Olive Murray’s Love of Iceland 1929

olivechapman_acrosslapplandwithsledgeandreindeer
I was unable to find another good picture of Olive so I took the picture from her book about her winter journey across Lapland by sledge and reindeer. However, this post is about her final days in Iceland.

It’s always difficult when you make a good friend and then she or he has to move away. That’s the way I feel about Olive Murray Chapman.

I’ve taken my time reading her travel book, Across Iceland. I have found her account of traveling in Iceland in 1929 fascinating. It is probably more fascinating for me than for my sometimes readers because I’ve read and written about many travelers who came to Iceland in the 1800s. The earlier accounts are all about horses, the lack of roads, the isolation, the wickedly bad weather, the accommodation in churches, farmhouses and tents.

By 1929 great changes have taken place. There are now the beginning of roads and, in a country where there have been no wheeled vehicles because there were no roads, there are not just vehicles but motor vehicles.

Olive mentions, time and again, specially made Buicks that can stand the battering of these primitive roads, full of rocks, mud holes, roads that degenerate into stream beds and barely discernible tracks over mountain passes. More startling to a reader of 19th C travel books on Iceland is the mention of a telephone.

“At eight o’clock we all sat down to coffee and cakes, after which I tried to get some sleep on my sofa, but this was out of the question, for the farm at Stapi, like so many of these primitive and isolated little homesteads, is the proud possessor of a telephone.”

“I started off in the public motor from Reykjavik on June 18th. It was pouring with rain and the car was tightly packed with country folk bound for different farms along the route. Their baggage was tied onto every available part of the car; two great sacks rested on the mudguards and a packing-case was strapped on the radiator. I had a front seat beside the driver.”

“We now followed the dried bed of a river, splashed through several streams and finally stuck once more in the middle of a particularly wide one, with the water well over the axle…the driver and another man tried in vain to restart the car.”

“At last a farmer came to the rescue of the driver. Together they dug away the mud from under the wheels, and finally got the car out of the river.”

These two changes mark the end of Iceland as it has been. All travelers in the past have explained about the tremendous isolation of the Icelandic farms, of the impossibility of travel for much of the year, of the hardship and danger crossing rivers. Olive mentions that a bridge is being built. This is a major change.

There are other changes occurring. With steamships, regular tourists can afford to come to Iceland. It is only three or four days from Leith. There can be schedules. People can make plans. No one needs to be a Lord or millionaire businessmen who can rent a yacht.

In spite of there being more visitors, Olive is still a novelty, so much so that people are fascinated by her.

“About 8:30 we reached Halldórstadir farm, perched high up on the hill above the river. I was welcomed by a charming Scotch woman, who had married an Icelander thirty-five years ago and had lived here ever since. She was quite excited at my arrival and told me that, with the exception of an English sportsman who had stayed the night four years ago, I was the first British traveller she had seen or spoken to for ten long years!

“She made me very comfortable, giving me a dear little bedroom, and a delicious supper of Scotch porridge, eggs, scones and home-made jam, to which I did full justice.”

She offers to pay the owners of the homes where she stays but many refuse any payment. Tourists are still guests, not paying clients. Hospitality comes before profit.

“Is it not possible for me to have a room to myself?” I asked him anxiously.

“No,” he replied, “they are very poor people. They have only one room,” adding cheerfully as an afterthought, “but you can have the sofa to yourself”.

The next morning the húsmódir brings Olive hot coffee and cold pancakes and a jug of hot water. At 9:30 breakfast was provided. It consisted of a wild bird cut up and mixed with a thick lukewarm paste plus lots of hot milk.

When they were ready to leave, Olive tries to pay for their room and board with five Kronur. Such a sum would have been significant to people who were so poor but they refuse the money.

There are, though, other major changes taking place. Earlier travellers have recorded that there are no hotels, no inns, that accommodation is in churches, farm houses or in their own tents. Now, Olive reports that there are hotels being built, that there are hotels already built, some farmers have enough travelers passing by that they have set prices and have built accommodation.

At Thingvellir she hears the ring of a hammer, imagines that is from fairies or trolls but discovers that on the bank of the river “some workmen were busy erecting a little wooden hotel.” At Stykkishölmur there is a little hotel where she stays. She and two Icelandic businessmen guests have their meals with Jón Gudmundsson, the proprietor.

However, when she leaves Stykkishölmur by horse, she once again enters the Iceland that is still untouched by roads and telephones. At the foot of the Haulkadalur pass, they asked if they could stay for the night at a tiny cottage. “A dear old couple welcomed me warmly. They had no food ready at hand, but their son took his rod to the lake and presently returned with some fine salmon-trout.”

