Glen is one of the newer additions to the bloggo family. He wrote to me out of the blue last year to ask whether we wanted a Western Isles volume in our Mystery Animals of Britain series. We agreed that we did indeed want one, and commissioned him. What we were not expecting was such a bloody good writer and all-round nice guy, who - by the way - is writing several other volumes for us, and he is even going to be speaking at the Weird Weekend. Wayhay!!
Now if you were to hear of a tale of a unicorn, where would you expect it to hail from? Perhaps some enchanted woodland glade or possibly some dark and forbidding Teutonic forest. But would you have considered Iceland to be the home of such a creature, maybe? After all some of the many Narwhal tusks that have taken up residence as unicorns horns around Europe have been found there. They might well have started in the cold waters around Iceland but what if I were to tell you that that country once supplied tales of unicorns on land?
The bjarndýrakóngur, or king of bears, is the Icelandic candidate for the unicorn title. While Iceland is not home to a permanent population of bears it is, however, the occasional host to a stray polar bear that has drifted ashore from some remote northern place. The winter of 1880-81 with its severe frost saw a record number of bears appear on shore; 63 beasts in total, which must have come as a bit of a shock for anyone who unexpectedly stumbled across one. While the 19th century might have seen them in record numbers the 20th century still managed to record a respectable 50 sightings.
Why all this talk of polar bears? Well, it seems that the bjarndýrakóngur was a rather special polar bear. It could hardly fail to be, which will be made clear in the following description. Appearing as the largest of all the polar bears - a result of the union of a female bear and either a walrus or a bull (not much difference in those two) - with red cheeks and a horn that extended from its forehead, it was hard to mistake for a normal polar bear. If that wasn’t a giveaway how about the fact its horn would be illuminated at night thus ensuring the bjarndýrakóngur always could see where it was going?
The last reported sighting that I have been able to find happened in the 18th century on the island of Grímsey. Just before a Whitsun church service a group of a dozen bears were seen to be approaching the island led by a bjarndýrakóngur with its glowing horn. Unused to such a sight, the congregation stood outside watching the bears walk past towards the south of the island. As the creatures drew level with the crowd the clergyman bowed to the bjarndýrakóngur and in turn had the bow return; clever things these unicorn bears.
The bears then headed off into the distance but before they disappeared from view, the last polar bear in the line ate a passing sheep. It appears that the bjarndýrakóngur did not approve of such uncivilised action and promptly, fatally ran the bear through with his glowing horn, so putting an end to such murderous action. After that the bears headed off into the sea and once again were hidden from view