Kárastadir: 1929

http://www.reykjavik.com/reykjavik-roaring-20s/

“On June 26th, 1930, Iceland will celebrate the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of her Parliament at Thingvellir. Thousands will flock to the plan for the celebrations, and among the visitors will be many Icelandic settlers from Canada.”

“At the foot of the mountains overlooking the lake, and about half an hour’s walk from Thingvellir, is a farmhouse where it is possible to stay very comfortably, and I determined to spend about ten days here for sketching and exploring the beauties of the place.”

And determined, Olive certainly is. Remember, she is traveling alone, a woman in 1929, knows no Icelandic and has just a book of Icelandic phrases to use to tell people who she is and what she needs. She gets to the farm, not by horse, for things have changed, but in a truck.

“The distance from Reykjavik is only about thirty miles, and as there is now quite a good road it is possible to motor. I got a seat in a timber lorry that was going in that direction. My suitcases and hold-all were wedged in between various packing-cases, and I sat in front between the driver and an elderly countrywoman who was travelling in my direction. We first had to collect goods in various parts of the town; this took some time and it was nearly 7 p.m. before we got away.

“For some distance we climbed the rough desolate, lava-strewn country bare of all vegetation, with a background of mountains streaked with snow. At one point we came upon a stout and cheerful peasant woman seated on a rock by the wayside smoking a cigarette, and with a bundle beside her. She was waiting for the chance of being picked up by a passing car and given a lift; for these lorries, of which there are quite a number in the vicinity of Reykjavik and in other places where there happen to be possible roads, are eagerly sought after by the country folk, who frequently make use of them as we should use a motor-bus.”
“Somehow or other the driver managed to squeeze the stout new-comer between himself and me. We were now four on the front seat, and how he managed to find space to drive with the newcomer’s arm around his waist—for there was no other room for it—I can’t imagine! In addition, several youths had perched themselves on the packing-case behind. We continued on our bumpy way, for the road, although superior to many Icelandic roads, was plentifully supplied with big pot holes. Finally, some miles farther on, the stout lady and the youths left us, evidently for some farm near. They shook hands several times with everyone all round, and I was careful to remove my glove first in the approved fashion, for an Icelander always does this. I had already come to the conclusion that a good motto for those visiting Iceland is: “When in doubt shake hands.” It is always necessary, for instance, to shake hands with your hostess after a meal, during which she often waits upon you herself.”

“About 9 p.m. we came in sight of Kárastadir, the farm where I was to stay. It was away over moorland some distance from the road and built under the shelter of high hills that towered up behind and were streaked with newly fallen snow.

“The lorry driver dumped my luggage by the roadside and, after vigorously sounding his horn to attract the attention fo the farmer, he shook me warmly by the hand and continued on his way. I could see some figures running about by the farmhouse and, after waving to them, I left my suit-cases where they were and started to walk across the fields over the rough cart track that led to the farm. Soon I saw a man and two children hastening to meet me. To my relief, the farmer, for it was he, spoke a word or two of English and, after giving me a courteous welcome,he went off to fetch my belongings while I made myself acquainted with the rest of the household. There was the farmer´s wife, a tall, fine-looking woman, very shy and silent; an old granny; and another woman, who helped with the cooking. There were also at least eight children, the youngest about eighteen months. After they had all, one by one, shaken hands with me, I was shown to a tiny bedroom with a clean boarded floor, a table with a basin and jug, and the bed with its usual mountainous eiderdown covering.”

And, so, there you have it, Olive is off on another adventure.

She has heard about how beautiful Thingveller is, wants to see it, sketch it, visit the famous booths described in the sagas. She hasn’t had to ride a horse from Reykjavik to Thingvella. Instead, she’s got a ride in a lorry. The local people haven’t had to ride horses over moorland but are able to get rides on passing vehicles. There is a road and, although it is generously supplied with potholes, it is still a road. The isolation has begun to be conquered. Farm workers aren’t trapped for years on end on a farm. They can get to the big city (although Reykjavik isn’t very big, yet) and be in touch with city life. The stranglehold of isolation and poverty and the power of the large landowning farmers is gradually giving way. Reykjavik may not be Paris but it provides a look at a world where there are jobs, where you might have an option to be something other than an indentured servant.

There is the chance, both for the farm family who provides Olive with lodging and meals, and for the guides she will hire, a chance to make some silver, currency instead of butter or wool.

