All summer long, the sheep roam hills and fjords without a care in the world. Lambs nestle into their mothers’ backs until they are too big to carry and rams stubbornly block the passage of tourists on roads. They fatten up on grass and lichen and their hair grows long and lush. Then September rolls around, the supply of woollen sweaters is depleted and there’s barely any lamb meat on the supermarket shelf. The time has come for réttir, the annual gathering and distribution of the herds!
The three hundred year old tradition is one of the most important events of the year for Icelandic farmers and their families, bringing together entire communities. On top of herding sheep, the weekend-long affair is well known for long horsebacks rides, stopping at every farm in the area for coffee, traditional sing-alongs, eating your own weight in kjötsúpa (‘meat soup’) and copious alcohol consumption.
Réttir #1: Sheep everywhere!
We spent the first day at Högnastaðir, a farm in Flúðir owned by a delightful couple named Jón and Helga. The first order of business was to help shoe the horses and get drunk in a barn. The rest of their huge family arrived in the evening and we all got a good night’s sleep. Except my friends and I, who drank until 3 AM. Oops. Bright and early on Friday morning, we got ready to go out to our first réttir in the county of Hrunamannahreppur. We rode horseback to and from the réttir, drinking all along the way.
We arrived at the main event around mid-day. The whole thing takes place in a large round encasement called… réttir, consisting of an outer and inner circle, with several pie-slice compartments between the two. Each compartment is designated to a farm for their sheep or their horses. There are also two compartments that are open on the outer end through which the sheep are brought in. The inner circle is known as ‘the public,’ where sheep and human come head to drunken head.
Sheep run amok, bleating and bucking and generally avoiding being mounted by children who grab their horns and drag them over to the farm that matches their ear-tag. Young folks stand around shooting the shit and carelessly passing around bottles. Farmers lock arms around shoulders, holding each other up and singing old folk songs that everyone knows by heart. Orange and green rain suits abound.
The 9-year old girls in our group have each climbed aboard a sheep and are giggling triumphantly. One little boy is standing over a sheep that has laid down on the ground and doesn’t know what to do about it. A weathered old gentleman has a big ram by the horns, its front feet off the ground, effortlessly swinging it to the pen. A gorgeous young blonde girl in an orange rainsuit stumbles through with her hands gripped on a pair of horns and a cigarette hanging from her mouth. I get distracted by something funny and I’m knocked into the mud by a running animal. Convicted embezzler-slash-MP Árni Johnsen plays the guitar in the middle of the public. Everyone is peeing everywhere. A giant ram runs by me, one of his horns has ripped off and it’s gushing blood all over his left side. I get really drunk and lose track of time.
Back at Högnastaðir that evening we have the traditional meat soup with the whole family. It’s unbelievably delicious and filling. It feels like Thanksgiving. There’s a grown-ups’ table, a kids’ table and the 20-somethings on the couch. The night sees a steady in-and-outflux of visitors from the area, mostly other farmers, who stop in for drinks, coffee, soup and songs. I try to keep up but after twelve hours of drinking I go take a nap and die for the night.
Réttir #2: Where the fuck am I?
Our second spurt of réttir was in the next county over, right next to the waterfall Faxi. The weather was much nicer on day two, hence a lower quotient of hideously coloured raingear. I saw many familiar faces from the day before, mostly people I shared booze with.
Only a few sheep still ran about in the public, but the kids quickly get them to their pens and the public becomes a zone for socializing exclusively. We spent the better part of the first hour hunting down Ingimar’s friend. Somehow I found myself sitting on an old bus that someone has converted into an awesome camper, watching a dude drink out of two bottles at the same time.
We found a designated driver and started making the rounds to farms. At our first stop in Einholt, Ingimar and his friend Fannar broke out guitars and troubadoured the shit out of the place. Then we moved on to our friend Steinka’s uncle’s farm where I make a pitcher of vodka-cranberry, eat three bowls of meat soup, play the pump organ terribly, and forbid the playing of “Hotel California.”
Our next designated driver takes us over to another farm called Kjóastaðir with its gigantic stable full of various wildlife. I attempt to chase chickens for longer than is funny. Eat four more bowls of soup. Three old drunk men singing folk songs pull me across their laps as I scream for help.
Suddenly I am in Reykholt, karaokeing to ABBA with a pair of 6-year old girls. I get dragged into the dining room and sit around a table attempting to speak English and Icelandic with very little success at either. Ingimar tells me we are going to the town ball. A real honest to god ball! With a bad cover band and couples dancing and kids hanging outside smoking and getting into romantic disputes!
We dance to Icelandic standards until the place runs out of beer and we get kicked out. We then stumble through Reykholt to Steinka’s house at Lord-knows what time and pass out on the couch.
The hangover and sickness that ensued (which I have christened ‘sheep flu’) were epic, and by all means worth the journey. The experience was by far the most Icelandic thing I have ever been immersed in. From going through new parts of the country on a horse, to watching the process of gathering up sheep and fraternizing with older generations, the whole weekend was a wonderful blur of drunken madness. I even grew fond of the giant green rain suit.