THE FARMER & THE HOLY GRAIL

Lonely Planet Magazine (US) - - Easy Trips -

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.

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