Banks and his spring-boiled ptarmigan

14.2.2018 kl. 20:26 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

Who in their right mind would want to boil meat of any kind in a hot spring? Must have been an unpleasant meal.

The Sir Lawrence voyage through the Western Isles brought the travellers to Staffa, where their descriptions of what they learnt to call Fingal’s Cave were soon lapped up by audiences eager to learn of volcanic marvels. Hebrideans impressed Banks less. Nor, initially, was Icelandic hospitality better, since the expedition was at first taken to be a raiding party of pirates. But soon Banks’ group met with a warmer welcome: his servants were so gorgeously uniformed that islanders found it hard to tell gentlemen from underlings. They visited the volcano Hekla, lava samples gathered and the astonishing geyser visited, where Banks arranged for a ptarmigan he had shot to be boiled in the hot spring [emphasis mine].

Banks and the Icelanders impressed each other. There were honorific odes, feasts of cod and shark and collections of Icelandic literature and flora shipped home to London. Banks had Hekla and a map of Iceland on his visiting card and ‘Baron Banks’ became a favoured toast when Icelanders and British visitors met. During the Napoleonic Wars, which involved conflict between Denmark and Britain, Banks often recommended either the annexation of the island or its occupation. Ever since, romanticised appreciation of Iceland’s marvels has been tangled up with similarly challenging political and environmental issues.