Now there is Monsters and Men, then there was…

Sketch from Faroe and Iceland by A. J. Symington

Sketch from Faroe and Iceland by A. J. Symington

A. J. Symington, in 1862, going to an evening that included Icelandic music with two of his friends. The three of them “spent the evening, by invitation, at the Governor’s—the Count Von Trampe. I had a long conversation with him in German, during which he mentioned that all the old Saga and Edda MSS, had been removed to Copenhagen; and, in answer to sundry enquiries, told me that the “lang spiel” is the only Icelandic musical instrument now in use. It is something like a guitar or banjo, has four strings, and is played with a little bow. The airs now played are chiefly Danish dance music, and other foreign melodies.

“The Icelanders, like the natives of Madagascar, have adopted the music of our “God save the queen” as their national air. The words to which it is sung were composed In the beginning of the present century, by the late Biarni Thorarensen, Governor of the northern province of the island, when he was a student at the university of Copenhagen. The song is called “Islands Minni,” or the “Remembrance of Iceland;” and finely illustrates the intense love of country displayed by Icelanders, who, wherever they may travel or sojourn, always sooner or later return home though but to die; for to them, as their own proverb has it, “Iceland is the best land on which the sun shines.”

“One or two old Icelandic airs linger amongst the people, but are seldom heard; and as there was—so I understood the Governor to say—no musical notation to hand them down, little reliance can be placed on their accurate transmission.

“I was introduced to the Compte d’Ademas of the Artemise frigate, an officer who speaks English well. He is Lord Dufferin’s cousin. There were several other French officers present. After leaving the Governor’s we called for M. Randrop, the state’s apothecary, who received us in the wonted hospitable Icelandic manner. Madam Randrop kindly played to us on the piano-forte “Robin Adair,” “Cheer Boys,” “Fin chan dal vino,” “Hear me, Norma,” a Danish dance, and an Icelandic song. Her two daughters, the Misses Muller are learning English, and her son is going south by our steamer to attend the university at Copenhagen.”

The contrast is amazing. This happens in travelers’ books all the time. Even though there is no attempt to make a comparison, the travelers visit both Icelanders and Danes and describe both.

The Icelanders had no way of making musical notations so there are no music sheets. The Danes had the knowledge of musical notation and so their music is preserved. The Icelanders only have one musical instrument, the langspiel, and it is a simple four-stringed instrument played with a bow. The Danes have a piano-forte.

Icelandic music and dancing had not died out on its own. It was destroyed by the Icelandic church. The bishops railed against dancing because it led to sex and sex to babies and babies to more paupers that the rich farmers had to pay a tax to keep.

In Europe dancing had rules passed against it but it was mostly to stop dancing in churches and churchyards. In Iceland, the church persecuted and prosecuted frivolous activities in private homes. Punishments were meted out.

The sagas, after all, were long, complicated tales and were handed down through the generations orally before being written down and even after being written down. Rimur, often hundreds of verses long, were shared orally. It took a long time and great effort to get the Icelandic people to the sorry state that Symington reports in 1862 where there are only a couple of Icelandic airs and the authenticity of those are in question.

The astounding thing is that it was not the Danes who were fanatically opposed to music and dancing, after all, they were the people with the piano-forte and the sheet music for Danish and foreign songs and dances. It was the Icelandic clergy who were rabidly opposed to anything except church music.

The Icelanders did their best to have a good time in spite of disease, hunger and political repression and, if I remember correctly, it was Richard Burton who said that when he went to a harbour where the Danish trade ships had arrived and the Icelandic farmers had gathered, there was a lot of loud, drunken singing of hymns. That might not be as much fun as dancing a farm girl off to a haystack but it was a lot better than nothing.

If we can take any consolation about the destruction of Icelandic music and dancing, it has to be that the wonderful choir music of today is the direct result of the religious and political strictures imposed on the Icelandic people.

Why A. J. Symington loves Iceland

picture provided by Jósep H Jósepsson

picture provided by Jósep H Jósepsson

It is 1862 and A. J. Symington has come to Iceland. He’s traveled to the usual places Thingvella and the Geysers. He’s a good artist and has made many sketches of the priest’s house at Thingvalla, of crossing the Bruara, of Mount Hekla, and Snaefell Jokull, among others. On Aug. 3, he has returned to Reykjavik and is back on board the Arcturus, the ship that brought him to Iceland. The ship has lifted anchor and is heading for the “east of the island.”

On the Iceland Review site today, there is a request that people write in and tell them why they love Iceland. Since A.J.S. is not able to do that, I’ll do it for him. Here is what he has to say about the bay at Reykjavik.

