Icelandic lambs, 1862

icelandic sheep

Am I the only person from the Icelandic community in Manitoba who grew up knowing so little about our Icelandic heritage?

I knew about the Icelandic Celebration, except we called it Islendingadagurinn and were proud that it sounded so foreign and exotic.

I visited Grandma Bristow with my mother. They played cards. I got to look at stereoscopic pictures. I got to eat ponnukokur. However, I didn’t get to hear them talk Icelandic because my mother was an Irish girl from the city.In spite of her married name Grandma Bristow had come from Iceland.

Outside of someone having an Icelandic sweater, I don’t remember much about Iceland in Gimli. There was the Lutheran church but by the time I was going, the services were in English and the posters on the bulletin board were about raising money for Africa.

People had Icelandic names: Ejyolfson, Sigurdsson, Bjarnason, Narfason. Nobody was called –dottir.
When I read about farmers in Iceland getting together and discussing the sagas in great detail, I’m quite amazed. I didn’t hear about the sagas until I took a course on the sagas in translation with Haraldur Besesson. By that time I was in university.

Most of our childhood life was about Gimli. Hockey, playing baseball, soccer, football, riding our bicycles, going swimming at the dock, going skating on the lake or at the rink, prairie blizzards, deer, moose, pickerel, white fish. Icelandic only appeared in grade three when lessons were offered after school. I went a couple of times. My dad talked a little Icelandic in the barber shop. When we went for coffee at the relatives, they sometimes talked in Icelandic but not everyone could speak it so they usually stuck to English.

I don’t remember any Icelandic holidays. No bursting day. Although my mother did make cream puffs.

I don’t remember any Icelandic history. We didn’t know any Canadian history, never mind Icelandic.

Maybe it was because Gimli was more cosmopolitan than most small towns. From the time the trains arrived, I think in 1906, there were summer cottagers. They brought their city manners and behaviours with them. Then there was the airbase. We all knew airmen. The local girls married airmen. A lot of people got jobs at the airbase. We mixed with people from all across Canada and, later, from other countries.

Maybe I’m just making excuses for my own ignorance but it wasn’t until I took an interest in 19th C Iceland and began to do a lot of research that I started to learn about what life was like for my great great grandparents and my great grandparents in Iceland. The few things I’d heard when a few people were bragging about being descended from Icelanders turned out to nonsense. No, Iceland was not a democracy. No, everyone wasn’t equal. No, they didn’t just eat lichen in times of starvation. Etc.

That’s why it’s a joy to read a book such as Faroe and Iceland by A. J. Symington. It’s not a deep or profound book, it’s not crammed with statistics, but his descriptions and anecdotes are clear. As he and his companions travel through the Icelandic wilderness, he says

“We saw numerous farms as we passed along, each consisting of a group of irregular hillocks, with the windows hid deep in the grassy turf like portholes, and generally turned inwards so as to be sheltered from the roaring blasts of winter. We met ponies trudging along conveying lambs from one farm to the next. It was curious to see the little animals looking out of square crate-like boxes, made of spars of wood, slung in the manner of panniers on a donkey, and to hear them bleat: reminding one of the old nursery rhyme “young lambs to sell!”

That anecdote is worth the book. Isn’t a fine picture of how lambs were moved in a country without roads or wheeled vehicles. I’ve not come across such a description anywhere else.

I like to think of my great great grandparents riding with lambs in cages on either side of an Icelandic horse. It isn’t a Gimli scene. It is a purely Icelandic scene. What scene could be more romantic than Icelandic horses in a line threading their way through the wilderness, carrying crates with lambs?

