At Last, In Iceland, 1900

And so, your wooden boxes for the horses are ready, your fishing equipment is packed, also your shotgun and shells. You’ve got flannel shirts, some woollen underclothing, a good stout mackintosh. You’ve a bottle of that good Scotch whiskey the guidebook recommends.
According to the guide book–remember it is the year 1900–“pack saddles, guides, and ponies can be hired, the usual charge for a pony and a saddle being 2 kroner per diem, and that for a guide from 4 to 6 kroner per diem, the kroner being equivalent to about 1 shilling 1 pence. Guides and tents can be hired at the capital—Reykjavik. It may be well to mention, however, that tents for those who wish them are usually obtainable from most of the farmers. This saves the trouble and expense transporting them about the country.”
Now, that surprised me. I, for one, didn’t realize that tourism had become such an established business from 1875 to 1900 that farmers kept tents for hire. That didn’t fit in with my impression of Iceland. Interestingly, the short, recommended tour is the same tour that people take today, except today, they go on buses instead of on horseback. The writer recommends Thingveller, Geysir, Mt. Hekla, Gulfoss.
After suggesting that tents can be rented from the farmers, the author cavils a bit and says that while the local people used to charge very little, as Iceland has become more of a tourist attraction, the prices have gone up. Also, most farms only have one tent and that is often old and dilapidated.
The author also suggests that the tourist make certain that he’s got a firm agreement about the price of hay. In this, he’s simply repeating what travelers have commented on since the 1700s. Hay is precious. Some farmers will charge whatever they think they can get for it.
Conditions in Iceland have changed enough that he can say that a night’s lodging “is obtainable almost everywhere throughout the country at the higher class farms, where the best room in the house is invariably reserved for the use of tourists.”
For tourists only visiting Thingveller and the Geysir, there is lots of accommodation. However, for people going farther afield, they have to be careful about their numbers. A party of two can “depend wholly on the farms and parsonages for quarters, and mainly for provisions. At all of the better class farms, there is an abundance of excellent coffee, milk, pancakes, butter, rye bread, smoked, salted, or fresh mutton, and fish…with a few preserved provisions and biscuits, travellers will not fare badly. Of course, at a little expense, another pony can be freighted with say one hundred weight of tinned luxuries and a case or two of wine.”
“The usual charge for a night’s lodging at a farmhouse, with supper and breakfast, varies from 2 to 3 kroner….the daily expense of two tourists travelling together with one guide and their ponies amounts to rather less than 1 pound per day each.” The day of providing shelter and food for travelers without charge but with the giving of a gift, a gift that was often refused, has passed. At one time, a farmer might have one foreigner as a guest in a lifetime. Now, the explorers, the members of Royal Societies, scientists, have been replaced by the curiosity seekers.
Our good Icelandic entrepreneur, Thorgrimur adds a note that nowadays, pasturage for the horses is usually 16 to 20 ore per head, and saddles are charged at 60 ore per day, except when ponies are hired by the month when saddles are free.”
In spite of the much better accommodation, traveling by horse is still hard, the weather unpredictable. Therefore it is recommended that the traveler bring good stout sea-boots, reaching up the thighs and a light pair of porpoise hide shooting-boots for ordinary wear. A good stout macintosh is indispensable and should be made of waterproofed tweed.
The writer emphasizes that everything has to be packed into the wooden boxes made for horse travel. The test of both the packing and the boxes is once they are packed, to roll them down a lengthy flight of stairs.
Reykjavik he praises. “It is pleasantly situated on the shore of a shallow bay on the north of a headland. Seen from a vessel in the harbour, the town has rather a colonial appearance, with its white painted wooden stores built round the curve of the shore with their little jetties stretching far out into the harbour….the streets are broad, and cleanly kept, and the drying of fish is mainly confined to the shore.”
“The chief buildings, none of which can boast of any architectural beauty, are the Cathedral, the Senate, the College, Hospital, Government House, the Antiquarian Museum, and a Free Library.”
