A Sketch from Iceland in1862

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

priest's house at thingvalla

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

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

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

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

My Oldest Book: 1752-1757

Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson traveled through Iceland during 1752-1757 at the king’s bidding and recorded all that they observed. Their document is called Travels in Iceland.

It says, at the beginning, “Containing Observations on the manners and customs of the inhabitants, a description of the lakes, rivers, glaciers, hot-springs and volcanoes; of the various kinds of earths, stones, fossils and petrifications; as well as of the animals, insects, fishes, & c.”

It is this book that forms the basis for much that is later written by travelers. Travel writers read available sources and what they do not see with their own eye or hear with their own ear, they extract from the work of previous writers. Before Olafsson and Pálsson there were stories and poems written about Iceland but most were fantastical tales with little in them that was true. O & P actually did travel the quarters of Iceland to obtain information for the Danish king.

Travels In Iceland begins by saying, “In the month of July, 1752, Messrs. Ólafsson and Pálsson set off from Copenhagen and arrived at Laugarnes, in the district of Gullbringusýsla: they thence passed into that of Kjósarsýsla, but being desirous of entering the northern quarter before the approach of winter, by crossing the mountains via Kjölur, they at first went through a very small portion of this southern district. They however returned thither in the following year, and concluded their vast undertaking by completing their observations of the southern part of Iceland.“

How easy to say. One paragraph. It is 1752, more than a hundred years before our ancestors begin their journey to Amerika. Travelers accounts from the 1800s detail how difficult travel is. There are no roads, no bridges. Iceland is a vast tract of lava desert, volcanic rock, rushing rivers, vast bogs, treacherous mountains. There is nothing soft or easy about the landscape. This isn‘t the world of Thomas Gray and his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard“.

There are no wheeled vehicles. Ólafsson and Pálsson, like the travelers who follow them, will travel the length and breadth of Iceland on horseback. They´ll trust in local guides to get them from one isolated place to another. They´ll trust locals to get them safely across dangerous rivers. They´ll stay in farmhouses. They´ll drink milk, eat skyr, dried fish, pudding made from Icelandic moss, smoked meat, bread when it is available. They´ll be wet a lot of the time. Time and again, they´ll hunker down and wait out storms.

Always, they´ll observe. Early in the book, they say this about turf (Humus bituminosus). “Beneath this swampy or putrid soil, is found a bituminous earth, which the inhabitants call Mór or Torf; its layers are from six to eight feet deep. It is dug up with a kind of spade, and being cut into cubes and dried, is used as fuel.

“This bituminous earth is here of great advantage as well as in the whole southern part of the island; because it is a substitute for wood. In digging it they meet with branches of trees, and sometimes even with lumps of wood of a considerable size; and the places where this bitumen is found, were, according to the accounts of the ancient historians, once covered with forests.”

“At low water, there is also obtained on the shore of Kjalarnes another kind of turf, which the inhabitants call Sjótorf; it burns well, but sparkles and emits a sulphurous smell. It is likewise remarkable, that this turf contains branches of trees, which proves that the place where it is found was formerly a part of the land”.

Remember, it is 1752. Think of the primitive travel conditions, the primitive accommodations, the sheer energy necessary to ride from place to place in Iceland’s constantly changing weather where, as other travelers report, you can be broiling in the sun, then drenched by rain, then freezing in winds from the glaciers or the North Sea, all in one day.

No one travels Hollywood style, galloping alone on a horse. Everything that is needed has to be brought on horseback, packed and unpacked. The horses have to be fed and, from the tales of other travelers, that can mean, along with supplies needed by the riders, hay for the horses.

Anyone who has traveled through Iceland’s lava deserts knows grass is seldom seen.

Travels in Iceland. Could I have done it? I wonder. Somehow, I doubt it. Could you have done it? If the king had said to you, “Off to Iceland and bring me back a detailed report on these strange Icelanders.” Could you have done it? Faced the isolation, the weather, the accommodation, the food, the danger, the loneliness and then put together a report worthy of a king?

As much as I admire and am interested in the report, I find myself more interested in these two travelers, wish I could watch them as they make their way to the far corners of Iceland. They must have been exceptional individuals. I’d like to see them fording rivers, traveling over the hraun, heading into the horizontal rain, getting off their horses at some farmhouse that looked like it was part of the earth itself. It’s too bad they didn’t have their own Boswell to bring them alive for us.

