1879: travel in Iceland

ponies fording a river from girl's guide

Photo courtesy of: http://blessiblog.blogspot.ca/2012/11/have-icelandic-will-travel.html

How hard was it for your ancestors to get from their farm to the harbour where they would meet the ship that would take them on the first leg of their journey to Amerika?

Rodwell was in Iceland, the summer of 1879. He describes his trip. He’s traveling at the same time as some of our ancestors were making their trip over the mountain passes, through the lava fields, past the glacier covered mountains, over the bogs. Unfortunately, I don’t have a diary from my Great Grandparents describing their journey. However, I have Rodwell’s report in Nature.

This is what he says:

Climate.—The presence of jokulls covered with perpetual snow; of the Gulf Stream, and of an arctic current, tend to make the climate of Iceland very variable and subject to sudden changes. On August 20, when we left Kalmanstunga, in the centre of the island, the sun was as hot as during an English mid-August day; later in the day as we passed the Geitlands jokull a piercing icy wind bore down upon us with great force, and again towards evening when we entered the northern end of the Thingvellir valley it was warm and summer-like. During the course of that day we experienced a difference of more than 100 degrees F. Again on August 30, at Eyrarbakki, on the south coast….a crust of ice had formed on all exposed water. At 10 A.M. a bright hot August sun was shining and the air was still. At 3 P.M. rain and violent wind occurred, and towards evening, again cleared up. Frequently the wind drops suddenly and a complete change of weather may take place in the course of a few hours. The summer has been unusually dry and warm, but on August 31 the weather began to break up. On that day we travelled from Eyrarbakki to Reykjavik by way of Rekir (in Olfusahreppr), and we shall never forget the difficulties of crossing the Helliskard, a low spur of the mountain Hengill. The whole tract is either the living palagonite rock, or detached fragments heaped together in confusion. Hence it is only possible to proceed at a slow (sic)space. A violent wind swept over the face of the mountain, driving the rain in almost horizontal sheets along the surface. From time to time mists floated over the mountain, and it was bitterly cold.”

Did you know that? Did you know that this was what your lang lang amma braved? To come to Amerika so that her children and children’s children could have a better life? That your lang lang afi endured?

What he describes is not winter. It is August. “Piercing icy wind with great force” a difference in temperature in one day of a hundred degrees. Rain and violent wind. The travelling from Eyrarbakki to Helliskard is so hard that he says he will never forget it. The wind drove rain in “almost horizontal sheets”. It “was bitterly cold.”

It wasn’t just adults that endured this type of trip to the harbour. It also was children. In my family there were daughters. Everyone would have been on horseback. Luggage on horseback. Riding into driving, horizontal rain. Battered by wind. Unable to go any faster.

Why do you celebrate Islendingadagurinn? Why do you go to Thorrablots? Why have you got a name plate in Icelandic in your yard? Why do you walk to the rock? Why do you eat vinarterta?

I hope you do them because you are proud of your Icelandic ancestors, because you enjoy the events and the food. I hope, though, you take time to think about a line of Icelandic horses with people hunched against wind and rain, following the tracks cut deep into the ground from centuries of use. Because that’s why you and I are here.

Report on Iceland: 1879, Nature


When I am researching a subject, the strangest bits of debris turn up, sort of like driftwood on the beach, not surprisingly there but still a surprise. I stumbled across a copy of Nature Magazine, 1879 and lo and behold, there was a report on conditions in Iceland.

I was most pleased to see the report because 1879 is right in the thick of the emigration from Iceland to Amerika. To stay or to leave was not only a difficult choice for many because it would mean leaving everything they knew behind for an uncertain future, leaving family behind, leaving farms that may have been where their people had lived for centuries.

One of the arguments for not leaving was that conditions in Iceland were improving. However, I’ve never come across any precise description of these improving conditions. Until, that is, I discovered Nature, 1879. There are a number of parts to the report but the one I immediately was drawn to was the following:

“Improvements in Iceland.—During the year which has elapsed since we last visited Iceland, several very marked improvements have been set on foot. In no respect is this more conspicuous than in the case of the roads. A few years ago a writer made an assertion “there are no roads in Iceland.” At the present time road-making is making great progress, and many scores of miles of excellent roads exist. Of course we mean such roads as alone are possible, without great expenditure of money and labour, in a country which is one vast volcano. Driving roads are impossible, but excellent pony roads are being constructed, and will greatly facilitate despatch of business and intercommunication. The first bridge in Iceland is about to be commenced. It will cross the Olfusa, and materially help to establish a better communication between the east and the west. A second bridge is to be thrown across the Thjorsa. The first lighhouse in the island was erected a year ago, and the light-dues paid by ships at the port of Reykjavik have already almost paid for its construction. There is some talk of founding a school of farming at Modrudalr in the north- west, and a law school in Reykjavik, where a divinity school and a a medical school already exist. In Reykjavik new houses are being built; there is a proposition on foot to build an hotel, and a new house for the Althing, which now holds its biennial meetings in the Latin school. Hafnafjord and Eyrarbakki are flourishing little ports; Akureryri does a fair trade in shark liver oil, and in ponies; and the Krisuvik sulphur mines appear to be in good working order and to yield a rich product.
Reykjavik, September 2 G. F. RODWELL

