Embrace Our Heritage Part 7

Ragnaheiður Straumfjord Magnusson´s spinning wheel, thought to have been made in Canada, now in Lauga Magnusson’s possession (Winnipeg, May 2012) Photograph W. D. Valgardson


When our ancestors came to Canada, butter was still being used as currency. In 1878, Athony Trollope, the English novelist who comes to Iceland as a guest of John Burns on the yacht, The Mastiff, is amazed that there is no bank in Reykjavik. Where there is no currency, there is no need for a bank. Although sour butter could be kept for years without spoiling, no bank wanted to keep its vault full of butter.
Our ancestors, if they were share croppers, paid their rent and debts in June and July with the “wool which was washed and ready for sale; and in September and October by wether-mutton smoked and cured; by grease and tallow, and by sheep-skins and lamb-skins with the coat on.” They reserve the butter and cheese (skyr) mostly for household use. “…Besides supplying food, the animals yield material for local industries—coarse cloth, clothes, frocks and jackets, mittens, stocking and socks.”
The production of wool and turning it into clothes was an essential part of life in Iceland. In Iceland, Burton says “The principal occupation of the women is spinning yarn during the summer, and knitting and weaving in winter. A rude loom fixed and upstanding…stands in every farm. A good hand can weave three yards a day.”
This wadmal was sold by the ell. You can’t embrace what you don’t know or understand and I, when I first came across a measurement called an ell, had  never heard of it and didn’t know what it meant. What was an ell? It was two Danish feet and two Danish feet were two and three eighths English feet. Our ancestors had to be able to do these comparative sums in their heads. In some places, these measures were drawn on church walls so people could check to see that they were measuring correctly.
How important was all this making of coarse cloth, all this knitting? Mr. Consul Crowe (he was an English consul) in his report of 1870-71 reports that there were 76,816 two threaded stockings produced, one threaded, 1,092, Socks, 28,431, mittens, one fingered, 55,601, full fingered, 69 and wadmal, measured in yards, 280. Your ancestors and mine knitted and wove some of those stockings, mittens, wadmal.
In writing a book, you dishonour a people and a subject by making errors. It is your obligation as an author to get facts right. This is as true for fiction as non-fiction. To include errors because of casual carelessness insults the subject. However, even with the best of intentions, the closest attention to the material, errors crop up. Often an author is tripped up by the obvious because it is the obvious that isn’t checked and double checked. The devil in writing is always in the details. I had mentioned in an early draft of one story in What The Bear Said that a farmer was shearing his sheep. However, that detail was wrong and had to be changed. Fortunately, I kept researching and stumbled across the fact that sheep were not sheared. The wool was pulled off when it came loose.
During my childhood many homes in New Iceland had spinning wheels. They were essential to survival in Iceland. In the beginning, they were essential to survival in New Iceland. These spinning wheels, along with carders and combs were a common sight. These spinning wheels were part of the In Between World. However, what was called European cloth was available in New Iceland. There were North American fashions and clothes that more properly suited the climate with its hot summers and cold winters.
My great grandmother, Freddrika Gottskalksdottir had a spinning wheel in her living room. Our great grandmothers’ spinning wheels have pride of place in many of our homes but, today, they are not essential parts of our lives. They are treasures from the past. They are reminders of our families, bits of nostalgia.
In spite of the general poverty in Iceland with its one crop (grass) economy, caused by the cold summers that kept the grass from growing, Burton says “The peasant sells his cattle and sheep to buy for himself vile tobacco; “bogus” cognac; brenivin or kornschnaps,and perhaps even “port” and “sherry;” and for his wife chignon and crinolines, silks and calicoes, instead of the homely but lasting frieze cloth. His grandfather infused Iceland moss; he must drink coffee, while raisins…are replaced by candied or loaf sugar…The Althing has attempted to curb the crying evil of ever increasing drunkneness, the worst disease of the island because the most general”.
If we are going to embrace our heritage, we need to embrace all of it and that includes the Danish trading posts that sold 600 gallons of cheap brandy every year. That includes some Danish trade ships that, instead of bringing desperately needed goods such as horseshoes, metal bars, rye flour, they brought only cheap brandy because it gave the greatest profit.

Saving or heritage: clothes

 Sunna Pam Furstenau. Photo taken by her cousin, Hjálmar Stefán Brynjólfsson. The upphlutur is modern and was sewn by Oddný Kristjaánsdóttir.
One of the most noticeable things in photos taken during and shortly after immigrants arrived in Canada are their clothes. You see crowds on train platforms and you know right away from where these people have come. Icelandic clothes, German clothes, Ukrainian clothes, Mennonite clothes. 
Today, the same is true in the West End of Winnipeg. You see people in clothes from the Middle East and from Africa. You know they’re definitely not Icelandic and that they’re probably recent arrivals.
The most obvious sign of integration and assimilation into Canadian society is the changing of ethnic clothes for whatever the local people wear. Part of that is because people want to fit in. However, the need to wear clothes appropriate to both work and the climate are paramount. 

 Peysufot

Photo from upphlutur.is

Icelanders wore clothes in Iceland that were suitable for unheated houses that were constantly damp. The people also were constantly damp. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses says that he has been wet all his life and it has never done him any harm. Visitors to Iceland in the 1800s frequently mention being soaked through and how difficult it was to get their clothes dried out before they had to put them on the next day.