Travels in Iceland, Ólafsson and Pálsson. 1752-1757. Jim Anderson found me this copy on the internet. This English copy was published in 1975. It’s a handsome book with many illustrations, some of them in color. There might be another one around. It’s worth taking a look.

Why A. J. Symington loves Iceland

picture provided by Jósep H Jósepsson

picture provided by Jósep H Jósepsson

It is 1862 and A. J. Symington has come to Iceland. He’s traveled to the usual places Thingvella and the Geysers. He’s a good artist and has made many sketches of the priest’s house at Thingvalla, of crossing the Bruara, of Mount Hekla, and Snaefell Jokull, among others. On Aug. 3, he has returned to Reykjavik and is back on board the Arcturus, the ship that brought him to Iceland. The ship has lifted anchor and is heading for the “east of the island.”

On the Iceland Review site today, there is a request that people write in and tell them why they love Iceland. Since A.J.S. is not able to do that, I’ll do it for him. Here is what he has to say about the bay at Reykjavik.

“The bay at Reykjavik is very lovely. Every crevice of the Esian mountains is distinctly shown; while the positive colours and delicate tints of these and other heights rising far inland, which the eye takes in, in sweeping round the semicircle from Snaefell to Skagi, are bright, varied, and beautiful beyond description. Deep indigoes dashed with purple, violet peaks, pale lilac ranges; and, relieved against t hem, cones of dazzling snow and ice glittering like silver, side by side with rosy pinks and warm sunny brown, all rising over a foreground of black lava. The sky overhead is blue; and the northern horizon lit up with a mellow glow of golden light.

The frigate Artemise, the brig Agile, the Danish schooner Emma and several trading vessels lying at anchor, animate the scene.

Snaefell Jokul—rising to the north-west on the extreme of yonder narrow ridge that runs out due west into the sea for nearly fifty miles separating the Faxa from the Breida fiord—dome-shaped, isolated and perpetually covered with snow, is now touched with living rosy light.

At its foot lie the singular basaltic rocks of Stappen, somewhat like the Giant’s Causeway, or the island of Staffa in the Hebrides. Indeed, stapp is the same word as staff, and indicates the character of the columnar formation.

For the first time, since leaving home, we see the stars. One or two, only, are shining in the quivering blue overhead, with a quiet, subdued, pale golden light. I made a sketch of Snaefell as it appeared from the quarter deck of the steamer at a distance of fifty miles; it seems a low cone rising from the sea. As the evening was calm and beautiful, ere retiring, we walked the deck till a late hour, musing on the structure and marvelous phenomena of this half-formed chaotic island, where Frost and Fire still strive for the mastery before our very eyes.

Being successful is a good thing


Sometimes you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sometimes, you can be in the right place at the right time.

Being in the right place at the right time can change your life. My right place at the right time was in Naniamo, BC at a teacher’s conference. I was there to give a workshop on teaching fiction. There were a lot of workshops and lectures scheduled. It was going to be a very busy day. Teachers, generally, are very serious people. They are serious about their teaching and about their students. Faced with problems every day of the week, they constantly look for solutions.

Most of us were looking at small workshops or lectures. However, there was a motivational speaker who was going to speak in the gym. The organizers of the day thought he might draw an audience larger than most of us.

I’d never heard of him. He wasn’t yet famous. However, he started to speak and I stood rooted to the gym floor. So did nearly every person there. The day’s schedule was forgotten as we listened to Jack Canfield talk about self-esteem and how it is the key to success.

Canfield said things I’d never heard before. Things that so affected me that when his talk was over, I bought a plastic “book” with six tapes inside. I took those tapes home with me. I listened to them over and over. They created an intense internal battle with Canfield’s voice on one side and innumerable voices on the other.

I listened to what he had to say with intense relief. I felt the way I’m sure the soldiers in the movie “A Bridge Too Far” felt when they heard the sound of the bagpipes as their reinforcements marched to join them. On the verge of being overwhelmed and defeated, their comrades were coming to save them.

That may seem like an exaggerated statement. It is not. If anything, it is understated.

I grew up in a society where can’t, don’t, shouldn’t were bywords.

“Who do you think you are?” was the Canadian motto. The message was keep your place. Your father is a fisherman and barber. Your mother is a housewife married at sixteen. Her father is a railway laborer. Your other grandfather was a carpenter. Who do you think you are?

My first uppitiness was going to university. It was a strange and foreign place. I was lost. I was not embedded in a family who could provide advice. However, each contributed what they could to make it possible for me to be there.

