True North

13th April 2015

In this extract from True North: Travels in Arctic Europe, the award-winning author Gavin Francis evokes the vast and remote Arctic European landscape through history, mythology and travel writing and explores the lives of those living there today.

Come see Gavin Francis speak at our Highlight Arctic event at the Science Festival, Edinburgh on 14 April, 2015.

Sunrise over West Greenland (Photo by Gavin Francis)

The coast of Greenland around the modern capital of Nuuk is a shattered mosaic of islands. Most of them are uninhabited, though their Inuit names carry the memory of generations of use. Before modern Inuit culture arrived in the region it was settled by Norse refugees from Iceland – a European culture who lived and farmed the pastures between the Davis Strait and the Greenland icecap between around 1000 CE and 1400 CE. When I visited the region I looked for evidence of that culture, but few traces remained. Even the Norse names for the islands and the fjords have been largely lost, and their settlements sunk beneath the permafrost.

true northThe names we give the landscape carry echoes of its history. I visited Greenland as part of a journey through the European Arctic, starting in Shetland and moving through the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard and Lapland. The journey was written up in True North: Travels in Arctic Europe (Polygon, 2010) and in writing it I was particularly interested in the way that Europe’s sense of itself expanded as its own northern frontier edged polewards. Since the fourth century BCE, when Pytheas the Greek wrote about Shetland, to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when Fridtjof Nansen wrote about the frozen Arctic Ocean, we’ve asked literate explorers of the North to give Europe a sense of its own limits. This excerpt from True North describes a visit to what in the fourteenth century was the furthest outpost of European civilisation – a liminal zone at the very margins of what was then considered the habitable world.


The Edge of Europe

(Excerpt from chapter 4, ‘Greenland: The Wild West’, True North: Travels in Arctic Europe, Polygon.)

Further into the fjord from Nuuk there were no more whales. The waters of the fjord were squeezed between shoulders of mountains, channelled by walls of the oldest rocks in the world. Their slopes rose vertically from the water’s edge, their smooth faces of granite mottled by patches of stunted scrub and scored by the passage of long-gone glaciers. Snow lay in streaks on the mountainsides like powder gathered in withered skin. I could not see any pasture land in sight, and I marvelled at Eirik the Red’s persistence in exploring this country more than a millennium ago, to carry on and find the few verdant slopes further in towards the ice-cap. The mountains were sheer and angular, and their peaks and spires were echoed in the formations of the ice drifting by. Each of the icebergs was like a masterpiece in alabaster, but they all glowed with the same delicate blue light. Every so often one of them toppled and rolled, righting itself towards a new centre of gravity as the salt water melted it from below.

The captain dropped me off at the settlement on the small island of Qornoq, a cluster of brightly-gabled wooden houses and a rusting old fishing station. I wanted to find a Norse farm ruin said to be there, now abandoned more than 600 years, and I hoped to find a boat that would take me deeper into the fjord. Further to the north the Godthåbfjord continued through the corridors of the mountains in a broad arc, called by the Norse the Rangafjord, or ‘the curved’. At its furthest convexity lay the settlement of Anavík where the best preserved ruins of the Western Settlement were to be found. It also had one of only three churches that were built in the area by the Norsemen. I wanted to try to visit all three of the churches, the best surviving remnants of the lost Norse community there.

Modern Qornoq was both a fishing camp and a holiday village for the people of Nuuk. Greenlandic flags fluttered from its windows, outnumbering Danish flags by ten to one. The mountains of the surrounding islands soared around it. Rusting cans and broken glass lay in the grass by the village incinerator and children ran barefoot between the houses, squealing in pleasure and shooting water pistols in the heat. They represented every stage of inter-racial union, from dark Asiatic to blonde European, all shouting happily to one another in Greenlandic. It is a beautiful, halting language of percussive consonants and brief, functional vowels, and as much communication passes with facial expressions as with words. The houses were arranged around the solitary water tap fed by glacial meltwater. The people sat on their verandas playing cards, swatting flies and waving to me as I passed.

There are no roads in the smaller settlements in Greenland, only snaking paths through the scrub between the houses, converging as they approach the jetties. The walled remains of the old Norse farm lay on the far side of the island. I climbed over to it and walked around the abandoned home-field, but there was little to see. Over a small hill there was another bay facing north, and there I set up my tent. The fjord cod passed by in small shoals so slowly and so close to the shore that I quickly caught one, and as the sky dimmed towards midnight, cooked it over a fire made with Canadian driftwood.

To the north the Rangafjord was choked with ice. The Green- landers have two names for icebergs, depending on their size: illullia for the large ones and siqut for the small. A double ‘l’ sound is made by setting the tongue on the roof of the mouth and blowing air out through the cheeks in a soft exhalation. Illullia sounds like the splash and roll of ice falling into salt water.  The tidal rip forced the ice into collisions which groaned like crumpling metal. The illullia moved ponderously through the fields of siqut; being larger they were subjected to deeper currents and their broad faces caught the wind like sails. Sitting there in the moonlight was like watching an ever-changing range of snowy mountains, or like travelling through mythical highlands of pearl and crystal without having to move at all.

The Fjords of Western Greenland (Photo by Gavin Francis)

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No one would take me to Anavík. There was too much ice in the fjord. Instead I picked up a lift to the nearby island of Uummannaq where I met a group of volunteers who were restoring an old Moravian mission station.