“The bay at Reykjavik is very lovely. Every crevice of the Esian mountains is distinctly shown; while the positive colours and delicate tints of these and other heights rising far inland, which the eye takes in, in sweeping round the semicircle from Snaefell to Skagi, are bright, varied, and beautiful beyond description. Deep indigoes dashed with purple, violet peaks, pale lilac ranges; and, relieved against t hem, cones of dazzling snow and ice glittering like silver, side by side with rosy pinks and warm sunny brown, all rising over a foreground of black lava. The sky overhead is blue; and the northern horizon lit up with a mellow glow of golden light.

The frigate Artemise, the brig Agile, the Danish schooner Emma and several trading vessels lying at anchor, animate the scene.

Snaefell Jokul—rising to the north-west on the extreme of yonder narrow ridge that runs out due west into the sea for nearly fifty miles separating the Faxa from the Breida fiord—dome-shaped, isolated and perpetually covered with snow, is now touched with living rosy light.

At its foot lie the singular basaltic rocks of Stappen, somewhat like the Giant’s Causeway, or the island of Staffa in the Hebrides. Indeed, stapp is the same word as staff, and indicates the character of the columnar formation.

For the first time, since leaving home, we see the stars. One or two, only, are shining in the quivering blue overhead, with a quiet, subdued, pale golden light. I made a sketch of Snaefell as it appeared from the quarter deck of the steamer at a distance of fifty miles; it seems a low cone rising from the sea. As the evening was calm and beautiful, ere retiring, we walked the deck till a late hour, musing on the structure and marvelous phenomena of this half-formed chaotic island, where Frost and Fire still strive for the mastery before our very eyes.

Making Hay, 1862

making hay

The first time I went to Iceland, Finboggi Gudmundsson took me to the farm where my great great grandfather and my great grandfather lived and worked before they left for Amerika.

It was one of those fine Icelandic days with no wind off the North Sea, the sky was cloudless, the sun warm. It was the perfect day for making hay and, when we reached the farm, the farmer and his wife were in the hay field.

It was the greatest compliment they could give that they stopped haymaking long enough to serve us coffee and cake and have a brief conversation. I walked the beach were my great grandfather Ketill walked, sat on the stone wall where he used to sit. Then we were away and the farmer and his wife were back to the field making the precious hay for their sheep and cows.

In 1862 when A. J. Symington goes to Iceland, he stops at Thingvalla. They are treated well by the priest, Mr. S. D. Beck (are any of you descendants of his?).

“He is a pastor literally and metaphorically, farming and fishing as well as preaching. Hay, however, is the only crop which is raised here; and the Icelanders are consequently very dependent upon the h ay-harvest. With their short summer they might not inappropriately quote Shakspeare’s lines,

“The sun shines hot; and if we use delay
Cold biting winter marks our hoped for hay.”

Symington gives us one of the clearest pictures of haying that I have found. He says, “The scythe used by the Icelanders is quite straight and not half the length of ours. The numerous little hummocks, with which pasture land is covered, necessitate the use of a short implement, so that it may mow between and around them; the hillocks are form one to two feet high, and from one to four feet across. In some places the ground presents quite the appearance of a churchyard or an old battle-field. These elevations are occasioned by the winter’s frost acting on the wet subsoil. If levelled they would rise again to the same height in about 7 or 8 years; but the farmers let them alone, because they fancy they get a larger crop from the greater superficial area of the field, and this old let-alone custom certainly saves them much labour. The primitive state of their agriculture, as well as the peculiar nature of the Icelandic soil, may be inferred from the fact, that there are only two plows in the whole island and no carts. A spade, a scythe two feet long, a small rake with teeth about an inch and a half deep, and ropes made of grass or hair to bind the hay, which is carried on men’s backs or conveyed by horses to be stacked, are all that the farmer requires for his simple operations. The hay, especially that which grown in the tuns, is of fine quality, tender and nutritive; and, with even any ordinary attention to drainage, many a fertile vale cold be made to yield much more than is now obtained from it.”

One crop. Upon it life depended. Everyone turned to making hay for this was not a grain economy. The Icelandic population lived on hay for hay fed their sheep and cows and those two beasts provided milk, meat and wool.

The rule was simple. Harvest enough hay to keep your animals through the winter or you will die of hunger. Those who lived close to the ocean might supplement the hay with seaweed but it was a supplement, not a staple.

With every stroke of the short scythe, with every pull of the rake, the haymakers could think that will be another mouthful of skyr, a drink of whey, a piece of smoked meat this winter. It was a direct equation your ancestors all understood.