My next uppitiness was saying that I was going to be a published writer. Along with the disbelieving laughter, can’t, don’t, shouldn’t and “Who do you think you are?” appeared like shrieking goblins. People were bemused at my audacity. Many were quite straightforward. They summed it all up by saying, “You’ll never get published.”

For a time, it looked like they were right. Nobody had come up with the idea of a need to practice for ten thousand hours.

However, one of my great professors said that getting published would require writing a lot of practice stories. He was one of the two professors at United College who ran a creative writing club.

I graduated, taught high school, wrote on weekends and evenings, took correspondence courses in writing from the University of North Dakota. Gradually, gradually, the articles and stories started to get published. But the nay sayers never let their being proven wrong stop their naysaying.

“Got published,” I said. “My next goal is to get a book published.”

More shrieking laughter. More can’t, don’t shouldn’t, “Who do you think you are?” Keep your place. Don’t presume.

It took a lot more hours, a lot more effort, but then, in 1973, there it was, a book. Bloodflowers. A collection of short stories published by Oberon, a fine literary press.

You’d think that the people who stand at the edge of a rocky path chucking negative comments would give up and find something else to do but now the figurative rocks were “You’ll never get reviewed. The reviews, if someone actually reviews your book, will be negative.”

Some people say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I don’t believe it. Often, what doesn’t kill you covers you in bruises and sores and leaves you in despair. Writing is hard enough and self-esteem in the face of constant negative commentary is not bottomless.

And then, like the John Wayne of the soul, along came Jack Canfield. Maybe it was just because I was young and naïve, maybe it was because I come from a working class background where there often wasn’t a lot of hope, maybe lots of things. But that day, in that gym, I stood rooted to the floor. I never went to teach my workshop. `

“You have the right to be successful,” is something that kids growing up in upper class and upper middle class families hear and see all the time.

“If you do the work and take the responsibility for a task, you deserve the rewards.” It was all right to want to be successful and to use everything you had to get it. That everything might be as simple as pasting a picture of a book on the fridge door so that I saw it every time I went to the fridge. It was all right to paste a picture of a book on the ceiling over my bed so it was the last thing I saw at night before I went to sleep.

Growing up in a society where there is so much negativity from society in general, from the educational system, from the church, it seems from every direction, one of the first lessons drummed into our heads is negative self-talk. I can’t. I shouldn’t. It’s impossible. What’s the use? I’m not smart enough, talented enough, pretty enough, sophisticated enough. Who do I think I am to want that?

As a teacher for forty years, I found that students had been brainwashed into negative self-talk, brain-washed to the point where when I challenged it, they protested.

Canfield was the beginning. He showed me, and a lot of others, there was another way. From him I went on to create a list of positive statements about being a writer, not just for my students, but for me. We all needed them.

“I am a writer,” was one of them. First and second year students often balked at that when I asked them to say it out loud. “I am a writer.” I’d get lots of arguments, lots of reasons they were not writers. “These are truths for the future,” I would respond. “In any case, you are writing. A person who writes is a writer. You may not be as successful a writer as you’d like but then no one is. You will add successful as you practice and learn. But you are a writer.”

So, to the hissing, sneering trolls that, unfortunately, infest our society, who hurl sharp words at those who believe it is all right to be successful, come into the light, you won’t turn to stone, give yourself permission to make the most of the intelligence and talent with which you are endowed.

And Jack, hardly anyone had heard of you on that day in that high school gym, but they’ve heard of you now. You’ve chicken souped your way to mega millions of published books. You’re rich. You’re successful. You’ve done what you intended to do. And by the way, thanks, thanks, you taught me to say yes to opportunity, to say I can instead of I can’t. It may not seem like much but to me and many others, it is the world.

Making Hay, 1862

making hay

The first time I went to Iceland, Finboggi Gudmundsson took me to the farm where my great great grandfather and my great grandfather lived and worked before they left for Amerika.

It was one of those fine Icelandic days with no wind off the North Sea, the sky was cloudless, the sun warm. It was the perfect day for making hay and, when we reached the farm, the farmer and his wife were in the hay field.

It was the greatest compliment they could give that they stopped haymaking long enough to serve us coffee and cake and have a brief conversation. I walked the beach were my great grandfather Ketill walked, sat on the stone wall where he used to sit. Then we were away and the farmer and his wife were back to the field making the precious hay for their sheep and cows.

In 1862 when A. J. Symington goes to Iceland, he stops at Thingvalla. They are treated well by the priest, Mr. S. D. Beck (are any of you descendants of his?).