Silver means that money can be saved, foreign goods bought, passage bought, the luxuries that were available only to the wealthy purchased. Get a copy of Björn G. Björnsson´s book, “Large Turf Houses” (www.salka.is), and look at the interior pictures of Bustarafell or Glaumbær. The interior shots at Laufás make clear the kind of things my ancestors didn´t have. The living room picture with the table and plush chairs, the ornate lamp, even the use of so much wood on floors and walls. (If you are not going to Iceland, then check with Tergesen‘s bookstore in Gimli, Manitoba to see if they carry Björnsson´s new books.)

If Ketill and his father, Valgardur Jonsson, had this kind of house, they´d have stayed in Iceland instead of emigrating to Canada in 1878. However, 51 years have passed. Jonsson has been long dead. Ketill is 69. By 1929, much has changed in Iceland. One of those changes is the opportunity to get jobs off the farms, to escape from some of the draconian laws that controlled anyone who didn´t own a farm. However, all those who owned farms weren´t rich, money was hard to come by and tourism, although more possible because of steam ships, roads and motor vehicles, is still a trickle and the farmer where Olive stays will have been glad to add her silver coins to his purse.

Changes in Iceland: 1929

Flateyjarbok

When Olive Murray Chapman reaches Reykjavik, she meets Mr. Stefan Stefansson, a local guide. He takes her to the Hotel Island. For those of you reading my blog posts about earlier times in Iceland, the news of an actual hotel will be an obvious marker of change.

Over the centuries, the isolation, the paucity of visitors, the tremendous difficulty of internal travel, the overall poverty of the people, the lack of roads, meant that travelers, Icelanders. plus the few foreigners who braved Iceland’s harsh landscape, brought tents, stayed in farmhouses or churches.

It is believed that the first inns in Europe were established once the Romans had built roads. They key to the existence of inns is the existence of roads which are then used regularly by travelers. These inns provided accommodation, food and fodder for horses.

Olive says about the Iceland Hotel, it “consists of a public dining-room and a fair number of bedrooms, is built of wood and corrugated iron like most of the houses in Reykjavik, and at every window is a fire escape consisting of a long coil of rope fixed to a big nail inside. A new hotel is now being built, and will shortly be opened; it is much larger and I was told it would contain ever convenience and comfort.”

Stefansson tries to convince Olive that she should hire an English speaking guide and that she should choose and easier route. However, she is determined to go by Snaefellsnes, ride right around the peninsula, beneath the glacier, but Stefansson says her route would be off the beaten track. She is undeterred. Finally, he gives in and marks on her map the location of farms and the distance between them.

Reykjavik has grown substantially. It now has around 20,000 inhabitants. The day after she arrives is Sunday and she goes out to see the city. She visits the public square. A band is playing, a large number of people are promenading around the green grass.

Like many visitors before her, she describes the traditional costume of the women. However, there are differences. In place of a shawl, some of the women wear raincoats. These, she says, “look very drab and incongruous with the national headgear.”

“Many of the younger women and girls of Reykjavik have now adopted modern European dress, favouring the latest Paris fashion, and, as a dear old Icelandic lady complained to me, they prefer to shiver in their silk stockings and flimsy underwear rather than cling to the warm and suitable costume of their forefathers! Most of the older women in Reykjavik, however, are still faithful to the national dress, and up country it is universally worn by old and young alike for best occasions.”

She sees an outdoor pool with children being taught to swim. In books from the 19th C, it is often remarked that none of the fishermen know how to swim even though they risk their lives every day on the sea.

She visits the open-air laundry and is told that some farmers have started to use the natural hot water on their farms to heat their houses.

She visits a fish drying-ground and sees girls wearing big oilskin aprons and coloured handkerchiefs twisted around their heads. She gets “a lift part of the way back to Reykjavik on a lorry full of dried fish.”

She goes to see the Roman Catholic Church of grey stone, is delighted with the “green plots of grass and familiar flowers” in gardens. She finds the National Museum interesting. The National Library impresses her. She comments on the importance of both chess and the Passion Hymns. She notes the “fine collection of the English classics” and on how interested people are in psychic research.

She interviews Einar Kvaran who is the founder of the Icelandic Society of Psychical Research which was started in 1905. There are four hundred members and they have a good library.