Having reached Akuryeri with some days to spare before her boat will leave for Leith, she explores the surrounding countryside.

On her return from Námaskard to the parsonage of Skútustadir, she says the “ride was a dream of loveliness, in striking contrast to the bare desert of sand and lava through which we had so lately come.”

And there we will say goodbye to Olive. It is with some regret. I wish the book were longer, that she’d returned to Iceland and written another book about it but she was off to far places so she could write about her adventures in other countries.

Nineteen twenty-nine is a long time ago. I was born ten years after her visit to Iceland. Although I lived in Gimli, the centre of New Iceland, I never came across her book. I wish it had been there. I wish I could have read it when I was ten or twelve. It would have created in me a burning desire to visit Iceland. Sadly, although I was a great reader, I never came across travel books about Iceland when I was young. If the high school library had been filled with the works of Burton and Henderson, Waller and Taylor, Pfeiffer and Kneeland, and
others, many hearts would have been stirred and many thoughts would have been turned toward the country from which our ancestors came.

The Good Guest, Olive, 1929

olivehorse
Olive Murray was welcomed everywhere she went in Iceland. That is partly because of the generosity and kindness of the Icelanders but it was also because she was a good guest.

When she stays at the parsonage at Setberg with Séra Jósef Jónsson and his wife, Hólmfridur Halldórsdóttir, she doesn’t just observe but participates.

She says, “before going to bed, I strolled out to watch the pastor and his children, who with some of the farm hands were busy sorting great piles of sheep’s wool, which had been spread out to dry in the sun. This work was going on together with haymaking in all the valleys where there were farms. The wool is washed, dried and afterwards collected in piles, packed in big sacks and sent off to be sold to merchants who, in their turn, ship it to England, Spain and America, mainly to America. On my return from Iceland in August in a freight steamer round the north and west coasts, we put in at eight little ports for the purpose of collecting this wool, and arrived at Leith with 3600 loaded sacks on board!”

“I stayed out till nearly 10 p.m. at Setberg, enjoying the warm evening sunshine, helping to sort the soft, clean wool and taking some photographs and sketches.”

Later, at Miklibær she spends most of the afternoon helping with the hay. “Haymaking time is very important in Iceland, for the number of ponies and sheep which a farmer is able to keep during the winter depends largely upon his stock of hay which he uses for their fodder.”

Her willingness to help pays off for this kindness is repaid in kind. She does not want to continue her trip in a car for the previous experience of the roads was not good. However, she has not been able to find available horses at haymaking time, nor a guide.

“The pastor’s wife and her brother-in-law had ridden off to a farm some miles away to take coffee with some friends. On their return we all had supper together and then, while the sun s hone upon a golden evening, bathing the lovely valley in glory, I energetically did some more haymaking. To my joy, a farmer, who was helping with the others, offered to supply three ponies for the rest of my journey, which he said would take a couple of days. A young man whose name I think was Magnússon, a native of Akureyri, and who had been at the farm at Miklibær on a visit, offered to be my guide.‘

“My spirits rose in leaps and bounds, for it looked as if I should be able to ride into Akureyri after all, and if my luck held I ought to reach it on July 17th, a day sooner than the date on which I had roughly calculated”

“We sat in a circle among the sweet smelling hay while the price of the ponies and the wages of the guide were discussed. Magnússon wished to know if I would be afraid of fording a rather difficult and swift river, to which question the pastor´s brother replied:
“Oh, no, she is not afraid: The farmer from Bólatadahlid told me that she rides the ponies not at all like a foreigner, she rides like an Icelander!”

The next day when they reach the river, they “then plunged into the swirling water. My pony was splendid: stones were whirling past his sturdy little legs, but he bravely battled on and I found the best plan was to keep my eyes fixed steadily in front on the tails of the others and not to look down at the foaming torrent of icy water which was splashing over my legs. Had I slipped in, I should probably have been swept away by the current into the deep part of the river where rescue would not have been easy. However, we all got safely across and another little adventure was over.”

They travel all day and don’t arrive at a farmhouse until nine o’clock. “Haymaking was still in busy progress, but the farmer left it and came to greet us, asking what we wanted. To our anxious inquiries as to whether we could stay the night, he replied:

“Já!”

“Have you eggs?”

“Nay.”

“Fresh fish?”

“Nay.”

“Porridge and milk””

“Já Já!”

“I was so faint and tired, Magnússon had to lift me from my pony.”

