1874: Samuel Kneeland at Thingvellir

Samuel Kneeland has much to say about Iceland and his experiences in and around Reykjavik but he is in Iceland to observe and participate in the action so he and his party head for Thingvalla. He says, “Late in the afternoon we came in sight of the large lake of Thingvalla,–a magnificent sheet of very deep water, at least fifteen miles long and six wide…We knew by this that we were approaching the valley of Thingvalla, into which we must descend by the great fissure of the Almannagja, the grandest and most awful scenery in Iceland, and probably unsurpassed in beauty.”
The ride is hard. The day is long. He says that they were tired. “Chilled at the start, stewed under our Mackintoshes when the sun came out, with feet wet form the splashes of the icy-cold streams, hungry and thirsty, we were very glad to know that the of our day’s work was nigh.”
“This verdant plain, once the place of assembly of the “Thing,” or “national Council,” but, for three fourths of a century, almost deserted, was now dotted with white tents and flags, and with crowds of men and horses, indicating the expected approach of  the royal party, who were some hours behind us. It was a very lively and unexpected scene, though somewhat marred by a commencing drizzle, which added another discomfort to our cold and weary bodies. We descended by a narrow pathway, a natural shelf on the side of the shattered cliff, so steep that most of the party dismounted, to prevent being thrown by the slipping of their saddles on to the necks of the horses. Dashing through the shallow river, and up a muddy hill and narrow lane, we arrived at the forlorn-looking parsonage and church, by the side of which—permission having been asked and granted in Latin,–we pitched our tent, after the usual vexatious delays attending the unloading of the ponies.”
“All the available surrounding green was covered with the king’s tents, and liveried servants were hurrying about, getting things ready for his arrival. We were entirely independent, having our own servants and guides, and everything necessary for our comfort and food. Our tent was pitched near a pool of icy cold water…the cleft of a neighboring rock served admirably for a fireplace; and the neighboring parsonage fire was permitted, for the first night of our Icelandic picnic, to warm the water for our tea and coffee.”
The next morning, Samuel and his companions head for the Geysers because this is the destination of the king. They stay there three days, after which they return to Thingvalla for the formal festivities.  When they return, he says, “Almost every available space was crowded with tents, large and small; flags of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, England, and America were flying around the great pavilion; while the flag of free Iceland—a white falcon on a blue ground, the banner of the Vikings—floated from the Mount of Laws. Crowds of people were moving to and fro, and the many camp-fires, streamers, and songs indicated an important occasion.”
When we celebrate Iceland’s independence on June 17, think on that, on Thingvalla, on the plain, crowded with tents, with flags, with Iceland’s white falcon, crowds of people gathered for this great event. Think on that, all the people who have come on horseback across the mountain paths of Iceland, long lines of horses, coming from all directions through the mountains passes, descending into Thingvalla. What a sight it must have been. All the tents, the banners, the flags, the people, gathered here waiting for the arrival of Christian IX and his party to join them in this historic place.
The next time you go to Iceland and visit Thingvalla stand there, at the top of the cliffs and imagine the scene that Samuel Kneeland saw that day. A scene that only came about because of the determination of Jon Sigurdsson and his followers.

