Advertising Iceland, 1900

If you’d been traveling to Iceland in 1900 and bought the Handbook to Iceland, you’d have been assured by an advertisement that Thistle Scotch Whiskey is pure, old, and reliable. It has been awarded five diplomas. It is recommended as a palatable spirit.
You’d have been pleased to know that if you took Somerville’s export whiskey with you, you’d be drinking a liqueur blend of selected old highland whiskeys bottled in pyramid-shaped bottles.
The analytical laboratory, Surgeons’ Hall, Edinburgh stated on the 12th of May, 1899 that it had made a careful analysis of John Somerville’s Export whiskey and that it was clear and well flavoured and free from impurities. So says W. Ivision Macadam, analytical and consulting chemist.
And, if your photographs didn’t turn out, that is if you took a large, bulky camera and all its accoutrements, you can buy F. W. W. Howell’s Photographs of Iceland, the best and most comprehensive collection in existence.
There’s also an ad for The London and Edinburgh Shipping Company’s First Class Screw steamships, the Fingal, Iona, Malyina, Marmion which are lighted by electricity. There are also other company vessels available unless the weather, casualties or strikes interfere. A ship will leave Victoria Dock, Leith, every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and from Hermitage Steam Wharf, Wapping, London, E., on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.
The fares seem quite reasonable. These include the Steward’s fee. First class cabin, 22 shilling. Second class, 16 shillings. Deck accommodation available only to soldiers and sailors for 10 shillings. Round trip tickets can be purchased but must be used within twelve months.
There is an assurance that Shas. Mackinlay & Co’s celebrated scotch whiskeys, B.O.B. and Benvorlich Blends will be available. It is so fine a whiskey that it is supplied to the Houses of Parliament, the officers of H. M. Ships, also the principal clubs, hotels of the United Kingdom, India, and the Colonies.
Of primary importance is that you can purchase it at all the principal merchants in Iceland and at the Hotel Iceland in Reykjavik.
I
f you are an angler, Turnbull and Co, the eminent Edinburgh fishing tackle makers who fit out anglers for all parts of the world will outfit you. Thornton & Co. will provide registered waterproofs. They have an astounding number of different waterproofs. Pocket, cycling, driving, ventilating, shooting, regulation, fishing, tweed, livery, plus, The Cavalier Waterproof Cloak, the best ever produced, perfectly ventilated. There are ladies’ waterproofs. You know that these waterproofs will be waterproof even in Iceland because the firm has won seven gold medals for its waterproofs.
If you still haven’t got those damned horse boxes finished, you can purchase some for Icelandic travel with a few day’s notice.
And if these boxes are stressing you out, you can buy very old scotch whisky from Daniel Crawford & Son, distilled entirely from the finest Malt. This whiskey is so good that it is supplied to the P.&O. and other large shipping companies, to leading  hotels and clubs throughout the world and to officers’ messes of the Royal Navy and Regiments serving abroad.
If, with all this fine Scotch whiskey, you think you can stay sober enough to stay on a horse or cast a line, you can call on R. Anderson & Sons, the fishing tackle makers to Her Majesty the Queen. From their long experience in catering for fishing in Iceland, they are in a special position, or so they say, to supply anglers with the tackle which former visitors to Iceland have found to be best suited.
If you manage to swim through all the fine whiskey to Hotel Leith, it is near the docks and close to the railway station. Buses and cars to Edinburgh and Granton pass the door every few minutes. It’s 1900 remember and there is a telephone, No. 58S.
Thorgrimur Gudmundsen, he who has helped with the guidebook, has an ad. It says that he furnishes tourists with excellent English-speaking guides, ponies and anything needed for your trip.
Thorgrimur has been in business since 1873. Gracious! That’s just when our families were packing up to leave Iceland. It is now 27 years later. All the time people were dying on the voyages to North America and were being buried at sea, traveling to Nova Scotia, to Kinmount, building shelters on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, dying of smallpox, he’s been managing quite well. So well, in fact, that he has the very best recommendations.
He’s been a guide for Rider Haggard, the Prince of Hesse, etc., etc. He is highly recommended to tourists by the current British Consul. He speaks English, Danish and French. And his charges are moderate.
It’s the year 1900. The beginning of a new century. Things are looking up in Iceland. The emigration is turning from a flood into a trickle. 
Our good Thorgrimur has hung on, found a business supported not by sheep, cows and fish but by tourists, tourists with ready money, who paid in silver, who could afford the supplies, the travel costs, the food, the accommodation, the horses, the guides. He’s an entrepreneur because his ad says that he doesn’t just guide himself. He provides guides and horses and anything else that might be needed.
The world has grown smaller. The miles may be the same but the time taken to cross them has shortened. Travel has become more reliable with steam ships. In England and Scotland, getting about is much easier with those cars, buses, trains. Travel is no longer just for the very wealthy who can afford to own or rent a yacht. The Industrial Revolution is starting to spread around the new wealth. Thorgrimur is in the right place at the right time.
   
