National Geographic

Outlaw’s Guide to Iceland

It’s Europe’s last great wilderness, a land of geysers, glaciers, fjords and farmer-poets. A land where your best guide is a thieving, murdering outlaw who’s been dead for a thousand years.

 (Tom Clynes)

Puffin hunting atop Drangey Island. Click photo for slide show.

“This boy Grettir—well, he was trouble from the very beginning.”

High atop Drangey Island, Jón Eiriksson stands at the nub of a jagged rectangle of stones, looking out at the fjord and the mainland beyond. Above him, sea birds wheel in the salt wind over Drangey, a green-capped spike of rock thrust down, like an axe head, into a tongue of the North Sea. Jón pulls off his cap and runs his fingers through a tussock of white hair, then he sits down on a half-buried stone.

“Grettir is our neighbor, you know,” Jón says. “He was born on a farm near Midfjord, a place called Bjarg. That means ‘stone’ in Icelandic. When he was young, he was a handsome boy, with red hair and a broad face. But very rough and mischievous. He made clever poems, but they were mostly scornful. His father and nearly everyone believed that he would amount to nothing.”

Jón talks in the familiar terms one might use to describe a ne’er-do-well kid who squeals his tires through the subdivision. But at the age of 72, Jón isn’t quite old enough to have known his juvenile-delinquent neighbor.

Grettir was born a thousand years ago.

I had arrived in Iceland three weeks earlier with photographer Michael Moore, determined to follow the path of Grettir Asmundarson—the warrior, poet, ghostbuster, and outdoorsman popularly known hereabouts as Grettir the Strong. This medieval Jesse James outwitted his pursuers for nearly 20 years, roaming and wreaking havoc across the harshest and most remote corners of 11th-century Iceland. As any Icelander will attest, and as Jón tells us, “Grettir was not only the strongest man who ever lived in Iceland, but also the greatest outlaw.”

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