My thanks, these many years later, to G.F. Rodwell for his report. Think of the importance of what he says. Travel, every writer says, is difficult and dangerous. People die because of the weather, they drown crossing rivers, they suffocate in bogs, they fall from their horses. There are no roads, just tracks made by horses over the centuries, tracks often cut so deep that they are often filled with water. Travel, even in summer, and Rodwell gives a detailed account of his summer travel, is often painfully slow and filled with hardship. Yet, there, right at the top of improvements is that the pony tracks are being improved. Not roads for wheeled vehicles. That will have to wait but in this land of lava and morass an improved pony track is a blessing.

Not only that but a bridge is going to be built. The first in Iceland and a second one is being planned. Imagine what that means. No more having to ride horses through rivers dangerous with unpredictable bottoms, glacial debris that can break a horse’s leg, knock it over, ice from glaciers, no getting soaking wet with no place to dry out.

Not only that but a lighthouse has been built the year before. It seems unimaginable in a country like Iceland that there have not been lighthouses for hundreds of years. Iceland is an island with a hostile coast. Safe travel by ship is critical and yet there have been no lighthouses. Now, a lighthouse has been built. As an aside, look at what Rodwell has to say about his visit to the lighthouse keeper. Rodwell is the first visitor during the entire year. How is that for living in isolation. It is, for us, with our highways and cars and buses and trains and planes nearly impossible to imagine living in such isolation.

In Reykjavik, new houses are being built. Not only that but there’s going to be a new building for the Althing. There’s talk of founding a school of agriculture. These are events as foundation shaking as an earthquake. Iceland has depended on agriculture for survival since its founding and, yet, there has been no school of agriculture. It seems impossible to believe but, now, in 1879, enough has changed in the way people think for such an idea to appear. Iceland is poor and that limits everything but poverty can often be overcome if you can just change the system. The proof of that is in Rodwell’s report. Only a year has passed and that first lighthouse has nearly been paid for by dues charged to ships. The money was there. The way of thinking had to be changed.

Yes, there are changes happening in Iceland in 1879 but the biggest change of all is that the way of thinking has begun to change. First you have to imagine something like roads, bridges, lighthouses, before you can build them. In Rodwell’s report we see the beginning of the possible, of what could be but those changes would be slow coming and would make little difference to our people who chose to emigrate. They needed change now, in 1872 and 1873 and, perhaps, it was their leaving forced those who stayed, especially the wealthy landowners, to grudgingly accept that change was necessary.

Iceland, 1810: Henry Holland


Have you heard of Henry Holland? Are you hot for Iceland? Are you proud of your Icelandic roots? Do you want to get a sense of Iceland in 1810? That’s 62 years before a lot of our ancestors made the perilous journey to Amerika.

But even those who were 35 years old or 25 years old or 5 years old were leaving an Iceland that had changed little from when Uno Von Troil visited in 1772. They were leaving an Iceland that had changed little from when Henry Holland traveled around Iceland in 1810 with his companions, staying at farmhouses and in churches, fascinated by Iceland’s famous geology but, for us, more importantly, describing the people and places where he stayed.

Who was this Henry Holland? He was, according to the cover of his book, The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland 1810 “one of Victorian London’s most celebrated physicians and most tireless travellers”.

Toward the end of their journey, Holland tells us

We resumed then our journey after dinner to day; being attended to by Odde, the first stage, by the Sysselman & his secretary – The former was good enough to supply us with his horses, that our own might be reserved for the remainder of the journey. The road to Odde, (which is 14 o 15 miles from Hlidarende) led us down the valley of the Marker Fliot….The farms & the pasture in this district are greatly superior to any we have seen elsewhere in Iceland. The farm houses are numerous, & neat in their appearance. A few miles from Hlidarende, we passed the church & hamlet of Breida-bolstadr –This is the richest living in the whole island, the nominal salary of the minister being 182 specie-dollars – (Danish cash) his real profits from the church much more considerable – Odde is situated on the western side of the Eastern Rangaá, at no great distance from the river, & only a few miles from the sea — Arrived here, we found a church of a very superior kind, large, neat, & ornamented with some degree of taste — a very large house too, appropriated to the minister of the parish…Though we did not arrive until late in the evening, it was thought necessary to prepare a meal for us, & a little before 12, a repast of baked mutton, & rice milk was brought upon the table.”

This is a hospitality that is recounted time and again over Holland’s months of travel in Iceland.

Holland is a trained observer. He misses nothing. He is curious about everything. And, the Icelanders are every bit as curious about him and his companions. Most of them have never seen an Englishman, may never have seen a foreigner unless it is a Danish merchant.

