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).

The Trading Ships

It‘s 1872 and after a long, hard winter, isolated from neighbouring farms by wind, snow and sleet that come in howling storms, trapped inside with no heat but body heat from the other household members plus some heat from the cattle in their pens, it‘s time to ride to the coast to a Markaðr, the annual trip to trade goods with the Danish ships that have anchored off-shore, a trip that each way may take ten days.

The winter has been spent with everyone knitting and weaving on a fixed and standing loom. The good weavers wove three yards a day of wadmal, as the cloth is called. It comes in a variety of colors: grey, black, light blue, the russet brown of undyed wool, and sometimes white.

On the trip to the trading station, every rider had two horses so that the rider could change as the horses got tired. With them was also a string of pack horses loaded with supplies. In the packs would be woolen mittens, stockings, fine socks, ordinary wadmal jackets, fine wadmal jackets, wool, eiderdown, other bird feathers, tallow, butter, salted mutton and beef. There might even have been one or two fox skins and maybe some bird skins. Swan skins have become rare by this time, and command a high price.

Women rode side saddle to the harbour where the trading fair was held. Side-saddles were little more than chairs set sideways on a horse. The side-saddles gave the rider little control over the horse and women were at greater risk than men when fording rivers. The side-saddles used for this yearly event had unusually elaborate foot-boards, with backs of worked brass to display the farmer’s wealth and status.

As you get closer to the harbour, you can see other groups of horses and riders that are descending from the hills and, before you, groups of farmers and peasants have already gathered in clusters in front of the shore. The men greet each other with the traditional kiss, then study the ships.

You pitch your tents and begin by finding out what is being charged and paid by the Danish merchants. No cash changes hands. Everything is done by trading goods. The Danes control both the selling and buying prices.

The Sýslumaðr, in his gold-laced cap and uniform buttons struts about to keep order, because the drinking is heavy. The Sýslumaðr was similar to a sheriff. He was granted an area called Sýsla in which he was responsible for collecting tolls, taxes and fines, and upholding the law. The Danish merchants are free-handed with liquor before the bargaining begins so there is a party atmosphere to the gathering.

The men row out to the two Danish ships and scramble up the ladders. The women wear white head-kerchiefs over their usual black caps, and instead of shawls they cover their shoulders with short scarves that reach only to the waist. In spite of their bulky petticoats, they manage to climb the ladders and over the gunwales of the ships.

The ships have been constructed like a store. There´s a desk and a counter. Sometimes, the stores supply most of the Icelanders necessities—dry goods, clothes and caps, saddlery, wool carders, querns of basalt for grinding grain, horse shoes, and spinnning wheels; sugar, grain, tobacco, and especially rye spirits. Everything is needed: timber, salt, grain, coffee, spices. The timber consists of pine and fir, the forms are beams for roofing and framing, twenty-two to twenty-four feet long, one-inch boards for siding for houses, three-inch planks and finer woods for the cabinet maker. Salt is essential for salting both fish and meat and the only local salt that is available sometimes is called dirty salt because it comes from burning seaweed. There may be birch wood, sawn and split for fuel, but it is not for ordinary people. Only the Danish merchants can afford it. There are cereals – rye and wheat – that can be bought as grain, flour or already made into biscuits. The farmers prefer the grain because the flour is often mouldy or in poor condition. Buying grain means the laborious task of grinding it with a handmill but that is work for the servants. They can do that when they are not pounding hardfish with a stone hammer to ready it for eating. You will be buying a lower-quality rice in quantity, because, like most Icelanders, you like to make rice milk. In the years between 1864 and 1870, the amount of imported rice quintupled. The available spices are usually cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Twist tobacco is bought for chewing as well as smoking. The favorite form of tobacco is snuff.

The merchants have a large cargo of port, sherry, claret and champagne, rum and cognac, and even cherry brandy to trade with the better off farmers. Most such liquor is expensive and of poor quality. Sometimes, the traders bring so much liquor that they don’t have room for the supplies the Icelanders want and need. The brennivin, kornschnapps and rye spirits are cheap. The profits for the traders are high.

According to F. R. Burton, who attended one of these markets, there was considerable hard drinking and loud hymn singing at night.

When the trading and visiting are done, it is time to return to the farm. The horses’ pack saddles are set on pieces of turf to protect the horses from saddle sores. Each saddle has wooden pegs jutting from its sides, and wooden chests full of the traded goods are hung from the pegs. The trip will be slow because the packs often shift and have to be righted.

Although it is summer, traversing the quaking bogs, ravines and rivers may be made more difficult by rain, sleet and snow. The hæði and the river fords have holes filled with quicksand that horses sink into and have to be pulled out. Some rivers have ice rushing down from the glaciers.There is the occasional ferry. In most cases, it is a small rowboat that can only take people and their supplies. The horses have to be driven into the water to swim for the other bank. Some turn back and have to be caught and forced back into the river. Most of the time, though, there is no ferry and you have to follow a local guide across the least dangerous path.

But you‘ve been to visit the fair, boarded the trade ships, purchased at least some of the goods you need for the coming year, seen people you haven´t seen for twelve months, caught up on news. In the weeks ahead, there is shortening daylight, growing darkness, winter wind and rain and cold, but you‘ve been to the fair, been inside the ships and bought at least some of the things you’ll need to survive for another year.

(With notes and quotes from F.R. Burton, 1872)