(Any chance that any of my readers are related to Thorgrimur?)

Embrace your heritage

 Photograph taken by Kristin Johnson (Valgardson), their daughter.
These are my great grandparents, Ketill Valgarðsson and Soffia Sveinbjarnardóttir.
Ketill did not come to Canada to steal, rob, pillage, burn down buildings, kidnap people and sell slaves. He worked in Iceland, like his father, as a laborer. He came to Canada to work.
He did not wear a Viking helmet with or without horns.
In Iceland, he took care of dairy cattle and sheep. He cut hay. He fished. He had no future. He had no opportunity to advance beyond being a hired man. He worked for his room and board, a small amount of money and some cloth with which to have clothes made.
He was the son of Valgardur Jonsson and Kristin Brynjolfsdottir. His mother died in Iceland and his father, who was seriously ill when he came to Canada, died in New Iceland and was buried at Sandy Bar outside of Riverton in an unmarked grave.
Ketill came to Canada in 1878 on the SSWaldensian. He and his father traveled from Quebec City to New Iceland. Ketill worked on the railway and as a fisherman.  He moved to Winnipeg, married Soffia, and worked for the city as a laborer and then as a foreman.
In 1894, 16 years after his arrival in Canada, he was able to start a dairy business and to buy land at the northwest corner of Simcoe Street and Ellice Avenue. He had a business there until 1903. He then moved to Gimli and set up a flour and feed business that lasted until 1909. He bought a farm outside of Gimli which he called Adabol. He lived there until 1920. He moved back to Gimli, built a house there, a house in which I lived for the first year of my life.
He was not a pagan. He was a Christian. He didn´t worship Thor or Odin or any other gods. He was one of the founders of the Tjaldbud congregation in Winnipeg in 1893. When he moved to Gimli he became a member of the Lutheran church council.
He was active politically in that he was a member of the first council of the Village of Gimli in 1908.
He wasn´t a goði or a bishop or even a rich farm owner. He was a farm laborer. He came from a hard life to a hard life. It was no fun being a laborer on the railway. I expect it was no fun being a laborer for the city of Winnipeg.However, his work and his thrift meant that he could save money and buy land and start a business.
He and Soffia had three children. In Iceland those children would have become farm laborers, if not paupers. Raised in Gimli, one son, Sveinbjorn, became a master carpenter; the other son, Valentinus earned a gold medal in Mathematics at the University of Manitoba and a Master´s degree and became a high school Mathematics teacher in Moosejaw; Kristin, his daughter, became a bookkeeper and an accomplished artist.
In his retirement, he was financially independent. He’d raised and educated his children so that they did not have to be indentured servants. He owned his own house. He’d owned businesses. He could afford to keep a fine coffin in his basement for when he died. He wanted no pauper’s grave.
He and Soffia are my heritage. I’m proud of them. They’re the heritage I embrace. Ketill never killed anyone, stole from anyone, burned down any houses or monasteries. Soffia never scared off a bunch of angry aboriginals by beating her bare breasts with a sword.
They came with little or nothing. They made a good life for themselves. Their descendants have prospered.
Ketill’s story is not unique. I expect it is the story of many, if not all, of the people who came with him on the SSWaldensian. This is our real heritage. Laborers, farmers, domestics, paupers. Seeking opportunity. Building a life, a shovel full of earth at a time, adapting to a new society, learning a new language, adjusting to foreign neighbours, finding hope and solace in their church. Being brave.
My last memories of Ketill are the taste of peppermint and his woodpile. The peppermint because he always gave me a peppermint when I went with my father to visit him and the woodpile because it was while he was chopping wood at 84 that he had a heart attack and died.   