He says “our persons & pursuits had been curiously & minutely examined by the Icelanders – In no place, however, did we observe this curiosity more strongly manifested than at Buderstad. A short excursion which we made this evening into the Lava, with our hammers & specimen bags, was attended by a numerous groupe of women and children, who followed all our steps, & allowed not a single movement to escape observation.“

No wonder everyone came to see the Englishmen, these strange creatures from a far country doing the strangest of things. Going to the lava beds and chipping off pieces of rock, bringing them back and wrapping them in paper. They must have thought the Englishmen quite mad. Here was a country made up of lava. Lava was everywhere. And these strange men were chipping off pieces to take back to England.

I can just hear people going back to their own homes and saying, “Do you know what those Englishmen were doing?“

In Grundeviik, the bondi, a M Jonson, who is the principle farmer, is elderly. When Holland questions him, he says that “we were the only Englishmen, who had visited Grundeviik…He recollected to have once seen a Frenchman there“.

These are our people. Maybe not in a direct line of ammas and afis, but our ancestors were just the same. Most of them had not seen a foreigner. Most of them had not traveled far from the farm on which they lived. Travel was still difficult and dangerous, often impossible.

When you read Holland’s journal and he daily recounts traveling in the pouring rain, the fierce wind, the dangerous bogs where men and horses could be mired and die, the snow in the mountains even in summer, the cold even in summer, you begin to understand what it meant for our people to decide to leave their farm, travel for days to the nearest harbour where they could get passage on a boat to England or Scotland.

These are still the days of the sailboats. Everything depended on the weather. At the beginning of Holland’s journal, he says they were delayed for over a week because bad weather delayed their ship. When they are ready to leave Reykjavik, weather, once more, delays their leaving and even after the ship sails, the weather keeps them from making any progress. The storms are so bad that they decide to get off the ship at the earliest opportunity.

Sixty-five years would pass before our ancestors would reach New Iceland but they still endured the conditions Holland describes in 1810 because so little had changed between 1810 and the 1870s. They endured the travel he described because all travel was still on horseback. Travelers stayed in tents or in unheated churches.They rode in rain. And wind. And cold.

There were many foreign travelers after Holland who wrote about their experience exploring Iceland but he is well worth reading because his journal is detailed, specific, intelligent and reading the works of the early travelers and the later travelers gives a clear picture of a country trapped in time. A country where there was little opportunity to live the better life promised by Amerika.

The Good Neighbour


This is my father in his garden at Frog Point, Humbug Bay, Manitoba. It is north of Hecla, nearly at Pine Dock.The government launched a plan at one point to see if people could grow gardens in these northern communities along the lake. They should just have gone to my father’s fish camp and taken a look. he didn’t need any grant.

Last summer, after being in Manitoba for three and a half months, when I returned to Victoria, I found an azalea and a rhododendron dead. It had been a dry summer. They were beautiful plants, valued parts of the garden that fronts my house. I have no lawn. Just a garden of mixed shrubs and flowers. Also, when I left for Manitoba, my fig tree was covered in new figs. When I came back, the figs had dried up and fallen off the tree.

Perhaps it is vanity but Victoria, given its climate, is a city of garden proud people. Plants of all kinds flourish here. When I first moved to Victoria in the early seventies, I was amazed to discover trees and flowers that we’d had in southern Missouri. The climate allows extravagances such as the palm tree in Playfair Park. People grow palms simply because they can. More spectacular, though, are the tulip trees, astounding fountains of flowers. The rhodos at the University of Victoria are breath taking.

Not to garden seems churlish. Only the blackest of thumbs couldn’t make something grow.

I come from a family with two stellar gardeners. My father, surprisingly, a rough, tough commercial fisherman, loved to garden. At his fish camp along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, he grew masses of flowers, rows of vegetables. The soil that lay over the limestone had been undisturbed for eons and he had all the fish offal he could possibly use for fertilizer. My Irish grandmother was the other gardener but while she grew some flowers, her heart’s desire was vegetables. Her city garden, created under difficult circumstances, flourished, was laden with string beans, peas, was packed with carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes. Her side yard provided plums from wild plum trees she’d brought from the forests around Gimli. Rhubarb and strawberries flourished.

That is why, too busy editing and writing, too busy going to Manitoba for Islendingadagurinns and ice festivals and holidays, I’ve left my garden untended, unweeded, unwatered. In spite of that the Grape Hyacinth have provided a wonderful display among a mass of white flowers the name of which I do not know. The daffodils look like they are on steroids. The rhodos, after looking limp last fall, are bursting with large red blooms. However, they all show the signs of stress from last summer.

I swore before I left this year, I’d have an automatic irrigation system in place. Those who don’t know me won’t understand what a brave and foolish statement that was. Mechanical systems defeat me. Fortunately, there live across the street a couple who are exceptional gardeners. Someone recently said to them, “If I were getting married, I’d want to get married on your lawn.” You only need a glimpse at their “lawn” to understand why.

