1874: Kneeland, stormy trip

How easy it is nowadays to travel to Iceland. Hop on a charter and fly over the Pole. Or even take a regularly scheduled flight from Seattle or Minneapolis. The most one can complain about is seats that are a bit tight, or some turbulence. A few years ago a plane was hit by lightning but no one was the worse for it. There’s a bit of jet lag when you get to Reykjavik but a cup or two of Icelandic coffee, a day’s meeting relatives, visiting the various shops, then a good night’s sleep and all is right with the world.
Think of our poor Samuel. Things weren’t so easy for him.
“The wind began to increase, turning more to the westward, and with it the waves; the clouds looked black and angry, and the rain drove us all below. The barometer kept falling, and the captain, knowing a gale would soon be upon us, changed his course more to the west, and more in the face of the gale. At midnight we reached the Westmann Islands; after a severe buffering from the storm, every thing above and below decks wet….
“So furious was the gale that we tried to put into the Westmann Islands, sending up rockets and blowing the whistle all the time; but as it was midnight no notice as taken of our signals, and we were forced to breast the gale. Had we sails only, we must have been driven on a lee shores, whose jagged rocks would  have instantly destroyed us; but armed with steam we defied the wind and waves, and pushed on our course, though our staunch little craft fairly staggered under the heavy blows she received, rolling and plunging so that it was quite impossible for any of us to walk or even stand….The coast was now and then visible, enabling us to keep at a safe distance. The gale increased during the night, and in the morning, I think, the breakfast table was deserted…We passed a miserable forenoon, but now and then caught a peep of high mountains…At noon we sighted Cape Reykianess.”
If you had to go through that, how often would you go to Iceland? Thrown about so wildly that all you can do is try to jam yourself into your bunk so you aren’t thrown onto the floor. So tossed this way and that you can’t hold down food. Waves and rain so fierce that everything in your cabin, including you, is soaking wet. 
Samuel is someone who really, really wants to go to Iceland.
And, after all this being tossed about, what does he say about his first view so Iceland? “white clouds appear on the horizon, which soon become the outlines of mountains; and finally are recognized as the magnificent piles of snow-capped peaks, the so-called Jokuls; Snaefells is seen more than one hundred and forty miles from land; and Hekla, glittering in the sun, its internal fires, at present, not powerful enough to melt the snow from its summit, gives you the first grand emotion on visiting Iceland, long before you touch it.”
I have not been fortunate enough to see Iceland from a ship but I’ve seen it a number of times from an airplane and, each time, its mountains, its jokuls, its coastline are a thrill. I’m not sure that I’d have been as brave and adventurous as Samuel, ready to risk life and limb to be at the granting of Iceland’s constitution but I think I get the same thrill, seeing this vast land of fire and ice.

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)