Wild Times in Reykjavik, 1862

I found Faroe and Iceland in a second hand bookshop, unwanted, unloved, unread. I scooped it up. It was owned originally by a Mr. Edmund Wilford Bulkley, 1880. It has some fine sketches in it. I think I paid $5.00 for it. The author is Andrew James Symington and the book was published in London, in 1862.

Symington wants to go to Iceland, that no longer so distant but still fabled place. He thinks that he might try getting to Iceland on a private yacht (if he can find one that is going), to rent a sloop or to get a passage on a mail ship from Copenhagen. The first two are highly uncertain. The third possibility is important. This is 1862, steam ships have appeared and changed everything. They can travel in any weather, they can keep to a schedule, and they are relatively cheap. These are the reasons ten years later that our ancestors were able to leave Iceland in large numbers. It was actually possible to plan.

He sees an ad in the Times for the Danish mail-steamer “Arcturus” It will stop at Leith on its way north. It’s schedule will give passengers a week to visit the interior and it’ll be back in Leith in a month. He checked and discovered that the ship would stop at the Faroes and the Westmanna Isles, and it would go from Reykjavik to Seydisfiord. He looks forward to seeing the “magnificent range of jokuls and numerous glaciers along the south coast.”

He buys himself a long “waterproof overcoat, boots, preserved meats, soups, &c in tin cans, a mariner’s compass, thermometer, one of De La Rue’s solid sketch-books, files of newspaper, a few articles for presents, and other needful things.

On the 20th of July he goes on board.

The “Arcturus” is a screw-steamer, 400 tons. The captain is a Dane. The crew, except for a Scots engineer, are foreigners. There were eight men in the cabin.

If you had been aboard the “Arcturus” with Symington you would have been served three meals a day by a Danish stewardess. Among the meals you would have had red-smoked salmon, Danish sweet soups, with raisins, black stale rye-bread, and beef fried with onions or garlic.

On 26th July the “Arcturus” reaches Iceland and Symington and fellow passengers go to Reykjavik’s only hotel. What would you think Reykjavik’s only hotel would be like? Who would be there? What would they be doing? Remember, it is 1862, ten years before our ancestors start gathering at the Icelandic harbours so they can leave Iceland.

You would have been rowed to shore. You’d have walked from the harbour up to the hotel. “The hotel,” Symington tells us, “at Reykjavik is merely a kind of tavern, with a billiard room for the French sailors to play, lounge, and smoke in; a large adjoining room, seated round, for the Reykjavik fashionable assemblies; a smaller room upstairs, and some two or three bedrooms. On reaching it we were received by the landlord and shewn up stairs, where we found Mr. Bushby, who gave us a most courteous English welcome, notwithstanding our unintentional intrusion. He had, that morning, when the steamer came in sight, set out and ridden along the coast from the sulphur mines at Krisuvik—perhaps one of the wildest continuous rides in the world—to meet Captain Forbes.

“Knowing the scant accommodation at the landlord’s disposal, he at once placed the suite of rooms he had engaged at our service, to dress and dine in, thus proving himself a friend in need. A good substantial dinner was soon under weigh, and rendered quite a success by the many good things with which Mr. Bushby kindly supplemented it, contributing them from his own private stores.

“Mr. Gisli Brynjulfsson, the young Icelandic poet—employed in antiquarian researches by the Danish Government chiefly at Copenhagen, but at present here because he is a member of the Althing or Parliament now sitting—joined us at table, having been invited by Dr. Mackinlay. He speaks English fluently…He kindly presented me with a volume “Nordurfari,”.

So, there you have it, an evening in Reykjavik in 1862. Not, perhaps, as exciting or wild as Reyjavik 101 but a pleasant evening nevertheless. It would have been nice if the author had provided more specific details, descriptions so we could share the dinner party, the rooms, could hear, taste, smell, see, those rooms with the French sailors playing billiards. Did you know that French sailors played billiards in the hotel in Reykjavik in 1862? I certainly did not. So thank you for that Mr. Symington.

(Information and quotes from Faroe and Iceland by Andrew James Symington. I searched the web for a picture of AJS but, alas, found none that might be him. I found an AJS on a family web page but the pictures were not labled clearly. If it was our AJS, it was him in old age. However, rather than muddy the waters by risking the wrong picture, I leave the article un-pictured. If a member of AJS’s family, I gather descendants still exist, stumble over this post, then I would consider it a favour if they’d send me a picture of him, a portrait will do, but I’d love some pictures of him in Iceland if such things exist. If not, then elsewhere.”