and did so very satisfactorily. Two days later Gudmunson appeared with a cortege of thin, shaggy ponies, which were to carry us and our belongings. Here I will quote a home letter, written in pencil, from Thingvellir.

We rode about ten hours to get here, over such a country, desolate, dreary, set round with mountains flecked with snow. At last, about ten o’clock at night, we came to Thingvellir Lake, and then passed down All Man’s Drift to this most historic spot. I only wish you were familiar with the Njal Saga, for then you would understand the interest, the more than interest, with which I look upon it. Every sod, every rock, every square foot of Axe River, is eloquent of the deeds and deaths of great men. Where are they all now? The raven croaks over where they were, the whimbrel’s wild note echoes against the mountains, and that is the only answer given.

We have slept in a couple of rooms attached to the Parsonage. Our bedroom window opens on to the Three Man’s Graveyard. They still bury in it. To-night we are going to sleep in a church, and beastly cold it will be I expect. This is an interesting but God-forgotten country. How the dickens its inhabitants keep life and soul together is a mystery to me, for there is scarcely anything to eat in it and their houses are the merest wooden shanties, ill-fitted to keep out the cold, which even now is intense at night. We hope to get back to Rejkjavik in about eleven days, having visited Hecla, the Geysers, Njal’s country, etc. Then we are going to a farm where we have taken some salmon fishing for three weeks. We hope to return by the boat leaving the 3rd of August, so if all goes well I count to be home about the 10th.

Here is a brief description from my diary of the Golden Falls, which served me as a model for those down which Eric comes in my saga.

Reached Golden Falls at 12:30. A most splendid sight. The yellow river, after tumbling down a cliff, bends a little to the right and leaps in two mighty waterfalls, across which a rainbow streams, into a chasm a hundred feet deep, leaving a bare space of cliff between. From the deep of this chasm the spray boils up like steam, a glorious thing to see . . . . Passed Three Corner Ridge where Gunnar was attacked, and suddenly came on a very fine view of the Njal country, a flat and fertile expanse of land stretching away as far as the eye can reach. Nothing to eat since breakfast. Spent comfortable night at the priest’s house. Had arctic tern’s eggs and “skier” for breakfast. Then sent pack ponies to Bergthors Knoll and rode to Lithend. I am writing this on the site of Gunnar’s hall, which I can distinctly trace. The hall looked out over the great Markallflajot plain, now nothing but a waste eaten up of the waters. To the north is a large glacier-mountain — the hall was built on the side of a hill — and to the left of the house is the fissure into which the dog Sam was decoyed and killed. The lark now sings over where Gunnar fought and fell, betrayed by Hallgerda.

7 P.M.: Bergthorsknoll. Arrived here after a long ride over a desolate grassy flat. The site of Njal’s hall is now for the most part covered with hovels. It faces sou’west, partly on to the plain and partly on to a river. To the left of the house is the hollow where the burners tied up their horses as described in the saga. In front appears the fierce outline of the Westman Islands.

29th: Dug last night and found various relics of the burning. The floor of the hall seems to have been sprinkled with black sand (see the saga), but we had not the luck of the American who, when he dug, discovered a gold ring.

On the whole we enjoyed our fishing very much, and I killed a good number of salmon, though, because of the drought, not so many as I ought to have done. Also there were multitudes of trout. The trout stream ran out of a gloomy lake surrounded by high mountains. The Icelanders vowed that there were no trout in this lake. However we procured an old boat so leaky that we could only row a little way from land and back again before she filled. Ross, who had been an oar at College, rowed, while I managed the two trolling rods. Before we had gone a few yards they were both of them bent almost double. Never before or since did I have such fishing. To what size the trout ran in that lake I had no idea, for the biggest ones invariably tore the hooks off the Phantoms and brass “devils,” or smashed the tackle, but we caught many up to about four pounds in weight. Indeed, the sport was so easy that one grew weary of it. Very charming it was also to stand alone in the blue light at midnight by the banks, or in the water of the wide and brawling salmon river, casting for and sometimes hooking the king of fish. Never shall I forget the impression it produced upon me. The mighty black mountains, the solitude, the song of the river, and the whistling flight of the wild duck — by which the silence alone was broken — and, over all, that low unearthly light just strong enough to show my fly upon the water and the boiling rises of the salmon. It is an experience which I am glad to have known.