Traveling to Iceland, 1900, tourist advice2

So, there you are, it’s 1900, you have your travel book in hand. You’ve taken out your fishing rods, one for you, one for your good wife. You’ve heard of the fine salmon fishing. A salmon for every cast. You’ll need to take a net, of course. No wading into a rushing ice cold river to grab a salmon and fling it onto the bank. You’ll need your flies. A fisherman going to a new country is never sure what will work best.  Wading boots. You’ll need a knife but the hired guide will clean the fish. Matches to start the fire on which to cook the fish. An alcohol stove. There’s no dependable supply of fuel.
You’ve got your shotguns out. No need for solid shot. There are no large animals unless you run across an errant polar bear but that’s highly unlikely. No tigers, lions, wild boar. Just sheep and cows and in the mountains a few imported reindeer. Lots of birds, though.
Since this is a tourist jaunt and not a scientific expedition, comfort is a first priority. That means, your guidebook repeats, being sure you’ve got the right boxes for horse back. You’ve got the first part done. The boxes are built. Now, for the rest.
The instructions are very specific. “First, the hinges for the lid—these should have flaps about 6 inches long, bent over the lid, and be well secured with screws. Next, will be the lock –a stout brass hasp-and-eye and a padlock will be found more serviceable than the ordinary box lock as the latter kind are seldom made sufficiently strong to stand the strain that is necessary to put upon the lock of a box when it is crammed so full that one is compelled to sit or stand upon the lid to close it, and it is only by packing a box that one can prevent its contents being damaged by the attrition caused by jolting to which they will be subjected in pony transport.
“A pair of irons somewhat similar to a sailing boat’s shroud-irons, will have to be made for each box, but these should not be screwed on until the pack-saddle is seen to which the boxes are to be attached, as it is impossible to know until then the exact distance these should be apart. These irons are to be about 10 inches long, 1 inch wide with an eye at the upper end, having an side diameter of one inch, and holes for half-a-dozen screws are to be drilled in each, and counter-sunk for the heads of the screws. In the centre of the front of each box must be affixed a rivet and a washer inside a small eye-bolt, in the eye of which are to be inserted two triangles or rings, through which the girth and strap may be rove as hereafter described. Of course, these eye-bolts must be affixed before the zinc lining is put on, as the washer and river must not project, but be let into the wood.”
The carpenter will take care of it but you need to check to see that everything is done just right. The carpenter isn’t going to Iceland. You are. It’ll be your travelling supplies in those boxes, not his, that will be ruined if the boxes fall apart or spring a leak.
Because of the instructions about the boxes, the truth is known. No walk in the park, no stroll down a Parisian street, requires boxes built like these, boxes that must withstand crashing into lava, being drenched in mud and quicksand, floated across glacier rivers full of ice and tumbling stone, boxes that will keep clothes, food, matches, fuel, dry and safe.
The writer of tourist guide books in 1900, knows how to lull the traveller with comforting words, descriptive words, words that will encourage rather than discourage the tourist, but the truth is in the preparations. It is by horseback that people will travel. It is by horseback that their belongings will accompany them. The magnificent, historic landscape they will go to see is made up of bogs, heaths, lava deserts, icy rivers, boiling springs, mountain passes, horse trails, precipitous inclines and declines and there is no Automobile Association, no cell phones, no helicopter ambulances, when something goes wrong. There’s just the tourist, the guides, the horses, the critical boxes with everything that is needed to survive. That’s why the writer of the tourist brochure can wax eloquent about the Aurora Borealis for a line but must devote pages to the making of the boxes.
The theme of the INL conference in Brandon, Manitoba this year is embrace your heritage. It’s a great theme. However, to embrace something, you’ve got to know it. To know it requires effort. To know your heritage requires knowing about something as simple and complicated as these travel boxes. In a country with no roads, where all travel was by horse, where everything, food, fodder, even the dead, are carried by horseback, to understand your heritage, to understand what your family’s life was like, you have to understand travelling by horse.
To understand travelling by horse, you have to understand these boxes, what effort it took to make them, what effort it took to use them, how they were part of every day as they were used to travel from seaport to farm, from farm to seaport.
When you, the 2012 You, go to Iceland this summer, when you ride in an air conditioned bus, when you are served a meal, when you sleep in a comfortable room, think about these boxes, the making of them, the packing of them, the carrying, the unpacking. Embrace your heritage in comfort but give a thought to your great greats and how they made their trips. They and the horses and these boxes are your heritage.   