There cannot be an Icelander or Western Icelander who reads her comment at the end of Chapter III and not have a sense of pride. Reykjavik, not so long before, had less than a thousand inhabitants. It now has around 20,000. She says, “I have seldom been in a town as small as Reykjavik which contains so many good bookshops; but this is not surprising, for the Icelanders, especially the farmers, are exhaustive readers, and take the keenest interest in the literature of other countries besides their own. During the dark winter days, when they are unable to work, these remarkable people will often spend long hours in attempting to learn foreign languages, and it is not altogether unusual, on coming across an isolated little farmstead away out in the wilds, to find that the farmer is capable of speaking three languages: English, German and Icelandic. Many of our own country folk might well take a lesson from such industry!”

Icelandic population, 1861-1870

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Our lang lang and lang lang lang ammas and afis lived through these times. 1871 and 1872 were yet to come. Take a look at the relationship between births and deaths. In 1862 in Iceland there are more deaths than births and the population falls slightly. 1864 and 1865 must have been good years because there is a major increase in the population.However,in 1866 the population falls again but it is still well above 1861. More people are surviving. In 1867 there is a large increase, nearly a thousand more births than deaths. And by 1870 the population has climbed to 70,084.

Year Births Deaths Computed pop Percentage
1861 2525 2391 66,973 +0.20
1862 2693 2874 66,797 +0.27
1863 2648 2115 67,325 +0.80
1864 2760 2001 68,084 +1.13
1865 2757 2100 68,741 +0.96
1866 2662 3122 68,281 +0.67
1867 2743 1770 69,254 +1.42
1868 2449 1970 69,733 +O.69
1869 2177 2404 69,506 +O.33
1870 2276 1698 70,084 +0.83

There was the belief–I’ve run across it in a number of places– that Iceland could not sustain more than 60,000 people. If the population rose over that number, then starvation or disease would cut the number back.

When Icelanders were locked into a medieval system of land owner and serf or indentured servant with a severely limited supply of land and that land useful for nothing but grazing, the relationship between population and productivity was pretty predictable. You can only graze so many sheep or cows per acre.

There were no grain crops because there were not enough frost free nights for grain to ripen. The highly variable factor was the weather. Get three or four good years in a row and marginal land could be farmed. That led to families being established and families meant children being born. The population increased. But bad weather was inevitable and when that happened, snow and frozen ground in summer, harbours filled with ice, bitter cold winds, and the hay crop failed, sheep and cows died. People farming on the margins soon followed. In really bad years, it wasn’t just people on the margins.

However, even though it took a long time to break the hold of the land owning farmers over the right to fish, fishing was gradually increasing. Farmers wanted to keep the system going because it provided lots of cheap labour. Indentured servants don’t get much, if any, say in their pay or working conditions. The problem was that what existed was a system with predictable and limited means of production. Only fishing could increase wealth so that a temporary increase in population could be sustained.

From our historic hindsight we know what is coming after 1870. There will be volcanic eruptions and with them the destruction of grazing land, the destruction of livestock and the relationship of people to land, hay, and cattle, will be thrown out of whack.

Iceland wasn’t like Canada. There were no great frontier areas to farm. The pressure on what could be produced was huge. It was compounded by the fact that from 1861 to 1870 the population had gone from 66,973 to 70,084.

The people who left for Amerika because there was land, lots of it, vast amounts of it, did what was necessary for their own survival given these two factors: the increase in the size of the population and the destruction of grazing land. They also did everyone who stayed in Iceland a tremendous favour because their leaving brought the relationship of land to population back into balance.

Iceland missed the Industrial Revolution. The new technology wasn’t going to save it. When the emigrants left, there were still no roads. A Medieval system of land ownership and crofts and indentured servants still existed. There were no factories. No banks. If there was a wheeled vehicle, it was a wheelbarrow.

Iceland had not embraced the change sweeping through Europe. It’s salvation would be when the large land owners removed the restrictions on fishing. Icelanders had been fishing with one hook to a line while just offshore the Portuguese were laying fishing lines that were miles long and had thousands of hooks.

In Gimli, in my childhood, I heard of men crying because they felt they’d betrayed Iceland by leaving. Poetry books from that time and earlier, written in Icelandic, are filled with poems praising Iceland’s beauty. They are poems filled with regret and guilt. There is no reason for either. The emigrants betrayed no one. Their leaving left more food for those left behind and, indirectly, improved the lot of the indentured and wage workers, by removing some cheap labour and forcing up wages.

