18th July 2018
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Notes from a niseach

Travelling North

There is much that is surreal about visiting the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.

There is, of course, the aquamarine shade of its waters; the fact, too, that its depths lap against dark volcanic rocks that seems to belong to some Neolithic landscape, where even dinosaurs might fear and hesitate to tread. In the background, there is, in contrast, a modern industrial building. Its chimneys churn out plumes of black smoke that stream and shuffle across the greyness of these northern skies.

And then, there is the way that people seem to emerge out of the steam clouding the Lagoon’s surface, fading in and out of view. Among them are visiting Americans, Japanese, students from Britain and Scandinavia. One or two even seem to resemble relatives of mine; a fact that might be explained by how modern Icelanders share more of their DNA with my fellow native-Hebrideans than any other people on this planet, coming from the same peculiar mix of Viking and Celtic stock. I half-expected to see some distant cousin, say, Katie Euphemia, a spinster from the parish of Geocrab, emerge from the waters resplendent in her funereal bikini, having been separated from her Sunday hat and church-coat by surgery for the first occasion in her adult life. There would be a smile, a cheeky wink, and then . . .
“What are you doing here, Tonald? . . . Och, I’m just over here visiting my distant relatives, Gunnar Gunnarsson and his family. They’re fifth cousins, three times removed of mine.”

One can even guess what these two groups of people might find these days to talk about: their relationship strengthened by a number of recent events in the history of both places. Katie Euphemia could mention the date in 1991 the BCCI crashed, when the Western Isles Council lost millions of pounds on account of the failure of that institution. “It was such an embarrassment,” she might say, “I was hardly able to show my face on the mainland for months afterwards, thinking of what people there might be saying about me.” Her distant cousin Gunnar would respond to her words by nodding his head in agreement. “It was the same with us when our banks collapsed. I felt so ashamed of being an Icelander.”

The pair would then shake their grey locks again, related briefly not only by blood but a shared sense of humiliation.
“It’s terrible . . . Terrible . . .”

And their shame would be understandable. While Katie Euphemia’s wounds might have healed a little over the last few years, Gunnar’s blows and bruises would still be fresh, pounded into existence by the collapse of the Icelandic banks that occurred around October of last year. Thinking back, he might even think the events that brought this about were just about as surreal as his surroundings in the Blue Lagoon.

They had their basis in the glass skyscrapers that still stand over and shadow the waters of Reykjavik harbour. Bearing names of various financial institutions such as Pricewaterhouse Cooper, Landbankinn, Glitnir, they provide clear and transparent evidence of how the taxpayers of large countries like Britain used to trust Icelandic banks with their cash.
For all that there were only 300,000 or so citizens and few mineral resources within its shoreline, Iceland was considered a safe, secure investment, with foreign money helping to provide, for instance, the covered football grounds where Reykjavik’s best football clubs play, the superstructure of the dams that help to provide the nation’s geothermal heating.

Until the day the glass shattered. When bad news spurted into existence like the hot steam of the geyser they call Strokkur in Thingvellir National Park in the country’s south-west, showering those with whom it came into contact. For Gunnar and his like, it brought about a great change. Never – to use the words of Robert Browning – was it to be “glad, confident morning again”.

Instead, pessimism seeped everywhere, permeating, for instance, the talk of the various taxi-drivers that took our party, from Sandwick Junior High School, around the city. They would speak sadly about the lack of visitors coming to the country this year. “Not so busy. Not so busy,” they would complain as we travelled past some of the many unfinished buildings that are to be found around Reykjavik this year. Many of the concrete walls of houses, offices and flats look as if they are never to be roofed or completed. Lorries have long been stalled in the mud of various building sites; huge cranes hang quiet and still. Even where some have found work, there has only been cause for a little, muted celebration. One woman I spoke to talked about her son’s job. When they recently took him on again, they paid him 10 per cent less than the wage he had received before.

“And his boss is talking about paying him 20 per cent less after the summer holidays,” she complained, before speaking about the number of people who were now receiving help with food and clothing from the various charities.
“There’s already a lot who are not the usual, expected ones going to get help. Those who are stretched by the bills they have to pay, their mortgages. And there’ll be a lot more by winter.”

They have other reasons, too, to be angry. Once upon a time, Iceland enjoyed a reputation as one of the least corrupt societies in the world. Now, it has lost that image. Their currency, the krona, has lost its value; their nation’s economy viewed as one of the most likely in the world to be declared bankrupt. Their bankers, too, have been seen to provide huge loans to one another in the time leading up to the crash; a politician or two rewarded with a well-paid job for seeming to blink at what was about to occur. For that same woman I mentioned earlier, it was all pretty well summed up by the flat she bought a few months before the economic collapse. Wind sieves in through its windows. Damp is already seeping through its walls. Doors creak and hang loose.

“And it was all advertised as being exclusively the work of Icelandic builders in the brochure. Says it all, doesn’t it?”
With its building firm no longer in existence, there is no one to whom she can turn to set matters right.

And all this has taken place against a background that is among the most beautiful and surreal on the planet. Great waterfalls – like Gullfoss – plunge in its rivers. Huge glaciers exist, cradled by mountains. Everywhere, too, there are rocks, pillars of stone that look like people making their way across its empty wastelands, a legacy of that nation’s history of fire and ice.

However, it should be recalled too that this is a nation that has more than one inheritance. In its past, it has suffered disasters that wiped out vast swathes of its population. This included a series of volcanic explosions and harsh winters that took place in the fourteenth century. In the early years of the following century, half of its people were gone – victims of the Plague or Black Death that visited the island in 1402. Over the centuries since that time, there have many trials and tribulations, disasters as sudden and unexpected as the crash of a few financial institutions which occurred in the autumn of last year.

And through it all, the population of Iceland have responded with the same energy as the crowds of young people thronging the centre of Reykjavik on a weekend night. They laugh, sing, swap stories and survive. It is to their credit that they do so, evidence that one day this tough, resilient society will revive and flourish once again.

* * *

I would like to thank various people for accompanying me on my journey north. These include Saibh Finlayson, Cediog Saxelby and Joe Christie, whose quick wits and ability to master information won first prize in Highland and Islands Enterprise Big Green Debate for Sandwick Junior High School, and Mrs Yvonne Malcolmson from that school, who was always on hand to support both them and me. I would also like to thank the staff of Tricker PR (Aberdeen) and Highlands and Islands Enterprise for both organising the competition and assisting in our travel arrangements.

Donald Murray