C. W. Shephard in 1867 and his companions, trapped for days by a May storm, decide to go out to try to bag some wild fowl. He says, “returning at night, draggled and drenched, to cook our supper in the dark recesses of the kitchen, while we hung up our soaking garments in the vain hope that the smoke from the smouldering fire might dry them.”
There were no roaring log fires, no fireplaces, no chimneys, only holes in the floor where the precious fuel of dwarf willow, peat and dried sheep dung were burned to cook porridge or bake flat bread. Skyr didn’t require cooking. Neither did dried fish. It was pounded with a stone hammer until it could be chewed.
Visitors to Iceland in the 1800s and even before always comment on the clothing that Icelandic women wear. There are often long sections describing women’s clothes. These are frequently accompanied by sketches or paintings. There are fewer descriptions of men’s clothes.
John Coles, in 1882, describes Jón of Vidrkær this way: He wore a dark suit of homespun cloth of homely cut, trousers much patched about  the knees regardless of colour and material, a black felt wideawake, and a knitted comforter round the neck…Though in outward looks he may have passed for a gentleman in reduced circumstances rather out at elbows, he was prompt in action, civil, and obliging. A bargain was soon struck for the hire of his services as guide”
 upphlutur
Photo from upphlutur.is
Jon’s wife, Johanna Katrin, is described as “a fair woman, about 30 years of age, with a pleasing expression of face and bright, healthy complexion. She wore the usual Icelandic cap with silken tassel falling down on one side of her head, and a thick woollen dress, such as is worn by any Scotch wife.”
S. E. Waller arrives in Reykjavik on a Sunday in 1874 and says this, “Just about this time the beauty and fashion of Reykjavik came pouring out of church, and we had ample opportunity for inspecting any peculiarities of dress and appearance. Many of the Iceland ladies wore bonnets and carried parasols of Danish or English manufacture, but the generality had nothing on their heads but the little black woolen cap with the silver ornament and long silk tassel used alike by rich and poor,  in-doors and out. The fashionable colour was black…The men were all dressed in dark clothes, and almost all had round felt hats.”
The appearance of the parasols and bonnets indicate that even in Iceland clothing is changing, being influenced by European fashion in Reykjavik.

Sketch by Jemima Blackburn, from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland, 1878

However, when Trollope comes to Iceland in 1878, he writes with great enthusiasm about “Our other Iceland beauties, Sigridur and Gudrun, were there in the full picturesqueness of their native costume. It was all very unlike the dresses of our own girls, but most unlike no doubt in the head-dress. This consisted of a white hat, with, I think, yellow bands to it, made something in the shape of Minerva’s helmet, with the crest turned forwards. From this depended a light veil covering the shoulders, and hanging down the back, but leaving the face free. Then there was a jaunty jacket, partly open in the centre, with large bright buttons down the front and on the sleeves. The skirt beneath was of some bright colour, projecting forward like an extinguisher, coming even quite down to the ground so as to hide the feet, but with no inclination towards a train. In fact it seemed to be of exactly the same length before and behind. The head-dress, as may be seen in the excellent portrait furnished by our artist, for which Sigridur had that morning sat, is very pretty. The costume as a whole is picturesque and the jacket is becoming.”
As hard as life in Iceland could be, account after account describes the shock of the Icelandic immigrants in Canada when winter set in. Icelanders had never experienced anything like it. Their houses in Iceland were made of layers of rock and turf with walls two to six feet thick. Heat was provided by body heat. Twenty people might sleep in one room. Often, heat came from the sheep and cows that were stabled next to the living quarters. Clothes were made of wool. Wool holds body heat even when wet. However, body heat and wool couldn’t keep anyone warm in forty degrees below zero in a Canadian winter.
Survival required that the Icelanders adapt in every way possible, including their clothes, as quickly as possible. The picturesque quality of the women’s clothes didn’t keep them warm.
Also, many women stayed in the cities, particularly Winnipeg, and took work as domestics. There, they learned English ways of being clean, of dressing in an English way, of how they needed to dress to fit into city society. They had risked hardship and death for opportunity and were determined to make the best of their traveling to a new country.
Living conditions outside of the city were extremely difficult. For the first few years, just as in Iceland, the struggle was to get enough food to survive. But building homes that would hold out the cold and hold in the heat from stoves was also a challenge. Cutting down trees, grubbing out tree roots, tilling the earth, were completely new. There was no farming in Iceland beyond pounding sheep manure to dust and then spreading it on the home field. The frost heaves made scything difficult and everyone worked at the haying but this wasn’t harvesting as it was known in Canada.
Icelandic clothing had to give way to clothing suitable for daily life in a country where the summers were hot, the winters, cold. Icelandic clothes had to be regulated to the closet where they would remain except for special occasions.
Today, women still wear the traditional Icelandic dresses on special occasions such as weddings or formal occasions. They are most seen at Islindingadagurinn , the INL convention or August the Deuce. They are a way of reminding people of the time of immigration, of our heritage. They’re a way of saying, “Remember your mother or amma or lang amma or lang lang amma. Remember our Icelandic heritage.”
Today, we can encourage the wearing of historic Icelandic women’s clothes as a way of reminding ourselves of our identity. It helps arouse curiosity. It gives us a chance to answer questions, to impart a bit of history. It helps set us apart as our ethnic clothes are different from that of others. 
Wearing clothes from the time of immigration pays respect to our ancestors. It says, I remember you. I haven’t forgotten. However, it would be good if at various functions there were displays naming and explaining the different costumes so that along with a sense of the exotic there is an element of education for both ourselves and strangers.
I’m quite sure that Sunna Pam Furstenau has a lot more impact on her audiences because she’s wearing her traditional Icelandic costume.             

