In 1774, Uno von Troil wrote about how Icelanders were employed. They principally fish and take care of cattle.
In both summer and winter, they fish. When they return home after having cleaned their fish, they give them to their wives to dry them. During the winter, when the weather is so bad they can’t fish, they take care of their sheep and cows and spin wool. In summer, the mow the grass, dig turf, collect fuel and search for their sheep and goats that have wandered away. They also butcher their cattle. They weave wadmal that they wash in urine. Wives tan leather. A few men work with gold and silver.
The women, he says prepare fish, take care of cattle, the milk and the wool, sew, spin and gather eggs and down.
The amount of work farm workers have to do is set out in local bylaws. A man has to mow an area of 30 fathoms square of manured soil (as would grow on a tún) of hay. That’s a square of 180 feet. Or, if the land is not manured, then he has to scythe forty fathoms square, 240 feet to a side.
If he is not scything grass but digging turf, then he has to dig 700 pieces of turf eight feet long and three feet wide in a day.
If there is a snow fall and the snow piles up so it reaches the horses bellies (small Icelandic horses, remember, their bellies are close to the ground), he has to clear away snow from enough ground to feed a hundred sheep.
As for women, they have to rake as much hay as three men can scythe. That’s a square 90 x 90 fathoms or 540 feet to a side. If a woman is weaving, she has to weave three yards of wadmal in a day.
The wages of man are four rigs dollars and twelve yards of wadmal. A woman gets two rigs dollars and five yards of wadmal.
When working men aren’t needed at the haying and are sent to the coast to fish from the 25th of September to the 14th of May, the farmer is to supply them with six pounds of butter and 18 pounds of dried fish every week. Von Troil thinks this is quite generous but then points out that when they are at the farm, they can get milk, skyr, etc. and that is not available at the fishing stations. When they are at the farm, the working men are to be fed five pounds of dried fish and three quarters of a pound of butter each week.
A hundred years later when our ancestors were faced with one natural calamity after another, cold weather, volcanic eruptions, communicable diseases, and they saw that it was now possible, because of the English ships that came to buy sheep and horses, that they could leave, conditions had not changed much for the people working on the farms.
Someone writing in 1872 would have said the chief occupations of the Icelanders is fishing and taking care of their cattle. There were no forests, mines, cities. Iceland was still a country of farms with the wealthy farm owners doing everything possible through politics and control of the law, to keep society the same. Why wouldn’t they? They had a supply of cheap labour. While the resources of the country were such that there was no wealthy aristocracy, descriptions of the well-to-do farmers show that they lived in comfort, that their children were educated, were given preference for positions in the civil service, the church and in business.
Given the scarcity of land, the poor wages that meant it was difficult to save enough money to buy even marginal land, the rules that restricted people from fishing more lucratively, it was no wonder that stories of land and opportunity were passed from farm to farm. If a man could scythe a field 180 feet square of manured hay in a day for someone else, he could scythe it for himself. If a woman could rake a square plot of hay 540 feet to a side in a day for a farm owner, she could rake it on her own farm just as well.
There was no way of creating more grazing land in Iceland. There were no opportunities for young people. Icelandic women, von Troil, says are very fertile, many have twelve or fifteen children. A farm could not be divided into twelve or fifteen plots. The eldest son might get the farm but that left a dozen brothers and sisters having to become indentured servants. This wasn’t just a problem in Iceland. The same problem, although perhaps not so severe, existed in other countries. In an agrarian society, everything depends on ownership and control of land. There is only so much of it.
A hundred years would pass from the time of von Troil’s visit until the emigration to North America began but little would change except, finally, the giving up of the Danish trade monopoly, the coming of the English and Scots with silver and gold that could be used to buy passage to the New World. The availability of ships that would take people to England and Scotland and others that would take them from there to North America. And, finally, the need of both the United States and Canada for settlers, a need that meant both governments and businesses such as the railways, would encourage and assist the emigration.
As a boy, I used a scythe but the most I scythed in a day was half a lot, 66 feet by 75 feet. It was hard work. To do it well, your body has to work like a machine, your arms and body swinging, not stopping until you need to take out a whetstone and sharpen the blade and that blade must be razor sharp. There is a skill to it.
It demands much of your arms, your back, your legs. It is mind-numbing like any repetitious physical job. Paintings of the noble workers scything and raking hay may look romantic, nostalgic, but there is nothing romantic or nostalgic about work that turns people into machines. In Canada, the settlers worked on farms at harvest time to earn cash. The work was brutal but, at least, they said, there was lots of food. They were paid in cash and there was lots of food. And they were already living on their own land.