My great grandfather, Ketill, who, in Iceland, would have had nothing because he would have been paid so little, came to Canada in 1878 with nothing. He worked as a labourer, then he had a dairy, then a general store. He had a fine home. He owed no one anything. He kept his coffin in the basement because like many who started out with nothing, he didn’t want to be buried a pauper. He died with money in the bank.

As this table shows, the population had grown to what was considered unsustainable. Then there was volcanic disaster. The choice was stark. To die of hunger on a mountain path or leave for the unknown.

In Independent People, Laxness makes fun of the romantic movement created and populated by the well-to-do, the privileged in Iceland. They come to Bjartur’s farm, Summer Houses, to extoll the virtues of the peasant farmer. They are ridiculous, self-indulgent, dishonest for they know nothing of the real hardships of being a small holder.The emigrants knew reality.

Many in Iceland had a strong belief in the need to stay in Iceland to fight for its Independence. They saw Iceland rising toward its golden, glorious past. Others saw enough opportunity to satisfy them. Others would have left but didn’t have the means.

Eventually, it sorted itself out. One can write nostalgic poetry or make nostalgic speeches but, eventually, our lives are consumed by earning a living, raising a family, being part of our local community. Enough to eat, clothes, a place to live, necessities, some luxuries, for a few, wealth. But when I stand in the graveyard in Gimli and the wind is blowing in from the lake and I look at the graves of my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents, I think, you did fine. Over three generations,you made a life.

New books from Iceland: Björn G. Björnsson

kirkjur_vidimyrarkirkja_nl

The doorbell rang and when I went to see who was there, I found a package that said, “Iceland Post”. When I opened it, there were four books that I am happily adding to my library. The photographs, text and design for all four books are by Björn G. Björnsson.

The books are Large Turf Houses, Turf Churches, Writer´s Homes, 18th Century Stone Buildings. The books have minimal text but it is helpful in explaining the significance of the pictures. In 18th Century Stone Buildings, there is a quarter page description of VIÐEY HOUSE. It says, in part, “In 1752-5 the Danish authorities built a fine residence on Viðey Island off Reykjavík for Treasurer Skúli Magnússon, known as the Father of Reykjavík. Desgned by Danish court architect Niclai Eigtved, Viðey House was the first stone building in Iceland.“

NES HOUSE is described as “Iceland‘s first Surgeon General was appointed in 1760, and in 1761-7 a residence was built for him at Nes on the Seltjarnarnes headland, and it remains little changed.“

In the book, Writer‘s Homes, there are pictures of Halldór Laxness´s home, GLJÚFRASTEINN.“Halldór Laxness was born in Reykjavík in 1902, and published his first book in 1919…from 1945 his home was at Gljúfrasteinn in Mosfellssveit (now Mosfellsbær).” There are pictures from the Culture House/Old National Library from SNORRSSTOFA, from Jónas Hallgrímsson’s Hraun, Oxnadalur.

The book, Turf Churches, is a delight. It brings together images of churches in a way that allows this viewer to bring together many disparate images seen over the years. Among others is the church Saurbær, Eyjafjörður and the Núpsstaður Chapel. As with all the books, the presenting of these buildings both from various views of the exterior and the interior gives the mood of the buildings. It is easy to imagine those hardy Icelandic families riding up to the Núpsstaður Chapel in the 1700s to worship, visit, gossip, court, chew some snuff and even have a drink or two. Nice details are included in these short descriptions. For examples ‘Hannes Jónsson of Núpsstaður was a renowned mail-carrier in the days before the nearby glacial rivers were bridged; he guided travellers across the perilous rivers on horseback.”

Large Turf Houses will be a favorite of visitors. It will be hard not to buy this book after visiting some of these houses. Icelandic North Americans frequently talk about the turf houses they have visited. They are fascinated in places that help them to see what living conditions were like for their ancestors before the great emigration. Admittedly, this collection of large turf houses is a bit misleading as to actual living conditions. Most of our ancestors didn’t live in places like Glaumbær or Laufás. Þvera, for example, “was built in the latter half of the 19th century. On either side of the entrance are two reception rooms.” However, as I write mostly about foreign visitors to Iceland in the 19th C and these visitors, being wealthy aristocrats or clergy of high social status, they did not stay with poor farmers and fishermen. They stayed with the upper class, the kind of people who lived in these large turf houses. These pictures give a real sense of what life could be like in Iceland if you had good land, some money and good political connections.

