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MY ICELAND: Drangey

Few places I have been to in Iceland have impressed me as much as the island of Drangey, which we visited this past summer. Drangey is the manifestation of several things quintessentially Icelandic: awe-inspiring nature, mysticism and a multitude of stories.

Earlier this summer I blogged about the outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson who is said to have escaped to the island around 1028. Drangey must have been a perfect place for an outlaw since it is virtually a natural fortress. It rises almost perpendicular out of the sea and the sheer cliffs make it very hard to ascend to level ground. There is really only one place on the entire island where one can climb up and even that is difficult – despite the ropes, steps, ladders, chains, etc. that have been constructed there for the benefit of visitors to the island, which includes the locals who rapell down the cliffs to collect eggs, or hunt puffins. In fact, Drangey has been called the matarkista – ‘food chest’ – of the entire region, as it was so bountiful.

The name ‘Drangey’ is derived from the stone pillar – the drangur – that rises up from the sea just off the island’s coast. The drangur is commonly known as kerlingin, which in Icelandic means ‘old crone’. There was another drangur previously, karlinn or ‘the old man’, but it collapsed on the momentous date September 11, 1755. According to legend, the two pillars were originally night trolls* and the island was their cow. One night they set out with the cow in order to take it to a bull across the fjord [to have it impregnated? Inseminated? – what is the clinical term for that, exactly?], but, being night trolls, the moment the sun shone on them they turned to stone. The drangur is visible from afar, and up close it is quite spectacular. Our skipper circled around it just before we came to the landing place, for our viewing pleasure:

Kerlingin

Conditions for landing a boat at the island are extremely difficult. A small wooden pier has been constructed, but the landing is in a small cove in which the tides are very strong and form a sort of suction, so boats tend to be tossed back and forth. When we arrived the skipper and his assistant spent about fifteen minutes trying to secure the boat to the pier – in the meantime it bounced up and down on the waves, crashing against the pier several times. We were pretty alarmed – those were some serious blows and I’m sure all of us had a vision of shattered fibreglass and a huge hole being torn into the side of the boat. Happily, no such disaster took place; however, the tide was so strong that they didn’t manage to fasten the boat and while the skipper and his assistant held on to the ropes attached, one by one we had to wait for the precise moment when the boat was level to the pier and then jump before it was tossed back about a metre out to sea again.

Once we were safe on dry land, the climb up the cliffs began. Along the way there were hundreds of sea birds, on all the ledges all around us, circling overhead – puffins, kittiwakes and gulls. They were so unafraid and so prevalent, it was almost like we were trespassing in their universe . Some of them were so close, like this kittiwake and her chick.

Kittiwake and chick

Of course there were scores of puffins. They are so funny, they look so scholarly but when they fly they are absolutely hilarious, splaying their legs and flapping their wings like mad, except when they catch an updraft, at which time they just hang there in the air.

Puffins & Kittiwake

The sound of the birds and the crashing of the waves down below was exquisite – such a powerful, energizing sound. Here’s a brief video clip that isn’t very good but that at least allows you to hear what I mean. It will also give you a sense of the mysticism there, obviously highly enhanced by the atmospheric fog.

Just before we reached the top, we came to a place where someone had installed a plaque with the Lord’s Prayer into the side of the cliff. I have no idea who it was, but it was highly poignant to see it in that precise location. There is another famous legend associated with Drangey: one of the Icelandic bishops, whose name was Guðmundur and who was commonly known as Guðmundur góði [Guðmundur the good] took it upon himself to bless the island. This was considered critical because so many people had died there in accidents. The bishop went all around the island, blessing the cliffs, until he was almost the entire way around it, at which time a paw suddenly emerged from out of the cliff face and asked him to stop because “bad spirits have to dwell somewhere”. The bishop took pity on them and left a part of the cliff unblessed – that place has since been known as Heiðnaskarð, or ‘heathen gap’. The phrase Einhverstaðar verða vondir að vera, which literally translated means “The bad have to dwell somewhere”, has been an idiom in the Icelandic language ever since, and is still in use.

Anyway, the trip out to Drangey was one of the highlights of this year for me. We didn’t stay there very long – just a couple of hours – but it left a strong impression. If any of you happen to be up in those parts, I highly recommend it.

BACK TO THE HERE-AND-NOW

The weather these past couple of days has been beautiful to the eye, brilliant sunshine, crystalline light. There’s been a bit of a cool wind, though, just as a reminder of what season we’re entering. Still, sheltered from the wind, as I was out on the terrace this afternoon, it was actually quite hot and I got a fairly substantial tan in the space of two hours. Not bad. Currently 11°C [52F]. The sun came up at 5:35 am and set at 9:24 pm.

* Iceland has so many legends centering around night trolls – anyone who has seen silhouettes in the landscape here, especially in twilight, will understand just where they came from.

[This post is filed under MY ICELAND]

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  • Moi August 21, 2008, 3:16 am

    Nice. The island reminds me a lot of Newfoundland.

  • Cama August 21, 2008, 6:09 am

    Simply beautiful. I’m so grateful for a look at Iceland and it’s history. Thanks!

  • sigga August 21, 2008, 11:14 am

    I will leave it to Maja to comment on the trip that the family took to the Island as one of our family reunion expeditions… twas an adventure. I totally agree with you about the island, I have been there twice now and although I suffer from an extreme fear of heights the walk up and down was always worth it. Great Post!

  • mary August 21, 2008, 1:00 pm

    Lovely post, lovely place!

  • CarolQ August 21, 2008, 8:48 pm

    We will be in Niceland on Friday, September 5 of this year and I just can’t wait to see this beautiful place! Only one day as we are on a cruise but we have a full day tour planned so we’ll see the most we can. Wish us good luck for at least semi-good weather.

  • alda August 21, 2008, 10:56 pm

    Thanks everyone. Carol, you won’t be able to see Drangey if you’re here for just a day, but there are plenty of other places. Will keep my fingers crossed for good weather for you.

  • Cassie August 22, 2008, 12:43 am

    Gorgeous pictures, and you know how I love the puffins – wonderful post, and I hope to get there some day, on another trip. (Love the troll story too!)

  • lectric lady August 25, 2008, 2:30 pm

    Alda, have you read “The Windows of Brimnes; An American in Iceland” by Bill Holm? It is a great book about this part of Iceland.

  • alda August 25, 2008, 3:13 pm

    I saw it in the house where we had our big dinner the last night, but no, I haven’t read it. Bill Holm lives half the year in the village where we stayed, though.

  • Rozanne August 27, 2008, 1:20 am

    I love those puffins!

    And I have to say it–SAB again–that video sure reminded me of the Oregon Coast.

  • maja September 3, 2008, 5:20 am

    As Sigga mentioned we went on a trip to Drangey when a bunch of the australian family was in S’krokur for a reunion. Our skipper managed to get the keel of the boat stuck on a submerged rock and hilarity and scared shitlessness ensued as we tried to balance the boat and stop it from keeling over. I thought we might all end up going for a swim in the ocean and sheltering on a tiny beach at the bottom of one of the Drangey cliffs for a couple of hours, but we managed to get the boat off. I should blog about it one day.

    I wonder if you had the same skipper as we did. I’ve forgotten his name…