“There are two  hotels and a few boarding-houses, in all of which charges are very moderate; a number of stores where everything required by the Icelanders is sold from a needle to an anchor; a post office, two booksellers, a number of silversmiths, printers, harness-makers, photographers, one druggist, a hatter, and several handy-craftsmen.”
This change is absolutely remarkable. In 25 years, Reykjavik has grown, people have been able to break free from the clutches of the farms. They have begun to have professions and trades. Heavens, there is even a road. The author says, “What strikes the stranger most is the almost entire absence of wheeled vehicles, though now that a good road has been made between Reykjavik and Thingvellir, a few vehicles and bicycles are to be seen.” A good road. This is like a miracle. With good roads being built, everything will change.
It has only been 26 years since Christian IX visited and gave the Icelanders their constitution. The picture of Iceland then, given by Bayard Taylor and Samuel Kneeland, or a few years before that, by Richard Burton, was of a populace locked into a rural, agricultural fiefdom which beggared everyone but Danish merchants and a few select farmers. Douglas Scott is giving would-be travelers a picture of a country that while still exotic is changing, is entering a new age.
(With quotes and notes from Sportsman’s and Tourist’s Handbook to Iceland by Douglas Hill Scott)
   

Icelandic travel g uide: 1900

It’s 1900 and you have read in the local paper that the first electric bus is operating in New York City. The United States Census reveals that there are now 70 million people in the country. There are regular headlines about the Boer War. The Boers are winning and are doing dastardly things. Industry is forging ahead even in the most unlikely places. The first through passenger train goes from Cairo to Khartoum. Just think of that. What will happen next? What will happen next is that the Boxer Rebellion escalates but, more importantly, the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs is organized in Philadelphia.
The Boers quit winning and the British troops start winning. The Boers surrender. That’s a great relief. There’s a fire at Buckingham Castle. Women in Germany, trust those Germans to have something like that happening, are demanding the right to sit for university exams. The Boxers keep being unreasonable. They kill hundreds of European citizens including the German ambassador.
It’s too much. It’s time to go somewhere for a holiday where you won’t be drowned in unpleasant news. Somewhere different. Off the beaten path. The kind of place where there won’t be any current newspapers. The kind of place that will provide conversation over dinner for the coming winter.
Iceland. That’s the place. No one is getting up a rebellion there. It’s a country of geographic wonders and Viking settings. The current populace is made up mostly of sheep farmers. None of them are given to violence. It’s reasonably priced. It’s not far away. Because of the steamships, there are regular ship schedules from England and Scotland now.
Why not? Iceland it is. But how do we get there and what will we need? That’s the question. Well, it turns out that Geo. V. Turnbull & Co., of Leith, have just the thing for two shillings and threepence. It’s the improved 2nd edition of advice for people planning on going to Iceland. Can it be trusted? Of course, it can. Mr. Thormundur Gudmundsson, Iceland’s most famous guide, or so the author says, has read over the book and made helpful suggestions. Iceland’s most famous guide. Mr. Thormundur Gudmundsson. Any chance, he’s a relative of yours, dear reader?
“Look, dear, Mr Thormundur’s guide has come by post and it has all the advice we need. There are general hints, what a lady should take, a sportsman’s needs, clothing, boots, waterproofs, maps, fishing tackle, flies, and advice on excursions, there are short ones and long ones. They’ve even got advice on shooting. Fancy that. There are lots of birds. They’ve even got the schedule from the Faroes. I’ve always wanted to spend a day or two at the Faroes. They are supposed to be quite quaint.”
The introduction is quite reassuring. The weather, the reader is told, is much like Scotland’s except fine and drier. There is little darkness. If the traveller goes later in the season, the Aurora Borealis is magnificent. There’s no need to go to a great expense since all that is required are a couple of flannel shirts, some woollen underclothing, a good stout Mackintosh, and a few absolutely personal necessities since pack ponies are the only means of transport.
 “It’ll be a walk in the park. It says the Icelanders are reserved but affable. Like us. Like Englishmen and some of them can speak English.”
