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.“

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.