Icelandic travel g uide: 1900

It’s 1900 and you have read in the local paper that the first electric bus is operating in New York City. The United States Census reveals that there are now 70 million people in the country. There are regular headlines about the Boer War. The Boers are winning and are doing dastardly things. Industry is forging ahead even in the most unlikely places. The first through passenger train goes from Cairo to Khartoum. Just think of that. What will happen next? What will happen next is that the Boxer Rebellion escalates but, more importantly, the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs is organized in Philadelphia.
The Boers quit winning and the British troops start winning. The Boers surrender. That’s a great relief. There’s a fire at Buckingham Castle. Women in Germany, trust those Germans to have something like that happening, are demanding the right to sit for university exams. The Boxers keep being unreasonable. They kill hundreds of European citizens including the German ambassador.
It’s too much. It’s time to go somewhere for a holiday where you won’t be drowned in unpleasant news. Somewhere different. Off the beaten path. The kind of place where there won’t be any current newspapers. The kind of place that will provide conversation over dinner for the coming winter.
Iceland. That’s the place. No one is getting up a rebellion there. It’s a country of geographic wonders and Viking settings. The current populace is made up mostly of sheep farmers. None of them are given to violence. It’s reasonably priced. It’s not far away. Because of the steamships, there are regular ship schedules from England and Scotland now.
Why not? Iceland it is. But how do we get there and what will we need? That’s the question. Well, it turns out that Geo. V. Turnbull & Co., of Leith, have just the thing for two shillings and threepence. It’s the improved 2nd edition of advice for people planning on going to Iceland. Can it be trusted? Of course, it can. Mr. Thormundur Gudmundsson, Iceland’s most famous guide, or so the author says, has read over the book and made helpful suggestions. Iceland’s most famous guide. Mr. Thormundur Gudmundsson. Any chance, he’s a relative of yours, dear reader?
“Look, dear, Mr Thormundur’s guide has come by post and it has all the advice we need. There are general hints, what a lady should take, a sportsman’s needs, clothing, boots, waterproofs, maps, fishing tackle, flies, and advice on excursions, there are short ones and long ones. They’ve even got advice on shooting. Fancy that. There are lots of birds. They’ve even got the schedule from the Faroes. I’ve always wanted to spend a day or two at the Faroes. They are supposed to be quite quaint.”
The introduction is quite reassuring. The weather, the reader is told, is much like Scotland’s except fine and drier. There is little darkness. If the traveller goes later in the season, the Aurora Borealis is magnificent. There’s no need to go to a great expense since all that is required are a couple of flannel shirts, some woollen underclothing, a good stout Mackintosh, and a few absolutely personal necessities since pack ponies are the only means of transport.
 “It’ll be a walk in the park. It says the Icelanders are reserved but affable. Like us. Like Englishmen and some of them can speak English.”
Except, except, when the reader keeps reading, the sunshiny suggestion that a trip in Iceland will be no more difficult than a train trip to the English countryside, seems to come apart.
There is in this booklet, the best description I have ever read of what is needed for the boxes that will be carried on the backs of the pack ponies. This may seem trivial. It is not. These boxes are critical to any trip. There are no wheeled vehicles. There are no roads. Some farms can provide accommodation. Some cannot. Some have tents. Some do not. Everything needed for the trip will need to be in boxes on the backs of horses, boxes that will be plunged into bogs, that will be dragged through morasses, that will be drenched during river crossings,  that will come loose when they are knocked against large chunks of lava.
Every traveller comments on, curses these boxes, the packing and unpacking of them, the constant unbalancing that requires stopping, the damage that results if the boxes are not made perfectly to withstand endless shocks and immersions.
“The sportsman must provide himself with a pair of travelling boxes specially constructed for Icelandic travel.” That’s what the booklet says. The traveller must bring the boxes with him. No buying them in Iceland. There’s not much wood and it is of dubious quality. The skills of the carpenters are unknown. There may not be sheets of zinc or metal hinges.
Since the boxes must travel on the back of an Icelandic horse, they can be no longer than 2 feet. It is absolutely essential that the boxes be waterproof. The interior should be lined with 24 gauge zinc sheet. That’s about the thickness of strong brown paper. The boxes must be tested to see that they don’t leak.
Why is it so necessary? It’s because “A stumble over a boulder on the part of a pack-pony is a possibility, nay, a certainty sooner or later in the driving of loose ponies through the rivers one is compelled to ford daily by travelling in many parts of Iceland. Waller, in his charming little work “Six weeks in the Saddle,” says—“To see your pack-horse calmly seat himself in 4 feet of water, and hear the sea (he was fording at the time a shallow inlet) pouring gallons into your travelling boxes, is not calculated to enliven even a good-tempered man.”
Imagine everything you need in these boxes, clothes, food, tents, toiletries, everything, and a horse sits down in 4 feet of water and, if the boxes are not built properly, the water pours in and your bread that you’ve brought from England turns to inedible mush, your clothes are soaked and there is no fire beside which to dry them, your shotgun shells dissolve (those shotgun shells you were planning on using to shoot birds so you’ll have fresh meat). Prevention is better than cure, and a most effectual preventative is the zinc lining.
Pay attention. You are going to Iceland. You are going to ride over lava fields, lava deserts, bogs, heaths, rivers, for two weeks. There are no inns, no restaurants. Farm houses have only enough fuel to cook a meal. There will be no roaring fire to warm and dry yourself beside. If the food in your boxes gets wet, you’ll be getting black bread, skyr, dried cod and sour butter from the farms. If you are lucky.
“The boxes should not exceed the following outside dimensions, and be made as light and strong as possible – 2 feet long, 14 inch’s deep, and 10 inches wide. The wood should be well-seasoned pine, an inch thick. The side, bottom, and ends, and likewise the lid, should each be of one piece of board, not two pieces joined together, and the sides and ends should be dovetailed together at the corners, not simply nailed. The lid should be arched to throw off the rain, which will be done by affixing a piece of wood, with the upper edge rounded, to each end of the lid in such a manner that it overlaps the end of the body of the box. The boxes should each receive two coats of paint or, better still, varnish, and they will then be complete, save the lining and the fittings.”
Remember that first advice about how easy a horse trip around Iceland will be. A walk in the park. A piece of cake. If that is the case, how come the boxes have to be made from inch thick pine? Made of one piece of board with dovetailed corners? If the weather is going to be so wonderful, how come the lid has to be arched to throw off rain?
Personally, I’d be getting a bit nervous about now. “Delightful” and the instructions for these boxes don’t quite seem to go together. The instructions for these boxes would give me pause. However, it is 1900 and Iceland is an adventure. They say there is excellent salmon fishing and hunting.
Still, the instructions for these boxes are not finished. You’ll get the rest of your instructions in episode 2
(Quotes from Handbook To Iceland, Douglas Hill Scott, 1900).