Trollope on St. Kilda, 1878

 The Mastiff
When travellers in the 1800s went to Iceland by ship, often from ports in Scotland or England, they seldom went directly to Iceland but more often stopped in places like St. Kilda or the Faroes. Descriptions of life in these places gives us an idea of what life was like for people on  these isolated islands and give us a chance to compare their daily life with life in Iceland.
In the case of Trollope and his companions, a group made up of people who were either wealthy and/or famous, aboard the Mastiff, stopping at St. Kilda and the Faroes, both highly picturesque places, was an adventure. Life in England and Scotland had progressed. The Industrial Revolution had brought train travel, new farming techniques, factories. Visiting the various islands was like stepping back in time.
“Nothing can be more picturesque than the approach to St. Kilda.…by degrees, we came upon the little green valley opening down upon the shore in which the people of St. Kilda live. There were the few acres that are cultivated in the island, and there is the row of cottages, eighteen in number, in which the inhabitants live. There is also the chapel which has been built for their use, and there also lives their pastor, who has been now twelve years among them.
“We went ashore in the ship’s boats, and the inhabitants came out to meet us with gracious smiles. With them was their minister, and with them also was Miss MacLeod, the sister of MacLeod, the proprietor of the island…..The first care was to land certain stores, – tea, sugar, and such like, – which Mr. Burns had brought as a present to the people. It is the necessity of their position that such aid should be essential almost to their existence.
“It is about forty-five miles from the nearest of the large inhabited islands, – forty-five miles, that is, from humanity; but St. Kilda is in itself so small that there is no ready mode for traversing that distance. There is no communication by steamer, except such a chance coming as that of ours. The whole wealth of the small community cannot command more than a small rowing-boat or two. When we landed, the men were in sore distress for a few fathoms of rope, which they obtained from the liberality of Mr. Burns.
“The island is about two-and-a-half miles long, and about seven in circumference; the highest land is about 1,200 feet high…it contains about thirty acres of cultivated land, lying just in front of the cottages, on which potatoes and oats are grown….There is, too, a considerable amount of pasture-land among the rocks and hills, on which are maintained about fifty cattle and 400 sheep; but with them there is much difficulty. The winter here is very cold, and in winter the stock is necessarily left to shift for themselves….Then we walked up among the cottages, buying woollen stockings and sea-birds’ eggs, such being the commodities they had for sale. Some coarse cloth we found there also, made on the island from the wool grown there, of which some among us bought sufficient for a coat, waistcoat, or petticoat, as the case may be.
“In their want of other fuel, the inhabitants skin the turf from their pastures and burn it. Gradually, thus, the grass is going, for it is burned much quicker than it is produced. In this way the food for the sheep and cattle will quickly disappear.
“They (the cottages) are soundly built of stone, and each contains two well-sized rooms; but it may, I think, be taken for granted that this is due to private munificence and not to the personal efforts of the inhabitants. There are still to be seen the wretched hovels in which the people dwelt before the stone cottages were erected, fifteen years ago.
“The pastor, whose life here is certainly not to be envied, and who acts as schoolmaster as well as minister, receives £80 per annum from the Scotch Free Church….There is but one person in the island, but himself, a married woman, who can speak a word of English. No books can reach him; hardly a newspaper.
“There are between seventy and eighty inhabitants on the island, of whom, among the adults, the female outnumber the male by nearly two to one. This, of course, comes from the fact that the young men can leave the harshness of such a life much more easily than the young women. I was told that at the present moment there were two marriageable young men at St. Kilda, and twelve marriageable, but unmarried, females….Each man is his own shoemaker and tailor. They dye their own wool. Whatever furniture they use they make generally for themselves. They make their own candles. But perhaps the chief employment of the men is the catching of sea birds; the feathers of which they sell, and on the flesh of which they in a great part live. The bird which they eat is the fulmar…. Sometimes they have bread. Sometimes they make a stew with oatmeal and fulmar, – not delicious I should think to any but a St. Kildarite; – sometimes they luxuriate with corned mutton. Sometimes they have porridge. Occasionally they have been near to famine; and then they have been kept alive by presents.
“I have said that the St. Kildarites appeared to be healthy. From a medical report, however, published by the same traveller, Mr. MacDiarmid, it appears that they are greatly troubled with rheumatism and scrofula. But the curse of the island in regard to its sanitary condition is a disease among babies for which the cause has not yet been discovered. At about eight days old the children die. That this was so I heard from every side. It seemed to prevail to such an extent that a child at that age would be more likely to die than live.”
This same problem of babies dying shortly after birth plagued the Westman Islands and, to some extent, the Faroes. In the Westmans, the cause was eventually discovered to be tetanus.
Imagine, an island so isolated and so poor that the village is desperate for a piece of rope. A place where people live mainly on sea birds. Where the entire village is housed and kept alive through the generosity of the owner of the island.
Eventually, the British government moved the people from St Kilda. There were only 80  households to move. Moving them seems extreme but, remember, that at one time, the Danish government considered moving the entire population of Iceland to Denmark. The task would have been a logistical nightmare. If there had been fewer Icelanders, it might have been possible and Iceland would have suffered the same fate as St. Kilda.
In Iceland, there was enough arable land that there could be well-to-do farmers but the greatest number of Icelanders lived in poverty. Many had only a quilt, a horn spoon, a wooden bowl, their clothes and a few coins. A lot had no coins. But they were better off than the people of St Kilda. They could afford a piece of rope.
(Quotes from How the ‘Mastiffs” Went to Iceland. Photo of The Mastiff courtesy of Rory O’Farrell)

The Dinner Party, Trollope, Reykjavik, 1878

 Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)
It’s 1878. John Burns has come to Iceland from Castle Wemyss on the yacht, Mastiff. He’s brought his wife and fourteen guests. Their purpose is neither academic nor literary. They’re in Iceland to see the famous geysers. In this, they join many other visitors who have come to observe, marvel at and try to understand the geysers.
Iceland is in crises. The weather, volcanic eruption, Danish rule and the stranglehold on the political and economic process by the ultra-conservative landowners has created poverty and hopelessness for many. Iceland is locked into its past by its elite. In the meantime, England has traded canals and coaches for railways. In 1806 the first fare-paying passenger train has gone into service. In 1863, fifteen years before the Mastiff anchors in the harbour at Reykjavik, England has its first subway. By 1800, London has a population of 950,000 and is growing toward what will become a population of 6 million in 1900. Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, may have a population of 2,500. That is what Trollope has been told but from his observations, he doubts the population is that large.
In Iceland, the country suffers from a history of Icelandic bishops determined to ban all frivolity, all entertainment unless it is religious. As well, there are not the resources to purchase the supplies necessary or provide support for the fine arts. The state of Icelandic culture is captured by Halldór Laxness, in his novel, The Fish Can Sing. It presents a tragic picture of an Icelandic singer who is supposed to be a great success in Europe. The local merchants believe that he must be a great singer because he can sing louder than the noise made by eleven hundred pigs a day being butchered in a slaughterhouse in Denmark. In England, that frivolity and leisure activity has turned into a sophisticated culture. The big news of the day is that an Australian cricket team has arrived. Oxford defeats Cambridge in their first golf match. Gilbert/Sullivan’s opera “HMS Pinafore,” premieres in London. What seems most amazing is that “the first rugby match under floodlights takes place in Salford, between Broughton and Swinton.”(Wickipedia) What would the Icelandic bishops thought of all that?
As different as chalk and cheese, the Mastiffs and the Icelanders. At dinner there will be sixteen English, fourteen Icelanders.
The guest list provided by Trollope includes the following:
  