1874: Beginning the millenium celebrations

Today, the church and its ministers are barely tolerated or totally ignored. At one time, they held an important place in society and, particularly, Icelandic society. The ministers were educated, having gone to upper classes in Reykjavik and even Copenhagen. Society, having thrown over God for the newer god of Technology, now has little time for religion in Iceland or North America. The Lutheran church has, I’ve been told, a need for thousands of new ministers and less than a handful graduate each year. Churches, unable to even meet basic expenses, close down and become restaurants (Bru) or they are kept open in summers when the weather is good (Grund). In places like Gimli and Selkirk, the Lutheran churches struggle, constantly needing more parishioners, more money and ministers. The story is the same everywhere.
In 1874, in England and in Iceland, ministers were still community leaders with both religious and secular power. They still determined if you knew your Bible lessons well enough to be confirmed and, if you didn’t, there were serious repercussions for both you and your parents. If a minister examined children and they didn’t know their lessons, he could recommend that they be removed and sent to somewhere where they would be prepared properly. Many country ministers were paid very badly but those near the top of the hierarchy in Reykjavik were well paid and usually had strong Danish connections. They were part of the ruling elite of rich farmers, Danish traders and highly placed Divines.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that on the first day of the millennial celebration, August 2, the day began with a church festival. The American visitors were fully aware of how important it was to attend. Samuel Kneeland says that he didn’t understand a word of the sermon and that the audience wasn’t the slightest bit interested in what the minister was saying. He also does not know the hymns sung but he was greatly affected by the music. He describes it as “sweet, solemn, and slightly plaintive, the chorus of “Iceland’s thousand years,” words and music of Icelandic origin, brought tears into most eyes, and I am sure it did into mine.“
He is so affected by “Iceland’s thousand years” that he includes both the music and the song in his book.
He is not so impressed by the church. He describes it as an old building of brick, stone, and stucco; dingy and dilapidated; capable of seating some twelve hundred person; the interior is dismal, the colors faded, and the light and ventilation poor…Thorwaldsen, the famous sculptor, claimed by Denmark, was the son of an Icelander, born at sea, Nov. 19, 1770; and a baptismal font made and presented by him in token of his birth, in no way beautiful, is the only noteworthy object in the cathedral.
Not being able to understand either the service or the music, he spends his time looking over the congregation. He enjoys the opportunity to observe the national costume, especially the headdresses and “gaily embroidered jackets and veils of the women.” Like nearly every other visitor to Iceland, he comments on the strange helmet like head coverings of the women. The men’s clothing he dismisses by saying they’re dressed like the men in the Faroes.
However, he has come a long and dangerous way to participate in what he hopes will be the birth of a new republic, and he isn’t going to miss a moment of it.
Think on him, an American, having travelled with great effort and hardship to the Reykjavik of 1874, sitting in a pew listening to an Icelandic sermon, to Icelandic singing, being moved to tears, caught up in the exotic quality of it all. How fortunate we are for his curiosity, his determination for he has left us a picture of events we can all share as we approach June 17.

1874: Kneeland, stormy trip

How easy it is nowadays to travel to Iceland. Hop on a charter and fly over the Pole. Or even take a regularly scheduled flight from Seattle or Minneapolis. The most one can complain about is seats that are a bit tight, or some turbulence. A few years ago a plane was hit by lightning but no one was the worse for it. There’s a bit of jet lag when you get to Reykjavik but a cup or two of Icelandic coffee, a day’s meeting relatives, visiting the various shops, then a good night’s sleep and all is right with the world.
Think of our poor Samuel. Things weren’t so easy for him.
“The wind began to increase, turning more to the westward, and with it the waves; the clouds looked black and angry, and the rain drove us all below. The barometer kept falling, and the captain, knowing a gale would soon be upon us, changed his course more to the west, and more in the face of the gale. At midnight we reached the Westmann Islands; after a severe buffering from the storm, every thing above and below decks wet….
“So furious was the gale that we tried to put into the Westmann Islands, sending up rockets and blowing the whistle all the time; but as it was midnight no notice as taken of our signals, and we were forced to breast the gale. Had we sails only, we must have been driven on a lee shores, whose jagged rocks would  have instantly destroyed us; but armed with steam we defied the wind and waves, and pushed on our course, though our staunch little craft fairly staggered under the heavy blows she received, rolling and plunging so that it was quite impossible for any of us to walk or even stand….The coast was now and then visible, enabling us to keep at a safe distance. The gale increased during the night, and in the morning, I think, the breakfast table was deserted…We passed a miserable forenoon, but now and then caught a peep of high mountains…At noon we sighted Cape Reykianess.”
If you had to go through that, how often would you go to Iceland? Thrown about so wildly that all you can do is try to jam yourself into your bunk so you aren’t thrown onto the floor. So tossed this way and that you can’t hold down food. Waves and rain so fierce that everything in your cabin, including you, is soaking wet. 
Samuel is someone who really, really wants to go to Iceland.
And, after all this being tossed about, what does he say about his first view so Iceland? “white clouds appear on the horizon, which soon become the outlines of mountains; and finally are recognized as the magnificent piles of snow-capped peaks, the so-called Jokuls; Snaefells is seen more than one hundred and forty miles from land; and Hekla, glittering in the sun, its internal fires, at present, not powerful enough to melt the snow from its summit, gives you the first grand emotion on visiting Iceland, long before you touch it.”
I have not been fortunate enough to see Iceland from a ship but I’ve seen it a number of times from an airplane and, each time, its mountains, its jokuls, its coastline are a thrill. I’m not sure that I’d have been as brave and adventurous as Samuel, ready to risk life and limb to be at the granting of Iceland’s constitution but I think I get the same thrill, seeing this vast land of fire and ice.