3 thoughts on “Icelandic lambs, 1862

  1. Nice analysis of Gimli, Bill. I guess Town and district of Gimli, with its NATO Air Base, its nearby summer cottage population, its status as a regional hub, etc. was more cosmopolitan than the village near which I was born and raised, namely, lowly Libau, aka Poplar Park, interchangeable communities as it turns out. All it took was the closing of the post office in Poplar Park and presto, we all had to say we hailed from Libau. But my family’s true home was neither Poplar Park nor Libau but a collection of windblown houses and outbuildings informally known as Anderson’s Corner, located five miles directly north of the Village (or was it the hamlet?) of Libau. This small corner of the world was my birthplace. It was centred on a 2 1/2 story “big house”, complemented by a giant hip-roof barn, both of fir lumber construction and never painted, as the family fell on hard times what with the Great Depression and the suicide of the patriarch (my paternal grandfather) in his prime. The big house gradually became surrounded by five to ten smaller satellite houses all occupied by the male progeny of the big house pioneers, plus the wives they chose from the population of itinerant schoolmarms and daughters of neighbours, and of course the schools of children they spawned, of which I was one, one of 41 first cousins to be precise which the Anderson menfolk by definition were not in the realm of birth control. That Corner was exactly five miles north of Libau where the road comes to a screeching halt just yards short of the Libau marshes, marshes which lie clear across the next 3 miles or so of waterscape. These marshes, along with the companion Delta marshes on the west side of the Red River, occupy about 100 square miles of territory at the restive meeting place of Lake Winnipeg and the venerable Red River. But I digress. Our old place was in my early years anything but cosmopolitan, it was defined more by the rounded, curvilinear southern shore of Lake Winnipeg, that giant glacial child of prehistoric Lake Aggassiz. It was to that Lake and the vast marshlands that interceded between our Corner and the Lake that we turned for our livelihood – for hay, for fur, for fish and for fowl. The village from which our marshes took their name was Libau (pronounced “Leebow”), named after a town in Latvia presumably because one of our first settlers came from that country. Our village or hamlet has now been more or less erased from the map, with signature buildings like the elevators and service stations and most dwelling houses torn down, moved away, or in the case of the hotel, burned down. But I digress, my friend Bill writes in his blog of the cosmopolitanism of Gimli as compared to other Manitoba towns. Point conceded, but even Libau gradually grew more hip as scores of waterfowl hunting lodges were built along the line of marshes facing Anderson’s Corner, allowing the business elite of Winnipeg to rub shoulders (literally) in crowded canoes, in duck blind, and hunting lodges with local men and boys who these city slickers needed to guide them in the trackless marshes – marshes where extensive reedbeds twelve feet high hid the horizon from the urban interlopers. With time, a railway (CNR branch line) and the four lane #59 Highway connecting Winnipeg with cottage country at Grand Beach and Victoria Beach brought elevator agents, railroaders, roadbuilders and the like to Libau and district. With these changes, plus the increase in vehicle ownership, “The City” (as Winnipeg is universally called out there in its hinterland), closed in on us, became for us only an hour or so distant via car or bus or train. It took less effort for us to shake of the hayseeds out of our ears, slosh the mash mud off our hip waders, throw on a clean shirt, and head south to the excitement of The City, the lights of which we could see with our very own eyeballs on clear nights, gleaming there on the enticing southern horizon. We rural bumkinites somehow found our way to these bright lights, and like the fabled folk who could never return home after they’d seen Paree, we never did go back, except for visits. Our old place had changed, and so had we. We 41 first cousins may never have been as cosmopolitan as Gimli townies while we lived in the hinterland, but as The City moved in with us and as we moved into The City, we became saturated with city ways, we absorbed it as deeply as our bone marrow. Nowadays, so seldom do we return, that a generation or two down the road, those few of our descendants who choose to return may have to ask the way of strangers.

    • Very nice. It sums up a period in time for the prairies. They were rural made up of isolated farms, small villages (a church, a graveyard, a store, maybe a gas pump, a blacksmith shop, a grain elevator) and people stayed close to home because of poor roads, little money. We were country bumpkins, getting off buses, trains, out of trucks, overawed by buildings and people, the movement, the noise, the size of everything but we were chameleons, we adapted quickly, learned to fit in. We were the future and didn’t know it. We learned to wear a suit and tie, to ride a city bus, to talk city talk, to think city think.

      • Well said Bill, it seems your blocked arteries have, paradoxically, have added an edge to your writing. I guess we were the future, and look at us now, the present is our future, and we encourage all those zesty youngsters to take the lead.

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