Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (London, 24 May 1852 – Buenos Aires, 20 March 1936) was a Scottish politician, writer, journalist and adventurer. He was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP); the first-ever socialist member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom; a founder of the Scottish Labour Party (1888-1893); a founder of the National Party of Scotland; and the first president of the Scottish National Party in 1934.
After being educated at Harrow public school in England, Robert finished his education in Brussels, Belgium before moving to Argentina to make his fortune cattle ranching. He became known as a great adventurer and gaucho there, and was affectionately known as Don Roberto. He also travelled in Morocco disguised as a Turkish sheikh, prospected for gold in Spain, befriended Buffalo Bill in Texas, and taught fencing in Mexico City, having travelled there by wagon train from San Antonio de Bexar with his young bride sic “Gabrielle Chidiock de la Balmondiere” a supposed half French half Chilean poet.
Truly Cunninghame Graham is one of the most remarkable Scotsmen that ever lived. Here he writes an Icelandic saga.
HORGRIMUR HJALTALIN was known throughout all Rangarvallar, down to Krusavik, up to Akureyri, and in fact all over Ice- land, for his wandering disposition, his know- ledge of the Sagas, and for his horse called ” Snaekoll.” He lived in Upper Horgsdalr, near the Skaptar Jokull, and from his green ” tun ” were seen the peaks of Skaptar Jokull, Orcefar, and the white cordillera of the vast icy Vatna.
A Scandinavian of the Scandinavians, Thor- grimur was tall and angular, red-bearded, yellow- haired, grey-eyed, and as deliberate in all his movements as befits an Icelander, compared to whom the Spaniards, Turks, Chinese, or Cholos of the Sierras of Peru are active, quick in design and movement, and mercurial in mind. : -* His house was built of Norway pine with door jambs of hard wood, floated almost to his home from the New World. Unlike most Icelanders, he had not profited too much by education, leaving Greek, Latin, and the ” humanities ” in general for those who liked them ; but of the Sagas he was passionately fond, reading and learning them by heart, copying them out of books in the long evenings whilst his family sat working round the lamp on winter nights after the fashion of their land.
People were wont to say he was descended from some Berserker, he was so silent and yet so subject to sudden fits of passion, which came on generally after a fit of laughter, ending in wrath or tears. Berserkers, not a few, had lived in Rangarvallar, and it may be that moral qualities become endemic in localities, in the same way that practices still cling to places, as in Rome and Oxford and some other towns where the air seems vitiated by the breath of generations long gone past.
Thus, in the future, when the taint of commerce has been purged away and the world cleansed from all the baseness commerce brings, it may be that for some generations those born in London, Liverpool, in Glasgow and New York, will for a time be more dishonest than their fellows born in cities where trade did not so greatly flourish, and so of other things.
Thorgrimur was married and had children, as he had sheep, cattle, poultry, dogs, and all the other requisites of country life. But wife and children occupied but little of his mind, though after the fashion of his countrymen he was kind and gentle to them, sought no other women, did not get drunk, gamble, or regulate his conduct upon the pattern of the husbands of more favoured lands. All his delight was to read Sagas, to dream of expeditions through the great deserts of his country, and his chief care was centred in his horses, and most especially in ” Snaekoll,” his favourite, known, like himself, for his peculiarities.
Whilst there are camels in the desert, llamas in Peru, reindeer in Lapland, dogs in Greenland, and caiques amongst the Esquimaux, Iceland will have its ponies, who on those ” Pampas of the North ” will still perform the services done by the mustangs of the plains of Mexico, the horses of the Tartars, Gauchos, and even more than is per- formed by any animal throughout the world. Without the ponies Iceland would be impossible to live in, and when the last expires the Icelanders have two alternatives either to emigrate en masse, or to construct a system of highways for bicycles, an undertaking compared to which all undertaken by the Romans and the Incas of Peru in the same sphere would be as nothing.
No Icelander will walk a step if he can help it ; when he dismounts he waddles like an alligator on land, a Texan cowboy, or a Gaucho left ” afoot/’ or like the Medes whom Plutarch repre- sents as tottering on their toes when they dis- mounted from their saddles and essayed to walk. Ponies are carts, are sledges, carriages, trains in short, are locomotion and the only means of transport : bales of salt fish, packages of goods, timber projecting yards above their heads and trailing on the ground behind like Indian lodge poles, they convey across the rocky lava tracks. The farmer and his wife, his children, servants, the priest, the doctor, ” Syselman,” all ride, cross rivers on the ponies’ backs, plunge through the snow, slide on the icy ” Jokull ” paths, and when the lonely dweller of some upland dale expires, his pony bears his body in its coffin tied to its back, to the next consecrated ground.