“He is a pastor literally and metaphorically, farming and fishing as well as preaching. Hay, however, is the only crop which is raised here; and the Icelanders are consequently very dependent upon the h ay-harvest. With their short summer they might not inappropriately quote Shakspeare’s lines,

“The sun shines hot; and if we use delay
Cold biting winter marks our hoped for hay.”

Symington gives us one of the clearest pictures of haying that I have found. He says, “The scythe used by the Icelanders is quite straight and not half the length of ours. The numerous little hummocks, with which pasture land is covered, necessitate the use of a short implement, so that it may mow between and around them; the hillocks are form one to two feet high, and from one to four feet across. In some places the ground presents quite the appearance of a churchyard or an old battle-field. These elevations are occasioned by the winter’s frost acting on the wet subsoil. If levelled they would rise again to the same height in about 7 or 8 years; but the farmers let them alone, because they fancy they get a larger crop from the greater superficial area of the field, and this old let-alone custom certainly saves them much labour. The primitive state of their agriculture, as well as the peculiar nature of the Icelandic soil, may be inferred from the fact, that there are only two plows in the whole island and no carts. A spade, a scythe two feet long, a small rake with teeth about an inch and a half deep, and ropes made of grass or hair to bind the hay, which is carried on men’s backs or conveyed by horses to be stacked, are all that the farmer requires for his simple operations. The hay, especially that which grown in the tuns, is of fine quality, tender and nutritive; and, with even any ordinary attention to drainage, many a fertile vale cold be made to yield much more than is now obtained from it.”

One crop. Upon it life depended. Everyone turned to making hay for this was not a grain economy. The Icelandic population lived on hay for hay fed their sheep and cows and those two beasts provided milk, meat and wool.

The rule was simple. Harvest enough hay to keep your animals through the winter or you will die of hunger. Those who lived close to the ocean might supplement the hay with seaweed but it was a supplement, not a staple.

With every stroke of the short scythe, with every pull of the rake, the haymakers could think that will be another mouthful of skyr, a drink of whey, a piece of smoked meat this winter. It was a direct equation your ancestors all understood.

Levis and Me


The California gold rush of 1853 was too early for the Icelanders to participate. It also was on the wrong side of the North American continent. Passage to and from Iceland was still by sailing ships. It was unreliable, dangerous and expensive. Nearly twenty years were to pass before the wave of Icelandic emigration would bring Icelanders to Canada and, from there, to the United States.


Twenty years earlier than the Icelandic immigration, Levi Strauss, a young German immigrant, crossed from New York to San Francisco . Responding to demand created by miners who needed tough clothing, he first used tough canvas that was supposed to be for tents and wagon covers.

In 1873, while Icelanders were making their way to places like Kinmount, Ontario, Levi Strauss began to use the pocket stitch design and co-patented the process that allowed rivets to be put into Levi pants.

It’s the 150th anniversary for Levi Strauss because the company received its patent on the rivet’s procedure on May 20, 1873.

By 1953, blue jeans were in style in Gimli, Manitoba and no blue jean was more coveted than Levi’s. They were the jeans I longed for, hungered for, wished for. Tight (I was skinny as a rail in those days), with a leather belt and cowboy boots, there were no pants that made me feel better. Of course, that was for daily wear. For dressing up, yes, we dressed up in those days, for dances and parties, we needed drapes, as wide at the knee as possible, as narrow at the cuff as possible. But those were for special occasions. Levis were for school, sports, work, and we didn’t pre-stress them. They got stressed because we lived in them.

The girls, of course, treated their jeans differently. They were known to struggle into them, get into a bathtub of hot water, then get out so the jeans would shrink to fit their body. That made the boys want to take them off but since they were shrink-wrapped fit there wasn’t much chance of that happening. Put on like that they were as close to a chastity belt as you could get. How the girls did actually get out of them at the end of the day, I have never been able to figure out.

There were other brands of jeans, I’m sure, but, if so, I don’t remember their names. It was the stiff denim, the boot cut, the studs, the stitched pockets that made a boy feel like a man and, even though there were no cowboys anywhere in sight, we tucked our thumbs into our belts and leaned against whatever happened to be handy. Oh, for that 22 inch waist once again, that sense that a pair of Levis made you look good, feel good and anything was possible.