Samuel Kneeland: arrival in Iceland, 1874

When I introduced you to my friend, Samuel, I mentioned that he liked Iceland and Icelanders. He brings an American attitude with him. He is not a member of British nobility but an American medical doctor, a bit of an adventurer. He’s traveled widely, seen many different societies. He doesn’t make comparisons based on a life in the privileged, moneyed upper class. Perhaps that is why he finds Reykjavik a fine place.
He says, “I had expected to see a dirty, uncomfortable, ill-arranged town, judging from the tales of even the most recent travellers. Whether the visit of the king had caused a change or not, I cannot say, but we found the place tidy, the houses well-built and very pleasant, the streets clean, and every indication of a prosperous, well-ordered, and intelligent community. The shore was lined with boats, the harbor gay with merchant and war vessels, and every thing had a cheerful look, far more so than many of the fishing towns of Scotland and the northern islands. Piles of fish indicated the chief business of the people, and in some cases were not agreeable to the senses of sight ad smell; but the respectful salutations of the citizens, the neatness of their dress, the flowers and other evidences of refinement outside and inside the houses, the crowds in the stores, the trains of ponies, gave me a very good first impression of the capital of Iceland. The houses are of the same style as in the Faroes, the governor’s house, the church, and the prison being built of lava blocks the better ones of wood painted or tarred, and those of the poorer classes of lava and turf, with the roof overgrown with grass.
“We lived on board our steamer, remaining quiet for three days in port the beginning of the millennial celebration, which was to last a week, commencing Sunday, August 2. The time passed very pleasantly, visiting the officials, and observing the habits of the people. They are a strange compound of indifference and energy, like their country, which exhibits the coldness and stillness of snow with the fiery activity of the volcano. The society of the capital, chiefly Icelandic, is refined; their balls showed a beauty of feature and form and elegance of dress which one would hardly expect so near the arctic circle; the university and public library attract students from all parts of the island, and some of its professors are very learned men, especially in the departments of history and antiquities of the Scandinavian races. Three newspapers in the Icelandic language are published weekly in the capital.”
Samuel Kneeland, American, believer in the creation of republics, disposed to be a friend to Iceland and Icelanders has come a long way, has endured a vicious storm on the small yacht that he and his travelling companions have rented. He comes to be pleased, to see the wonders of Iceland, to help celebrate this first step in Iceland’s independence.
When we celebrate on June 17, we celebrate Iceland’s independence and Jon Sigurdsson’s role in achieving that independence but many contributed to this historic week in Iceland’s history and Samuel Kneeland participated and then wrote An American in Iceland and left us a precious description of events. When we gather at the Manitoba Legislative Buildings let us keep in mind all those people who gathered in August of 1874.

My friend, Samuel Kneeland

Benedikt Gröndal’s millennial card 1874.

I want you to meet a friend of mine. I’m going to write about him and his trip to Iceland. His name is Samuel Kneeland. He’s a medical doctor. He’s quite distinguished. He’s a graduate of Harvard. He got  his medical degree there. He received the Boylston Prize for his thesis on “The Contagiousness of the Puerperal Fever”. He won it a second time for an essay on “Hydrotherapy”. He studied in Paris. He lectured at Harvard.

Samuel is a traveller. He has spent some time in Brazil and around Lake Superior. He’s been to the Philippine Islands and Hawaii to study the volcanoes and earthquakes there. As mentioned earlier, he also has been to Iceland. He has written a book about his Icelandic trip, An American in Iceland. He also has written another book called Volcanoes and Earthquakes.
When he’s not practicing medicine, he’s editing medical books, writing medical articles for publications in the Medical Cyclopaedia.
When he went to Iceland, he went with a group. There were five Americans: Mr. C. W. Field. Field isn’t W. C. Fields, the entertainer. C. W. is the head of the American Telegraph Company that has laid the first transatlantic underground cable. Isaac Hayes is another of Samuel’s travelling companions. You may not  have heard of him but he, too, is a medical doctor with an urge to travel and explore. He’s led an expedition to Ellesmere Island. There’s Bayard Taylor, the journalist and poet. His most popular literary book is “A Book of Romances, Lyric and Songs”. He’s a world traveller. He’s been to England, Austria, Egypt, and China on just one tour. He’s made others. His newspaper column in The Tribune has made him famous and he is in constant demand to give lectures. The fifth American is M. Halstead. He’s a well-known newspaper editor and owner of the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper.
Samuel’s other companions are the son of the former prime minister of England and an Icelander, Eric Magnusson, sub-librarian at Cambridge and professor of Scandinavian languages.
Samuel says that he is going to Iceland because it, “has done much for liberty, the advance of knowledge, and the preservation of historic records; and at a time when other more favored nations were stationary or going back to the darkness of ignorance and superstition,–and under conditions of isolation and hardship, which prove that man is superior to his surroundings, and that misery cannot stifle the aspirations of liberty, nor degrade a poetic and heroic race.”
He had a great visit and says so in his book about it.
Take a look again at the men who made up this group. Distinguished, wealthy, well-connected, established. These are important people who have come to Iceland to help celebrate the granting of a new constitution by Denmark and, by their presence, to support Iceland’s bid for independence. Two years in the future, 
America will celebrate one hundred years as a Republic and they see the throwing off of royal shackles as something to be celebrated. They would like all countries to be republics, not kingdoms.Kings and queens are to them synonymous with repression.
Samuel Kneeland, an amazing man, a man worth getting to know. You can look him up in Wickipedia. You can download and read his book, An American in Iceland, about his visit to Iceland in 1874. I’ve read it a number of times and I’ve read about him and I’ve got to know him fairly well. I don’t know him well enough to call him Sam. He’s not a Sam kind of guy. I’m still glad I’ve got to know him. Why don’t you do the same?


