Icelandic tourism

Almannagja, 1862, sketch by A. J. Symington

Almannagja, 1862, sketch by A. J. Symington

So, you are going to Iceland this summer. Dropping from the sky to Keflavik, taking a bus ride to Reykjavik, staying at a hotel with fine food and comfortable beds. A bus will take you on the Golden Circle. It will be air conditioned. You ride will be warm and dry.
However, when A. J. Symington went to the Geysers in 1862, it wasn’t so simple or so comfortable.

He lands from the steamer between 7 and 8 o’clock. He finds his “baggage and riding horses with the relays, twenty-four in all, assembled at the hotel court; Zöga, the guide, with his brother and a boy who were also to accompany us, busy adjusting saddles, stirrup straps, &c. For four days we shall be thrown entirely upon our own resources, so that provisions, tent, plaids and everything we are likely to need during a wilderness journey, must be taken with us. Our traps had been sent on shore late on the previous evening. The mode of loading the sumpter ponies is peculiar; a square piece of dried sod is placed on the horses back, then a wooden saddle with several projecting pins is girded on with rough woolen ropes; to either side of the saddle, is hooked on, a strong oblong wooden box generally painted red; while on the pins are hung bags, bundles, and all sorts of gipsy looking gear. These need frequent re-adjustment from time to time; as the ponies trot along, one side will weigh up the other, or the animals get jammed together and knock their loads out of equilibrium, the saddles then perhaps turn round and articles fall rattling to the ground. The strong little boxes are constructed and other arrangements made with a view to such contingencies, and however primitive, rude or outlandish they may at first seem to the stranger, he will soon come to see the why and the wherefore, and confess their singular adaptation to the strange and unique exigences of Icelandic travel.
The baggage train at length moved off, accompanied by the relief ponies, which were tied together in a row, the head of the one to the tail of the other before it.“

“The road terminated when we reached the outskirts of the town and the track lay over a wild black stony waste with little or no vegetation;‘ everything seemed scorched. The relay ponies were now loosed from each other, and perfectly free, driven before us.“

“They were apt to scatter in quest of herbage, but Zöga, when h is call was not enough or the dogs negligent, quickly out-flanked the stragglers, upon which, they, possessed by a salutary fear of his whip, speedily rejoined t heir fellows.”

1862. Ten years before the exodus to Amerika really begins. Iceland is still without roads, without wheeled vehicles, travel is slow and arduous. There is one bridge in the country. Rivers must be forded and often these are filled with glacial debris that can knock a horse off its feet, knock a rider into the current. Ferries are little more than row boats. A Reykjavik guide will have to enlist the aid of local people to keep his charges on their path and over a river.

Symington is part of the transition that is happening with travelers coming to Iceland. Sailing ships are giving way to steam ships. The prohibitive costs of having to rent or buy a yacht, hire a crew, are being replaced by advertised fares.

Iceland is still exotic, off the beaten path, requires the ability to ride a horse for days on end, sleep in churches and tents, cook over an open fire. Although the scientists, the explorers are being replaced by the curious, the flood of tourists has not yet begun. However, the stream has started and will, as the years go by, increase until Iceland is overrun by tourists. Nine hundred thousand tourists are expected to visit Iceland in 2015. This, in a country of just over three hundred thousand people.

Tourism was once considered pollutionless economics but nothing could be further from the truth. Nine hundred thousand people walk on the soil, use toilets, create waste from fuel used for cooking to food remnants, from exhaust from vehicles, from everything they do during their stay. Tourism is the classical example of privatizing profits and socializing costs. Those people who benefit from tourists, tour operators, airlines, restaurants, gift shops, and others make the profits but everyone pays to deal with tourist pollution.

The Blue Lagoon now requires a booking be made. Here, on the West Coast of Canada what, at one time seemed impossible, The West Coast Trail, one of the great hikes through wilderness, now requires a booking be made. The very people who come to admire and experience the uniqueness of Iceland and the West Coast of Canada threaten to destroy both.

The steam ship, then the commercial airplane, cheap travel, have made it possible for all of us to be world travelers. However, our travel changes, often dramatically, the cultures we travel to. The Iceland Symington visited had to change, had to pull itself out of the Medieval Age, had to become more involved with the larger world. Yet, reading his book, Faroe and Iceland, it is hard not to be nostalgic for the world he experienced and, ironically, wish it could be shared and, once again, gives its uniqueness to this traveler but not all those others.