When I mentioned to David that I was going to put in a micro watering system, he took me around his yard to show me how such a system worked. Then I went off, with his advice, to buy the component parts. Knowing nothing, when a salesman sold me the wrong plastic tubing, I bought it. It put me back a day and after trying to make the tubing work, David went with me to HD and we were told, oops, sorry, wrong tubing. And, no, we don’t have any of the right tubing but if you drive to Rona in Langford (this is quite a distance) they have some. End of day one.

Today, I left early for Rona, found the correct tubing, plus some more bits and pieces sold separately and after having watched what David did yesterday, went to tackle putting the system in place. Fortunately, my neighbour saw me and came over. And, for the next four hours, did most of the work required to get the system in place and working. We both got soaked. It was chilly. Didn’t matter.

I’m a bit thunderstruck. I’ve always been lucky with my neighbours but help for two days in a row getting in an irrigation system is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced outside of small town Manitoba. This is, after all, the big city.
Good neighbours make a community. If there are more people here who are like my neighbours across the street, I really have moved not just into a house, but into a community.

Our ancestors, our heroes

Farm on Snaefellsness

Farm on Snaefellsness, Collingwood

The letters Uno von Troil sent to his patron are, for me filled with intriguing details. Unfortunately, there are no footnotes to expand some of these details.
Probably the most interesting thing he says about the economy of Iceland is that in spite of the harsh laws, the Icelanders manage to trade in smuggled goods. Iceland has a rugged coast. There are many possible harbours where a boat can anchor while word can be spread from farm to farm and the farmers can load up their horses with sheep skins, wool, preserved meat, knitted goods, wadmal, and eider down, anything that they might use to barter for desperately needed goods.

Remember, there were no mineable metals in Iceland. Everything made of metal from horse shoes to sewing needles had to be imported. Every farmer, it was said, was his own blacksmith but blacksmiths need coal, charcoal, and metal bars that can be shaped to whatever is needed.

Since grain could not ripen, barley, rye, and later, rice, needed to be imported. The Icelanders preferred rye biscuit, probably because the biscuit could be stored for long periods of time and, unlike the grain and flour, were not moldy.
According to von Troil, the Dutch smugglers brought better quality goods. Why wouldn’t you deal with the smugglers if they gave a better price for your goods and provided you with higher quality items?

The king could collect his 6000 rix dollars for providing a license, and instruct the trading companies to send 24 to 30 ships a year to Iceland and even instruct a company to provide good quality goods but the king was in his court and Iceland was far away and more of a nuisance than a benefit. Companies driven by the desire to make their owners rich weren’t good at self-regulation any more than they are today. Horsemeat in your hamburger isn’t a new phenomenon. Breast implants with poor quality silicon that leaks isn’t a new problem. If a merchant ship that has an exclusive license to a harbour so there’s no competition sells you rotten grain, low quality metal, poor cloth, watered brandy and then sails away there’s no place to complain to or to which to return the inferior goods.

What we need is someone like Jonas Thor to slow down long enough to translate descriptions of this smuggling. If Dutch ships were being seized then there will be court records of the seizures, the people involved, the penalties. A translation of the laws regarding smuggling would be a great help in understanding conditions of the time and the risks that our ancestors took to obtain decent goods to help them survive the coming winter. If not Jonas, then surely there must be others, university students, graduate students, history buffs who could unlock the lives of those people we celebrate at every Icelandic Festival.

I’ve been told that some people don’t like being reminded of how poor our people were, what terrible conditions they often lived under, how harsh was the weather. To ignore these things is to cheat our ancestors of the credit they deserve for their accomplishments. How dreadful! People who faced what seemed like impossible odds just to survive, who, generation after generation, made lives for themselves in conditions that required fierce strength and determination, were heroic. Getting out of bed in the morning when there is no food, no heat, the very real possibility of dying from hunger and cold and not giving up is heroic.

Those who stayed in Iceland, determined to make it a better place, were heroic. Those who risked everything by travelling to foreign places were heroic. They were heroic because of the obstacles they overcame. Pretend that those obstacles didn’t exist and you strip them of their heroism.

Their enemy wasn’t a foreign army. They did not face lines of troops with cannons and bayonets. They faced just as deadly enemies, though: incredibly bad weather, commercial exploitation, political neglect, natural disasters, rampant diseases. They died, at times, in great numbers, facing these enemies. They were cut down in the thousands by hunger and disease. They didn’t give up.

If we are going to celebrate the heroism of these people, we have to tell the stories of the battles they fought, the battles they lost and won.

Was Afi A Smuggler


Many of us, I say us, because it was certainly true of me, had no idea of what life was like for Icelanders in the 1700s and 1800s even though it was social and economic conditions during these times that led to our ancestors leaving Iceland the latter part of the 1800s. What I heard, repeatedly, was that our ancestors left Iceland because of the volcanic eruptions. I’ve heard this repeated time and again, as if it were gospel, both in private conversation and in public speeches.

While it is true that the effects of volcanic eruptions contributed to people making the decision to leave for North America, another hardship piled upon previous hardships, there was much more to it than that.

