' Now the firm earth shakes like a frighted beast,
And the island quakes from west to east;
And seas of fire come from the rent,
As though in ire by Heaven sent!'
IT is generally believed that Hekla is the chief volcano in Iceland; but that this is most certainly not the case will be shown in the following pages. In the desert interior of the island-the very fact of its being a volcano unknown even to the Icelanders themselves prior to 1875-stands a volcanic mountain whose vast proportions dwarf Hekla into utter insignificance. Its crater is between seventeen and eighteen miles in circumference, and consequently has an area of not less than twenty-three square miles! There is ample proof in the condition of the volcano that it has erupted time after time since the settlement of Iceland, but owing to its distance from the inhabited coastal districts, no earlier eruption than that of 1875 is recorded. Eruptions that occurred there were placed to the credit of other volcanoes, or were said to have taken place amidst the icy wastes of the Vatna JoJ:uIl, a glacier-covered mountain region south of the volcano, having an area of 3,000 square miles.
In the spring of the year mentioned, it may perhaps be remembered, all Europe was astonished by hearing that a large quantity of volcanic-ash had been wafted across the North Sea from the direction of Iceland and scattered over the Scandinavian peninsula as far inland as the central districts of Sweden. No news had been received from the Icelanders since the preceding November, the Danish mail steamers at that time not running in winter, and in March volcanic-ash brought the first tidings that a terrible eruption had taken place in that lone volcanic isle on the verge of the Arctic Sea. Ash had been wafted from Iceland to Norway before, but never in such large quantities nor so far inland as upon this occasion; and naturally considerable anxiety was felt in Denmark, until letters were received from the island, as to the fate of the inhabitants, the most fearful thinking it possible that Iceland, like ' Mark's Eeef' in Cooper's charming novel, had sunk again beneath the waves whence it had been upbuilded by prehistoric volcanic agency.
The volcano which erupted in 1875 is the mountain above alluded to, the largest of a group named the Dijngjufjoll (Bower-mountains), the bower being the before-mentioned huge crater, which bears the name of Ashja (Basket). This volcano stands nearly equidistant from the north, south, and east coasts, being situated a few miles to the east of the centre of the Oddfiahraun (Misdeed-lava-desert), the large lava desert in the interior of the island. The eruption, or more correctly series of eruptions, was of a most extraordinary nature; a terrific explosion in the heart of the volcano on the 4th of January first notified to the Icelanders that a volcanic eruption of some magnitude was about to take place. Some idea of the violence of this explosion may be formed from its effects: in Ashja an immense mass of the lava deposits, five miles in circumference and of unknown but immense thickness, was disrupted, and sank bodily to a depth of over 700 feet into an abyss that must have existed below it in the bowels of the mountain! while the earthquake caused by the concussion was one of the most alarming ever experienced, immense rifts, ten to twenty miles in length, being opened in the north-east part of the island. The greatest disturbance at a distance from the volcano took place in a desert region known as the Myvatns Orseji (Midge-lake Desert), and here from the largest of the rifts molten lava welled forth throughout its whole length nearly continuously for four months after the earthquake. The rift commences at a spot distant thirty miles from the subsidence in Ashja, and extends in a north-north-easterly direction for over twenty miles. It is evident from the nature of the eruptions at the two places that this lava came through a subterraneous channel from Ashja, where prodigious quantities of pumice and volcanic-ash were ejected, but, it is believed, no lava.
Beyond some brief newspaper paragraphs announcing that volcanic-ash, presumably from Iceland, had fallen in Scandinavia, and two others, one of which said Eekla had again erupted, and the other that an eruption had taken place amid the icy wastes of the SJcaptdr Jokull, on the western side of the Vatna Jokull, nothing was heard in England of this eruption until Mr. "Wight, of Edinburgh, on his return home published in the ' Glasgow Herald' an account of his visit to the lava-flood in the Myvatns Oriefi, and of his futile attempt to ascend the volcano. This enterprising old gentleman tried so hard to accomplish his object, that he deserved to be the first alien to set foot in the huge crater of this volcano, but it was not to be. He says : ' At about three-fifths of the ascent I had to cave in. Sixteen stones weight, and years a bit beyond the middle of man's span, were not equal to the task.'
Notwithstanding that the well-known traveller, Captain Burton, with a work on Iceland actually in the press, sojourned for some time in the summer of 1875 within a two days' ride of Askja, and four hours' of the seat of volcanic disturbance in the Myvatns Orspji (as also did the author of ' The Home of the Eddas,' an exceedingly pretentious work on the island, subsequently published), nothing more, in all probability, would have been heard in England of this volcano had not our adventurous fellow-countryman, Mr. William Lord Watts, chanced this summer to be successful in his second attempt to cross the Vatna Jokull-then, it is believed, crossed for the first time. From its icy wastes he saw smoke ascending from a large mountain amidst the lava desert to the northward ; and notwithstanding he had encountered a snow-storm of several days' duration while crossing the Vatna, he ventured into the then virtually unknown wilderness of the Oclcifiahraun, and forced his way to the volcano while considerable disturbance was taking place. In the November of the following year, he read a short paper before the Eoyal Geographical Society, and also published a very readable little work, entitled 'Across the Vatna Jokull.' Mr. Watts, in both paper and book, gave a very interesting and detailed account of his journey across the Vatna and the desert interior of the island; and also in his book a graphic account of what was going on both in Askja and the Mijvatns Orsefi at the time of his visit to those places. His description of the volcano itself, however, "is somewhat meagre, and in some very important particulars incorrect; but this is not to be wondered at, as at this time it was impossible to examine the volcano closely: ' The sides of the crater were evidently falling in,' says Mr. Watts, ' and huge wide cracks even where we stood, showed us that our position was not altogether a safe one; . . . . sometimes scarcely a minute elapsed between the roar of the stony avalanches.'