In diplomacy, momentous decisions are often made not in the heat of battle or even argument but over the dinner table, at celebrations, in nooks and corners, by men (in 1874, it was all men) dressed formally and immaculately. The appearance belies the raging undercurrent, the years of meeting, negotiating, the successes and failures, the vested interests.
King Christian IX arrives in Iceland, not as a conqueror but as an absent and distant king. Iceland has not suffered conquest and war but centuries of neglect and exploitation. It has been seen by the Danes as little more than colony from which some profit might be extracted. However, unlike the natives of South America, they are not enslaved to work in the gold mines. There are no gold mines. There are, for a time, sulphur mines but economics means they are abandoned. There are no diamonds, rubies, no minerals, no vast forests that can be used for buildings ships, no exotic spices. There is fish. There is wool. There is meat pickled and smoked. There are horses. None of the products are in great demand, nor does the size of the population mean that what products there are, mostly woolen goods, can be produced in vast amounts. 
There is no mechanization. Everything is done individually by hand.
Iceland and Icelanders are more than anything, a curiosity. Unknown largely, enough off the beaten track that foreigners who want to visit need to rent or buy a yacht, man it, provision it, sail into unpredictable and often fierce weather.
With no wood suitable for building, no lime for mortar, so little fuel that houses don’t have stoves, Icelanders have taken to building houses from layered rock and turf. There are no great cathedrals, no vast public buildings, no great residences. There are farm houses, some as good as those of a well-to-do Scottish farmer, others no more than hovels where people live as if they are underground.
None of this keeps Icelanders from wanting their independence back. They agitate for the right to their own government. They negotiate, they argue, they wear down the opposition of the few people who make themselves wealthy on the current system.
When, at last, King Christian IX comes to Iceland for the first time to bring them a constitution in 1874, there are festivities. The people put on the best show they can manage.
Bayard Taylor, an American reporter, describes one of the major events that is held in the open after the King has been feted at a banquet in Reykjavik.
“The road which was so broad and smooth that it must have been specially made for the festival, now   crossed a long hollow in the stony soil, and climbed a hill opposite, nearly a mile away, where flags and tents, and a moving multitude announced the location of Austurvelli. The broad, rounded summit of the hill had been laboriously cleared of stones, and furnished a space where four or five thousand people could have been accommodated; but not more than two thousand were present. There were a a rostrum for speeches, a tent for the King, another ten which suggested a possibility of refreshments—and that was all. But the elevation, slight as it was commanded a singularly bleak and sublime panoramic view. On all sides the eye overlooked great spaces of sailless sea or barren shore, until, fifty miles away, ranges of dark volcanic hills inclosed the horizon. The level evening sunshine fell coldly across the vast view, the wind blew sharp and keen from the north, and, with every allowance for the tough constitutions of the Icelandic people, I could not see how much festivity was to be extracted from the place, time and temperature.
“Nothing was done, of course, until the King’s arrival….In Iceland nothing is done without singing, and it is the most attractive feature of the celebration thus far. The song was followed by speeches from the rostrum, chiefly greetings to the people, winding up with sentiments and cheers. Admiral Lagercrantz spoke for Sweden, Rolfsen, the author, for Norway (and his eloquence awoke a real enthusiasm), and then various others followed, the admirable male choir of Rejkiavik (sic) interrupting the speeches with national songs.”
It is one thing to say we celebrate June 17 at the statue of Jon Sigurdsson on the Legislative Grounds. Hip hooray. But have you ever wondered what it must have been like in Iceland on this momentous occasion? 
Did you imagine the cleared hilltop, the flags, the tents, the stage, the dignitaries. These are our ancestors participating, listening, discussing observing. This is what this important event was like for them.
Terrible weather. Cold wind. Rain. As usual. They partied anyway. And why shouldn’t they? There weren’t a lot of reasons to celebrate. These events would give them something to talk about all through the next winter and for many years after that. Who came, what they said, how they behaved would be described and analyzed. After all this time, the King had come, he’d been friendly, outgoing, pleasant, talking to Icelanders of different social classes, shaking hands. He’d brought and left behind a constitution.
After a very long time, there was, at last, hope. That, in itself, was worth celebrating.
This visit was the culmination of many years of discussion, arguments, persuasion, agitation, not violence, no bombs, not bullets, not slaughter, and the agreements that had been come to were now being implemented with banquets, with speeches, song and poetry. Would that song and poetry could celebrate the separation of those geographic entities that do not want to be joined. Would that both sides could join in.  Would that Croat and Serb, Southern and Northern Irish, Chinese and Tibetans, all could follow the Icelandic-Danish solution.