Getting an education, getting a job

I didn’t go to university to get a job. I went to university to get an education.

university graduates

In 1957 the purpose of going to university was to become educated. However, before I graduated in 1961, the government had become involved. Professors had been badly paid. Universities were strapped for cash. The government agreed to provide funding. There was hot debate about whether to accept the money. Many, seeing the chance that their salaries would rise, that new classrooms would be built, were all for accepting the money. However, others were against taking the money because they said, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” They were scoffed at . However, there are no free lunches, particularly where governments are involved.
It wasn’t long after government funding was provided that billboards went up saying, “Get a degree, get a job.”

The halls of learning were going to change. Money once provided creates conditions that make it virtually impossible to refuse.

The government wanted more people going to university. The hook was “go to university and get a job.” Except, people like me were taking English, Philosophy, Political Science, Economics. The only one slightly connected to getting a job was Economics and a Bachelor’s level in Economics isn’t going to get anyone a job. A Master’s degree in a specialized area in Economics, like Agricultural Economics, would get someone a job but that was another two years of study.
We graduated able to read and write, to think more clearly (those philosophy courses in Logic), more knowledgeable about the role of government because of Political Science, and with a general idea of how the economy worked (the economics of small business, money and banking, international trade, labour relations). None of these courses provided training. We weren’t in a trade school. We were being provided with knowledge and the tools with which to apply it. It was expected that when we got jobs, we’d get specific training about an area, banking, for example, on the job. At university, we had learned how to learn.

We got jobs. I went into teaching and taught, over my career, in high school, junior college, and university. During that time, I took a year off to get a permanent high school teaching certificate. Then I went to summer school over three years to get a B.Ed. Finally, I went to graduate school to get an MFA. The teaching certificate and the summer schools were a “get a job” education. The MFA wasn’t. It taught me to write and read at a very high level. However, it opened up the possibility of teaching first at a junior college and then at a university. That was simply a bi-product. The purpose was to turn me into a published writer. Fourteen books, twelve plays, scores of articles, an editorship, I can confidently say it did what it was supposed to do.

Unfortunately, the government and the universities had different goals. The government wanted people to obtain degrees because employers gave preference to people with degrees. What the governments didn’t grasp was that that preference was given for the knowledge that came with the degree. All governments saw was people with degrees get jobs. They didn’t care whether anyone actually learned anything. They didn’t put up billboards saying get educated and get a job. If they’d done that, they couldn’t have endlessly tried to force the universities to lower their academic standards and increase their class sizes. The government simply wanted more numbers. Churn out more people with degrees. The result, of course, is that the public bought into the advertising. Get a degree and get a job. Except, after a while, the guarantee of getting a job because you had a degree faded away. Lower academic standards for admittance and graduation and increase numbers and it doesn’t take long for employers to realize that a degree does not mean that someone is educated, knowledgeable, and capable of thinking.

The graduates victimized by this misdirected strategy created and promoted by politicians are left confused, even infuriated because not only does their degree not turn into a guaranteed job but because the costs of a university education have gone up exponentially. Arts students can be taught effectively at a reasonable cost. However, medical students, science students, engineering students have to have expensive equipment, expensive spaces, expensive everything. The tuition cost for many of these programs is astronomical. That cost is spread out over the university so that even if someone like me taking English, Political Science, Philosophy, Economics needs little more than textbooks, the price of the courses still goes up.

The result is headlines blaring that a local barista has a university degree in the Arts or Fine Arts. Of course, it was never intended that courses which educate people rather than train them would guarantee jobs. That’s not the university connection. That’s the politician’s connection.

There is, of course, a solution or, at least, a partial solution that was begun, I believe, at Waterloo, and implemented at the University of Victoria. That is to have a Co-operative Education program. I taught in the Creative Writing Department in the Fine Arts Faculty. How airy fairy is that? Except that people who are learning to read, write and edit are the people who are best able to work in fields where communication is required. Those TV, radio programs, those movies, those brochures at the bank, those reports from the banks, everything that needs to be conceived, written and produced require people who are highly literate. Poets make fine editors. They know to pay attention to words and punctuation and space. Fiction writers and dramatic writers have the skills required to produce material for business and government.

There is nothing wrong and much that is right in marrying job specific opportunities for students where they get to develop particular skills and amass job-particular knowledge. However, it isn’t in the classroom where that should take place. The university’s job is to provide education. The job of the business community, the corporate community is to provide training.

The universities have been meeting their obligation. The corporate community has not. It has not met its obligation at the professional level nor at the trade level. It has, for the most part, shrugged off its responsibility with the attitude that someone else should do that and then it complains loudly that there aren’t the trained workers it needs. The corporate mind-set is always to socialize costs and privatize profits.