Easter ritual

“The great bulk of the population being absent at the fishing-places, there was no public worship at Stadarhraun; yet I was in no ordinary degree interested by witnessing the piety and devotion manifested by the clergyman and his family, eight in number, in the exercise of their domestic worship. We assembled round the altar, which was extremely simple, consisting merely of a coarse wooden table, when several appropriate psalms were sung in a very lively manner, after which a solemn and impressive prayer was offered up, the females, meanwhile, placing their hands on their faces, so as entirely to cover their eyes. The clergyman now read an excellent sermon on Regeneration, from Vidalin’s collection, which is in great repute over the whole island, and has, perhaps, more than any thing else, contributed to perpetuate a clear and distinct knowledge of the fundamental principles of Christianity among the natives. The service concluded with singing and prayer; after which, the members of the family gave each other the primitive kiss; and I could discover, from the joy that beamed in every eye, the actual increase of happiness derived from their renewed approach to the Fountain of Bliss.”
This quote is from Iceland; or the Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815 by Ebenezer Henderson. I would have preferred to have had a description of an Easter service but found  none in my sources. Yet, it serves the purpose.
Our Icelandic ancestors were both superstitious and religious. The superstition began to fade with more contact with the outside world. The appearance of steam ships meant that schedules could be set and followed. No longer were trips to and from Iceland constantly disrupted or aborted because of the weather. Certainty begat traffic in both directions and, with the increased contact, scientific knowledge spread. However, the hold of superstition resurfaced with the widespread belief in spiritualism.
There is more evidence of religious belief in the time of emigration than of superstition simply because of the large number of bibles brought with the settlers. It is further evidenced by the passionate, and often, divisive religious debates that fractured the community. People took their religion seriously.
However, those black bibles have largely succumbed to mould and death. Few people in North America can read the Icelandic. The Icelandic bibles haven’t been replaced with English bibles. Society, blame or credit who you will, education, TV, the rise of materialism, advertising, mechanization, multiculturalism, pick your favorite culprit, has become more and more secular. Christmas now belongs to a fellow with a dozen magical reindeer and the maxing out of credit cards on gifts. 
The suffering, death and resurrection of Christ has been replaced by a bunch of rabbits hopping about with chocolate candy to give as gifts. Even the Lamb of God has faded to insignificance, its connection to Christ mostly unknown.