As a North American Icelander, if there is such a thing, I’m grateful to Björn, for these books. The exterior and, perhaps, more importantly, the interior shots of the various buildings provide a clear view of what life was like for some Icelanders during the 19th C. According to his biography, Björn has worked as a designer with RÚV national TV. He also has designed sets and costumes for theatre, TV and film. He designs exhibitions for museums and visitor centres. He has made 70 TV programmes on historic buildings and sites and Icelandic cultural heritage.

They are expecting 900,000 visitors in Iceland in 2015. I expect that the visitors to the turf churches, the large turf houses, the writer´s homes, the 18th Century stone buildings, will carry away a large number of these books. If you want to have copies, I´d suggest that when you are next in Iceland, you buy them before the visiting hordes appear.

Iceland,1929: the great adventure

Olive with her Icelandic horses

Olive Murray Chapman went to Iceland in 1929. She wrote a book, Across Iceland, about her adventure. Nineteen twenty-nine. Between the wars. WWI had ended in 1918, eleven years before her visit. WWII would begin in 1939, ten years after her visit.

Much has changed in Iceland. The most noticeable changes are roads and motor cars, although as her book makes clear, the roads sometimes were dried stream beds and the roads often ended abruptly. Waiting at the end of such road were horses, ready to take her and others to their destinations.

Think of it. An Englishwoman, on her own, not knowing the language, having only a pocket dictionary that was given to her by a friend. Her assets are self-confidence, good health and flexibility.

She starts out by taking a taxi from Edinburgh to the docks at Leith. She finds the Brúarfoss which she describes as “beautifully clean and very well appointed.” Two hours later, the ship sets sail. There is a lot of cargo, chiefly timber. The weather is so bad that during the first twenty-four hours no one eats. However, the next day, the weather improves and the passengers all come to breakfast.

She says, “It is the custom in an Icelandic boat to have tea or coffee at 8, breakfast at 11:30, coffee at 3:30, dinner at 5:30, and tea and biscuits at 8 o’clock.”
One of the great charms of Olive’s book, if I may be so familiar as to call her by her first name, is its naivety.

She meets “a cheery little Icelander” on board who speak English. She says to him that she is going to Iceland because “some years before I had met a charming Icelandic girl, and her description of the wonders and beauties of her native land had filled me with a desire to go and paint there. Also I was anxious to travel right across country from south to north if possible and to get to know something about the people and customs”.

The Icelander explains that she’ll need a tent and a guide. Olive says that she hopes to not have a regular guide but, instead, to travel from farm to farm, “taking ponies from different places, and local guides form stage to stage.”
The Icelander wants to know how she’ll manage since she doesn’t speak Icelandic. She shows him her pocket dictionary and says she’s going to ask someone to write out the phrases she will need. The Icelander goes over a map with her.

The ship, after stopping in the Westman Islands, reaches Reykjavik in four days. Given the early journeys of the sailing ships of the British explorers or even the ships that took the Icelandic emigrants to Leith, this is remarkable.

Her description of the four hour stop in the Westman Islands contains some nice details. She describes how the local fowlers risk their lives to capture birds. She also describes the drying of cod. However, it is her description of the taking on of passengers that I found most interesting.

“We remained at the islands four hours to unload cargo, and I watched a lot of timber being taken off in small boats; and after a party of Westman Islanders, who were coming to Reykjavik, were taken on board from a rowing-boat. The sea was rough and it was a wonder how they ever managed to get on board! The men would wait till a big wave would lift the boat on a level with the iron steps up the side of the “Brúarfoss”, they would then make a wild jump for it and land safely on the steps. The women were lifted up by a man in the rowing-boat and half thrown into the arms of two others who waited to catch them on the steps. One woman had a baby; it was thrown across and caught in the same casual way! Another had a crutch and her leg in irons, but somehow or other she was hauled aboard, and to my admiration none of the women showed the slightest fear or consternation whatever during this risky proceeding!One or two of them wore the national dress, with their hair in long plaits down their backs, but others wore quite fashionable coats with fur collars, and thin high-heeled shoes!”

I’ll write more about her journey. Although she is inclined to use adjectives with great abandon, she has a sharp eye and a good heart. By the time I finished this little book, I admired her greatly and wished that I could have known her. Her adventure is, perhaps, a small adventure, but it is definitely an adventure and took courage and resourcefulness. It is, after all, 1929. Travel in Iceland, in spite of motor cars, a few roads, and plucky little steamships, was still demanding . I’m not sure that I would have gone off to an unknown land with nothing but a pocket book of phrases.