Change is inevitable. Perhaps, though, it is by admitting that tourism cannot be limitless without destroying that which the tourists admire, that we can preserve our historic, geologic and cultural treasures.

On the Way to Iceland

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Travelers on the way to Iceland usually stopped at the Faroes. The descriptions of the Faroese and their houses are similar to what is later described in Iceland but with some surprising differences. Symington, like travelers before him, gets off the boat at Thorshaven and keen observer that he is, has this to say about the town.

“Houses, stone for a few feet next the ground, then wood, tarred or painted black, and generally two stories in height; small windows, the sashes of which are painted white; green turf on the roofs. The interiors of the poorer sort of houses are very dark; an utter absence of voluntary ventilation; one fire, and that in the kitchen, the chimney often only a hole in the roof. Yet even in these hovels there is generally a guest-room, comfortably boarded and furnished. In such apartments we observed chairs, tales, chests of drawers, feather-beds, down coverlets, a few books, engravings on the walls, specimens of ingenious native handiwork, curiosities, etc. This juxtaposition under the same roof was new to us, and struck every one as something quite peculiar and contrary to all our previous experiences. The streets of Thorshavn are only narrow dirty irregular passages, often not more than two or three feet wide; one walks upon are rock or mud. These passages wind up steep places, and run in all manner of zigzag directions, so that the most direct line from one point to another generally leads “straight down crooked land and all round the square.” Observed a man on the top of a house cutting grass with a sickle. Here the approach of spring is first indicated by the turf roofs of the house becoming green. Being invited, we entered several fishermen’s houses; they seemed dark, smoky, and dirty; and, in all, the air was close and stifling. In one, observed a savoury pot of puffin broth, suspended from the ceiling and boiling on a turf fire built open like a smith’s forge, the smoke finding only a very partial egress by the hole overhead; on the wall hung a number of plucked puffins and guillemots; several hens seen through the smoke sitting contentedly perched on a spar evidently intended for their accommodation. In the corner of the apartment; a stone hand-mill for grinding barley, such as Sarah may have used, lay on the floor; reminding one of the East, from whence the Scandinavians came in the days of Odin.

Faroese boatman

Faroese boatman

In passing along the street we saw strips of whale-flesh, black and reddish-coloured, hanging outside the gable of almost every house to dry, just as we have seen herrings in fishing-villages on our own coasts. When a shoal of whales is driven ashore by the boatmen, there are great rejoicings among the islanders, whose faces, we were told, actually shine for weeks after this their season of feasting. What cannot be eaten at the time is dried for future use. Boiled or roasted it is nutritious, and not very unpalatable. The dried flesh which I tasted resembled tough beef, with a flavour of venison. Being “blood-meat,” I would not have known it to be from the sea; and have been told that, when fresh and properly cooked, tender steaks from a young whale can scarcely be distinguished for beef-steak.”

This description is one of the best I’ve read simply for its details. Symington sees a man on the roof of a house with a sickle cutting grass for his livestock. Spring is heralded by the roofs of the houses turning green. He actually gives us a description of cooking being done and of both plucked birds and live chickens in the house. He tries the whale meat and describes it as tough beef.

The Faroese are less well known than the Icelanders. That may be for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps, in part, it was their greater willingness to be part of the Danish empire, partly because it was the Icelanders who had the sagas, partly because Iceland excited a great deal of curiosity during the 19th C. because of its geology. However, the Faroes have always been a safe harbour, a stopping point on a dangerous journey, and Icelanders have, through the centuries, sought shelter in Faroese harbours. The climate is just enough different that grain can be grown. There has been enough prosperity that as Symington describes, there are a variety of crafts, often admirably done in spite of the dark, dank, unhealthy living conditions.

It is a shame that the visitors who came to Iceland were more interested in the geology than the people. Because they come from wealthy, often noble families, they have little or no interest in ordinary people and if they comment on the fishermen or the paupers, it is dismissively. Even Ebenezer Henderson, the minister who comes to distribute Bibles is a snob, interested only in associating with individuals he considers worthy of his attention. His Christ would have been quite comfortable in the temple of the money changers.

The scientific reports that came of all the expeditions to Iceland have long ago become irrelevant. The mechanisms of the geysers have been revealed, the rocks, classified. Quite by accident, the simple fact that there were no commercial inns or hotels, meant that the people where the travellers stayed were described. That, ironically, is what is valuable.