In 1874, the Danish king, Christian IX, visited Iceland for the first time. He brought with him a constitution for the Icelanders. It was not a document giving them independence but it was a beginning that would eventually lead to Iceland’s independence from Denmark.
Iceland was originally settled when Norwegian farmers fled the rule of King Harald. These were not Vikings set out to conquer but farmers who didn’t want to have to swear allegiance to this ambitious king who was consolidating small areas under his rule. These settlers brought cows, sheep, horses, families, slaves. They wanted land and independence. For a time they had that. However, because of internal conflict and bloodshed, a treaty was signed in 1262 with Norway and the descendants of those who had risked everything to escape Norway’s rule voluntarily placed themselves in a union with Norway that, in essence, made them subject to Norway.
In 1380 the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway were united and, since Iceland was considered part of Norway, Iceland came under Denmark’s control. The Danes had no need of Iceland’s exports but were able to exploit Iceland for whatever value they could find. The result was hundreds of years of exploitation and poverty.
June 17 is celebrated because it is the birthday of Jon Sigurðsson. While many people worked to obtain Iceland´s indpendence, Jon was considered the leader of the independence movement.
There were many stages to the gaining of independence. However, the king´s visit in 1874 was the critical first step. The king still held the power of a veto over the decisions made in Iceland. However,he had come to Iceland. He´d stood on Icelandic soil. He´d met the people. He´d gone to see the wonder of the Great Geyser and even though the Great Geyser was unimpressed by royalty and didn´t spout, the king had still camped there in the midst of the blasted wilderness. He dined at Thingveller and met Iceland´s upper class, the well-to-do farmers. Perhaps the most telling detail of the king’s visit was that n neither he nor his son could speak Icelandic. The king could not speak to his subjects unless they spoke Danish.
Change is often a slow process. The constitution was revised in 1903. A minister of Icelandic affairs who was to live in the capital city, Reykjavik, was appointed. In 1918 Iceland was recognized at the Kingdom of Iceland. In 1944, Iceland was recognized as a fully independent country.
On this June 17, think on this process. The agitation for independence and self-rule began well before the visit of Christian IX. The process went on for 70 years. With not a shot fired. With no  houses blown up. With no children murdered. This is utterly remarkable, not just on the side of the Icelanders but, also, on the side of the Danes. Think on Libya, on Syria, on the French Revolution, on Ireland, on Ethiopia, on the disintegration of Jugoslavia, on, on, on.
Let us celebrate June 17th in 2012 with prayers for all those vocal and silent Icelanders who were determined to have independence but let us also let us pray for those in Denmark who listened, who thought, who agreed and negotiated in good faith. Let us give thanks for the violence that did not occur, the deaths that did not happen.
Praying seems to be out of fashion today. But science won’t give thanks to those Icelanders and Danes who, over a long period, gave the world a lesson that was and is badly needed. Ask the dead in Homs how they would have valued a dialogue, a conversation, an argument, a dispute in words, in a framework where murdering children was not an option. ]
Celebrate Jon Sigurðsson for the world is desperately in need of more Jon Sigurðssons. But celebrate more than Jon Sigurðsson. Celebrate what, in human history, was a remarkable event, so remarkable that it has left nations friends instead of enemies.

