In 2019, I fulfilled a lifelong travel dream when my wife surprised me by booking a few days in Iceland. I’m a geology graduate and although my degree was a long time ago it was still a big thrill to be standing on the mid-ocean ridge surrounded by a ‘young’ basalt landscape. In fact I defy you to find an Earth scientist geologist, or anyone with a passing interest in rocks who wouldn’t jump at the chance to spend some time there.
Even though we were scooting along in our little Toyota Yaris hire car under the frown of recently extinct volcanoes, past filthy looking glaciers, and over black sand deserts, we often found ourselves remarking on the similarities between Iceland and Ireland. We have family connections to the Emerald Isle, so we’ve spent a considerable amount of time during our married life visiting various tucked away corners of western Ireland.
I guess both countries have a link to the past that we in the UK experience differently with our proximity to the European mainland and our history of exploring and exploiting the globe. Politically, both countries have achieved independence within the last 100 years or so, both countries have native languages that no-one else in the world speaks, and both are less densely populated and have a smaller scale farming landscape than what we’re used to in the UK.
But there’s something more deep seated as well. I know it’s the 21st century; I know no-one believes in this sort of thing anymore, and I know it’s generally something that is wheeled out for the tourist more than anyone else, but I’m going to say it:
or should I say…
It seems that the children of both countries have grown up being told similar folklore and I guess it’s a really good way of teaching your kids not to venture too far in a largely rural landscape: not to speak to strange people they find wandering about, and generally not get into mischief for fear of getting into trouble with “the little people” (Ireland) or “the hidden people” (Iceland).
When we dropped in, on a local’s recommendation, to the cave people of Laugarvatnshellar – a cave dwelling that has been recreated for tourists after being abandoned at some point in the 20th century – I thought I’d point out the similarities to one of the tweeded chaps who showed us round. I made reference to a story I’d heard on a Simon Reeve travel documentary about a road that had caused a small but vocal minority of anti road protesters to call for its re-routeing due to its proposed course apparently running straight into the path of a ‘fairy tree’.
Smiling and nodding, the pre-war garbed young fellow told us a similar story of a road near Reykjavik whose course had apparently run into a large boulder occupied by elves. An old man with a long grey beard had been wheeled out to talk to the boulder’s residents and ask if their home could be moved. The elves had apparently said “yeah, OK”, the elf-whisperer had picked up his cheque, and the engineers picked up the boulder and moved it.
The cave dwelling at Laugarvatnshellar is situated halfway up a volcano in a very barren and windswept landscape that required us to trundle along at walking pace along an un-metalled road to get there. Half of the cave had been fitted out with corrugated iron walls, a stove, and some simple furnishings into a basic but liveable space, the other half of the dwelling had been devoted to shielding sheep from the harsh climate. It was in the dark of the sheep half that the young man asked if we’d like to hear an elf story.
He told us about a young shepherd who had driven his sheep to a similar cave shelter one winter night and, as was his custom and being some distance from home, he had laid out his bed on the floor of the cave to spend the night in the warmth of his flock. Just as he was falling from consciousness he became aware of some whispering voices and the feeling that apart from the sheep, he wasn’t alone. His lantern was still lit so he swung it about the space, checking out the darker corners, and no one else could be seen.
The shepherd still had the feeling that he wasn’t alone though, but because he was so exhausted and miles from anywhere he decided to snuff out his light and go to sleep anyway. A little while after his head hit the pillow he was woken by the sensation of two strong hands grabbing his ankles and pulling him out of the cave. Understandably disturbed by this turn of events he shouted after whoever had grabbed him and checked his cave of sheep. Apart from the sheep there was no one there. He stayed up a while longer and when he couldn’t stop his eyelids from drooping any more, he lay back down to sleep again but this time with more trepidation and the lantern still lit.
Again, just after he’d dropped off, two hands grabbed his ankles and, dragging him across the ground, they pulled him from the cave.
This being too much, and thinking it must be the elves, the young shepherd fled down the mountain in the dark and ran the handful of miles to the nearest farmhouse where he woke the family and recounted his story. With it being so late they gave him a warm drink and a bed for the night promising to help him check on the cave in the morning.
Morning eventually rolled into view, and after a good night’s sleep the curtains were pulled back onto a landscape of deep silent snow. Snow that had drifted into thicknesses of several feet in places and had completely covered the mouth of the cave and its inhabitants.