Few celebrate Easter by saying, “Christ is risen.” Or replying, “Truly, Christ has risen.”
My own memories of Sunday school and church when I was a child and teenager are strong but most of those memories center on Christmas, the three wise men, the cradle, Mary, Joseph and the Christ child. I have only the vaguest memories of Easter. Perhaps, it was all too complicated, with this day and that day. The image of the Last Supper, of Christ on the cross is strong, and so is the image of the open tomb but it is as if the Church (I use a capital C because, this comment falls not just at the door of the Lutheran church) has taken this time for itself, made it an insider’s time of complexity. Perhaps in other religions or other countries where there is still public ritual attached to the death and resurrection of Christ, the meaning of this time is still understood and preserved but not here in North America.
However, a search of the internet about Easter in Iceland returned posts about meals, going to the countryside, visiting with family, having four days holiday and competitions among families as to who could give their children the largest Easter egg. In Canada, the trend is similar. Easter is a holiday, a time for getting family together for a large meal (no reference to the Last Supper), the giving of Easter cards picturing rabbits with baskets full of chocolate eggs, and the giving of Easter eggs.
For me, my memories of Easter are secular, the religious rituals, if there ever were any, forgotten. The memories are of family being together, of cooking them a large brunch, of an Easter egg hunt by the youngest members of the family searching out chocolate eggs with the names of the guests on them. The only religious symbol seems to have been the cross on the hot cross buns but I don’t think anyone, including me, thought to explain the significance.
What is it that separates us from the family that Ebenezer Henderson describes during his year in Iceland? What, in spite of their poverty, did they have that we, with our prosperity, have lost?
Religion was a big part of being Icelandic. It seems, sometimes, without the faith our families had that helped them weather the hardest of hard times, our Icelandicness is less than what it could be.
  

Sheep make you rich

Without sheep our Icelandic ancestors would have been driven from Iceland or died. Sheep, more than any other animal, fed and clothes our people. From such a humble animal came life. Today, sheep are no longer the centre of existence for Icelanders or for Icelandic North Americans. While sheep are still often seen in Iceland, they are only seen in Canada occasionally. Their breeding is specialized. Their wool has been replaced by synthetics. Their milk is seldom used. Mutton is seldom seen in stores and when lamb is found, it is usually from New Zealand and Australia.
Icelandic lamb is universally praised. However, it is no longer the staff of life. Here, on the West Cost of Canada, there are Icelandic sheep being raised. The wool from them is processed at a mill on Salt Spring Island. What once came from Icelandic sheep, wool, meat, milk is exotic, specialized, no longer the products necessary for life.
It seems a hard fate for an animal that was central to the survival and prosperity of our Icelandic ancestors.
Wealth in Iceland was measured in the number of sheep a farmer owned.
In 1772 when von Troil visited Iceland, he had much to say about the importance of sheep.
“There is no breed of cattle so much attended to in Iceland as that of sheep. As these can easily find subsistence there, the Icelanders look upon it as less troublesome and less expensive to breed them; and there are many peasants who have from two to four hundred sheep. Before the epidemical disease which raged among the sheep from 1740 to 1750, it was not uncommon to see flocks of one thousand or twelve hundred, the sole property of one person.”
By 1863 Burton says, “Paijkull assigned 350,000 sheep and 22,000 head of black cattle to 68,000 souls. In 1871 the official numbers are Milch ewes and lambs, 173,562; Barren ewes, 18,615; Wethers and rams above one year old, 55,710; Yearlings, 118,243.” This was a total of 366,130.
Those numbers seem impressive until you compare them with John Barrow’s report that in 1834-35 that there were 500,000 sheep. In 1845 M. Eugene Robert gives the total as 617,401. But then in 1855 scabies appears and kills 200,000 sheep. When Burton is writing in 1874 scabies is still raging.
Sheep were the major food supply. In two years, 200,000 sheep are killed by scabies. No wonder there was hunger. 200,000 sheep not producing milk, wool or meat.
“The Icelandic sheep differ from ours in several particulars; they have strait ears standing upright, a small tail, and it is common to meet with those that have four or five horns: in some places they are kept in stables during winter; but they are generally left to seek their food themselves in the fields.”
Von Troil says that the sheep like hiding in caves. That’s not surprising given the dreadful weather on the heaths. He says that some people believe that there are wild sheep but it is not true. The Icelanders mark there sheep and when they are driven into the mountains to grave, they are scarcely ever without a shepherd.
He admires Icelandic sheep for being fat. The farmers figure that it requires one kapal of hay grown on the tún but two kapals if grown from unfertilized meadows. Like the cows, in a bad year with not enough grass harvested, the fodder is made of chopped fish bones mixed with hay.
The value of a sheep is greater alive than dead for the milk it produces is a greater source of food than its flesh. “Good sheep give from two to six quarts of milk a day…it has likewise a good taste when boiled.”
But the principal benefit from the sheep comes from the wool. It is not shorn but stays on the sheep until the end of May. At that time, it becomes naturally loose and is stripped off. This is called Ultafat. If there is a cold, wet spring, a piece of wadmal is cinched around the stomachs of the weakest sheep.
A good sheep, he says, is defined by by-laws as a sheep that provides four pounds of wool. Many sheep produce more.
The ewes often have twins and sometimes three lambs. When they do, the farmer takes one lamb and gives it to a mother who has lost her lamb. If lambs are too weak to follow their mothers, they are fed milk using a quill and a wet piece of skin.
How valuable were these sheep? What was the calculated wealth of a farmer’s herd? According to von Troil, “The price of six ewes, from two to four years old, together with their lambs and wool, is four dollars in autumn….a weather of four years old is sold for one dollar.” It is interesting that if someone butchers a lamb, its value is determined by the amount of fat it has. The meat, without the head, feet, entrails, fat, skin and wool is valued at twenty yards of wadmal. The law says that a pound of dried mutton is worth half a yard of wadmal. The skin is sold by weight.
Wadmal, the coarse woolen cloth that the Icelanders wove, was supposed to be produced at three yards a day. So the meat of a lamb by itself is worth 20/3 = 6 2/3 day’s labor. One pound of dried mutton is worth 1/6 of a day’s labor.
However, the yearly wages of a man were fixed by municipal law at four dollars and twelve yards of wadmal and those of a woman at two dollars and five yards of wadmal. A laborer who wanted to buy a lamb, meat only, would need to work two years to get enough wadmal.
It is no wonder that von Troil says “Their food principally consists of dried fish, sour butter, which they consider as a great dainty, milk mixed with water and whey, and a little meat. They receive so little bread from the Danish company, that there is scarcely any peasant who eats it above three or four months in the year.”
To understand value today is difficult for as von Troil says, “Their accounts are not all kept in money, but according to yards and fishes. In 1878, 106 years later, Anthony Trollope comments on the fact that there is no bank in Iceland. It would be difficult enough to compare value in Iceland in 1772 or, in 1884, even if there was enough silver coin in the country to cause a bank to be established. Everything financial is comparative, after all. If you put a dollar on the table, its value is what objects can be purchased with it.
To make matters more difficult, there were constant new issues of money in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Money was being debased by inflation.
“In the late 18th century coins were issued in denominations of ½, 1, 2, 4, 8, 24 and 32 skilling, 1/15, ¼, 1/3, ½ and 1 rigsdaler.” (Wicki) Those, travellers changed into English sterling. Complicated? You bet. Especially without any computer but your head. The best way to figure out what your sheep were worth was how much wadmal, butter, or fish you could get for one sheep.