The farmer’s wife feeds them the porridge and milk. Olive finally sleeps. At eight o’clock the next morning, the farmer’s wife brings “coffee and thick bread and butter…and at 10:30 she had ready a substantial meal of sandwiches, salted fish and a delicious Icelandic pudding, a sort of custard eaten with sugar, cream and nutmeg.”

After breakfast, they are on their way and eventually, Olive sees a sign “20 kils. to Akureyri.”, her destination.

Shortly, she “rode up to the little Godafoss hotel and was shown to the luxury of a real bedroom once more, with a comfortable bed, a hanging cupboard and—joy of joys!—I learned there was a bathroom!”

She has made a difficult journey, one that few foreigners had ever attempted and which even Icelanders seldom made. Instead, travelers usually traveled by boat. She’d made her way from farm to farm, her phrase book and her growing notes about how to say words and phrases in Icelandic allowing her to communicate enough to get by. From time to time she has been fortunate to meet Icelanders who speak English.

She is always greeted with courtesy. People cannot always do as she wishes, there is hay to make, wool to sort, animals to take care of but if they can’t help, they find someone who can.

Relationships are never one sided. If Olive had been arrogant, difficult, demanding, critical, all those things that make travelers ugly and unwelcome, she would not have found Icelanders so helpful. She may have had kronur in her purse but, as she says time and again, her offer to pay for her lodging and meals, is turned down. Icelanders, in 1929, are often poor but they are proud. She took nothing of that pride away from anyone. Respect gathers respect. It is obvious that her willingness to put up with hardship, to make the best of things, to not be afraid, to participate, earned her the respect that was evident when the pastor’s son says she doesn’t ride like a foreigner, she rides like an Icelander.

Olive understands and appreciates that she has just had a great compliment.

Búdir, the most beautiful place in Iceland: 1929

“I had intended to leave Stapi for Búdir where there was, I learned , a good farm, not later than 4 or 5 p.m.; but, although a message arrived from Búdir to say that horses and a guide would call for me by the hour, it was nearly 9 p.m. before they finally turned up.”

”It was nearly ten o’clock by the time we got started, for the guide Jónsson, a handsome youth with curly red hair and bright blue eyes, had to have a meal and the ponies a rest before we could get away.”

“At midnight…stopping after a while to rest them (the horses) at a tiny farm out of which ran a couple of men. After looking at me with great interest and curiosity, and inquiring of Jónsson who I was, one of them disappeared, returning in a few minutes with a welcome glass of fresh milk which he offered me, refusing to take any payment. When at last we rode away, the men stood outside their door watching us and waving their hands, till we were out of sight.“

“About one o’clock my guide pointed out the Búdir promontory far ahead along the coastline, and soon after we passed one or two solitary riders, farmers I imagine. They stopped in each case to shake hands with us both, and to exchange snuff with Jónsson from out of the quaint bone horns which they all carried.“

“In the more remote parts of Iceland one seldom sees a man smoking; tobacco is too expensive, and the people—both men and women alike—take snuff instead, throwing their heads back and sniffing large quantities up their nostrils.

“I gathered that the riders all inquired of Jónsson, with great curiosity and a certain amount of chaff, who I was! In other words no doubt using the Icelandic equivalent for: ”Who is your lady friend?” His answer seemed to satisfy and surprise them and, after warmly shaking hands again, they would ride on, crying out: “Verid thér saelar!” “Be ye happy!” the customary greeting invariably exchanged between passing travellers. When a stranger accosts another in Iceland, it is considered polite to fire out a battery of questions: “What is your name?” “Whither are you bound?” “Whose son are you?”

“It was nearly 2 a.m. when, very weary and sleepy, I reached Búdir farm. It was a two-storied wooden house, and I was shown upstairs to a bare boarded room with the welcome sight of a real bed in one corner. A good sized table in the centre of the room, a locked cupboard and one or two chairs completed the furniture. A smiling, good-natured woman bustled about putting clean sheets over the usual eiderdown bedding, and then hurried off to prepare eggs and bread and butter as if it was the most usual thing in the world for a stranger to turn up at two in the morning!’

“I spent the afternoon sketching and exploring the beauties of Búdir and its estuary. It was certainly the most beautiful place I had yet seen in Iceland. The outline of mountains round the coast was magnificent, while behind, away to the west, rose up the mighty snow-capped peaks of Snæfells-Jökull. Among the sheltered hollows in the dunes were grassy patches where I counted a variety of wild flowers, among them quantities of forget-me-nots and wild pansies of a lovely violet shade, patches of golden saxifrage and the delicate sea pink. Búdir is, indeed, famous for its flowers, of which there are said to be 150 different kinds, more than in any part of Iceland.”

