Embrace Our Heritage Part 8

If we want to embrace our heritage, we must know a number of basic things about the Iceland of the 1800s. Even some of the most ordinary things are so different that, today, they require explanation.
For example, in Canada, land is valued and sold by size. In Iceland our families valued land by what it produced. That value wasn’t expressed in kronur or rigs dollars but in Wadmal. Or it was expressed in how much fish an ell of wadmal was worth, that is two heads of fish and a fraction.
Many valuations were made in hundreds. When I first came across it, the term hundreds, like the term ell, completely puzzled me. How can one embrace one’s heritage when even the most basic concepts are not understood? How can one understand one’s people,  how they thought, what they believed, when something as simple as measurement isn’t understood?
What was a hundred? In 1810, the value of a hundred represented one milk cow or two horses. Each of the horses would be worth 60 ells. That half a hundred would be worth a horse and half a hundred was worth 60 ells of wadmall which was, remember, 2 3/8 English feet.
In 1872 a hundred represented six milk or eight milkless ewes; or eighteen sheep, one or two years old. A hundred is equal to 240 fish weighing over two pounds.
A major concern of the landowning farmers–and most immigrant families were not landowning farmers–was that Icelandic women had a lot of children. Many had 12 or more.
Grazing land was in short supply and when there was poor weather, people on marginal land became paupers could not feed their sheep and cows. A family of parents and twelve children became fourteen paupers. There was a law that said men couldn’t marry unless they were worth four hundreds. That meant they needed enough land to support the equivalent of four cows. That was what was needed to support a family. If you couldn’t afford to support a family, you couldn’t have one. If you want to know what a struggle it was to support a family read Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Bjartur of Summerhouses attempts it and fails.
Today, we are used to instant communication. The internet, the IPad, the Kindle, the tablet, the telephone, email, courier service, have been around long enough for people to forget how slow communication was only fifty years ago. This is a major change over a relatively short time. I remember when my parents got a telephone. Before that if there was an emergency and people only phoned in emergencies, my mother’s parents who lived in Winnipeg, phoned the local doctor and a member of his family came to get my mother. West of Gimli some local farmers created their own phone line using the barbed wire fences. News and entertainment were delivered by radio.
In the land of our ancestors, there were no telephones, no roads, and a mail system that was inefficient, cumbersome and incredibly slow. In Copenhagen a letter could be posted but only the cost to Iceland could be paid. When a letter arrived in Reykjavik, it would sit there unless a friend re-posted and paid the postage to its destination in Iceland. Letters written in January might not be reach the east coast of Iceland until July. Burton says that “There is a northern courier road which takes five days via Reykholt and Arnarvatnsheiði to Akureyri but in winter it is impassable.” A postman only visits the eastern coast a few times during the year. No overnight courier service there.
Gudmundur Stefansson, an Icelandic immigrant in Canada,  refers to the high cost of mail when he says “Since it is costly to send many letters to Iceland from  here, please let our relatives at Eyjadalsa read this scribble, if you yourself, can read it. I do not want them to hear our news second hand.”
Research about this first world, the world of Iceland in the 1800s is full of surprises. Strange as it may seem, there was a demand from Europe for the hair of Icelandic women. Traders came to Iceland and traveled from farm to farm to buy hair. It is details like this that surprise me, make me realize how little I really know about my heritage.
I have discovered the existence of Luasa-fé, the rent on movable property, especially cattle and sheep, opposed to land, or even land with its cattle. The rent was generally levied in butter.
In the immigrant ships‘ manifests, many of our male ancestors are listed as farmers. However, most of them were not farm owners but share croppers.
Most of our ancestors usually rented farms from year to year, with the right of the landlord to evict them with six months notice. They could be evicted for neglect or misconduct. Rich people with political connections with the sherrif and the local priest and government officials found it easy to prove that poor people had neglected something or misbehaved. Our people were often critized for not having initiative and improving the land they rented but people had little reason to improve rented land because the rents would then be raised.
I think what surprised me most, since I was brought up to believe that Iceland was a country where everyone was equal, was the social and legal ranking of the tenants on a farm. How can we embrace our heritage if we don‘t know what our people were? 
Which of these following six were your ancestors? Mine were Kaupamenn.
1.   Bonders, the land owners. These were the big shots. They had economic, social and political power.
2.   Husmenn. People who have houses at a farm but can´t use the pastures or make hay. They were just renters.
3.    Kaupamenn, labourers working for hire.
4.    Hjaleigumenn, crofters, they occupy a small farm that is part of a larger farm. Share croppers.
5.    Servants Vinnumenn
6.    Paupers,

Embrace Our Heritage Part 7

Ragnaheiður Straumfjord Magnusson´s spinning wheel, thought to have been made in Canada, now in Lauga Magnusson’s possession (Winnipeg, May 2012) Photograph W. D. Valgardson