Uno von Troil: cattle

Uno von Troil says “Next to fishing, the principal support of the Icelanders is the breeding of cattle.
“Their beeves are not large, but very fat and good. It has been reported by some, though without foundation, that there are none among them with horns: it is however true that they seldom have nay.”
“The large cattle are kept at home in their yards the greater part of the year, though some have places appropriated for them in the mountains which they call fatr, where they send their cattle during the summer, till the hay harvest is over. They have a herdsman to attend them, and two women to milk them and make butter and cheese. It is common to meet with oxen running wild about the mountains, which are however drove home in autumn, as everyone knows his own by a particular mark put upon them.
“The principal food of the cattle is hay, and they reckon that a stack of  hay for a cow’s winter provision; a stack consists of thirty cocks (kapal) of hay, grown on manured land, and forty cocks kapal grown on un-manured land. When there is a scarcity of fodder, they feed them in some pars with steenbitr, a kind of fish, which, together with the heads and bones of cod, is beat small, and mixed with one quarter of chopped hay. The cattle are fond of it and yield a good deal of milk after it; but yet it is said to have a bad taste, and they only make use of this food in time of need.
“Their cows yield four kanne of  milk a day, though they have some that give from eight to fourteen in four-and-twenty hours. A cow that yields six quarts is reckoned a good one, and must not stand dry above there weeks before she calves.
“A young calf is fed with milk for ten days or a fortnight, afterwards the milk is mixed with water and chopped hay, and at last they give it whey instead of milk
“The usual price of a cow, as well as of a horse, is one hundred and twenty ells, thirty of which make a dollar. However, sometimes the better sort of horses are sold for eight or ten rix-dollars. They have less trouble with their horses than their cows; for though some saddle-horses are kept in stables during winter, the greater number of them are obliged to provide for their own subsistence, and when they cannot find this on land, they go in search of sea-weeds on the coasts; but when a great quantity of snow has fallen, the natives are obliged to clear it away for them.”
To get this stack of hay needed for each cow to survive the winter, every farm worker (and the small farm owner), has to scythe an area 180 ft. by 180 ft. every day. That’s on the tún where the soil is manured and where the grass grows more thickly. To get that stack of hay for each cow from unfertilized meadows, a man has to scythe a square 240 ft to a side every day. The women working in the fields have to rake as much hay as three men can mow. Every day. The hours were long, The work hard. In Paradise Reclaimed, after the farm at Steinahliðar has been destroyed and Steina has been sent by the parish council to work on a farm, the narrator says, “She was worn out after a summer of drudgery, long days of toiling in the rain with her rake far into the night.” 
Uno von Troil writes about life in Iceland in 1772. Laxness sets Paradise Reclaimed around the year 1874. We know this because the Danish king comes to visit. Little, if anything, has changed.
In 1874, there has been no mechanization. The cattle depend on harvested grass for the winter. The grass was still cut with a scythe and, although there are many tales of witches who can command a host of scythes to cut her grass, the reality is that one man can only wield one scythe. The grass has to be raked. It has to be dried. It has to be stacked. An experienced farmer can look at his stacks of hay and his herd and calculate how long the hay will last and whether or not, before the year is over, he‘ll be feeding his cattle hay mixed with hammered fish bones and sea weed. In a good year, the milk will taste sweet and in a bad year, it will taste of fish. In a very bad year, there‘ll be no milk to taste.
Cows, in a way, were regarded as a luxury because they required more grass than sheep for an equal amount of milk. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses resents it when he is given a cow unasked. With the milk from the cow, the health of his family improves but only at the cost of less feed for his sheep.

