A Travels Abroad story: Reykjavik, or busking in the cold


One of the finest ales I’ve ever encountered was while I was busking in Reykjavik one cold November day when it was getting far too cold to make a profit. I looked around and saw a pub near the corner where I was playing that looked inviting — hell, anything would have looked more comfortable than where I was at that point, but it really did look cheery. After settling my rather cold self into a corner near the fireplace, I ordered an Egils Premium Lager from Egil Skallagrímsson Brewery and it was quite excellent with an open-faced smoked mackerel and onion sandwich. Most tasty! Fortified by the ale, warmth, and the good pub fare, I ventured out to busk for a few more hours. I can’t say I made all that much doing so but at least I felt a bit more alive.

Fingerless gloves help a bit. A long military greatcoat and sturdy boots helped too, as I kept my feet warm by stamping my heavy boots every so often. But nothing really helps all that much when it gets that cold. The main problem is keeping the fiddle strings from getting too brittle as it’s certainly cold enough to damage them if they weren’t being kept warm by constant playing. I eventually decided I’d rather be warm and retreated to a nearby Pub to sip ale and read more of Theodora Goss’ In the Forest of Forgetting I borrowed from the Estate Library.

Brigid had a far easier time of it while I out busking as she was on a buying trip for The Steward. She had the mission of helping Reynard restock the Pub with choice Icelandic spirits including Brännvin, flavored and unflavoured, and several different vodkas, particularly Reyka, a relatively new small batch vodka that is considered quite good. Now, unless a vodka is flavored, it all tastes to me like, well, nothing. I’ll stick with ales, ciders and whiskies, each of which has its own distinctive taste.

We’re hosting Several Annies currently who hail from this city, so they asked us to bring home some treats. Fortunately not fermented sheeps head! No, they had more mundane requests such as Skyr cheese, which to my eye looks like yogurt but really isn’t, copies of mystery novels including Arnaldur Indriðason’s new one called Svartur Festingin, and lots of íslenska sauðkindin wool to use in knitting, as they claim it’s far superior to our Scottish Blackface sheep. I’m certain the knitting circle that Liath Evergreen has going on in the Pub most nights during the Winter will be delighted by the several hundred pounds we shipped back. And I’m sure the members of the Old Norse Reading Group will be delighted by the Brännvin we brought back.

(That group’s currently learning Hrafnkel’s Saga. I’ll admit it’s one of the leading gems of Old Icelandic literature, something that’s not a field with a lot of gems in it. Hrafnkel is more or less the Job of the North — a pious but overbearing bully, he offends all his neighbors with his violent ways, refusing to pay wergild and indulging in ostentatious sacrifices. This gets him a long run of bad luck and worse politics, culminating in his being reduced to being dependent on one of his own shepherds. And then the cabal of his enemies murders his beloved horse. At that low point, Hrafnkel becomes a non-believer, and curiously, The Saga reports he’s also a much nicer guy after he decides the gods are no help.)

Reynard had a request as well, as he has a fondess for rímur (epic vocal poems) which were first collected in the late Nineteenth Century by folklorist Ólafur Davíðsson and were then printed up in the first Icelandic folk music collection, Íslenzk þjóðlög (Book of Folk Songs), by Bjarni Þorsteinsson which first published in 1936 by Oxford University Press. We’ve reviewed a few of the recordings of this music over the years including Rímur: A Collection From Steindór Andersen. I used to blame Reynard for introducing Icelandic tunes to the Neverending Session until The Steward pointed out this story to me which proved they’ve been played here for a very long time.

It was a nice visit but as always it was nice to get back home in Kinrowan Hall where I needn’t venture out in the cold unless I want to!


About Jack Merry

I’m a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I’m also the Estate Agent for everything music related including the tours our myriad musicians do elsewhere.

My drink, or so my wife Brigid says, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all.

Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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