Uno von Troil, writing his Letters on Iceland, based on his visit in 1772, gives a summary of what trade was like for the Icelanders. Some of the conditions he mentions in brief (unfortunately, he does not elaborate) give us a glimpse into life for our lang (x6 or so) ammas and afis.

Von Troil points out that over the centuries there had been many changes in the way that trade was conducted with the Icelanders. What is obviously the major problem is that the trade was not under the control of the Icelandic people. The days of Viking ships were long past. The Icelanders were in no position to carry their goods to various markets.

He points out that until around 1400, the Norwegians were virtually the only people trading with the Icelanders. What fish the Icelanders didn’t eat or export in their own ships (the Icelanders still had ships with which to export goods), the Norwegians bought.

The English took over this trade, he says, until the Reformation. Although the mention of the English is just in this one line, the relationship of the English to Iceland waxes and wanes but never stops. It is long and, sometimes, troubled relationship.

During the Reformation, trade with Iceland was given to the Germans, particularly traders from Hamburg. Christian IV prohibited the Hanseatic League towns from trading with Iceland in 1602 and gave the right to trade to Copenhagen, Malmo and some other cities that were controlled by Denmark.
The Iceland company had the trade rights from 1620 to 1662.

In von Troil’s notes, I found a most interesting comment about the Iceland Company and the Turkish raids. We all know about the pirate raids that resulted as a large number of Icelanders being taken and sold as slaves in Algeria.

According to von Troil, the king was upset with the Iceland Company because not only had the company, in return for their exclusive license, promised to provide the goods necessary for the Icelanders but to protect Iceland from marauders.

Von Troil doesn’t explain the situation in detail but he says that the people who owned shares in the company were paid for their stock holdings but those people who had 1000 rix dollar shares were only given 500 and those who had 200 rix dollar shares got nothing. The company had paid the king for every trading port plus two rix dollars to the governor. It also contributed to the king’s “magazines” on the Westman Islands.

After the Iceland company was done away with, the trade of every port was auctioned off to the highest bidder every six years. However, he says, since 1734, a trading company has been given exclusive trading rights to the Icelandic ports for a yearly sum of 6000 rix dollars.

In return for this payment, the company is supposed to send 24 to 30 ships a year. They bring (or are supposed to bring) grain, bread, wine, iron and wood, etc. There are 22 trading ports. There they get fish, meat, butter, blubber, skins , wool and woolen goods.

He says that he doesn’t know if the trading company actually makes much money from the trade. The reason for that, he says is that the Dutch, illegally, bring much better goods to trade with the Icelanders. The Icelanders, illegally, sell their goods to the Dutch. This is regarded as smuggling and a number of Dutch ships have been seized. The legitimate trading company knows that smuggling and illegal trading is going on because the Icelanders bring such a small amount of goods to trade with them.

Von Troil mentions that at Reykjavik there is a woolen “manufactory, where twenty or thirty workmen are employed” but he does not explain what it is that is manufactured. Is it wool being readied for market or is it finished products? Surprisingly, he says that there are only a few looms here and there. Later travellers make reports of looms but do say that they are small and primitive compared to the looms in Europe.

The state of the Icelandic economy can be judged by von Troil comments on money. He says there is so little actual money that in the entire country can’t amount to more than a few thousand rix dollars.
The Icelanders keep their accounts not in money but according to yards of wadmal and number of fish. Forty eight two pound fish are worth one rix dollar. Twenty-four ells (about two to two and a half feet) are worth one rix dollar.

He says that you can buy a horse for 150 fish. So that would be about three rix dollars. You can buy a farm for 6000 ells. Think of that as 1000 yards of woven cloth.

So, there you have it, in the lines and between the lines. The Danish company that was supposed to protect the Icelanders in return for their trading license, didn’t, and Icelanders were killed and taken into slavery. Profit before responsibility. Not by the king but by the trading company.

The goods supplied by the later trading companies was often of poor quality. This did not improve with time. Later reports in the 1800s make note of the fact that some ships, to increase profits, did not even bring poor goods to trade, but nothing except cheap Danish brandy.

Your ancestors, if they could, in the face of harsh penalties, traded smuggled goods because they were of better quality.

Your ancestors lived in an economy where there was no banking system, hardly any actual cash in silver or gold, and this would not change until the English and Scottish traders started coming and were paying cash for sheep and horses. That was still long in the future. When Anthony Trollope goes to Iceland on the yacht, The Mastiffe, owned by John Burns, in 1878, he comments on the fact that there is still no bank in Iceland. More than a hundred years have passed since von Troil’s visit in 1772. Trollope says “One deficiency in Reykjavik which the most surprised me was the want of a bank. There is no such thing as a commercial bank in Iceland.”

One must, of course, be wary of historical documents, particularly personal papers, for much is included that is hearsay. For example, von Troil says of the Icelanders kidnapped by the Turkish pirates that most were returned to Iceland. We know that is not true. Still, his observations are interesting and informative and give us some sense of what life was like for those great (x6) ammas and afis of ours, and a sense of the social and economic conditions that led, eventually, to our people going to the harbours and getting onto English ships to begin their journey to Amerika.