Governor HILMAR FINSEN, and his wife, Lady OLUFA FINSEN.
Mr. THORBERG (Governor Praefect or Amtman) and his wife.
Mr. A THORSTEINSON (Treasurer)
Bishop P. PJETURSSON, and his wife.
Miss THORA PJETURSSON, his daughter (our particular friend).
Mr. J. PJETURSSON, (Head of the Superior Court.)
Mr. J. THORKELSON (Rector of the Latin College).
Mr. J. ARNASEN (Inspector of the Latin College).
SIGRIDUR JONSDOTTER and GUDRUN KNUTSEN (two beautiful
young ladies in full Icelandic costume).
Mr. JON JONSSON (Sheriff of Reykjavik).
(To an Icelander, the one puzzling thing about the guest list is why Thora, so often described for  her beauty, so obviously a woman, and definitely, the daughter of the bishop, would be described as  his son? However, it is an understandable error and, more to the point, it is an indication of what will happen to the Icelandic naming system in North America.)
To celebrate the supper, the Mastiff is decked out with flags and her guns are fired. The Mastiff’s boats collect the Icelandic party and bring the visitors to the ship.
Trollope is seated between the beautiful Thora and the Governor’s wife, Mrs. Finsen. Thora he leaves to entertain other guests and devotes himself to Mrs. Finsen. It is this same Mrs. Finsen who received Christian IX when he came to Reykjavik and did it so well that Bayard Taylor says about her, “The door of the Governor’s house opened and Madame Finsen appeared, dressed in a simple black silk, without any ornaments. She descended the steps of the first garden terrace, curtsied at the right moment to the royal guest, a little less deeply to the Prince, and accompanied them to the door. This sounds like a very simple matter ; but not many ladies would have accomplished it with such admirable grace, tact, and self-possession.”
Mrs. Finsen speaks English and Trollope says that during the course of the dinner that Mrs. Finsen tells him so much of her life that he might know an Englishwoman for thirty years and not learn as much about her. He describes Mrs. Finsen as “comely, brown, pleasant, smiling lady, with a large face, bright eyes, and a look of homely good humour that I have never seen excelled”. It might be a compliment but it has an edge to it and it is impossible not to think of some of the descriptions in Pride and Prejudice of the country behaviours that embarrass Elizabeth.
They have dinner but, alas, there is no menu to show what the visitors brought for this grand meal. What might there have been on the table that would have amazed the Icelanders? When the king banqueted, it was fresh grapes. After dinner there are toasts, then they all go on deck to dance.
Sketch by  Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)
Trollope is quite interested in the fact that “Thora was dressed as she might have been dressed in Paris or in London….Our other Iceland beauties, Sigridur and Gudrun, were there in the full picturesqueness of their native costume. It was all very unlike the dresses of our own girls, but most unlike no doubt in the head-dress. This consisted of a white hat, with, I think, yellow bands to it, made something in the shape of Minerva’s helmet, with the crest turned forwards. From this depended a light veil covering the shoulders, and hanging down the back, but leaving the face free. Then there was a jaunty jacket, partly open in the centre, with large bright buttons down the front and on the sleeves. The skirt beneath was of some bright colour, projecting forward like an extinguisher, coming even quite down to the ground so as to hide the feet, but with no inclination towards a train. In fact it seemed to be of exactly the same length before and behind. The head-dress, as may be seen in the excellent portrait furnished by our artist, for which Sigridur had that morning sat, is very pretty. The costume as a whole is picturesque and the jacket is becoming.”
After dining and dancing away the night, on Sunday morning, the English have a church service on board the ship, then go to a service at the Reykjavik church. There, Trollope notices that the ladies are all in their Icelandic costumes. He is told that the congregation has been ordered to show off their finery for the visitors.
There may be hunger abroad in the land and people trudging over mountain passes to reach harbours and ships that will take them, they hope, to a better life. There may be people who own little or nothing, who are considered such a burden on Icelandic society that their fares are being paid to North America because it is cheaper to get rid of them than for the sýsla to keep them. But, as always, there are those who are well connected, well paid, well fed, well dressed, well educated, well entertained. No one on the guest list will go hungry the day after the banquet, or a month or year after the banquet; none will dress in rags, will sleep with the cattle, will walk for days over mountain passes and heaths in a desperate hope of a new life in a New Iceland where they can have their own land.
The English guests, having proven excellent hosts and, having met their social obligations, are ready to turn to the true purpose of their trip. To the geysers. The marvelous, legendary geysers. The geysers that, today, still draw busloads of tourists from around the world. Except this trip in 1878 will be made on horseback.
(Quotes from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland, Anthony Trollope)

Trollope’s picnic, Iceland,1878

Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)