At Rejkjavik, for some reason that I have forgotten, we caught not the Danish mail steamer as we had expected, but our old friend the Copeland, now laden with hundreds of ponies, among them that named Hecla, which I had bought near the volcano, and I think another which I had also bought. We went aboard the night of the 19th with General Bevan–Edwards and some other passengers, and I recall observing with some anxiety the ship’s agent as he rowed round the bows of the vessel, apparently inspecting her draught — also with some anxiety.

I imagine that she had too many ponies in her holds. However, off we steamed, and soon the coast of Iceland vanished behind us. It is a country to which I was very sorry to bid farewell, though I think one only to be appreciated (if we leave fishermen out of the question) by those who have made a study of the sagas. I know not what may now be the case, but at that time these were few indeed. I believe that the enterprising American who found, or was said to have found, a gold ring amid the ashes of Njal’s hall, was the only foreigner who had journeyed to that spot for some years before my visit. I wonder how many have been there since that time, and whether proper precautions are taken today in order to preserve these most interesting historical relics of an unique and bygone age.

This is not the place to enter into the subject, so I will only say that outside of the Bible and Homer there exists, perhaps, no literature more truly interesting than that of the Icelandic sagas. Also they have this merit: in the main they are records of actual facts. Holding them in hand I have examined the places that they describe, and therefore to this I can testify. Those men and women lived; they did the things that are recorded, or most of them, and for the reasons that remain to us. Of course certain circumstances have been added, namely those which deal with the supernatural.

The entries in my diary for the first five days of that disastrous voyage are brief and emphatic.

20th: At sea. Bad weather. 21st: Gale. 22nd: Worse gale. 23rd: Worse gale still. Lay to. 24th: Tried to go about four o’clock. Strained the ship so much that we had to lay to again.

Indeed, with a single exception, that of a voyage I made many years later in the P. & O. Macedonia, the weather was the most terrible that I have ever experienced at sea. Moreover, in our small vessel there is no doubt that we were in some peril of foundering. The terrific seas swept her continually, and, in order to keep the hundreds of ponies alive. it was necessary that the hatches should remain open, since otherwise they would have been stifled. Had any accident occurred to bring the ship broadside on, such as the breaking of the steering gear, it would seem that we must have filled and sunk at once. As it was we were greatly knocked about, and a good many of the poor ponies died from the cold of the water that washed over them.

At last the weather moderated, and about ten A.M. on the 25th we arrived off Thurso in a dead calm. Here we should have stayed because of the fog, but this the captain could not do, as owing to the prolongation of the voyage the ponies were starving. So he took the risk and pushed on. About 11:30 I was on deck, when suddenly the dense mist seemed to roll up in front of us, like the drop-scene at a theatre, and there appeared immediately ahead black cliffs and all about us rocks on which the breakers broke and the water boiled, as it can do after a great gale in the Pentland Firth when the tide is running I know not how many knots an hour. There was a cry: the engines were reversed, but the current and that terrible tide caught the Copeland and dragged her forward. Then came the sickening sensation that will be familiar to anyone who has been aboard a vessel when she struck upon rocks. Scrape, quiver! — scrape, quiver! and we were fast. Or rather our forepart was fast, for the stern still floated in deep water.

Almost immediately the firemen rushed up from the engine-room, which had begun to flood, though I suppose that the water did not reach the boilers at first or they would have exploded.

Orders were given to get out the boats, and it was attempted with the strangest results. My belief is that those boats had never been in the water since the day the ship was built. Some of them went down by the stern with their bows hanging in the air; some of them went down by the bows with their stern hanging in the air, or would not move. Also in certain instances the plugs could not be found. Not one of them was got into the water: at any rate at that time.

Understanding that the position was serious I went to my cabin, packed what things I could, then called the steward and made him bring me a bottle of beer, as I did not know when I should get another. He, such is the force of habit, wanted me to sign a chit for the same, but I declined. Whilst I was drinking the beer I felt the vessel slip back several feet; it was a most unpleasant sensation, one moreover that suggested to me that I might be better on deck. Thither I went, to find my fellow passengers gathered in an anxious group staring at each other. Presently I observed a large boat appear from the island and lie to at a good distance from the ship, which she did not seem to dare to approach because of the surrounding rocks.

We consulted. It was evident that we should never get off in our own boats, so this one from the island seemed our only chance. I went to the captain on the bridge and asked if we might hail it.

“Aye, Mr. Haggard,” answered the distracted man, “do anything you can to save your lives.”

Then I understood how imminent was our peril. I returned and hailed.

“Can you take us off?”

My voice being very powerful I managed to make the boatmen hear me. They shouted back that they dared not approach the ship.