When our ancestors came to Canada, butter was still being used as currency. In 1878, Athony Trollope, the English novelist who comes to Iceland as a guest of John Burns on the yacht, The Mastiff, is amazed that there is no bank in Reykjavik. Where there is no currency, there is no need for a bank. Although sour butter could be kept for years without spoiling, no bank wanted to keep its vault full of butter.
Our ancestors, if they were share croppers, paid their rent and debts in June and July with the “wool which was washed and ready for sale; and in September and October by wether-mutton smoked and cured; by grease and tallow, and by sheep-skins and lamb-skins with the coat on.” They reserve the butter and cheese (skyr) mostly for household use. “…Besides supplying food, the animals yield material for local industries—coarse cloth, clothes, frocks and jackets, mittens, stocking and socks.”
The production of wool and turning it into clothes was an essential part of life in Iceland. In Iceland, Burton says “The principal occupation of the women is spinning yarn during the summer, and knitting and weaving in winter. A rude loom fixed and upstanding…stands in every farm. A good hand can weave three yards a day.”
This wadmal was sold by the ell. You can’t embrace what you don’t know or understand and I, when I first came across a measurement called an ell, had  never heard of it and didn’t know what it meant. What was an ell? It was two Danish feet and two Danish feet were two and three eighths English feet. Our ancestors had to be able to do these comparative sums in their heads. In some places, these measures were drawn on church walls so people could check to see that they were measuring correctly.
How important was all this making of coarse cloth, all this knitting? Mr. Consul Crowe (he was an English consul) in his report of 1870-71 reports that there were 76,816 two threaded stockings produced, one threaded, 1,092, Socks, 28,431, mittens, one fingered, 55,601, full fingered, 69 and wadmal, measured in yards, 280. Your ancestors and mine knitted and wove some of those stockings, mittens, wadmal.
In writing a book, you dishonour a people and a subject by making errors. It is your obligation as an author to get facts right. This is as true for fiction as non-fiction. To include errors because of casual carelessness insults the subject. However, even with the best of intentions, the closest attention to the material, errors crop up. Often an author is tripped up by the obvious because it is the obvious that isn’t checked and double checked. The devil in writing is always in the details. I had mentioned in an early draft of one story in What The Bear Said that a farmer was shearing his sheep. However, that detail was wrong and had to be changed. Fortunately, I kept researching and stumbled across the fact that sheep were not sheared. The wool was pulled off when it came loose.
During my childhood many homes in New Iceland had spinning wheels. They were essential to survival in Iceland. In the beginning, they were essential to survival in New Iceland. These spinning wheels, along with carders and combs were a common sight. These spinning wheels were part of the In Between World. However, what was called European cloth was available in New Iceland. There were North American fashions and clothes that more properly suited the climate with its hot summers and cold winters.
My great grandmother, Freddrika Gottskalksdottir had a spinning wheel in her living room. Our great grandmothers’ spinning wheels have pride of place in many of our homes but, today, they are not essential parts of our lives. They are treasures from the past. They are reminders of our families, bits of nostalgia.
In spite of the general poverty in Iceland with its one crop (grass) economy, caused by the cold summers that kept the grass from growing, Burton says “The peasant sells his cattle and sheep to buy for himself vile tobacco; “bogus” cognac; brenivin or kornschnaps,and perhaps even “port” and “sherry;” and for his wife chignon and crinolines, silks and calicoes, instead of the homely but lasting frieze cloth. His grandfather infused Iceland moss; he must drink coffee, while raisins…are replaced by candied or loaf sugar…The Althing has attempted to curb the crying evil of ever increasing drunkneness, the worst disease of the island because the most general”.
If we are going to embrace our heritage, we need to embrace all of it and that includes the Danish trading posts that sold 600 gallons of cheap brandy every year. That includes some Danish trade ships that, instead of bringing desperately needed goods such as horseshoes, metal bars, rye flour, they brought only cheap brandy because it gave the greatest profit.

Embrace Our Heritage Part 5


The stories in What The Bear Said are set in one or more of these three worlds. “Sigga’s Prayer”, takes place in the first world of Iceland and ends as she is leaving for Amerika. The title story of the book, “What The Bear Said”, takes place in New Iceland. “Sidewalk of Gold” begins in Iceland and ends in New Iceland. These are stories about the transition between the old world and the new world and how people joined both past and present to create these new lives. These are stories of emigration and immigration.
The Iceland of our ancestors was a harsh place. Poverty in the 1800s was endemic. Iceland was the poorest country in Europe and Europe was poor, so poor that people left their home countries in vast numbers.
We can embrace our heritage by embracing facts, by embracing numbers but that is not where memories lie. When we say let us embrace our heritage, we usually mean let us embrace our families, our ancestors, our people. Our people with all their quirks and virtues and faults. Just like us and our relatives today with our virtues and faults.
 The Great Geysir

In 1874, Bayard Taylor, a famous American journalist went to Iceland to report on the visit of King Christian IX. Bayard and his companions went to the geysers at the same time as the king and his entourage.
Bayard writes, “Soon afterward there came a married couple, the mother carrying a baby which, as it needed but a glance to see, was almost dying of croup”. Croup is caused by a viral infection and results in a barking cough and a narrowing of the airways. It interferes with a child’s ability to breathe. The child would have been struggling to breathe. “They had carried the child on horseback for five hours, in the hope of finding relief. There was no time to be lost; hot baths and poultices were ordered at the byre (farm) near at hand, and in the meantime an opiate was administered. The gasping and writhing of the child was too much for those strong Icelandic men. The mother stood calm and firm, holding it; but Zoega (the guide) ran away in one direction and Eyvindur (the other guide) in the another, crying like children, and the farmers turned aside their heads to hide their tears.”
“At the byre nothing could exceed the kindness of the farmer’s family,–in fact, of all who could help. The King’s purveyor furnished white bread for a poultice; a hot bath was made ready, and the father stuffed the child’s clothes into his bosom to keep them warm for it. All night the people watched with it, and the next morning everybody looked happy, on hearing that its condition had somewhat improved.”
“I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemund’s Edda?” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces and all shyness vanished. The Njal and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlsson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed.”
There is everything in this account. The diseases that afflict Iceland, the lack of medical care, the stoicism of the people, the great difficulty of travel, the pride in the distant heritage and the belief that there was once a golden age.
Surely, all this is worth embracing. Reading Taylor”s various accounts of Iceland in 1874, I want to reach through time and embrace the people he describes. Taylor says “Within an hour I had seen tenderness, goodness, knowledge, and desire for knowledge”.