THE FARMER & THE HOLY GRAIL
Several hours’ drive north along a crinkled coastline lies a spit of land even more cut off than Snæfellsnes. Mist-clad mountains, through which it’s possible to travel for hours without seeing another soul, give way to broad valleys traced with rivers whose waters won’t flow again until late spring. Small herds of Icelandic horses stand in frozen fields, pawing at the snow or gathering to nibble on hay bales.
Out on the Atlantic, eider ducks coast on the wind, spending the winter far from land. In May, they will fly into Breiðafjörður Bay, shed their feathers, and build nests from them for their eggs. Waiting for them each year is Snorri Victor Gylfason.
At least 30 generations of Gylfason’s family have lived and worked at Skarð, a farm of nearly 20,000 acres, including 67 islands particularly attractive to eider ducks. In the summer, the family rows out to the islands, replaces the feather nests with wool, and then retreats to a farm workshop, where the cloud-soft down is used to fill bedding. The Rolls-Royce of duvets, a king-size eider-duck quilt retails for 3,000,000 kronor (about $28,600).
And yet the feathers may be the least valuable thing at Skarð. Gylfason pulls out a large iron key and unlocks the door to a small church behind the workshop. It swings open to reveal wooden pews, a curved ceiling splashed with stars, and an elaborate carved altar, much coveted by the National Museum of Iceland. “The government is always trying to get our stuff, but we won’t let them have it,” Gylfason says with a laugh.
The family’s story is recorded in a book made of calfskin, now held at the national museum, and recounts tales of English pirates, Norwegian kings, slaves and thieves, beheadings and betrayals. Gylfason’s ancestors certainly picked up some trinkets along the
way. Gylfason pulls out a priest’s 400-year-old robe (“The national museum told us, at least keep it in a cupboard so it doesn’t get ruined”) and a battered old violin (“only seven generations old”). He saves his favorite object until last: a golden chalice. “This is what I call the Holy Grail. We believe the settlers brought it with them in AD 900. All the family have their first drink of wine from this cup. We don’t use crystal – that’s for poor people!” He laughs again. “But I’m not much interested in Christian history. I’m much more interested in Odin and Thor, and all those guys.”
He seals up the church and heads back to work: some of the farm’s 600-strong flock of sheep wait to be herded inside for the night. My inevitable question about huldufólk is greeted with a smile. “There are many stories about them,” he says. “They are all true, of course.”
We stroll down to the bay, a break in the clouds casting an ethereal shaft of light on the waters in front of us. “But with the long history of the farm and the church, and all the things that have happened here, everyone in this family is really scared of ghosts,” he says. “Strange things go on all the time. People think they are being followed on dark nights. If something bad happens, people say it is Skarðskata, the ghost of Skarð.”
Not wishing to meet Skarðskata, we hurry home before dark falls, the farm’s horses watching silently from the fields as we pass.
Western Iceland is snowbound from November until April.
Snorri Victor Gylfason holds a ball of eider duck feathers collected at Skarð farm.