“Have a try,” I suggested, and in the end those brave fellows did try and succeeded, knowing the tide and the current and where each rock was hidden beneath the surface. They got aboard us, somewhere forward, or one of them did. Presently he came running aft, a big blue-eyed man whose great beard seemed to bristle with terror.

“For God’s sake get out of this,” he roared in his strange dialect, “ye’ve five feet of water in your hold and sixty fathom under your stern! Ye’ll slip off the rock and sink!”

We did not need a second invitation, but when we were all, or almost all of us in the boat, it was suddenly remembered that an Icelandic woman occupied one of the cabins. She had entered that cabin at Rejkjavik, and never having been seen since, was not unnaturally overlooked. Well, she was fetched, and came quite composed and smiling down the ladder. The poor soul was not in the least aware that anything out of the way had happened and imagined that this was the proper way to leave the ship.

Then came another anxious time, for the question was whether we could avoid a certain rock over which the surf was boiling. Providentially those skilled men did avoid it, and soon we stood upon the rocky shores of Stroma, which personally I thought a very pleasant place. Had we overset there was no chance that we could have lived a minute in that racing, seething tide.

By this time people on the island had seen what was happening and were running towards us. The first to arrive was a gentleman in a rusty black coat and a tall hat, a schoolmaster I believe. Somehow he had learned my identity, or perhaps he recognised me from a photograph. At any rate he came up, bowed politely, took off the tall hat with a flourish, and said, in the best Scotch, “The author of ‘She’ I believe? I am verra glad to meet you.”

For eight or ten hours we sat upon that rock. The tide which was high or ebbing when we struck went down, the Copeland broke her back; of a sudden under the fearful strain of her wire rigging her mast turned grey because of the splinters driven outward by the pressure. Rescuers got aboard of her and saved many of the ponies, though many more were drowned, including poor Hecla, which I had bought upon the slopes of that volcano. Others were thrown or swam out of the hold and maimed. One of the saddest things I remember in connection with this shipwreck was the sight of a poor animal with a swinging leg, standing upon a point of rock until the tide rose and drowned it. Many of these ponies swam ashore — being Icelanders they were accustomed to the water — and probably they, or rather their descendants, now populate the Orkneys. What would have happened to us if our cargo on this occasion had been emigrants instead of ponies I cannot say. Doubtless there must have been a terrible panic and much loss of life. As it was our escape may be accounted a marvel. A peak of rock penetrated our bottom and by that peak we hung, as the fisherman had said, with sixty fathom of deep water under our stern. When I was drinking the beer, and felt the ship slip, it was just a question whether she would vanish entirely or be held. In fact, she was held owing to one of her principals, if that is the term, catching on the point of rock.

As it chanced our adventures were not quite finished. Late in the afternoon, after some difficulty, we hired a boat to take us to the mainland. By this time the tide had risen again, and our course lay under the stern of the wrecked Copeland. Ross was steering the boat since no one else was available. We passed under the steamer’s stern and noticed that she was lifting very much on the incoming tide. Just as we had cleared it a man appeared upon the deck, screaming to be taken off. We discovered afterwards that he was some petty officer who in his fear had broken into the spirit room and been overwhelmed with drink. A swift decision must be taken. It was not expected that the Copeland would hang upon her rock through another tide. Must he be saved or must he be left? We made up our minds in the sense that most Englishmen would do. Going about, we retraced our way under that perilous stern and came to the companion ladder. There stood the man, and while we lay under the vast bulk of the lifting ship, he began to uncoil an endless rope, which he explained to us from above, with a drunken amiability, it was his duty to salve.

The tide boiled by us, the hull of the Copeland lifted and settled, lifted and settled, making a surge of water about us. We wondered from moment to moment whether she would not come off the point that held her, and crush us into the deep. The drunken brute above continued to uncoil his eternal rope, which after all proved to be fastened to something at its other end. At length we could bear it no more. I and, I think, others rose and addressed that second mate, or whatever he may have been, in language which I hope will not be recorded in another place. We told him that either he might come down into the boat, or that he might stop where he was and drown. Then a glimmer of intelligence awoke in his troubled brain. He descended, and we rowed him ashore.

Once more we started under the stern of the Copeland, and in due course gained the mainland after a rough passage in an open boat. From wherever we landed we travelled in carts to Wick, where we slept at some inn. I remember that I did not sleep very well. During the shipwreck and its imminent dangers my nerves were not stirred, but afterwards of a sudden they gave out. I realised that I had been very near to death; also all that word means. For some days I did not recover my balance.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55