1772, Iceland: making a living


If, when you transported yourself to the Iceland of 1772 with the help of a green bottle’s contents, you had stayed more than a day and a night, you might have discovered quite a bit about how lang lang ammas and avis managed to survive in this inhospitable climate.

You’d have quickly discovered that they survived by fishing and stock raising.
When your avi was fishing on the coast, he’d clean and gut the fish, then give them to your lang amma. The job of the women was to dry the fish. Once dried, the fish can last a long time, can be easily transported on the back of a horse, and provides protein. The drying takes a lot of work for the fish have to be lain out and turned. If rain threatens, lang amma has to take the fish inside inside or pile it up and cover it for if it gets wet, it will be spoiled.

In summer, your lang avi mows the grass, digs turf, collects whatever he can to use as fuel. Men and women go searching for sheep and goats (it is interesting that von Troil mentions goats but it is unlikely that any such goats existed in 1772. They were too destructive of grazing ground. He probably took that information from an earlier publication.) and butcher cattle for the winter.

When your lang amma wasn’t milking goats, sheep and cows, taking care of the animals, raking grass, cooking food, sewing, spinning, gathering eggs and eider down, she worked at weaving wadmal, a coarse cloth that was used locally but also traded to the Danish trading ships.

Von Troil mentions that the Icelanders make use of urine for cleaning the wool. This wasn’t uncommen in other countries. Farms would have containers for people to pee into as the urine was important for the treating of wool.

The men, he says, prepare leather, but gives no description. Later travellers describe the process in some detail. He says that in the tanning process, the Icelanders use meadow sweet.

He does mention that there are a few who work in gold and silver and others have been instructed in mechanics but he makes no mention of what kind of mechanics or to what purpose.

If you had been in the right place at the right time, you might have seen a sledge that a farmer built like a ship with sails. It was big enough to hold four or five people. In the winter, it was used to sail over even country (frozen lake, maybe?). Unfortunately, two of the farmer’s sons took it out and sailing home from church they overturned it and it was broken to pieces. (When my father was a boy, people in Gimli were building ice-boats, that is ships with sails meant to travel over the ice of Lake Winnipeg. I wonder if any of them knew they were following an old example?)

You would find that the amount of work your lang afi and amma did on the farm was laid down by local bylaws. One such bylaw said that “a man is to mow as much hay in one day, as grows on thirty fathoms square of manured soil, or forty fathoms square of land not manured, or he is obliged to dig 700 pieces of turf eight feet long and three broad.

“In winter, if the snow drifts reach to the horses bellies, then your afi was to clear snow off an area for a hundred sheep.

In talking to your host and his workers, you’d discover that wages are fixed by law. Your lang afi would tell you that his wages are four dollars and twelve yards of wadmal. Your lang amma would tell you that her wages are two dollars and five yards of wadmal. Imagine trying to save enough to put a down payment on a small farm such as Summerhouses. It takes Bjartur, the main character in Independent People, eighteen years to save up enough to make a down payment on a poor piece of land.

In summer your lang amma is to rake together as much hay as three men can mow. She is to weave three yards of wadmal in a day.Those rules are set out in the bylaws of the sysla.

When your lang avi is sent fishing in the winter, that is from 25th of September to May 14, he is allowed six pounds of butter and eighteen pounds of dried fish every week. This is all he gets to eat. No puddings, pies, cakes, roast beef, hot porridge, bacon and eggs. He’ll wash his food down with whey mixed with water. When he goes out fishing, he takes no food with him. This is the North Atlantic, in winter, with howling winds, high seas, bitter cold, in an open boat, rowing. No hot food. No food. Just whey and water to drink.

So there you are, this is what von Troil has observed and heard about the life of your lang, lang, lang, lang, lang, lang afi and amma in 1772, a hundred years before our ancestors started leaving for North America. This is what you’d have heard if you’d slipped away from Islendingadagurinn, vinartera, rulupylsa, good beer, laden tables and spent a day or two with the people you are supposed to be honouring at The Icelandic Celebration.

1772: Those Kissing Icelanders

black and white farm

When Dorothy was caught up by a tornado, she was carried to Oz. You, however, after having drunk a tumbler or two of brennavin were transported from Islendingadagurinn in Gimli to Iceland in 1772. As you staggered along a mountain path, grateful only that there is no horizontal rain this day, you have found a turf and lava farmhouse with a front made from driftwood.

The farmer and his wife, not quite sure what to make of this odd looking stranger have found a place for you to sleep after the eldest daughter, bewitching lass that she is with her long blonde hair and her pale blue eyes, has helped you off with your clothes. She’ll hang them up in the hope that, in the morning, if they’re not actually dry, they won’t be dripping wet. They’ll smell a bit smoky because the most likely place for them to be hung is in the cooking area along with the meat and fish that is also hung there.