An Icelandic Wedding, Waller, 1874

As our young English painter, S. E. Waller continues his journey sketching saga sites, he goes to Kross.
While he is there, he is told that a wedding is going to take place. He wants to see as much about the manners and customs of the country as possible so he is keen to attend. The wedding is to occur at twelve o’clock. All he has is his traveling clothes so he combs his hair and puts a coloured handkerchief around his neck.
When he goes out of the house, he sees a lot of little dots on the horizon but they quickly turn into trains of horsemen. They’re the wedding guests of course, and they come in parties of five or six, dressed in every sort of Icelandic costume.
Everyone in the house is busy so Waller, the gregarious fellow that he is, goes down the muddy pathway and greets the guests as they arrive. He can’t speak a lot of Icelandic but he says he shook hands with the men, took off his hat to the women, and kissed the children and it all worked out fine.
The guests have had long, wet rides. Some are muddy and they sit on the grass to change their stockings before going into the house. There’s a fair amount of drinking going on in the house and after everybody has had something to help them overcome the fatigue of their trip, they march out of the house in couples, led by the bride and groom to the tune of one of the most dismal songs that Waller has ever heard.
The women, he says, are wearing wadmal dresses but the bride wore a large faldr. The bridegroom was old and fat but good-natured. The bride was much younger and a dreadful shrew. Waller said he felt sorry for the bridegroom. Because he is English, he doesn’t understand that a man cannot marry unless he is worth four hundreds, that is, the worth of four cows. Seldom would any young man be worth four hundreds. The young woman will not have chosen her husband. Her father will have arranged the marriage and she will be under great pressure to marry and move out for it is likely that her parent’s home is crowded. With her gone, there is one less mouth to feed. Behind the picturesqueness of the landscape, the clothes, the language, is always the need to survive. It is 1872, the mass migration to America has just begun.
The ceremony takes about three quarters of an hour. There’s a prayer, hymn, exhortation, and blessing.
The wedding dinner took place at a house ten miles away. Sixty men, women and children, he says, start off “trotting, galloping, and tumbling, over hills, through water, and into the bogs, amidst plenty of good-natured laughter. And talking of the children, how they do ride! Behind me for ten miles of most difficult country rode two little girls astride, with halters for bridles, on two raw-boned Iceland ponies. One was nine years old, the other seven, and they went splendidly, and enjoyed the journey more than any of us.
“When we reached the farm where the feast was to be held we found tents had been erected to accommodate the numerous company, and in one of these (a spacious marquee about four feet high, in which we were obliged to sit because we simply could not stand) the dinner was prepared.”
Everyone wants him to stay. He’s obviously made a good impression on the Icelanders. However, he explains that he has to get to Selja that evening. He says the countryside they had to cross was nasty for riding and they had much difficulty in crossing two rivers swollen by rain. At each river crossing, they had to hire a local guide to show them how to get across safely.
What risks Waller takes, riding through the heaths and bogs, risking quicksand and bottomless mud, crossing rivers with rocks rolling along the bottom that could break a horse’s leg or sweep its legs from under it, getting soaked in glacial water, riding for miles soaking wet, putting his life completely into his Icelandic guide’s hands, confident that they’ll find shelter. Yet, what rewards. 
Before the wedding, he has attended a confirmation. He has seen things and met people like he’s never met before. He’s taken into people’s homes, shared meals with them, sung with them, struggled to communicate with his limited Icelandic. He’s been wakened in the morning by, as he says, a very pretty young woman, bringing him coffee and something to eat for breakfast. What young man wouldn’t want these experiences? How could life be any more interesting or thrilling? He’s living a mad, romantic adventure as he rides from place to place so that he can make sketches of the places in Njal’s saga. He’s treading on the ground of his heroes.
What young man’s heart wouldn’t beat faster when faced with a dangerous river crossing, his guide a pretty young woman who, when she gets him safely to the other side, turns on her horse, kisses him on the cheek and, before he can react, plunges  her horse into the current and makes her way to the far bank?
1872. More than a hundred years ago, approaching one hundred and fifty years, but Waller singing with his hosts, sharing their meals, riding over vast expanses of wasteland, being kissed, all come alive as if it were yesterday. There is nothing ornate about his writing, thank goodness. It is heartfelt, honest and enriched by an artist’s eye for details.