Olive stays at Búdir for three days. She sketches but with difficulty because the weather has turned bitterly cold with a wind from the north and frequent cloud bursts.

So, imagine 1929, an English woman, an artist, rural Iceland, still so few tourists that when one turns up, especially a woman, she is a great curiosity. We´re inclined to think of women in earlier times as delicate but nothing could be further from the truth. They rode horses, they managed house holds without any conveniences, no automatic washing machines, dishwashers, electric stoves. They had children with the help of a mid-wife, if they were fortunate. If not, they managed on their own. If they were well to do, they had servants and had to hire, manage, fire them.

There is nothing shy about Olive. She exudes self-confidence. She goes to Iceland with nothing but a phrase book and the absolute certainty that she can handle whatever turns up. She finds accommodation; she hires guides, rents horses, eats whatever is put in front of her, rides through the night over trackless wilderness.

She has read about Iceland and Icelanders and what she has read has given her complete confidence in the honesty and decency of the Icelandic people. She travels from place to place with Icelandic guides and trusts them completely. Her trust is well placed. She is treated with courtesy and kindness. Her book, beneath the surface events, is a testimony to the Icelandic people. It shows them as generous and considerate, as honest and trustworthy.

Who could read Olive’s account of her Iceland travels and not think well of Iceland and Icelanders?

On to Stapi: 1929

olive crossing desert

olive crossing desert

Olive decides, on returning from Thórsmork, that she will travel around Snaefellsnes and to Akureyri. The distance will be three to four hundred miles and will probably take about three weeks. Quite the trip for a woman traveling alone on horse back in 1929.

She prepares for the trip by sending her luggage by sea on a mail boat to Akureyri. She takes two haversacks and includes in them all her sketching materials. Her friend, Stefán, discovers that the Sudurland, a small cargo boat will be going to Stapi. There is a farm there where Olive can stay overnight before riding to Búdir. She will have a guide and three horses to take her from Búdir round Snaefells Jökull to Stykkishólmur. That part of the trip will take five days.

Stefán takes her to see the Sudurland. “We had to climb across some planks, over the sides of three other small vessels in order to reach it. Accommodation appeared very scanty, but the captain, who was on board, told Stefán that he would promise me a berth if possible.”

“These arrangements settled, I climbed back over the other boats, across planks and up and down iron ladders to the quay, where I stood for a while lost in wonder at the glory of an Icelandic night.”

“Five nights later the Sudurland sets sail. Olive discovers that she should have bought her ticket in advance. All the sleeping accommodation is taken. As she says “the little boat was already packed to overflowing with Icelandic farmers and fisher-folk”
She tries to sleep on deck but it is too cold. The ship’s mate finds her a bench “between the side of the ship and the stair rail that led below….In spite of a calm sea the “Sudurland” pitched and rolled like a trawler, and I had difficulty in not falling off my narrow bench.”

In the early morning the ship anchors off the creek at Stapi. “One had either to jump or be lifted into the boat from off the iron steps down the side of the Sudurland. Olive’s haversacks get thrown into the boat and one of the boatmen carries her. “At last we were all wedged safely in between a mail bag, a lot of sacks, and some timber that had been taken off the “Sudurland”.

She crosses a creek, gets one foot soaked, climbs up a steep bank to the farm where she will stay overnight. “It was a primitive-looking little cabin built of wood, peat and lava boulders, with a corrugated iron roof. The front door led into a narrow passage very dark, with an earthen floor, and walls built of peat and stones with tufts of grass growing in between. The entrance was so low that I had to stoop my head for fear of hitting the roof! My friend, the farmer (from Búdir), kindly inquired for me if I might spend the night there before riding on the next day to Búdir.”

“The woman of the house, who was regarding me with great interest and curiosity, understood no English, but I gathered that I was welcome to stay as long as I liked, although she could only offer me a sofa in the bath-stofa, as all the beds were occupied by her family. Thankful for small mercies, I accepted the somewhat hard and narrow sofa which my hostess did her bet to make comfortable for me.’

“At eight o’clock we all sat down to coffee and cakes, after which I tried to get some sleep on my sofa, but this was out of the question, for the farm at Stapi, like so many of these primitive and isolated little homesteads, is the proud possessor of a telephone. It was constantly ringing, and either the farmer, his wife, or one of the other women, and occasionally all of them together, would hasten to answer it, continually repeated: “Ullo! Ullo!Ullo!” sometimes for as long as five minutes on end.