There is, given the way these things work, tornadoes and brennevin that is, a good chance that someone in that house where you are going to sleep jam packed with ten other people, is one of your ancestors. So, just in case it’s the beautiful blonde wench who helped you off with your clothes, and she’s going to be your lang lang lang lang lang lang amma, keep your licentious thoughts to yourself.

In any case, what are these people like?

According to von Troil, the Viking age is long gone.

Instead of war, plundering, burning, destroying on their way to Valhalla, they’re now content to take care of their sheep and cows. The Icelanders defended themselves against their powerful neighbours, not by arms but by historical knowledge. They put great effort into knowing their own laws.

Current Icelanders prefer fishing and agriculture to war.

So, there you have it, from a man who is there, on the spot, you aren’t going to find any Vikings. You are going to find farmers and fishermen.

He says the Icelanders are middle-sized and well built but not very strong. The women are “ill-featured”. That’s surprising but given their diet, the constant diseases, particularly of the skin, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. He says that where he is, the men no longer have beards but if you are in the northern part of the island, your host and the other men living in the house are likely to have beards.

Our host and the other farmers in the area have fewer vices than van Troil has seen among the wealthy in Europe. Theft is seldom heard of. Nor are the Icelanders inclined to get drunk. But there have been fines and other punishments meted out for drunkenness. In spite of what von Troil says, if you have some brennevin left in that bottle in your pocket, no one would turn down a drink. Particularly as what most Icelanders get to drink, if they get to drink, is cheap Danish brandy.

The Vikings were noted for their generosity. However, in 1772, most people are not well off, yet they are generous. Von Troil says “they cheerfully give away the little they have to spare, and express the utmost joy and satisfaction if you are pleased with their gift.”

Now, here’s the tricky part, that beautiful blonde daughter of your host, the sixteen year old with the long blonde hair and the startlingly blue eyes and the smile that makes your heart go thud, thud thud, but who just might be your lang amma, is going to kiss you on the mouth. The Icelanders are always kissing each other on the mouth. Icelanders are the most kissing kissers the world has ever seen. You’ll be expected to kiss the husband, the wife, the children, the other sisters, grandma, even if she’s got a mouthful of chewing tobacco.

Von Troil says that Icelanders are faithful to their government and very religious. They are also obliging and faithful.

They are superstitious, so don’t do any magic tricks. It wouldn’t do to be identified as an agent of the devil.

They are so attached to their own country that is not understandable. Even those who have a chance for a much better life in Copenhagen usually return to Iceland.

In spite of all these wonderful qualities, they are not ambitious. They just repeat what they have always done even though their lives could be made better with some obvious improvements in the way they fish or farm.

They aren’t cheerful by nature so, if your host seems phlegmatic and taciturn, don’t take it personally. If you are lucky enough to speak Icelandic, you can join in and listen while they take turns reading or telling stories or sing. However, he says, the singing is dreadful.

If you are lucky, during your brief stay in 1772 in Iceland, you might hear someone play the langspil or the fidla. The fidla will have two strings made of horsehair. You might see them play games or do a ring dance which he called ringbrud or you might see horse racing.

If you play chess, you’ll be a welcome guest. The Icelanders are already famous for playing chess.

When you leave, walking down that mountain path more steadily to whatever portal will bring you back to Gimli and Islendingadagurinn, you’ll be grieved by the farm people because you will be the only non-Icelander these people will see in their lifetime, unless they are fortunate enough to be among those who go to the harbour when the Danish trading ships come in. Most will never see a foreigner. I hope you memorized the name of the farmer and the farm. Then you can do some genealogy and track your ancestors back and see if that pretty blonde really was your lang amma and, if not, wish you had spent some time kissing her behind the sheep pen.

1772: how lang afi and amma lived


According to Uno von Troil, the houses in different parts of the country are different. On the north side of the island, he says, the houses are very bad. The only decent places are those of the governor at Bessestedr, the physician’s house at Seltiarnarnes, and the sheriffs at Wido. (his spellings)These houses have been built of stone and paid for by the Danish king.

In other parts of Iceland, the buildings are made of drift-wood and in other places of lava with moss stuffed between the lava. In some houses, the walls are lined with wood. The rafters are covered with sod. In places where people can’t get wooden rafters, the ribs of whales are used. However, the whale ribs aren’t free. They are more expensive than wood. The walls are about nine feet high and the door is not high.

If you come into one of these houses, you’ll find yourself in a hallway that leads to a first room with some holes in the roof. These will be covered with a skin stretched over it to let in light. At the far end of the hallway there will be a room where the women do their work and the farm owner and his wife sleep.

The walls of this room, being the room of the owner, are panelled. There will be a ceiling and a floor and, if you are fortunate, and stumbled on a better sort of house, there might be some small glass windows but there won’t be a fireplace.
On both sides of the hallway there will be rooms. You’ll find one of them to be a kitchen, a room to eat in, the dairy, and the servant’s room. If you are looking for lang lang lang lang lang lang amma and avi, you’ll probably find them here if they aren’t cutting hay or milking sheep. These rooms won’t have any ceilings or floor. There won’t be any wood panelling.