In 1878, Iceland, faced with disastrous weather, recent volcanic eruption, the continuing domination of Denmark in spite of the new constitution brought to Iceland by Christian IX in 1874, was riven with conflict. Some, seeing the end of Danish rule, the actual appearance of coinage brought in payment by the English and Scottish traders who were buying cattle, the possibility of Icelanders becoming merchants and traders instead of just the providers of goods to trade in a monopoly situation, were strongly opposed to the emigration that was going on. These were the nationalists and idealists. Also opposed were the better off large landowning farmers who were seeing their cheap labour disappear and, as a result, wages, little as they were, going up. In a marginal economy with one crop, hay, even well-to-do farmers could be reduced to penury by a summer when the grass didn’t grow. Conservative, opposed to change, the dominant land owners’ solution was to keep costs as low as possible. That meant keeping the majority of the population as indentured servants. On the other hand those who had no future were determined to leave. They rode, or often walked, to the coast, waited for ships that were frequently delayed by bad weather. The conflict between those who wanted no emigration and those determined to search for a life where there was opportunity was often bitter.
In the midst of this social upheaval, the Mastiffs, Trollope says “were all engaged in frivolous pursuits of buying silver ornaments and talking to the good-natured people in the shops, – all of whom seemed to possess a little English”
John Burns, the wealthy host of the trip, was busy on his own errands. He was going about Reykjavik asking “all the greater people of the town to come and eat dinner on board the Mastiff.” Burns also decides that there should be a picnic in the afternoon of the Saturday even though the dinner is Saturday night. None of the travelers, of course, has anything to do but be presentable. The food was prepared by the on-board cook.
Trollope has mentioned before that except for curds (skyr?), milk and cream, none of the travellers try any Icelandic food. On the coming Monday, they intend to pack a hundredweight of English cooked meat and bread with them to the Geysers.
The picnic is a great success. Thora “the divine” goes with them. She’s fluent in English and can translate for them. They sail three or four miles to an island devoted to the breeding of eider ducks.
Thora leads them to the home of the owner of the island. For Iceland, he has a fine house. Trollope can’t resist a little sarcasm by saying that Icelanders all seem to like English gold and gives as an example a lot of Icelandic silver work set out on the piano that is obviously there so the English visitors will buy it. Word, it would seem, has gone ahead about the Mastiffs shopping for trinkets in Reykjavik.
Trollope says that it was while they were having their picnic that “Thora made herself so divine that our Wilson seemed altogether to succumb to her attractions.”
 According to Trollope, the picnic lunch was stupendous. However, they didn’t dally as they had to get back to the Mastiff to prepare for “the grand dinner.”
The English travellers are worldly, used to the best of everything. Their lives could probably be described as sumptuous. There is nothing in Iceland to compare with Castle Wymess or even the grand houses of the other members of the party. To these visitors, intent not on geology, politics, history, ornithology, but only on seeing the famous geysers, what must be, for them, a primitive and poor society is no more than amusing. It’s a diversion paid for by someone else. Unlike Charles Lock they are not in search of the Eddas. Of course, it is impossible to know what any of the other party members thought or felt for it is throughTrollope’s lens that everything is reported and his description is constrained by good manners and obligation.
There is probably no more telling detail of the attitude of the travellers to the Icelanders than the attitude toward Icelandic food. What was available, it is true, was limited. And, one might add, when the Danish king came to Reykjavik, the food for the banquet in the city was brought with him. However, when the reception in his honour was held at the Almannagjá, it was Icelandic food that was served him and no one mentioned that he declined.
The only items of value to the English travellers, it seems, are the bits and pieces of silver jewelry that are bought as souvenirs and, even some of these, Trollope says, may have come from the British Isles. Unlike S. E. Waller, a young painter who, inspired by the sagas, had so little money that he could not afford more than three horses and a single guide, the Mastiffs were not seeking the home of Burnt Njál. Waller travelled across Iceland to paint scenes from the sagas. Even a small amount of money would have made his travels less arduous. However, the Icelandic farmers, recognizing that he was not rich, befriended him. He learned something of the Icelandic people’s generosity and kindness. They often provided food and accommodation without charge. Nor did they charge for their precious grass. Waller came to Iceland with a deep appreciation of Icelandic literature and history. He sought, in the face of hardship, to create something of lasting value. The Mastiffs brought nothing, it seems, with them beyond English gold and took away nothing but trinkets.

Trollope at Reykjavik, 1878

The Mastiff arrives in Reykjavik early in the morning. After bathing in the ocean, the travellers go ashore. 
They first visit Governor Finsen, the Governor-General of Iceland. Trollope comments on how kindly the sixteen unexpected guests were received. The Governor also provides them with all the information required for finding a guide and horses for their ride to the Geysers. 
From there, they go to the Sheriff’s, then to the Bishop’s (http://books.google.ca/books/about/Biskop_Pjetur_Pjetursson.html?id=5OgEHQAACAAJ&redir_esc=y.) The bishop is considered Iceland’s greatest theological writer since Gubrandur Thorlaksson, the first translator of the Bible into Icelandic. He served as a member of the Icelandic Althing, or parliament, from 1849 until 1886, for the last eleven years as speaker of the upper house.
There, they meet Thora, the Bishop’s daughter. She is so beautiful, so charming, so vivacious, that she is repeatedly mentioned in Trollope’s account of their stay in Reykjavik. He even suggests, teasingly, that one of the male members of the English party has fallen in love with Thora and might return to Iceland to court and marry her.    
He says, “But at the Bishop’s we became acquainted with Thora, the Bishop’s daughter. Thora, before we left, had become to all of us the heroine of Reykjavik. Even Wilson, the unhappy one, was softened altogether by the charm and wit of Thora, and became quite devoted and almost gay in her presence.” (http://www.forlagid.is/?p=573500) A book about Thora has recently been released in Iceland. Unfortunately, it is only in Icelandic.
After these formal visits to the dignitaries of Reykjavik, they roam about town like typical tourists of today. They buy silver ornaments, silvered belts and filigree work as souvenirs. They also buy leather whips and satchels.
Fish, he notices, is spread out on every available piece of ground, that bread is rare and that the mutton (he was told) is good.
What is more interesting is that he says, “I do not think that any one of our party ate a morsel of Icelandic food during our sojourn beyond curds, cream, and milk, – unless it might be a biscuit taken with a glass of wine. Our provisions had all been brought from Scotland, and from our ship’s stores we carried with us up to the Geysers what was needed.” They ate no Icelandic lamb, no fish.
What he praises is the education of the people. However, he does not know that from his own experience. He quotes from Sir George MacKenzie who published a book about Iceland in 1811, sixty-seven years before.
“The amount of reading which certainly does prevail throughout Iceland is marvellous. There is hardly in the island what can be called an upper class. There is no rich body, as there is with us, for whose special advantage luxurious schools and aristocratic universities can be maintained. But there is a thoroughly good college at Reykjavik, with a rector and professors, at which a sound classical education is given; and there are now also minor schools….There are five newspapers published in the island, two of them at Reykjavik.”
He’s surprised that there is no bank. The result is that most commerce is based on the barter of goods. “The imports and exports are considerable, fish, oil, skins, tallow, and wool being sent away in exchange for timber, wood, tea, sugar, and all those thousand little articles of comfort which a civilised community uses every day almost without knowing it. But nothing can be imported or exported without payment being rendered in the old world fashion of barter.”
In a walk he took by himself around “the back of the town, where lies a little lake with marshy land around it, I found a number of women and children turning the peat for drying, or sending away in baskets on their ponies that which was fit, carrying on their operations very much as they do in Ireland. Fuel to them is a matter of great solicitude. During eight months of the year artificial warmth is necessary; and not only have they no coals, but neither have they wood. Coal imported from Scotland may be bought at Reykjavik; but as there is no carriage for anything through the country except on the backs of ponies, very little coal can ever be seen beyond the limits of the town.”
The Mastiffs are typical well-to-do tourists. Their accommodation is on the ship. They buy what souvenirs they can find. In Iceland, in 1878, the emigration to North America is well underway. Hunger is widespread, there’s been a major volcanic eruption, economic and social conditions are driving away what will eventually be twenty percent of Iceland’s population. There is no mention of any of it. There’s not even any awareness revealed.
It is, perhaps, instructive that Trollope made his walk around the back of the town by himself. Perhaps a writer, even one who has made himself a place among the wealthy and the prominent, has a wider interest in the world than his wealthy, privileged friends.
(Quotes from How the ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland)