So Thorgrimur loved ” Snaekoll,” and was proud of all his qualities, his size, for ” Snaekoll ” almost attained to fourteen hands, a giant stature amongst the ponies of his race. In colour he was iron-grey, with a white foot on either side, so that his rider had the satisfaction of riding on a cross, fierce-tempered, bad to mount, a kicker at the stirrup, biter, unrideable by strangers, but, as Thorgrimur said, an ” ice-eater ” ; that is, able to live on nothing and dig for lichens on the rocks when snow lay deep, to feed upon salt cod or on dried whale beef, and for that reason not quite safe to leave alone with sheep when they had lambs. But for all that Thorgrimur did not care, and never grudged a lamb or two when he reflected that his horse could go his fifty miles a day for a whole week, and at the end be just as fresh as when he left the ” tun.”
Thick-necked, stiff-jawed, straight pasterns high in the withers, square in the croup, mane like a bottle-brush, tail long and thick, ” Snaekoll ” had certainly few points of beauty : still, as he stood nodding beneath his Danish saddle, hobbled with whale-hide hobbles, shod with shoes made by Thorgrimur himself, stuck full of large round- headed nails and made long at the heel and curv- ing up near to the coronet to protect his feet in crossing lava-fields, he had a gleam in his red eyes like a bull terrier, which warned the stranger not to come too near. This was a source of pride to Thorgrimur, who used to say, with many quite superfluous ” hellvites,” that his horse was fit for ” Grettir, Burnt Njal, or Viga Glum to ride ; ” then, mounting him, he used to dash full speed over a lava-field, sending a shower of sparks under his feet, cracking his whale-hide whip, and stopping ” Snaekoll ” with a jerk whilst sitting loosely with his legs stuck out after the fashion of all horsemen when they know they are observed.
To cross the Vatna Jokull, the great icy desert, which extends between the top of Rangarvallar and the east coast of Berufjordr, was Thorgri- mur’s day-dream. Others had journeyed over deserts, crossed Jokulls, as the icy upland wastes of Iceland are called, but in his time no one had yet been found to cross the Vatna. Now this idea was ever present in his brain during his lonely rides in summer from his home to Reykjavik, from thence to Krusavik, or as he jogged across the lava-fields or crossed the tracts on which grew birch and mountain ash a foot in height, which constitute an Icelandic forest ; and in the winter, in the long, dark hours, he could not drive it from his head. Men came to laugh at him, as men will laugh at those who have ideas of any kind, and call him ” Thorgrimur of Vatna Jokull, the Berserker of Rangarvallar,” and the like, but none laughed openly, for Thorgrimur was hasty in his wrath, and apt to draw his whale knife, or at least spur his horse ” Snaekoll ” at the laugher’s horse, as he had been a fighter in the ancient horse fights, and it was lucky if the horse that ” Snaekoll ” set upon escaped without some hurt.
In fact the man was a survival, or at the least an instance, of atavism strongly developed, or would have been so styled in England ; but in Iceland all such niceties were not observed, and his compatriots merely called him mad, being convinced of their own sanity, as men who make good wages, go to church, observe the weather and the stocks, read books for pastime, marry and have large families, pay such debts as the law forces them to pay, and never think on abstract matters, always are convinced in every land.
Think on the matter for a moment, and at once it is apparent they are right
The world is to the weak. The weak are the majority. The weak of brain, of body, the knock- kneed and flat-footed, muddle-minded, loose- jointed, ill-put-together, baboon-faced, the white- eye-lashed, slow of wit, the practical, the un- imaginative, forgetful, selfish, dense, the stupid, fatuous, the ” candle-moulded/’ give us our laws, impose their standard on us, their ethics, their philosophy, canon of art, literary style, their jingling music, vapid plays, their dock-tailed horses, coats with buttons in the middle of the back ; their hideous fashions, aniline colours, their Leaders, Leightons, Logsdails ; their false morality, their supplemented monogamic mar- riage, social injustice done to women ; legal injustice that men endure, making them fearful of the law, even with a good case when the opponent is a woman ; in sum, the monstrous in- eptitude of modern life, with all its inequalities, its meannesses, its petty miseries, contagious diseases, its drink, its gambling, Grundy, Stock Exchange, and terror of itself, we owe to those, our pug-nosed brothers in the Lord, under whose rule we live.
Wise Providence, no doubt, has thus ordained it, so that each one of us can see the folly of mankind, and fancy that ourselves alone are strong, are wise, are prudent, faithful, handsome, artistic, to be loved, are poets (with the gift of rhyme left out), critics of music, literature, of eloquence, good business men and generally so constituted as to be fit to rule mankind had not some cursed spite, to man’s great detriment, cozened us out of our just due. So Thorgrimur was mad, and pondered on the crossing of the Vatna, day by day ; not that he thought of profit or of fame your true explorer thinks of neither. But like a wild goose making north in spring, or as a swallow flying south without a chart to shape his voyage by ; or as a Seychelle cocoanut adrift upon some oceanic current all unknown to it, your true explorer must explore, just as the painter paints, the poet sings, or as the sworn Salvationist must try to save a soul, and in the trying lose perhaps his only friend a perilous business when one thinks that souls are many, friends are few.