It is impossible to separate the Faroes and Iceland. Historically, they are joined. Politically they were joined. They are bound by custom and circumstance. Symington is quite right to call his book Faroe and Iceland.

It is by comparing the Faroese and the Icelanders that we can obtain a deeper understanding of our ancestors. Too often we talk and write of Iceland as if, somehow, it was separate from all the islands between it and Europe but nothing could be further from the truth. Ships and sailors seek shelter. They seek trade. They establish social and business relationships. It is in these other places where we can get a glimpse of what our ancestors were and were not like.

A Sketch from Iceland in1862

I have a soft spot for A. J. Symington’s travel book on Iceland, Faroe and Iceland. One aspect of the original book that I enjoy is the numerous sketches of Icelandic places in 1862. A disappointment, though, is that the book is small and the sketches are small. However, with the magic of computer technology, it is possible to copy the pictures and enlarge them without losing the quality. Here is one picture of what Symington saw on his travels around Iceland ten years before our people began to leave for Amerika.

priest's house at thingvalla

“at five o’clock in the afternoon rode up to the priest’s house on the other side. It was simply a farm, like others we had seen, consisting of a group of separate erections with wooden gables, green sod on the roof and the whole surrounded with a low stone wall coped with turf. Beside it was the silent churchyard with its simple grassy graves of all sizes.

Immediately behind the house were piles of sawn timber, and several carpenters at work rebuilding the little church, which having become old and frail had been taken down. Its site was only about 25 feet by 10

“Zöga went in to tell the pastor of our arrival, leaving us to dismount in the deep, miry lane between two rough stone walls leading to the house. He had been busy with his hay, but speedily appeared and hospitably offered us what shelter he could afford.

“Zöga arranged for the grazing of the ponies; we were to dine in the largest room of the house, and he was to have the use of the kitchen fire to cook our dinner—the preserved meats, soups, &c.—which of course we had brought with us. The pastor provided a splendid trout from the river, to the great delectation of half a dozen travellers all as hungry as hawks.“

Icelandic census, 1855

1855mormonhouse
Icelandic census, 1855

The population is 64,603.

52,475 live by farming

5,055 live by fishing

“There were…65 persons deaf and dumb, and 202 blind.”

“There was not then a single watchmaker on the island. The extreme paucity of common tradesmen—less than 11 to the 1000—indicates a very primitive pastoral state of society amongst the islanders; home wants being generally supplied by home skill.”

Clergymen, professor and teachers at the college, and employes at churches 2,365

Civil officers 454

Do. Out of office 140

Farmers who live by agriculture 52,475

Farmers who depend chiefly on the fisheries 5,055

Tradesmen as follows:
Bakers 10
Coopers 35
Gold and silversmiths 80
Carpenters 61
Blacksmiths 80
Masons 6
Millers 4
Turners 8
Boat builders 38
Shoemakers 18
Tailors 27
Joiners 174
Saddlers 46
Weavers 20
Men who live by other industrial occupations 103
Merchants and innkeepers 730
Pensioners, and people living on teir own means 356
Day labourers 523
Miscellaneous occupations not classed 586
Paupers 1,207
Prisoners 2

This census was taken the same year that a group of Icelandic Mormons left Iceland.

Remember, Symington is reporting this in 1862; however, the census was in 1855. Personally,

I’m amazed at some of the figures. How did they define weavers? Nearly every farm had some weaving done on it. Were there people who did nothing but weave?

730 merchants and innkeepers. There were no inns as we know them. There was the hotel in Reykjavik and something, I believe in Akureryri but all travellers tales are of sleeping in tents, churches or farm houses. Were there really 730 Danish traders and their minions?

How can it be that there were only 46 saddlers when horses were the main mode of transportation? Did most farmers make their own saddles?

Gold and silversmiths are a mystery. Apparently, Icelanders used Danish silver coins to make jewelry. There’s no silver or gold in Iceland. The jewelry was worn by the women. Some of it may have been traded to the Danes. But, seriously, there were 80 people making their living from being silver and goldsmiths?

Given that Iceland had a home schooling system, the 2,365 clergymen, professors and teachers at the college, and employees at churches seems excessive. That’s a lot of men living off the rest of the population. Many of them were not well paid, of course. Many clergymen lived in poverty. There were itinerant teachers and the clergy took an active part in seeing that children could read and write. You couldn’t get confirmed if you couldn’t read and write and if you didn’t get confirmed, you couldn’t get married. Also, if you didn’t get confirmed, it was a public disgrace on your family.