The Mastiff at the Faroes, 1878

Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909

Trollope and his friends leave St. Kilda and head for the Faroe Islands. They are on a sightseeing junket paid by the head of Cunard Lines. They’re travelling on the yacht, the Mastiff. They hold high positions, individually, or as members of important families. They are used to life in European cities. At St. Kilda, they’ve seen what life is like in an isolated place where bare survival requires charity. Where good fortune is the gift of a few feet of rope. Now, they go to the Faroes, also isolated, but with a population of around ten thousand and circumstances that allow them to fish and farm more successfully. This visit is good preparation for when the Mastiffs  reach Iceland.
The Faroes are inextricably linked with Iceland. Numerous books about Iceland are also about the Faroes. Harper&Brothers published a book, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes in 1841. Kneeland says in his book, Travels In Iceland, 1874, that travellers should go to Iceland via Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, and the Faroes. Russell’s, Iceland, 1914, starts with a chapter on the Faroes.
The Faroes, as small as they are, were the first country to offer Iceland financial aid during the recent economic crises. In spite of that, the Faroes are often dismissed by Icelanders, brushed off with a sniff. That may be because of their size or it may be lingering resentment that the Faroes were always treated well by the Danish king. When Christian IX stopped at the Faroes on his way to Iceland in 1874, the Faroese had nothing to ask from him. No one asked for a new constitution. The population was quite satisfied with the way it was being treated. The Icelanders wanted a new constitution and independence. They’d suffered for centuries under harsh Danish law and trading monopolies that exploited them.
When the Mastiff’s passengers arrive at Thorshavn, Trollop says, “The postmaster, with a considerable proportion of the population, was there, on the rocks, to receive us.
“We were taken first to the postmaster’s house, – only, I think, because the doing so was an act of hospitality. Here we found ourselves in a very pretty room, comfortably furnished, overlooking a beautifully picturesque nook of the sea.” This would be, in Iceland, the description of a Danish trader’s house, not an Icelanders. Ida Pfeiffer, in 1845, upon arriving in Iceland describes the Danish traders’ houses this way: “If any person could suddenly and without having made the journey, be transported into one of these houses, he would certainly fancy himself in some continental town, rather than in the distant and barren island of Iceland.
She then adds, “From these handsome houses I betook myself to the cottages of the peasants, which have a more indigenous, Icelandic appearance….Throughout my subsequent journeys into the interior, I found the cottages of the peasant everywere alike squalid and filthy.”
Trollope, having landed safely and been greeted politely, says, “Then we proceeded upon a walk, a number of men and a long string of pretty maidens accompanying us. We went about among the narrow streets, – streets which are required for no wheeled vehicles, – and saw other maidens looking at us from out of the windows. These streets were not rectangular, straight, and ugly, but ran crookedly here and there, up and down hills, round the little indented bays of the sea, with houses standing sometimes angularly, sometimes with gables to the roadway. And the houses were all covered with green turf, with turf that at this time of the year was growing, – a mode of roofing which gave a singularly picturesque appearance to the place.
“The turf is used as a protection against snow, and is a protection of which the ‘Mastiffs’ saw more when they found themselves in Iceland. That it should have been found necessary here I am surprised, as Thorshavn though it lies between 61 and 62 N.L., is not a place of very much snow. The climate is moist and foggy, and storms are frequent; but the winters are not severe. The frost lasts hardly beyond a month, and the harbours are seldom icebound. But there are the houses covered with grass, giving to the place from a little distance the appearance of a town under the sods.
“When we had perambulated the streets we were taken up to a little hill over the town so that we might look down upon and see the nature of its situation and its structure. Thorshavn lies all around various little nooks of the sea, and has the smell and flavour of the sea which is peculiar to such places. It is very pretty, but its smell and flavour, combining that of many fishes, is one to which the visitor must become accustomed before it will be palatable. There is certainly the ancient and the fish-like smell; – otherwise Thorshavn is delightful.
“There are, I was told, about 10,000 inhabitants in the islands, of which the capital holds about 900. Looking at statistics composed as to the Faroes about twenty-five years ago, I find the number of the people given as 8,150 for the group altogether, and 1,500 for the capital.…The cultivation is very poor, the ground being too rocky for the general use of ploughs. Horses and cattle are rare. The wealth of the farmers consists in their sheep. The sheep, however, are never housed, and the wool is torn from their backs instead of being shorn. Here, as at St. Kilda, there is a great enterprise of bird-catching, for the sake of the flesh as well as the feathers. There seemed to be little or no poverty. A good carpenter in Thorshavn would earn 4s. a week; in other parts of the islands a moderate carpenter would earn 2s. They use Danish coins, of which the crown contains 100 farthings; this crown is worth something over as. The people generally are healthy; the girls appear to be remarkably strong. But here again I was told that rheumatism prevails.
“When we descended from the hill… to see the church. It was now considerably past midnight, and yet there seemed to be no difficulty in finding the key. The church was spacious, – not at all unlike one of our own ugly churches, with pews, and a gallery, and an organ. It seemed to me to be larger than would be wanted in England for a population of 900; but it is probably the case that a larger proportion of the population attends Divine service than is the case with ourselves. It was evident that they were proud of their church, and that they who accompanied us were anxious that we should see it.”
Although the Faroese appear much more Danish than the Icelanders–they have adopted the Danish system easily, the language, the coins, the postal service, the government appointments, and they appear to be better off–there is much similarity with Iceland. Some are in the details Trollope mentions.
Neither shear sheep. They pull off loose wool. It is an odd, wasteful practice that results in poor quality wool even though wool is a major trading item. If North American Icelandic beliefs about Iceland being held back because of lack of contact with more efficient ways of doing things were true, one could understand sheep not being sheared. It could be assumed the Faroese and Icelanders simply didn’t know that sheep should be sheared. However, the oddity of the practice of pulling off loose wool is such that not only does Trollope mention it but so do any number of other English travellers. One has to assume that the travellers mentioned it to people in both the Faroes and Iceland. Nearly every account of travels in Iceland states that wealth is not in silver but in sheep. The practice would seem to be more about attitude, a crippling refusal to change that Laxness repeatedly mentions in his novels,  than lack of knowledge.
Faroese buildings, like Icelandic ones, have turf roofs. Again, Trollope’s eye for detail, that essential quality of the novelist, notes both the turf roofs and the incongruity of them for there are other roofing materials available. In Iceland, he will see a situation where the people have no choice but to use sod, where wood is so scarce that whale ribs are used as roof beams.
Trollope notes that the streets of Thorshavn won’t accommodate wheeled vehicles. The stop in the Faroes prepares the travellers for Iceland, a country with hardly any attempt at building roads where everything, even the dead, are moved on horseback.
The major difference is that the climate is milder and Trollope makes note of it. Oats and barley will ripen. However, the winds can be fierce, so fierce that it actually strips away sod. In Iceland, the ripening of grain stopped far back in history. The one crop is grass. The Icelanders, like the Faroese, cut sod and dry it for fuel because fuel of any kind is in such short supply. In Iceland, it is so scarce that farmhouses are not heated. In the Faroes, the houses are heated but Trollope notes that the use of sod for fuel relentlessly reduces the pasture for the sheep.
This brief stop gives the travellers a preview of what is to come. Trollope, the famous writer, is the guest of Mr. John Burns, the owner of the Cunard Lines. He comes in luxury, the guest of a man who lives in a castle, a member of the nobility, the kind of successful businessman who can afford to take sixteen people on a yacht the size of the Mastiff.  A man who can afford to be both demanding and generous. One gets the impression that these tourists are no more enlightened about the condition of life for those outside their social class than today’s tourists on a cruise that stops at various ports of call. They look at the sights and buy local souvenirs. It may be when they return home, that in describing the people they saw, they will use the word “quaint”.
Trollope, used to upper class English society, a society in which he has made a place for himself among the rich and powerful, can’t help but see, because he is a novelist, what people’s lives are like. However, he is writing about the trip as a gesture of friendship to John Burns so the account of the trip must please his patron. There is no curiosity about the “peasants”, no visits to the earth like hovels like those Ida Pfeiffer made. There’s no point in complaining that Trollope isn’t Dickens. After all, none of the passengers would have any reason to enter the hovels of the local peasants in the areas from which they came. Why would they when abroad? Money shields the Mastiffs from daily reality. However, Anthony Trollope had a keen eye, and from some of his observations, one might expect that he had much to think about after he had his nightly whiskey and water and went to bed.
(Quotes from How the Mastiffs Went to Iceland)