And still the Vatna Jokull rilled Thorgrimurs’ imagination. Surely, to be alone in those great deserts would be wonderful, the stars must needs look brighter so far away from houses, the grass in the lone valleys greener where no animal had cropped it, and then to sleep alone with ” Snaekoll ” securely hobbled, feeding near at hand ; and, lastly for Thorgrimur was not devoid of true Icelandic pride the arrival one fine morning at the first houses above Berufjordr, calling for milk at the farm door, and saying airily, in answer to the inquiry from whence he came, from Rangar- vallar, across the Vatna. That would indeed be worth a lifetime of mere living, after all.
Needless to say that no one in the time of Thor- grimur had ever passed over the Vatna from Ran- garvallar, though the Heimskringla seemed to indicate that at the first settlement there had been such a road. Reindeer were known to haunt the wild recesses of the desert track, and some said, ponies long escaped had there run wild, and all were well aware that evil spirits haunted the valleys, for there the older gods had all retired when Christianity had triumphed in the land.
Two hundred miles in distance, but then the miles were mortal, without food, perhaps no water, without a guide, except the compass and the stars. Seven days’ ride on ” Snaekoll,” if all went well, and if it did not, why then as well to sleep alone amongst the mountains, as in the fat churchyard, for there men when they see your headstone growing green forget you, but he who dies in the lone Vatna surely keeps his memory ever fresh.
All through the winter, Thorgrimur talked ceaselessly about the execution of his dream. In spring, when grass is green and horses fat, when forests of dwarf birch and willow look like fields of corn, ice disappears and valleys as by magic are all clothed with grass, he made all bound to set out on his long-projected ride. ” Snaekoll is eight years old (he said) and in his prime, sound both in wind and limb, and I am thirty, and if we cannot now prove ourselves of the true Icelandic breed the time will never come, old age will catch us both still scheming, still a-planning, and men will say that had we lived among the Icelanders of old, Snaekoll had been of no use at the horse-fighting, and I, instead of going a sea-roaming with Viga Glum, with Harold Fair-hair, Askarpillir, with Asgrim, and the rest, would have remained at home and helped the women spin.” His wife, after the practical way of womenkind, thought him a fool, but yet admired him, for she imagined that Thorgrimur in reading Sagas had come upon the whereabouts of some great treasure buried in times gone by, for she could- not imagine that a man would risk his life without good reason, being all unaware that generally lives are risked and lost without a cause. Perhaps, too, she was willing enough for Thorgrimur to go, his musings, readings, wanderings, and uncanny ways rendering him an unpleasant inmate of the house.
But Thorgrimur cared nothing, or perhaps knew nothing of her speculations, but got his saddle freshly stuffed, made whale-hide reins strong, new, and six feet long ; purveyed a long hair rope, new hobbles, and for himself new whale- hide shoes like Indians’ mocassins, new wadmal clothes, and laid up a provision of salt fish and rye-flour bread all ready for the start.
News travels fast in Iceland, as it does in Arabia, the Steppes of Russia, in Patagonia and other countries where there are no newspapers and where wayfaring men, even though fools, pass news along with such rapidity that it appears there is no need of telegraphs or telephones, for what is done in one part of the land to-day is known to-morrow miles away, and just as much distorted as it had been disseminated through the medium of the Press. Thus Rangarvallar and all southern Iceland knew of Thorgrimur’s in- tention, and people came from far and near to visit him, for time in Iceland is held valuable, or at the least folk think it so, and, therefore, spend what they prize most after the fashion that most pleases them, and that by talking ceaselessly, mostly of nothing, though they can work as patiently as beavers, when they choose. And thus it came about that at the little church in Upper Horgsdalr a crowd of neighbours had assembled to see the start of Thorgrimur into the unknown wastes.