What do you know about your great-greats? Were any of them goldsmiths, coopers, saddle makers?

Bakers? Who were these bakers in 1855? There were stoves in the Danish traders houses but none or very few in Icelandic houses. The trade ships brought wood but it was so expensive that it was only for wealthy farmers and for the Danes. They also brought coal but it was so expensive that it was bought by the pound to be used in a forge. I’d sure like to know who, in 1855, was a baker? With what? Grain was dreadfully expensive. People on the farms made flat bread or baked rye bread in the ground in areas where the ground was hot enough. Maybe some Icelandic historian will enlighten us.

Do any of the readers of this blog have family stories that might help explain these figures?
(From Andrew James Symington, Faroe and Iceland)

Icelandic lambs, 1862

icelandic sheep

Am I the only person from the Icelandic community in Manitoba who grew up knowing so little about our Icelandic heritage?

I knew about the Icelandic Celebration, except we called it Islendingadagurinn and were proud that it sounded so foreign and exotic.

I visited Grandma Bristow with my mother. They played cards. I got to look at stereoscopic pictures. I got to eat ponnukokur. However, I didn’t get to hear them talk Icelandic because my mother was an Irish girl from the city.In spite of her married name Grandma Bristow had come from Iceland.

Outside of someone having an Icelandic sweater, I don’t remember much about Iceland in Gimli. There was the Lutheran church but by the time I was going, the services were in English and the posters on the bulletin board were about raising money for Africa.

People had Icelandic names: Ejyolfson, Sigurdsson, Bjarnason, Narfason. Nobody was called –dottir.
When I read about farmers in Iceland getting together and discussing the sagas in great detail, I’m quite amazed. I didn’t hear about the sagas until I took a course on the sagas in translation with Haraldur Besesson. By that time I was in university.

Most of our childhood life was about Gimli. Hockey, playing baseball, soccer, football, riding our bicycles, going swimming at the dock, going skating on the lake or at the rink, prairie blizzards, deer, moose, pickerel, white fish. Icelandic only appeared in grade three when lessons were offered after school. I went a couple of times. My dad talked a little Icelandic in the barber shop. When we went for coffee at the relatives, they sometimes talked in Icelandic but not everyone could speak it so they usually stuck to English.

I don’t remember any Icelandic holidays. No bursting day. Although my mother did make cream puffs.

I don’t remember any Icelandic history. We didn’t know any Canadian history, never mind Icelandic.

Maybe it was because Gimli was more cosmopolitan than most small towns. From the time the trains arrived, I think in 1906, there were summer cottagers. They brought their city manners and behaviours with them. Then there was the airbase. We all knew airmen. The local girls married airmen. A lot of people got jobs at the airbase. We mixed with people from all across Canada and, later, from other countries.

Maybe I’m just making excuses for my own ignorance but it wasn’t until I took an interest in 19th C Iceland and began to do a lot of research that I started to learn about what life was like for my great great grandparents and my great grandparents in Iceland. The few things I’d heard when a few people were bragging about being descended from Icelanders turned out to nonsense. No, Iceland was not a democracy. No, everyone wasn’t equal. No, they didn’t just eat lichen in times of starvation. Etc.

That’s why it’s a joy to read a book such as Faroe and Iceland by A. J. Symington. It’s not a deep or profound book, it’s not crammed with statistics, but his descriptions and anecdotes are clear. As he and his companions travel through the Icelandic wilderness, he says

“We saw numerous farms as we passed along, each consisting of a group of irregular hillocks, with the windows hid deep in the grassy turf like portholes, and generally turned inwards so as to be sheltered from the roaring blasts of winter. We met ponies trudging along conveying lambs from one farm to the next. It was curious to see the little animals looking out of square crate-like boxes, made of spars of wood, slung in the manner of panniers on a donkey, and to hear them bleat: reminding one of the old nursery rhyme “young lambs to sell!”

That anecdote is worth the book. Isn’t a fine picture of how lambs were moved in a country without roads or wheeled vehicles. I’ve not come across such a description anywhere else.

I like to think of my great great grandparents riding with lambs in cages on either side of an Icelandic horse. It isn’t a Gimli scene. It is a purely Icelandic scene. What scene could be more romantic than Icelandic horses in a line threading their way through the wilderness, carrying crates with lambs?