Icelandic Journals: Notes on 1871 Journey

by Gary Aho

Friday July 7, 1871

Edinborough

Edinburgh, Scotland’s capitol, spread across seven hills, with its castles, cathedrals, and grand Georgian architecture, usually drew full and positive reactions from Victorian visitors.  Morris says merely that ‘it looks striking enough,’ and while it is ‘splendidly set down’ among ‘wild looking mountains about Arthur’s Seat’ (one of the seven mountains), he says no more about the rugged vertical setting of the city, nor about the Arthurian legends, which of course he knew well.  And about the ancient and storied palace, he gives us only ‘what is left of Holyrood.’  While it must once have been ‘poetical’ and ‘impressive,’ now there is only ‘dolefulness.’ And then a series of negatives:  ‘the station is a trifle more miserable looking than the worst of such places,’ (neat ironies in these comparisons); and then we have ‘black,’ ‘comfortless looking,’ ‘dismal.’  The next day they did a bit of sight-seeing, and again Morris is disappointed:  ‘all is dirty and wretched-looking in the old town, and the new town provincial and pretentious to the last degree.’  They must have gone down Princes Street, by the lush park with the Palace and the huge Scott Memorial, completed in the 1840’s. Pretentious?  Morris is mute.  In a letter to Webb, posted from Granton just before the Diana embarked, he says, ‘When I really want to cut my throat, I shall go to Edinborough to do it’  (Kelvin, Volume 1, p. 141).  During the 1880’s, Morris carried his socialist message north to Glasgow and Edinburgh, often with real success.  In 1885, he writes, ‘I have been getting on pretty well in Scotland, but whether pock-pudding prejudice or not, I can’t bring myself to love that country, tis so raw-boned.’  (Quoted in Mackail, Volume 2, p. 143.)

Granton

Morris’s cranky negatives carry over into his descriptions of the relatively new port facilities, built in the 1840’s at Granton. The station there is ‘little’ and ‘particularly wretched,’ and its Inn is ‘dismal.’  Generally,  it’s a ‘dull, dull place with the slip-shod do-nothing air that hangs about a small port.’  But several subsequent details and comments on a timber ship being unloaded, and the like, are lively and positive.  He mentions the coming and going of the steam-ferry carrying rail cars back and forth to the northern shores of the Firth.  This was the first such rail-ferry in the world, and in place until the long railway bridge over the Firth was completed in the 1890’s, and Granton resumed its small port functions.  Before the rise of the railroads, Leith was the formal port of entry for Edinburgh, and it remains so today.

 ‘in terror of the dreaded animal’

Morris is speaking here, with a bit of irony, of the parasitic insect, the louse, mentioned so often in the narratives of travelers to Iceland that it became a kind of trope.  Lice were common in Icelandic dwellings, often squalid, just a few rooms above the stables where sheep wintered.  And so the Morris party is wary of Icelandic interiors, sleeping in their tent, or on the floor of a church.  At the end of the 1871 trek, in an entry for August 31st, Morris ‘saw a louse crawl just below my chin across the bed-clothes:  the place was so clean that the inference was that I myself was lousy, which probability was plentifully rubbed in by my fellows, I assure you.’  Here, as so often in these Journals, Morris seems to have a specific reader in mind, namely Georgie Burne-Jones.