On To Oddi, Waller, 1874

S. E. Waller is a young English artist. He doesn’t have much money but is determined to go to Iceland to sketch and paint the scenes of Njal’s Saga. He has had some hard riding before he reached Eyrarbakki but he finds there wonderful accommodation and kind hosts.
With his three horses and his guide, Bjarni, he leaves for Oddi which is thirty miles away. However, because of the bogs and heaths, the need to cross a river, the distance they have to travel is sixty miles. It becomes the hardest journey they have had so far. Bjarni nearly is killed when he rides into some quicksand. However, his horse manages to thrash his way out of it.
The river Thjórsá is in flood. It is so wide at this time of year that it takes them more than an hour to cross it. It is hard to imagine today what it must have been like to travel where there were no roads, only trails, over land so treacherous, filled with hidden dangers, that, time and again, a local guide had to be hired to show the traveler how to cross a river.
They start the crossing of the Thjórsá by going from sandbank to sandbank. To make matters more dangerous, most of the sandbanks are under two or three feet of water. The horses wade and even swim for twenty minutes to get to the middle of the river. Here they stop on a gravel bank that feels like it could suddenly disintegrate. They are now surrounded by water. Ahead of them is deep water, a half-mile wide.   
The melting snow in the interior has turned the river into a torrent.
In the distance, they can see a boat coming toward them. Some drovers are bringing over a herd of horses. As the boat and horses come closer, he can hear how frightened the horses are as they swim across the current.
Once the boat arrives, they put their saddles and baggage. They tie ropes to the horses and Bjarni takes two ropes and Waller takes the other. Waller’s self-confidence is not increased by Bjarni saying that horses are often lost while crossing a river.
They reach the other side, after which they have to cross two smaller rivers on their own. They left Eyrarbakki at half-past twelve in the morning and don’t reach Oddi until half-past eight at night. Waller is delighted that the priest has some good pasture and allows the three horses to graze there.
Waller says, “The little house at Oddi was exceedingly comfortable, the food good, the bed clean, our host kindness itself. All this we were very grateful for; but to make the evening complete, I found, to my intense joy, a Shakespeare lying in a dusty corner. I had brought no books with me, fearing they might tend to idleness, so that, on discovering this treasure, my delight was great.”
Rain pours down during the night. He hopes that the morning will bring clear skies but, instead, it is still pouring rain. Since there is little he can do, he tries to learn some Icelandic. Bjarni helps him learn some Icelandic words. He says, “I made desperate efforts to talk with the son of our host, who was physician to the district and had spent some years in Copenhagen. He was exceedingly good natured over my blunders, and produced a Danish-English phrase-book, which helped us along considerably.
“I shall always remember the kindness of both father and son. They begged me to stay a week with them, an invitation I was very sorry to refuse. When leaving on the Friday morning, Sr. Jonson positively refused to allow me to give compensation to any member of his household.”
On Friday, the weather is good so Waller decides to stay at Oddi all day and travel at night. All morning he works on a sketch of their white horse, then a view of Thryhriningr.
Their next destination is Kross, on the extreme south coast.
The hardship, the danger, the weather, the dangerous river crossing, are nothing exceptional in Iceland in 1874. These were the conditions everyone encountered. People buying and selling horses or sheep experienced these difficulties. Farmers and their families, t heir workers, faced these conditions on a daily basis.
In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses, goes searching for sheep. He gets caught in a blizzard. “but still the blizzard assailed him with undiminished fury when he reached the next ridge, clawed at his eyes and the roots of his beard, howled vindictively in his ears, and tried to hurl him to the ground….he forced his way at first with lowered  head against the storm, but when he reached the ridge above the gully, he could no longer make any headway in this fashion, so he slumped forward on to  his hands and knees and made his way through the blizzard on all fours.”
In Indridason’s novels, the main character Erlender is obsessed with the loss of his younger brother in a storm. He realizes that with the bogs and quicksand that his brother could simply have disappeared and his body would never be found.

In 1810, Mackenzie says that he had begun to ascend near several craters larger than any we had yet seen. “While examining some of the fissures, we found the remains of a woman who had been lost about a year before, and of whom there had hitherto been no tiding. Her clothes and bones were lying scatttered about; the bones of one leg remained in the stocking. It is probably that she had missed the path during a thick shower of snow, and had fallen over the precipice, where her body was torn to pieces by eagles and foxes.It’s astonishing how the Icelanders find their way during winter across these trackless deserts.”

The weather, in every traveler’s book, is front and centre. It determines what can and can’t be done. It brings good grass or no grass, a full belly or starvation. There is no escaping it. Even if people are at a farm, it imprisons them just as it imprisons Waller. Once a journey has begun, it can, as with Bjartur, bring the traveler close to death or to death itself.
A ten day journey, sleeping in churches, farmhouses, tents, even in good weather , was demanding. As Waller discovers, as-the-crow-flies meant nothing in terms of the distance to be covered for bogs had to be skirted, rivers crossed where there were ferries or fords.
No wonder Icelandic families were used to getting up at any time during the night to provide refuge for a traveler. Their farm may have been the only place of shelter in the area. When Bjartur finally makes it to Brun, it is night, everyone is in bed, but the farm wife hears someone groaning, hammering on the door. They go to the door with a light and Bjartur topples in. He’s covered in ice.
This is later in the season but the weather that Waller and many others describe during June, July, August, can be a deadly. That makes the welcome that Waller has had at Eyrarbakki and Oddi all the warmer, all the more appreciated, all the more remembered. What feels better than to be safe in a warm house as a storm rages outside
(Quotes from Six Weeks in the Saddle, S. E. Waller, 1874)
Waller gives the priest’s name as Sr. Jonson but there are many Jonsons. Nor does he give the name of the priest’s son who is the doctor for the district. If anyone reading this knows who these two were, would you please write to let me know.  If they are relatives, I’d like to hear about that.