It is 1929. How Iceland has changed. Olive often travels in trucks or cars for part of her journey. The roads are primitive, full of pot holes and rocks, sometimes no more than a dried creek bed, but there are roads. People and goods are moved more easily and quickly. Horses are being displaced and the change can be seen clearly when Olive reports that horses are frightened by motor vehicles. Before, there was nothing to frighten the horses.

Symbolically, the horses being frightened by the vehicles presages the near future in which these vehicles will replace the horses, taking away their essential part of Icelandic life. Now, there are telephones. Telephones that change life in Iceland dramatically for isolation was an essential part of Icelandic life. The farms were far apart, the weather, harsh, traveling conditions extremely difficult and dangerous but now there were telephones. No wonder the farmer’s wife and his daughters jump up and run to the phone every time it rings.

Although Olive is simply recounting her travels around Iceland in the year 1929, she is, inadvertently, recording profound changes in Icelandic life. The very foundations of Icelandic society as changing.

Changes in Iceland: 1929

Flateyjarbok

When Olive Murray Chapman reaches Reykjavik, she meets Mr. Stefan Stefansson, a local guide. He takes her to the Hotel Island. For those of you reading my blog posts about earlier times in Iceland, the news of an actual hotel will be an obvious marker of change.

Over the centuries, the isolation, the paucity of visitors, the tremendous difficulty of internal travel, the overall poverty of the people, the lack of roads, meant that travelers, Icelanders. plus the few foreigners who braved Iceland’s harsh landscape, brought tents, stayed in farmhouses or churches.

It is believed that the first inns in Europe were established once the Romans had built roads. They key to the existence of inns is the existence of roads which are then used regularly by travelers. These inns provided accommodation, food and fodder for horses.

Olive says about the Iceland Hotel, it “consists of a public dining-room and a fair number of bedrooms, is built of wood and corrugated iron like most of the houses in Reykjavik, and at every window is a fire escape consisting of a long coil of rope fixed to a big nail inside. A new hotel is now being built, and will shortly be opened; it is much larger and I was told it would contain ever convenience and comfort.”

Stefansson tries to convince Olive that she should hire an English speaking guide and that she should choose and easier route. However, she is determined to go by Snaefellsnes, ride right around the peninsula, beneath the glacier, but Stefansson says her route would be off the beaten track. She is undeterred. Finally, he gives in and marks on her map the location of farms and the distance between them.

Reykjavik has grown substantially. It now has around 20,000 inhabitants. The day after she arrives is Sunday and she goes out to see the city. She visits the public square. A band is playing, a large number of people are promenading around the green grass.

Like many visitors before her, she describes the traditional costume of the women. However, there are differences. In place of a shawl, some of the women wear raincoats. These, she says, “look very drab and incongruous with the national headgear.”

“Many of the younger women and girls of Reykjavik have now adopted modern European dress, favouring the latest Paris fashion, and, as a dear old Icelandic lady complained to me, they prefer to shiver in their silk stockings and flimsy underwear rather than cling to the warm and suitable costume of their forefathers! Most of the older women in Reykjavik, however, are still faithful to the national dress, and up country it is universally worn by old and young alike for best occasions.”

She sees an outdoor pool with children being taught to swim. In books from the 19th C, it is often remarked that none of the fishermen know how to swim even though they risk their lives every day on the sea.

She visits the open-air laundry and is told that some farmers have started to use the natural hot water on their farms to heat their houses.

She visits a fish drying-ground and sees girls wearing big oilskin aprons and coloured handkerchiefs twisted around their heads. She gets “a lift part of the way back to Reykjavik on a lorry full of dried fish.”

She goes to see the Roman Catholic Church of grey stone, is delighted with the “green plots of grass and familiar flowers” in gardens. She finds the National Museum interesting. The National Library impresses her. She comments on the importance of both chess and the Passion Hymns. She notes the “fine collection of the English classics” and on how interested people are in psychic research.

She interviews Einar Kvaran who is the founder of the Icelandic Society of Psychical Research which was started in 1905. There are four hundred members and they have a good library.

There cannot be an Icelander or Western Icelander who reads her comment at the end of Chapter III and not have a sense of pride. Reykjavik, not so long before, had less than a thousand inhabitants. It now has around 20,000. She says, “I have seldom been in a town as small as Reykjavik which contains so many good bookshops; but this is not surprising, for the Icelanders, especially the farmers, are exhaustive readers, and take the keenest interest in the literature of other countries besides their own. During the dark winter days, when they are unable to work, these remarkable people will often spend long hours in attempting to learn foreign languages, and it is not altogether unusual, on coming across an isolated little farmstead away out in the wilds, to find that the farmer is capable of speaking three languages: English, German and Icelandic. Many of our own country folk might well take a lesson from such industry!”