The Moravian brothers were one of the first Protestant movements, being founded in the eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic over a hundred years before Luther nailed his 95 arguments against the papacy to a church door in Wittenberg. Outspoken against what they saw as the corruption of Rome, by the early eighteenth century the Moravians had founded a model Christian community in Saxony based on the values of generosity, communal living, and prayer, and from where they sent missionaries out all over the world. The Greenland Mission was just one of over thirty mission settlements, and was one of their first international enterprises. It was the brainchild of one Count Zinzendorf, who had been very taken by a group of abducted Greenlanders that he had been shown at the court of the King Christian VI of Denmark. He considered it of the highest priority to send missionaries at once, to work on the salvation of their pagan souls.

The mission to Greenland began in 1733, but it was not until 1861 that the station on Uummannaq island was established. The brothers and sisters of the Moravian mission had established a school and a church which had lasted for forty years, until missionary zeal back in Saxony began to wane and funding for the stations in Greenland began to dry up at the turn of the twentieth century. It was this church and school that the volunteers on the island had come to help restore.

As well as ten Greenlandic tradesmen, there were ten young people from countries all over Europe. They were an eclectic bunch, including an engineer from Ghent, a landscape gardener from Braunschweig and a violinist studying at the Conservatoire in Amsterdam. They invited me to stay and work with them, and we all lived together in tents by the shore. There were no streams on the island and so for fresh water we melted small pieces of glacial ice that washed up on the beach. In the mornings after work we swam in the fjord or went fishing for cod. In the afternoons we lay in the grass reading, or carving pieces of caribou antler and Canadian driftwood. None of the volunteers wanted to leave. After a couple of weeks there neither did I.

The scenery around the island was as magnificent as that around Qornoq. To the east it was dominated by a mountain called Pis- igssarfik, ‘the Archer’s Mountain,’ a sheer face of granite over a thousand metres high. Later, back in the national library of Nuuk, I found an explanation of its name in a volume of Henry Rink’s Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo.  The legend goes that in the days of the Western Settlement there lived a young Norseman and a young Inuit who were the best of friends. They had grown up together, and spoke one another’s languages. As they grew older both became great archers, and regularly challenged one another to contests of skill and bravery. One day they agreed to settle once and for all which of them was the greater hunter. They spread an animal hide out on the beach below Pisigssarfik and climbed to its summit. The skin was a tiny brown smudge on the beach far below them. The Norseman shot, and missed. The Inuit shot, hit the target, and then, inexplicably, tossed the Norseman over the cliff.

The Mountains of East Greenland from the Air (Photo by Gavin Francis)

There are several legends among the Inuit about the Norse Greenlanders, whom they called Qavdlunât. Surprisingly there are as many about their friendship as there are about their battles. At least at the beginning of their encounters there seems to have been a friendly distance maintained between them most of the time. They rarely came into competition; the Norsemen lived deep in the fjords and the Inuit lived out at the coast among the fogs and the sea ice. One Icelandic source even describes a Norseman, Bjorn Jorsalafare, adopting two Inuit children after they were orphaned near the Eastern Settlement (his name hints at how well travelled some Greenlanders were – Jorsalafare means ‘Jerusalem-farer’, the Norse name for a Crusader). The Thule Inuit culture was migrating out of the High Arctic down the western coast of Greenland in the same centuries that the Norse were settling the land. They were both new immigrants. At least in the early centuries of the settlements they seemed to believe the land could support them all.

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During the nights on Uummannaq thick polar fog poured in from the Davis Strait, filling the fjords by morning. The waves sighed against the icebergs which lined the shore like sentinels, suspended between the grey of the water and the grey of the mist. It rendered them insubstantial and ghostly, but each of them was capable of sinking a ship. Every so often one would roll, rumbling with a bass thunder like the roar of a distant avalanche. The dense layer of mist was less than a hundred metres thick, and from the summit of Uummannaq the mountains were seen to stand in the sunlight, their ankles lapped by the ebbing sea of fog. As the heat gathered through each morning it melted away.

On a day where the sky was clear and the air stood idle I went out in the boat with some of the Greenlanders to check their nets. The sun was warm on our backs and shoulders, and shirtless we hauled in the cod nets that had been set the day before. Out on the water there was respite from the biting flies which plagued the shores on still days. One of the Greenlanders, a carpenter called Ole, knew that I was interested in seeing traces of the Norsemen and from the boat he pointed out the site of the second of the three churches of the Western Settlement. It was not far from the foot of the sheer face of Pisigssarfik, and we motored over in the boat to take a look. There was little to see there now. The site had been settled by the Inuit after the Norse community died out, and had wiped away most traces of it. Standing on the thin earth I thought about the strata of Norse burials that must be preserved in the permafrost below me.

We stopped at a tiny island called Qeqertánguaq, out in the middle of the fjord. I had read that Norseman had carved graffiti into one of the rocks there over eight hundred years before. The island was a bare knuckle of leaden stone, a marker post lying at the confluence of five fjords, and could have been used as a guard post. We searched the whole island but could not find the chiselled runes. Whole centuries of Norse occupation in these valleys seemed to have disappeared without trace.

 Extract first published on The Island Review.
Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis qualified in medicine in 1999 and spent ten years travelling, visiting all seven continents. His first book, True North – Travels in Arctic Europe, describes the history and landscape of northern Europe, and how its people are adapting to the  climate change in the modern world.  His second Empire Antarctica – Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, describes a year and a half as the doctor on the most remote Antarctic research station operated by the British, and was Scottish Book of the Year 2013 as well as being shortlisted for the Costa Prize.  His third book, Adventures in Human Being,has its UK release in May 2015, and journeys through the most intimate landscape of all, the human body, blending stories from the clinic with reflections on the way the body has been imagined and understood over the millennia.  He lives and practises medicine in Edinburgh, and contributes to the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books.

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