Uno von Troil: cattle

Uno von Troil says “Next to fishing, the principal support of the Icelanders is the breeding of cattle.
“Their beeves are not large, but very fat and good. It has been reported by some, though without foundation, that there are none among them with horns: it is however true that they seldom have nay.”
“The large cattle are kept at home in their yards the greater part of the year, though some have places appropriated for them in the mountains which they call fatr, where they send their cattle during the summer, till the hay harvest is over. They have a herdsman to attend them, and two women to milk them and make butter and cheese. It is common to meet with oxen running wild about the mountains, which are however drove home in autumn, as everyone knows his own by a particular mark put upon them.
“The principal food of the cattle is hay, and they reckon that a stack of  hay for a cow’s winter provision; a stack consists of thirty cocks (kapal) of hay, grown on manured land, and forty cocks kapal grown on un-manured land. When there is a scarcity of fodder, they feed them in some pars with steenbitr, a kind of fish, which, together with the heads and bones of cod, is beat small, and mixed with one quarter of chopped hay. The cattle are fond of it and yield a good deal of milk after it; but yet it is said to have a bad taste, and they only make use of this food in time of need.
“Their cows yield four kanne of  milk a day, though they have some that give from eight to fourteen in four-and-twenty hours. A cow that yields six quarts is reckoned a good one, and must not stand dry above there weeks before she calves.
“A young calf is fed with milk for ten days or a fortnight, afterwards the milk is mixed with water and chopped hay, and at last they give it whey instead of milk
“The usual price of a cow, as well as of a horse, is one hundred and twenty ells, thirty of which make a dollar. However, sometimes the better sort of horses are sold for eight or ten rix-dollars. They have less trouble with their horses than their cows; for though some saddle-horses are kept in stables during winter, the greater number of them are obliged to provide for their own subsistence, and when they cannot find this on land, they go in search of sea-weeds on the coasts; but when a great quantity of snow has fallen, the natives are obliged to clear it away for them.”
To get this stack of hay needed for each cow to survive the winter, every farm worker (and the small farm owner), has to scythe an area 180 ft. by 180 ft. every day. That’s on the tún where the soil is manured and where the grass grows more thickly. To get that stack of hay for each cow from unfertilized meadows, a man has to scythe a square 240 ft to a side every day. The women working in the fields have to rake as much hay as three men can mow. Every day. The hours were long, The work hard. In Paradise Reclaimed, after the farm at Steinahliðar has been destroyed and Steina has been sent by the parish council to work on a farm, the narrator says, “She was worn out after a summer of drudgery, long days of toiling in the rain with her rake far into the night.” 
Uno von Troil writes about life in Iceland in 1772. Laxness sets Paradise Reclaimed around the year 1874. We know this because the Danish king comes to visit. Little, if anything, has changed.
In 1874, there has been no mechanization. The cattle depend on harvested grass for the winter. The grass was still cut with a scythe and, although there are many tales of witches who can command a host of scythes to cut her grass, the reality is that one man can only wield one scythe. The grass has to be raked. It has to be dried. It has to be stacked. An experienced farmer can look at his stacks of hay and his herd and calculate how long the hay will last and whether or not, before the year is over, he‘ll be feeding his cattle hay mixed with hammered fish bones and sea weed. In a good year, the milk will taste sweet and in a bad year, it will taste of fish. In a very bad year, there‘ll be no milk to taste.
Cows, in a way, were regarded as a luxury because they required more grass than sheep for an equal amount of milk. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses resents it when he is given a cow unasked. With the milk from the cow, the health of his family improves but only at the cost of less feed for his sheep.

When their cow is starving for lack of hay, Bjartur’s wife, Finna asks him to visit some of the other farms to borrow some hay. He refuses and says,
“No power between heaven and earth shall make me betray my sheep for the sake of a cow. It took me eighteen years work to get my stock together. I worked twelve more years to pay off the land. My sheep have made me an independent man, and I will never bow to anyone. To have people say of me that I took the beggar’s road for hay in the spring is a disgrace I will never tolerate. And as for the cow, which was foisted on me by the Bailiff and the Women’s Institute to deprive the youngsters of their appetite and filch the best of the hay from the sheep, for her I will do only one thing.” That one thing is to kill the cow which he does quite happily.
Not all farmers, however, were like Bjartur. The original settlers had brought over dairy cattle before 1000 AD. The cattle though perhaps not as efficient users of grass as the cows, were still efficient. That was good because no grain ripened in Iceland after the Little Ice Age began. Importing grain was prohibitively expensive even for human consumption. There was no tradition of growing vegetables to feed animals. The climate made it increasingly difficult to grow vegetables and those who did or tried to were mostly Danes.
In spite of the preference for sheep, the settlers in New Iceland followed the tradition of raising dairy cows. In the New Iceland area, just outside of Gimli, the tradition is still carried on by the Narfason family. In 1915, Magnus Narfason was selling fluid milk to the City dairy in Winnipeg from a farm he established in 1897. His sons Elli and Mundi took over the farm after Magnus died in 1931. Oli Narfason, who is Elli‘s son, became involved in the farm in the late 1940s. His son Clifford took over the farm when Oli retired. Today, in 2012, that‘s 115 years of commitment to those cows that Bjartur saw as competing with his precious sheep.
My great grandfather, Ketill, after working as a labourer on the railway and in Winnipeg, saved enough money to start a large dairy business in Winnipeg in 1894. He bought a parcel of land on the N. W. Corner of Simcoe St. And Ellice Ave. What is now in the heart of the city was grazing land. He carried on business there until 1903.
Cows. Hay. Milk. Survival. A way of life. Transferred to North America. First just to provide the milk that was a staple in the diet of the Icelandic settlers but, gradually, as many settlers took other opportunities, there came the possibility of producing milk for the community.
Today, there is little evidence of the critical role dairy cattle played in the survival of both the Icelanders and the North American Icelandic settlers but no history of either group is complete without an understanding of how the cattle Uno von Troil describes were critical to our ancestor‘s survival. Gimli has a large viking statue. We all like it. We take relatives and friends to stand in front of it for pictures. Perhaps, what there should be is a statue of an Icelandic dairy cow, our own Bukolla. The Viking raids left nothing for following generations   to eat. Their plunder disappeared. The cows were more faithful. They have fed us for over a thousand years. Maybe a statue of an Icelandic cow standing beside the Viking, as large as he is, would recognize what we owe to whom.
Perhaps, when we reach for the skyr, we should pause for a moment and think of people scything grass long into the night, raking hay in the rain, pounding fish bones and collecting seaweed to mix with hay, so that the milk, cream, butter and skyr would last longer than the winter.

Icelandic farm workers, 1772

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.