If there are windows they’ll be made from a hoop of wood with the intestines of a sheep stretched over it.

There will be no chimney and no fireplace. So, if you woke up on a dreary, wet day, and hiked to the closest house, there’d be no place at which to warm yourself. There might be some stones on the floor making an enclosure and in that there’ll be some dried manure burning—that is, if food is being cooked or heated.

Hopefully, you don’t have asthma, because with no chimney, the smoke spreads throughout the house before it escapes through a hole in the roof.
In the more prosperous farms, there may be a shed for storing fish, and another for people’s clothes, and a stable for the sheep and cows.

However, if you come across a poorer sort of farm, everything will be in one building, dried fish hanging from the ceiling (watch your head), very low beams (watch your head), there will be no furniture except the beds people sit on along the walls to eat their meals and which they share, sleeping head to foot. There won’t be any privacy but you probably won’t care because there are no stoves, no fireplaces and hardly any fuel so people sleep together for body heat. Fleas may be a problem but you’ll need to get used to it. They’re a problem everywhere and there are no convenient insecticides.

The people, unless it is a time of famine, are hospitable. They are known for being kind and generous. They’ll almost certainly provide you with shelter and food and expect no payment, although a gift would be appreciated when you leave to try to find your way back home. If you’ve stumbled into a better off farm, you may even get a mug of cheap Danish brandy to send you back the way the brennevin has propelled you.

Time Travel: Food You’d Eat, 1772, Iceland

fishskeltonSo, there you are, a few drinks of Black Death have transported back to Iceland in 1772 and you’ve wakened hungry. What’s to eat? You start walking and what you get, if you get anything, because that will depend whether or not it is a time of plenty or a time of famine.

Surprisingly, if you do get something to eat, traditional food has changed so little since 1772, that you would recognize some of it from Thorrablots.

You’d be served milk, warm from the cow or cold, and sometimes, boiled. You might be served butter milk, straight or diluted with water.


If you get any bread, it will probably be sour biscuit imported from Copenhagen but there isn’t much of this because it is expensive. You might get some rye bread if your host was able to get some from the trade ship because all the rye flour comes from Copenhagen. Your host’s wife will have mixed the flour with some fermented whey (syra) and kneaded it into a dough. She’ll then have made a flat cake about a foot long and three inches thick. She’ll have boiled this dough in water or whey and then dried it on a hot stone or an iron plate. If you host has an iron plate.

If you are lucky enough to be offered butter (fat of all kinds is always in short supply), you’ll get sour butter. The Icelanders seldom ate fresh or salted butter. The advantage of that it that it kept for as long as twenty years. According to von Troil, the Icelanders thought so highly of sour butter that they figured one pound of sour was worth two pounds of fresh.

You might get served mysost. Or, you might get beinga-ftriug, that is the bones and cartilages of beef and mutton, and bones of cod that have been boiled in whey until they are so soft and fermented that they can be served with milk.

If you are fortunate, you might get a piece of dried cod with a bowl of sour butter.

If you are on the coast, you’d probably get a drink of blanda, that is water mixed with one twelfth syra which is quite acidic. If it is winter time, you might get some black crow berries in your blanda. That would be good to stave of scurvy.

You might get a drink of sour milk. Our host would have paid two-fifths of a Danish rigs dollar for a cask. If you were visiting a well off farmer you might get a drink of beer imported from Copenhagen or he might have brewed some of his own. If you were lucky enough to be at one of the important farmsteads where the farmer owned a lot of land and sheep and cows, you might get coffee. If you were at an ordinary person’s house, you’d likely get a kind of tea which they’d make from the leaves of Speedwell which they could collect wild.

Iceland was no different than any other country then or now. If you were an important farmer, you could afford to eat meat, butter, shark and whale. If you were a crofter or hired help, indentured servant, you had to make do with fish, blanda, milk pottage made with rock-grass (Icelandic moss), and boiled and fermented bones.

Most of the time, the diets were very monotonous, the ingredients unvarying but adequate. However, Iceland suffered tremendous famines. Large numbers of people died of hunger. According to von Troil, these came about because the ice from Greenland came in great quantities into the harbours and prevented the grass from growing and kept people from fishing.

What he thinks of the Icelandic diet, remember this is a person from the upper class on an expedition financed by a wealthy nobleman, can be seen in that they drank “port, and several other sorts of good wine, and a French cook prepared for us some savoury dishes, and excellent puddings.”

They did ask a wealthy Icelander to provide them with a supper made from Icelandic ingredients. The fish and lamb were wonderful. The dried fish and sour butter were only tasted but the rotted shark drove them from the table.

So, there you have it, what you’ll get to eat if you try time travel, Icelandic style.

One thing is for certain, unless it was a time of famine, although food was often short, even the poorest people would give you something to eat. When people entered a home, they invoked god, and although we may have fallen away from the church, they took their religious lessons seriously and did as the Good Samaritan for the stranger even though he was of a different faith.