When travellers in the 1800s went to Iceland by ship, often from ports in Scotland or England, they seldom went directly to Iceland but more often stopped in places like St. Kilda or the Faroes. Descriptions of life in these places gives us an idea of what life was like for people on these isolated islands and give us a chance to compare their daily life with life in Iceland.
In the case of Trollope and his companions, a group made up of people who were either wealthy and/or famous, aboard the Mastiff, stopping at St. Kilda and the Faroes, both highly picturesque places, was an adventure. Life in England and Scotland had progressed. The Industrial Revolution had brought train travel, new farming techniques, factories. Visiting the various islands was like stepping back in time.
“Nothing can be more picturesque than the approach to St. Kilda.…by degrees, we came upon the little green valley opening down upon the shore in which the people of St. Kilda live. There were the few acres that are cultivated in the island, and there is the row of cottages, eighteen in number, in which the inhabitants live. There is also the chapel which has been built for their use, and there also lives their pastor, who has been now twelve years among them.
“We went ashore in the ship’s boats, and the inhabitants came out to meet us with gracious smiles. With them was their minister, and with them also was Miss MacLeod, the sister of MacLeod, the proprietor of the island…..The first care was to land certain stores, – tea, sugar, and such like, – which Mr. Burns had brought as a present to the people. It is the necessity of their position that such aid should be essential almost to their existence.
“It is about forty-five miles from the nearest of the large inhabited islands, – forty-five miles, that is, from humanity; but St. Kilda is in itself so small that there is no ready mode for traversing that distance. There is no communication by steamer, except such a chance coming as that of ours. The whole wealth of the small community cannot command more than a small rowing-boat or two. When we landed, the men were in sore distress for a few fathoms of rope, which they obtained from the liberality of Mr. Burns.
“The island is about two-and-a-half miles long, and about seven in circumference; the highest land is about 1,200 feet high…it contains about thirty acres of cultivated land, lying just in front of the cottages, on which potatoes and oats are grown….There is, too, a considerable amount of pasture-land among the rocks and hills, on which are maintained about fifty cattle and 400 sheep; but with them there is much difficulty. The winter here is very cold, and in winter the stock is necessarily left to shift for themselves….Then we walked up among the cottages, buying woollen stockings and sea-birds’ eggs, such being the commodities they had for sale. Some coarse cloth we found there also, made on the island from the wool grown there, of which some among us bought sufficient for a coat, waistcoat, or petticoat, as the case may be.
“In their want of other fuel, the inhabitants skin the turf from their pastures and burn it. Gradually, thus, the grass is going, for it is burned much quicker than it is produced. In this way the food for the sheep and cattle will quickly disappear.
“They (the cottages) are soundly built of stone, and each contains two well-sized rooms; but it may, I think, be taken for granted that this is due to private munificence and not to the personal efforts of the inhabitants. There are still to be seen the wretched hovels in which the people dwelt before the stone cottages were erected, fifteen years ago.
“The pastor, whose life here is certainly not to be envied, and who acts as schoolmaster as well as minister, receives £80 per annum from the Scotch Free Church….There is but one person in the island, but himself, a married woman, who can speak a word of English. No books can reach him; hardly a newspaper.
“There are between seventy and eighty inhabitants on the island, of whom, among the adults, the female outnumber the male by nearly two to one. This, of course, comes from the fact that the young men can leave the harshness of such a life much more easily than the young women. I was told that at the present moment there were two marriageable young men at St. Kilda, and twelve marriageable, but unmarried, females….Each man is his own shoemaker and tailor. They dye their own wool. Whatever furniture they use they make generally for themselves. They make their own candles. But perhaps the chief employment of the men is the catching of sea birds; the feathers of which they sell, and on the flesh of which they in a great part live. The bird which they eat is the fulmar…. Sometimes they have bread. Sometimes they make a stew with oatmeal and fulmar, – not delicious I should think to any but a St. Kildarite; – sometimes they luxuriate with corned mutton. Sometimes they have porridge. Occasionally they have been near to famine; and then they have been kept alive by presents.
“I have said that the St. Kildarites appeared to be healthy. From a medical report, however, published by the same traveller, Mr. MacDiarmid, it appears that they are greatly troubled with rheumatism and scrofula. But the curse of the island in regard to its sanitary condition is a disease among babies for which the cause has not yet been discovered. At about eight days old the children die. That this was so I heard from every side. It seemed to prevail to such an extent that a child at that age would be more likely to die than live.”
This same problem of babies dying shortly after birth plagued the Westman Islands and, to some extent, the Faroes. In the Westmans, the cause was eventually discovered to be tetanus.
Imagine, an island so isolated and so poor that the village is desperate for a piece of rope. A place where people live mainly on sea birds. Where the entire village is housed and kept alive through the generosity of the owner of the island.
Eventually, the British government moved the people from St Kilda. There were only 80 households to move. Moving them seems extreme but, remember, that at one time, the Danish government considered moving the entire population of Iceland to Denmark. The task would have been a logistical nightmare. If there had been fewer Icelanders, it might have been possible and Iceland would have suffered the same fate as St. Kilda.
In Iceland, there was enough arable land that there could be well-to-do farmers but the greatest number of Icelanders lived in poverty. Many had only a quilt, a horn spoon, a wooden bowl, their clothes and a few coins. A lot had no coins. But they were better off than the people of St Kilda. They could afford a piece of rope.
(Quotes from How the ‘Mastiffs” Went to Iceland. Photo of The Mastiff courtesy of Rory O’Farrell)