The sheep huddled together in their woolly coats were fine but the shepherd’s life had undoubtedly been saved, and not only that, he had been saved by the elves.
As you might imagine, Scandinavia has some of the highest rates of MS in the world. I’ve even seen conversations online about a genetic disposition towards having MS referred to as a ‘Viking gene’.
Those of us with MS are well aware that populations living at higher latitudes have a higher incidence per capita of multiple sclerosis. MS is virtually unheard of on the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia. From personal experience at a clinic in the Northern Territories of Australia, it’s virtually unheard of in the outback as well. In Europe, northern Europe has a higher incidence than countries on the Mediterranean, and it even goes so far as the islands in the far north of Scotland – Shetland and Orkney – having more MSers than the mainland per head of population; Aberdeen more than Edinburgh; Yorkshire more than Hampshire and so on. The scientists understandably draw links between MS and Vitamin D but also state that it isn’t the only cause – it’s way more complicated than that or we’d be curing ourselves with vitamin tablets.
It’s not just MS either. While looking up information on Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD) – the latter being something I have to deal with – there’s a Scandinavian link there as well. I even saw a video where a sufferer says “no wonder the Vikings hopped into their boats and rowed across the North Sea if they all had restless legs”. RLS, and PLMD aren’t symptoms of MS but there does seem to be a close link between all these neurological conditions.
Of course, the Vikings travelled far and wide spreading their genes and establishing trade routes across Europe, the Middle East and North America. They’re not always the pillaging mob of horny helmeted madmen running ashore with swords and axes waving that they’re made out to be. There is an element of that for sure, but they were also quite a sophisticated bunch of explorers, establishing, among other things, a slave market in Dublin. Interesting when you consider the cultural similarities and the stories that the Irish and the Icelanders both grew up with.
I had a bit of a neurological ‘episode’ the other week. I had what I can only describe as a tightening build-up of MS fatigue knotting itself into a ball in my head. It was the worst case of fatigue I’ve had in years and I needed to go straight to bed.
Sensing that I could be in for a night of it and not wanting to face the stairs or disturb my wife, I pulled out the sofa bed. I collapsed onto it in the partial darkness and I must have been asleep before my head hit the pillow. After what seemed like half the night I was aware that there were people outside the door of the room. I could hear voices including my eldest daughter’s, and then someone rang a buzzer – I must have been drawing on my past experiences working for a council in the East End of London as it was the sort of low metallic sounding buzzer you get when someone buzzes you in to a block of council flats.
As I was awake and aware of my surroundings, I shouted to my daughter to find out who it was, only no noise came out, just a faint moaning sound.
I knew I was on the sofa bed but I couldn’t move – I was completely paralysed. I could see my surroundings because I managed to half-open one eye. My shouts for help came out as an almost inaudible moan and then I realised from recent experience that I was in a state of sleep paralysis.
This has happened to me on a few occasions in the last year and it doesn’t get any less terrifying. I was lying on my front so I tried to get up and I told my arms to push me up; they didn’t but it felt as if they had, and I felt like I was floating. My daughters then came downstairs for real and a mental switch was flicked and I was back in the room. I sat up in bed, a little bewildered, buzzing and tingling from the top of my head to the tips of my toes like a lightning rod in a storm. I then went to investigate why my girls were both up in the middle of the night on a school night.
It turned out that they weren’t. They were just getting ready for bed. It was ten past ten.
I’d been asleep for a grand total of ten minutes.
Also, that ball of fatigue in my head had somehow un-knotted itself and, although tired, I slept fitfully for the rest of the night.
I did a bit of ‘research’ on sleep paralysis (I looked it up on Wikipedia) and I ticked a lot of the boxes – voices, a presence in the room or nearby, inability to speak or move at all, a tingling sensation, and most weird of all – the sound of a buzzer. But what struck me the most was the sensation of floating, in my case like an out of body experience or, if I was a redneck in the American Mid-West, an alien abduction. Interestingly, this floating experience sometimes manifests itself as like being dragged across the ground.
Further reading suggests a link between sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, which makes sense to me considering I fell asleep within seconds, experienced REM sleep, and woke up all within the space of 10 minutes. Most people spend 10 minutes or so falling to sleep in the first place.
I think there’s no general consensus of opinion on whether sleep paralysis or narcolepsy is more common in MSers, in the same way that the Viking gene has been generally discredited over recent years. All I know is, when I think back to the Icelandic shepherd and his elf guardian, I know that story is definitely for real.