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The fatal ride

It’s the year 1780 – some 240 years ago to be exact. But the story we are about to tell has lived through the generations and will not be forgotten. Icelanders were a small collection of poor people under Norwegian rule at that time, living off the land and the sea. The Kjölur trail was the main passage from the North of Iceland to the South, but typically only used during the summer months. Kjölur itself can best be described as a gigantic hall, 30 km wide and 50 km long, 400 meters above sea level. To the west and east Kjölur is guarded by two of our largest glaciers. 

The story starts in the northern valley Skagafjörður, a beautiful agricultural area than and now. Reynistaður is the name of the farm; the farmer at the time was Halldór and his wife is Ragnheiður –,, an energetic and intelligent woman who got things done”. They were relatively well off and owned several estates in the region. Sheep farming in Iceland had recently been hit by a serious disease apparently from imported rams. The disease spread like wildfire and had by 1780 reached half of all areas in Iceland – only the West fjords and the eastern part of Iceland remained unaffected. Eventually, it is believed that the disease wiped out two-thirds of all sheep in Iceland. 

Travelling south

Reynistaður had been badly hit by the disease. Ragnheiður and Halldór decided in the summer of 1780 to send two men south (via Kjölur) to buy sheep in the unaffected areas. One of them was their oldest son Bjarni, a 19-year-old handsome, lively young man with a lot of charisma. They travelled south and ended up buying 180 sheep but had to travel far. They had to wait for the sheep round-up to get the sheep. 

Halldór and Ragnheiður decided to send more men south to help the two of them drive the flock home. Two of them travelled, one of which was Einar, their 11-year-old son. It is alleged that Einar did not want to travel but his mother insisted he should. The story has it that when Einar realized that his mother would not change her mind, he gave all his toys to the other children at the farm since somehow, he did not expect to come back. 

The two of them rode south through Kjölur and met up with the other two and started driving the flock of sheep westward to prepare for the Kjölur route. Autumn was setting in – it was the middle of October and the farmers in Hreppar (across from Gullfoss) offered them to stay for the winter since bad weather could be expected with short notice. The Reynistaður group was however very eager to continue north and in the last week of October they took off. 

Into the storm

There were five of them in all, including the two brothers, one more farmer decided to join them for the trip. The locals accompanied them for the first leg of the journey. When the locals returned home the wind was blowing from the north-east and it had started to snow. This was the last time they were seen alive.

At Reynistaður the parents were getting very concerned when there was no sign of the group. In December they decided to send two men to search for the group. They travelled south and learned that they had left for Kjölur in late October and no sign of them since. They travelled back north, found no trace of the group but discovered some sheep dead and alive that they drove quickly to Reynistaður and brought the news to the parents. Bad weather this winter prevented any further searches into the area. The parents were heartbroken with worries.

The aftermath

It wasn’t until the following spring where a farmer travelling south found two tents close to the main path. One of them contained three bodies. The area around the tents was covered in sheep bones. They brought the news to Ragnheiður and Halldór at Reynistaður. A priest was sent with four coffins to collect the bodies to give them a proper burial. When they arrived, they only found two bodies, neither was of the two brothers. That same spring a grey mare from Reynistaður was found in an area where it is believed the party stayed. She was in bad shape; the saddle was under her belly and the leather straps had cut into her spine. The area where the mare was found is called Gránunes – grá being her colour’s name in Icelandic. 

The bodies of the brothers were never found, despite numerous searches. It was suggested that they had been robbed and hidden. One of the farmers who had led the first search before Christmas 1780 was under suspicion. He was put on trial but was not found guilty for lack of evidence. 

In 1846, 66 years after the disappearance of Reynistaður brothers, a man walking south discovered bones in a rift, very close to where the tents had been found. A physician confirmed they were of a young man and a child. They were brought back to Reynistaður and given a Christian burial.

These tragic events had a profound impact on Iceland. Kjölur was thought to be haunted and people stopped using this once much-travelled trail for more than a hundred years – when they were rediscovered. 

On the Íshestar Kjölur tour, we ride these ancient and beautiful trails and enjoy the stunning scenery. History is around us at every step of the way. We pass Gránunes and imagine how Grána survived the long and hard winter. When we ride the lava field on our way to Hveravellir we ride close to Beinhóll (Bone hill). A monument commemorating the ill-fated expedition can be found on the site, revealed in 1971.