Except, except, when the reader keeps reading, the sunshiny suggestion that a trip in Iceland will be no more difficult than a train trip to the English countryside, seems to come apart.
There is in this booklet, the best description I have ever read of what is needed for the boxes that will be carried on the backs of the pack ponies. This may seem trivial. It is not. These boxes are critical to any trip. There are no wheeled vehicles. There are no roads. Some farms can provide accommodation. Some cannot. Some have tents. Some do not. Everything needed for the trip will need to be in boxes on the backs of horses, boxes that will be plunged into bogs, that will be dragged through morasses, that will be drenched during river crossings,  that will come loose when they are knocked against large chunks of lava.
Every traveller comments on, curses these boxes, the packing and unpacking of them, the constant unbalancing that requires stopping, the damage that results if the boxes are not made perfectly to withstand endless shocks and immersions.
“The sportsman must provide himself with a pair of travelling boxes specially constructed for Icelandic travel.” That’s what the booklet says. The traveller must bring the boxes with him. No buying them in Iceland. There’s not much wood and it is of dubious quality. The skills of the carpenters are unknown. There may not be sheets of zinc or metal hinges.
Since the boxes must travel on the back of an Icelandic horse, they can be no longer than 2 feet. It is absolutely essential that the boxes be waterproof. The interior should be lined with 24 gauge zinc sheet. That’s about the thickness of strong brown paper. The boxes must be tested to see that they don’t leak.
Why is it so necessary? It’s because “A stumble over a boulder on the part of a pack-pony is a possibility, nay, a certainty sooner or later in the driving of loose ponies through the rivers one is compelled to ford daily by travelling in many parts of Iceland. Waller, in his charming little work “Six weeks in the Saddle,” says—“To see your pack-horse calmly seat himself in 4 feet of water, and hear the sea (he was fording at the time a shallow inlet) pouring gallons into your travelling boxes, is not calculated to enliven even a good-tempered man.”
Imagine everything you need in these boxes, clothes, food, tents, toiletries, everything, and a horse sits down in 4 feet of water and, if the boxes are not built properly, the water pours in and your bread that you’ve brought from England turns to inedible mush, your clothes are soaked and there is no fire beside which to dry them, your shotgun shells dissolve (those shotgun shells you were planning on using to shoot birds so you’ll have fresh meat). Prevention is better than cure, and a most effectual preventative is the zinc lining.
Pay attention. You are going to Iceland. You are going to ride over lava fields, lava deserts, bogs, heaths, rivers, for two weeks. There are no inns, no restaurants. Farm houses have only enough fuel to cook a meal. There will be no roaring fire to warm and dry yourself beside. If the food in your boxes gets wet, you’ll be getting black bread, skyr, dried cod and sour butter from the farms. If you are lucky.
“The boxes should not exceed the following outside dimensions, and be made as light and strong as possible – 2 feet long, 14 inch’s deep, and 10 inches wide. The wood should be well-seasoned pine, an inch thick. The side, bottom, and ends, and likewise the lid, should each be of one piece of board, not two pieces joined together, and the sides and ends should be dovetailed together at the corners, not simply nailed. The lid should be arched to throw off the rain, which will be done by affixing a piece of wood, with the upper edge rounded, to each end of the lid in such a manner that it overlaps the end of the body of the box. The boxes should each receive two coats of paint or, better still, varnish, and they will then be complete, save the lining and the fittings.”
Remember that first advice about how easy a horse trip around Iceland will be. A walk in the park. A piece of cake. If that is the case, how come the boxes have to be made from inch thick pine? Made of one piece of board with dovetailed corners? If the weather is going to be so wonderful, how come the lid has to be arched to throw off rain?
Personally, I’d be getting a bit nervous about now. “Delightful” and the instructions for these boxes don’t quite seem to go together. The instructions for these boxes would give me pause. However, it is 1900 and Iceland is an adventure. They say there is excellent salmon fishing and hunting.
Still, the instructions for these boxes are not finished. You’ll get the rest of your instructions in episode 2
(Quotes from Handbook To Iceland, Douglas Hill Scott, 1900).