When their cow is starving for lack of hay, Bjartur’s wife, Finna asks him to visit some of the other farms to borrow some hay. He refuses and says,
“No power between heaven and earth shall make me betray my sheep for the sake of a cow. It took me eighteen years work to get my stock together. I worked twelve more years to pay off the land. My sheep have made me an independent man, and I will never bow to anyone. To have people say of me that I took the beggar’s road for hay in the spring is a disgrace I will never tolerate. And as for the cow, which was foisted on me by the Bailiff and the Women’s Institute to deprive the youngsters of their appetite and filch the best of the hay from the sheep, for her I will do only one thing.” That one thing is to kill the cow which he does quite happily.
Not all farmers, however, were like Bjartur. The original settlers had brought over dairy cattle before 1000 AD. The cattle though perhaps not as efficient users of grass as the cows, were still efficient. That was good because no grain ripened in Iceland after the Little Ice Age began. Importing grain was prohibitively expensive even for human consumption. There was no tradition of growing vegetables to feed animals. The climate made it increasingly difficult to grow vegetables and those who did or tried to were mostly Danes.
In spite of the preference for sheep, the settlers in New Iceland followed the tradition of raising dairy cows. In the New Iceland area, just outside of Gimli, the tradition is still carried on by the Narfason family. In 1915, Magnus Narfason was selling fluid milk to the City dairy in Winnipeg from a farm he established in 1897. His sons Elli and Mundi took over the farm after Magnus died in 1931. Oli Narfason, who is Elli‘s son, became involved in the farm in the late 1940s. His son Clifford took over the farm when Oli retired. Today, in 2012, that‘s 115 years of commitment to those cows that Bjartur saw as competing with his precious sheep.
My great grandfather, Ketill, after working as a labourer on the railway and in Winnipeg, saved enough money to start a large dairy business in Winnipeg in 1894. He bought a parcel of land on the N. W. Corner of Simcoe St. And Ellice Ave. What is now in the heart of the city was grazing land. He carried on business there until 1903.
Cows. Hay. Milk. Survival. A way of life. Transferred to North America. First just to provide the milk that was a staple in the diet of the Icelandic settlers but, gradually, as many settlers took other opportunities, there came the possibility of producing milk for the community.
Today, there is little evidence of the critical role dairy cattle played in the survival of both the Icelanders and the North American Icelandic settlers but no history of either group is complete without an understanding of how the cattle Uno von Troil describes were critical to our ancestor‘s survival. Gimli has a large viking statue. We all like it. We take relatives and friends to stand in front of it for pictures. Perhaps, what there should be is a statue of an Icelandic dairy cow, our own Bukolla. The Viking raids left nothing for following generations   to eat. Their plunder disappeared. The cows were more faithful. They have fed us for over a thousand years. Maybe a statue of an Icelandic cow standing beside the Viking, as large as he is, would recognize what we owe to whom.
Perhaps, when we reach for the skyr, we should pause for a moment and think of people scything grass long into the night, raking hay in the rain, pounding fish bones and collecting seaweed to mix with hay, so that the milk, cream, butter and skyr would last longer than the winter.