Government, and it doesn’t seem to matter what party is in power, needs to disconnect from the “get a degree, get a job” mentality and learn to say, get an education and get a job. Corporate Canada needs to commit to its responsibility in providing work experience for the generation soon to enter the work force.

Icelandic census, 1855

Icelandic census, 1855

The population is 64,603.

52,475 live by farming

5,055 live by fishing

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

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

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

Civil officers 454

Do. Out of office 140

Farmers who live by agriculture 52,475

Farmers who depend chiefly on the fisheries 5,055

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Icelandic lambs, 1862

icelandic sheep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

an affair of the heart


Up at six a. m. yesterday. Into a taxi at 7:30. Off to Jubilee hospital. Jubilee has recently expanded. Got lost on the way to medical imaging. Got lost again on the way to the blood lab. Good thing the’ve got volunteer guides or I’d still be wandering the halls like the Ancient Mariner, a white band on me wrist instead of an albatross around my neck. They didn’t trust me to find my own way to the heart lab. A nice lady said, Walk this way.” But she and I weren‘t built the same way. No matter how I try I can’ make my jello roll.

A nurse scooped me up and said put on this blue gown. You ever tried to put on a hospital gown and tie it up at the back? However, there is little chance, at my age, that anyone’s heart will be filled with lust by what the gown reveals. Unfortunately.

I passed the time re-reading Indridason’s The Draining Lake. I has my right arm shaved. Interesting, given how hairy I am. In school, the science teacher used me as proof that man descended from monkeys. So that’s what my arm looks like under all that hair.

We need to put in an iv the nurse said. My veins went into hiding. She looked. I looked. She shaved my left arm to get rid of the forest. Little voices said, No veins here. Just a few muscles.”
“I’ll find those cowards,” I said and I started clenching and unclenching my fist. p. Nope, no veins here,” they chorused.
A nurse came and slapped sticky patches in places I’ve never had sticky patches before. Quick EKG. She gave me a thumbs up.

The IV nurse came back. She slapped my arm with her fingers. My veins squirmed deeper.

My friends all lied to me. You’ll be sedated. You’ll be partially sedated.” “I like morphine,” I said. “Nope,” the nurse said, ”all they do is freeze your wrist with the same stuff your dentist uses.”

It may have had something to do with me clinging to the ceiling light fixture but she said “If you get back into bed, I’ll give an Ativan. She popped one into my mouth. I was hoping for an entire jar.

She brought another hot sheet for my cowardly veins.
I kept reading The Draining Lake. It always makes me feel better reading about how depressed and unhappy Erlender is.

A fellow with great hair came and said, “I’m going to take for a ride.” He looked Italian.

In the operating room, there were a number of people. My veins were still hiding. The op nurse wasn’t fooling around. She said, “I’m going to have to poke you a number of times.” A vein appeared.

The doctors looked serious and told me about all the horrible things that could go wrong during an angiogram. “Now,” I thought, “why now, with me in a hospital gown that’s open at the back?” I could hardly make a break for it.

I waited for a bottle of whiskey like in the western movies before they dig a slug out. Nope. I waited for a cloth loaded with chloroform. Nope. The just froze my wrist. I yelped a bit as the first tube was put into my vein. There were a bank of monitors. I didn’t have Erlender to feel superior to so I watched this probe wandering around my heart. “That’s my heart,” I thought, “the heart of high school romances, the heart passionately mooning over some hot babe, the heart that felt broken and betrayed, that leapt with joy, that frequently got me into trouble?” I wasn’t impressed.

When they’d finished taking pictures, we had a meeting. I’d expected to have an angioplasty, you know, blow up a balloon and press the muck against the artery walls. If that wouldn’t work, I figured I’d need a stent. I know lots of people with stents. It’s become quit fashionable to have a stent. People share stent stories at dinner parties. Nope. No angioplasty. No stent. Three bypasses coming up.

I’m two months behind when I wanted to be in the Interlake to do my research for my current novel. Three bypasses. People who have had bypasses say everything is great. They golf, mud wrestle, jump out of airplanes. All I want to do is thrash around in the marsh with Dennis and Jim Anderson. Talk to your doctors they said, and think about it, like I’ve got a choice.

When my daughter picked me up (isn’t it great to have a daughter who, when the going gets rough, turns up and carts you away?), I said, “I’ll talk to my doctors but one artery is 90% plugged, another is in serious condition and nothing can be done with it.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“Dead men don’t write novels,” I said and I thought about the skeleton in Lake Kleifarvatn.