Trollope at St. Kilda, on the way to Reykjavik, 1878

The Mastiff Built: 1878 Ship Type: Coaster Tonnage: 871 grt Length: 230 feet Breadth: 30 feet Owner: G & J Burns Ltd Glasgow Remarks: Broken up at Genoa 1924

 The people of St. Kilda

When travellers in the 1800s went to Iceland by ship, often from ports in Scotland or England, they seldom went directly to Iceland but more often stopped in places like St. Kilda or the Faroes. Descriptions of life in these places gives us an idea of what life was like for people on  these isolated islands and give us a chance to compare their daily life with life in Iceland.
In the case of Trollope and his companions, a group made up of people who were either wealthy and/or famous, aboard the Mastiff, stopping at St. Kilda and the Faroes, both highly picturesque places, was an adventure. Life in England and Scotland had progressed. The Industrial Revolution had brought train travel, new farming techniques, factories. Visiting the various islands was like stepping back in time.
“Nothing can be more picturesque than the approach to St. Kilda.…by degrees, we came upon the little green valley opening down upon the shore in which the people of St. Kilda live. There were the few acres that are cultivated in the island, and there is the row of cottages, eighteen in number, in which the inhabitants live. There is also the chapel which has been built for their use, and there also lives their pastor, who has been now twelve years among them.
“We went ashore in the ship’s boats, and the inhabitants came out to meet us with gracious smiles. With them was their minister, and with them also was Miss MacLeod, the sister of MacLeod, the proprietor of the island…..The first care was to land certain stores, – tea, sugar, and such like, – which Mr. Burns had brought as a present to the people. It is the necessity of their position that such aid should be essential almost to their existence.
“It is about forty-five miles from the nearest of the large inhabited islands, – forty-five miles, that is, from humanity; but St. Kilda is in itself so small that there is no ready mode for traversing that distance. There is no communication by steamer, except such a chance coming as that of ours. The whole wealth of the small community cannot command more than a small rowing-boat or two. When we landed, the men were in sore distress for a few fathoms of rope, which they obtained from the liberality of Mr. Burns.
“The island is about two-and-a-half miles long, and about seven in circumference; the highest land is about 1,200 feet high…it contains about thirty acres of cultivated land, lying just in front of the cottages, on which potatoes and oats are grown….There is, too, a considerable amount of pasture-land among the rocks and hills, on which are maintained about fifty cattle and 400 sheep; but with them there is much difficulty. The winter here is very cold, and in winter the stock is necessarily left to shift for themselves….Then we walked up among the cottages, buying woollen stockings and sea-birds’ eggs, such being the commodities they had for sale. Some coarse cloth we found there also, made on the island from the wool grown there, of which some among us bought sufficient for a coat, waistcoat, or petticoat, as the case may be.
“In their want of other fuel, the inhabitants skin the turf from their pastures and burn it. Gradually, thus, the grass is going, for it is burned much quicker than it is produced. In this way the food for the sheep and cattle will quickly disappear.
“They (the cottages) are soundly built of stone, and each contains two well-sized rooms; but it may, I think, be taken for granted that this is due to private munificence and not to the personal efforts of the inhabitants. There are still to be seen the wretched hovels in which the people dwelt before the stone cottages were erected, fifteen years ago.
“The pastor, whose life here is certainly not to be envied, and who acts as schoolmaster as well as minister, receives £80 per annum from the Scotch Free Church….There is but one person in the island, but himself, a married woman, who can speak a word of English. No books can reach him; hardly a newspaper.
“There are between seventy and eighty inhabitants on the island, of whom, among the adults, the female outnumber the male by nearly two to one. This, of course, comes from the fact that the young men can leave the harshness of such a life much more easily than the young women. I was told that at the present moment there were two marriageable young men at St. Kilda, and twelve marriageable, but unmarried, females….Each man is his own shoemaker and tailor. They dye their own wool. Whatever furniture they use they make generally for themselves. They make their own candles. But perhaps the chief employment of the men is the catching of sea birds; the feathers of which they sell, and on the flesh of which they in a great part live. The bird which they eat is the fulmar…. Sometimes they have bread. Sometimes they make a stew with oatmeal and fulmar, – not delicious I should think to any but a St. Kildarite; – sometimes they luxuriate with corned mutton. Sometimes they have porridge. Occasionally they have been near to famine; and then they have been kept alive by presents.
“I have said that the St. Kildarites appeared to be healthy. From a medical report, however, published by the same traveller, Mr. MacDiarmid, it appears that they are greatly troubled with rheumatism and scrofula. But the curse of the island in regard to its sanitary condition is a disease among babies for which the cause has not yet been discovered. At about eight days old the children die. That this was so I heard from every side. It seemed to prevail to such an extent that a child at that age would be more likely to die than live.”
This same problem of babies dying shortly after birth plagued the Westman Islands and, to some extent, the Faroes. In the Westmans, the cause was eventually discovered to be tetanus.
Imagine, an island so isolated and so poor that the village is desperate for a piece of rope. A place where people live mainly on sea birds. Where the entire village is housed and kept alive through the generosity of the owner of the island.
Eventually, the British government moved the people from St Kilda. There were only 80  households to move. That seems extreme but, remember, that at one time, the Danish government considered moving the entire population of Iceland to Denmark. The task would have been a logistical nightmare. If there had been fewer Icelanders, it might have been possible and Iceland would have suffered the same fate as St. Kilda.
In Iceland, there was enough arable land that there could be well-to-do farmers but the greatest number of Icelanders lived in poverty. Many had only a quilt, a horn spoon, a wooden bowl, their clothes and a few coins. A lot had no coins. But they were better off than the people of St Kilda. They could afford a piece of rope.