Great great amma shopping, Reykjavik, 1874

So, your Great Great amma Runa or Helga or Sigrun has convinced your great great grandfather, Gunnar or Helgi or Bjarni, to take her with him when he goes to Reykjavik with all the products they have amassed over the year. The trip may take days. They’ll camp at night at places where they can get grass for the horses. Grass governs everything. Without the horses, there will be no transport and no trade. The may stay in tents or they may stay at farms that have enough accommodation for them and their animals.
Great Great amma will ride side saddle. It’s a risky business as the horses travel over rough terrain. Riding astride would be much safer, more comfortable but ladies don’t ride astride yet. 
Women have drowned crossing rivers. Think of those heavy dresses, trying to stay in the saddle, the ice cold river from the glacier, the furious water driving ice on top and boulders below. If she’s lucky, there’ll be ferrymen to take her across.
Every traveller’s description emphasizes the difficulty of travel over the heaths and bogs but, particularly, over the rivers. Some rivers are so wide and the water so fast that the locals say to fix your eyes on the far bank and not look down at the water so you don’t become dizzy and fall into the current.
Be that as it may, your Great Great amma has been on the farm for the last twelve months. There may have been no visitors. She may have seen no one but those who live on the farm. Besides that, the Danish merchants are known to be free with the brandy before the bargaining begins. A few free drinks and it is easier to pay less and charge more.
As well, what woman in her right mind would trust a man with shopping for a year’s supply of goods? What man would remember a needle and thread? Especially after a few brandies and snorts of fresh snuff? It’s not an idle concern because one third of the value of exports is used to buy brandy, coffee, sugar and tobacco.
There’s a small entrance-hall, an outer door, then one room on each side. One is a public room Burton says with “jostling boors and drunken loafers.” The other is where ggamma is headed. It is a private store.
There are broad cloths and long cloths, woolen comforters, threads, and a few silks and satins. There will be hardware of all kinds; iron for the blacksmith, some steel and brass wire, farriers’ and carpenters’ tools. There will be cooking utensils; spades and scythes, sewing machines, fish-hooks of various kinds. There’ll be some hunting rifles, old military muskets.
GGamma will have a choice of cereals, brown and white sugar, hams, sausages and sardines, butter, figs, raisins, prunes and olive oil. There’ll be pots and pans, boxes, funnels, kettles and lamps and lanterns.
GGafi will be busy looking at the leather on the wall that he might use for saddles, thongs, straps and raw hide for shoes. He’ll be checking out scythes, metal for horseshoes, nails, lumber, anything that is needed for the sheep.

Everyone on the farm has his or her own wooden bowl from which they eat all their meals but there’ll be some cheap crockery and glass ware.GGamma might buy a piece or two since it adds a bit of class to the house.

But everything except what is listed as trade goods must be bought. Ink, brushes, cocoa, chocolate, ale, wine, vinegar, dyestuffs, varnish, playing cards, resin and gums, caps, cork, buckwheat meal, oatmeal, block metal, nails, iron chain, iron wares, zinc plates, paper, soap, sago, saltpetre, rope.
Think of your Great Great amma there in the store. She can only buy what she can afford and what she can afford is what the Danish merchant has given her husband for the goods they’ve produced over the winter. It is hard to conceive but they have to buy everything because Iceland has no metal deposits, no forests, no grain crops, so few vegetables as to be insignificant. They can’t make vinegar. They can’t make paper. They can’t make varnish. The list is endless.
Every item is precious. Every item took hard physical work. Haying. Taking care of sheep and cows. Milking. Making butter. Skinning sheep. Preserving meat. Plucking wool. Combing, cleaning, spinning, knitting. Great Great amma knows what it took to pay for that needle and thread, that jar of cinnamon.
Every purchase has to be weighed, one against the other, against the next twelve months before the trade ships come again.
And, when the purchases are made, there’s no having someone load them onto the local transfer. The horses are outfitted with a layer of turf to protect their backs, then a saddle with pegs on which boxes will be hung. The boxes have to be packed. The horses are tied head to tail and the caravan leaves for one day, two days, three days. Maybe more. The bogs have to be traversed, the quicksand avoided, the rivers crossed.
Think of her, your great great amma, sitting in her side saddle, a long line of laden horses behind her. She’s survived one more year and, now, with the goods she has, she hopes to survive another year. She must have. You’re here.  

(With material from Richard Burton, Utlima Thule)

The reference to a sewing machine is correct. “After successfully defending his right to a share in the profits of other sewing machine manufacturers, Howe saw his annual income jump from three hundred to more than two hundred thousand dollars a year. Between 1854 and 1867, Howe earned close to two million dollars from his invention.” from About.com Inventors