To say the truth the church was of as mean a presence as was the author of the most part of the faith expounded in its walls. Built all of rubble, roof of Norway pine, the little shingled steeple shaped like a radish, nothing about the building, but the bell cast centuries ago in Denmark, could be called beautiful ; but still it served its turn and as a mosque in a lone ” duar ” in Morocco, stood always open for the faithful to use by day for prayer, and as a sleeping-place at night. In the churchyard, curiously marked and patterned stones bore witness to the sup- posititious virtues of those long dead, and from the mound on which the church was built, the view extended far across lava-fields over the reddish mountains flecked here and there with green and crowned with snow, and in the dis- tance rose the glaciers and the peaks of the un- known and icy Vatna. A landscape dreary in itself, unclothed by trees, wild, desolate, and only beautiful when the sun’s rays transformed it, turning the peaks to castles, blotting the black and ragged lava out, and blending all into a vast prismatic play of colour, changing and shifting as the lights ran over limestone, rested on basalt, and lit the granite of the cliffs, making each smallest particle to shine like mica in a piece of quartz. The Icelanders do not hold Sunday as a day of gloom, devoted, as it used to be in England and still remains in the remoter parts of Scotland to which the beneficent breath of latter-day indifference has not yet penetrated, sacred to prayer and drink. So Sunday was the day on which Thor- grimur intended to set out ; dressed in his best he sat at church, his wife and children seated by his side. The service done, he left the church, and pushing through the ponies all waiting for their owners outside the door, entered his house.
The priest, the ” Syselman,” the notables, and friends from far and near sat down to dine, and dinner over and the corn brandy duly circulating, Thorgrimur rose up to speak. ” My friends, and you the priest and ‘ Syselman/ and you the notables, and neighbours who have known me from a boy, I drink your health. I go to try what I have dreamed of all my life ; whether I shall succeed no man can tell, but still I shall succeed so far in that I have had the opportunity to follow out my dream. I hold that dreams are the reality of life and that which men call practical, that which down there in Reykjavik the folk call business, is but a dream. * Snaekoll ‘ and I depart to cross the Vatna, perhaps not to return, but still to try, and so I drink your health again and say farewell, ‘ Skoal/ to you all.”
Then mounting ” Snaekoll,” who stood arching up his back, he kissed his wife, and saying to his children, ” Stand aside, for ‘ Snaekoll ‘ bites worse than a walrus,” he took the road. His friends rode with him for a ” thingmanslied ” upon the way, and when the last few scattered farms were passed and the track ended in a rising lava-field stretching to the hills, bade him God-speed and watched him sitting erect on ” Snaekoll ” fade into nothing upon the lava-fields, his horse first sinking out of sight and then his body, bit by bit, till he was gone. The priest, spurring his horse upon a rocky hill, claimed to have seen him last, and said that Thorgrimur never once looked behind, but rode into the desert as he was riding to his home, and that he fancied as he saw him ride, he saw the last of the old Berserks disappear. And then the Vatna claimed him, and Thorgri- mur of Rangarvallar went his way out of this story and the world’s.
But in east Berufjordr, not far from Hargifoss, there dwelt one Hiortr Helagson, a man of sub- stance, owner of flocks and herds, and as he sat one morning at his ” baer ” door, drinking his coffee sweetened with lumps of sugar-candy in the Icelandic fashion, waiting until his horse was caught to ride to church, his herdsman entered to inform him that he thought ” Hellvite,” the devil had got amongst the horses, for he said, ” they run about as if in fear, and the dark chestnut which you ride has a piece bitten out of his back as by a wolf.” Then Hiortr Helagson, although the ” Syselman ” of Berufjordr and elder of the Church, swore like a horseman when he knows his horse is sick or come by mischief, and, taking down his gun, went to the pasture where his horses fed. The horses all were running to and fro like sheep, and in the corner of the field an object lay, dark grey in colour, like a Greenland bear. But when the ” Syselman ” had raised his gun, it staggered to its feet, and he, on looking at it, said to his herdsman, ” Ansgottes, this is the horse of Thorgrimur of Rangarvallar ; he must be dead amongst the ice-fields, and his horse has wandered here.” Time passed and ” Snaekoll ” once again grew round and sleek, although a pest to all the horses in the ” tun,” and Hiortr, thinking to cut a figure at a cattle fair, saddled and mounted him. ” Snaekoll ” stood still, though looking backwards, and when the ” Syselman ” was seated on his back, arching his spine, the horse plunged violently, and coming down with legs as stiff as posts, gave Hiortr Helagson a heavy fall, and turning on him like a tiger would have killed him had not help been nigh. So, from that day, no one essayed to ride the dead man’s horse, who ranged about the fields, and, after years, slept with the horses of the Valkyrie. But Hiortr Helagson had the best ponies in all Berufjordr, hardy, untirable, and ” ice-eaters,” fiery in spirit, hard to mount, kickers and biters, apt to rear and plunge, fit for the saddle only of such few commentators as can catch the stirrup at the moment they are up. And when the neighbours talked about their temper and their ways, Hiortr would say, ” Well, yes, they are descended from the horse of Thorgrimur of Rangarvallar ; his name was ‘ Snaekoll/ and he came to me out of the desert, lean as a bear in spring. You know his master died trying to cross the Vatna, and ‘ Snaekoll ‘ how he lived amongst the ice and found his way to Berufjordr, I cannot tell. Up in the Vatna there is naught but ice, and yet he must have eaten something ; what it was, God knows ! “
Source: The Internet Archive