(Quotes from How the ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland. Picture of the Mastiff courtesy of Rory O’Farrell)

When Anthony Trollope Visited Iceland, 1878

Part 1
As I was growing up in Gimli, Manitoba, nearly everything I was told about Iceland was incorrect. Memories of Iceland were distorted by time and distance. Events and social conditions were filtered through a lens of misunderstanding. In the days of my childhood, people didn’t fly over the pole to Iceland. People seldom flew anywhere. When one person moved to Gimli from Iceland, it was the talk of the town.
Perhaps one of the largest distortions was the picture of Iceland as a country so far from everything that it was completely isolated.  While Iceland wasn’t a hub of activity like Denmark or Norway, it certainly wasn’t an isolated place with no communication with the outside world. The Danish traders had stores in Iceland and Danish families lived at some of these posts. Danish trading ships came to Icelandic ports in the summer. Well-to-do Icelandic farmers and officials travelled to Denmark and sent their children to school in Copenhagen.
However, contact wasn’t just with the Danes. Europeans were fascinated by Iceland. Germans and French came but most of all, English people came. Not just men but women as well. Summer after summer, they came to study the geology, the fisheries, the bird life. They came to see if the sulphur beds could be mined. They came, time and again to see the geysers for the geysers were one of the wonders of the world. Some came to travel to the places described in the sagas. When the Danish trade restrictions were lifted, the English came to buy horses and sheep. They also fished offshore.
Most of those visiting Iceland came with a serious purpose. Many were members of the Royal Society of England. They came to learn about volcanoes and lava and glaciers. They took the temperature of the Great Geyser and of Strokkur. They pondered how the geysers worked. They recorded daily life on the isolated farms. They wrote reports on the fisheries. They came to sell Bibles and spread the word of God.
However, one person who came in 1878, during the time of emigration, didn’t come for a serious purpose. He and his fifteen companions came to party and visit the geysers. They did both. He was Anthony Trollope, Victorian England’s most popular novelist. When he returned to England he wrote a short account of this excursion. His account is deceiving because it says nothing about the importance of the visitors. A quick read through might leave the reader thinking these were just ordinary, everyday people who came to ride Icelandic horses and party with the elite of Reykjavik.
No ordinary people could afford to visit Iceland. If ordinary people saw Iceland it was sailors like the thirty-four crew on the yacht, The Mastiff that brought Trollope. The owner of the yacht was Mr. John Burns, the owner of the Cunard Lines. He lived at Castle Wemyss with his wife. He paid for the entire trip. The yacht, the supplies, the horses and guides. His fourteen guests were allowed to buy antique Icelandic jewelry and other trinkets but, otherwise, were not to mention money.
Trollope lists those guests but says nothing much about their social station or their accomplishments. For example, in the list of the members of the party, he simply says there is a  Mrs. H. Blackburn. He doesn’t tell us that the lady is Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909) a Scottish painter who was one of the most popular illustrators in Victorian Britain. She illustrated 27 books. She provides the illustrations for Trollope’s book, How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland.
The party’s two Nautical Advisors are Admiral Ryder and Admiral Farquhar. These are not honourary titles. Ryder is Sir Phillips Ryder, Admiral of the Fleet. Farquhar is a Scottish rear-admiral. One guest is simply described as Mr. Albert Grey. He is Earl Grey, the son of a former prime minister of England and a member of Parliament.

Besides Jemima, there are three other women, Miss Campbell, Miss Stuart and Miss Reddie along to keep Mrs. Burns company. These are no helpless, shrinking Victorian violets. They’re horsewomen and manage to outride all but the Icelandic guide.
In the next excerpt, I’ll tell you about the beginning of this madcap adventure to Iceland. But before we get to Reykjavik, we’ll visit a couple of interesting ports along with the distinguished partiers.
(with notes from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went To Iceland and Wickipedia)