Vilhjalmer Valgardsson, the Viscious Viking from Vík

Vilhjlamer Valgardsson, the Vicious Viking of Vik, leaves the shores of Iceland to raid the coast of Europe, taking gold and slaves.
Vilhjalmer lands on the shore ready to lead his Viking warriors into battle. There will be no turning back.
All is laid waste before the Viking onslaught. Berserkers lead the way.
Billy, it’s time for supper.

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 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.

Gypsy Clothes

In Iceland, turf houses
This story probably has a thousand variants. It has been told by many people over a long period of time.
Like many folk tales it is about good and bad, about reward and punishment. It very definitely does not adhere to the belief that was current a while ago that “greed is good”.  Folk tales often have about them an element of teaching the listener or reader correct behaviour. This story does not end with a stated moral. In that way, it is not a fable. Rather, it is more like an episode out of the sagas. Perhaps, its theme could be found in Havamal. 
Conditions in Iceland, with the beginning of the Little Ice Age in 1350, began to deteriorate. It only takes a difference of a few degrees to keep grain from ripening. Icelanders had been able to grow hardy crops and some records appear to show, even grow a surplus that could be exported. That changed with the drop in temperature. What had been a multi-crop economy became a one crop economy, hay. Although hay could grow and be harvested, a further drop in temperature created by unusually cold weather or by ice filling the fjords, meant that hay would not grow that particular summer.
The weather, the volcanic eruptions, the earthquakes, were so unpredictable that every effort had to be made to accumulate food for people and fodder for the animals during the growing months. Every bit as serious was the lack of fuel. Brown coal was used wherever it could be found, peat cut and dried, sheep manure pressed and dried, dwarf birch sticks. Icelandic farms didn’t have stoves. Stoves require wood or coal and lots of it.
The turf and rock houses of most of the people are described as wretched. There was nothing romantic about living in a house made of lava rock and turf.
Is it any wonder that people fantasized about better lives, about people like themselves except better dressed, better fed, better housed, with gold and jewels and warm fires? Why wouldn’t they? Dreams give us solace when life disappoints us. 
 The dream in Canada. Free land and houses like this.
In this version of “Gypsy Clothes” what has changed is the location. The setting is still a farm but the farm is now in New Iceland. The time is, as always, Christmas. The virtue of the main character, Kristin, is that she is generous and kind to people who look like beggars. The sin of the evil mother is her lack of generosity to people she considers inferior to herself.
A reader can easily see how daughter and mother would be judged in Iceland where hunger always threatened and was often present. Not just hunger but starvation. People, through no fault of their own, bad weather, natural disasters, were driven onto the mountain paths seeking food. Their lives depended on the generosity of others.
In New Iceland on Gisli’s farm, there is no threat of hunger. The mother acts out of selfishness and self-importance. The revenge is swift and brutal. The good are rewarded and the bad punished.
However, the story goes beyond the simple retelling of the tale to raise questions about the transference of the folk figures from Iceland to New Iceland. The local people in the story speculate that the farm visitors must have been foreigners. One woman says it was the huldfolk but she is hushed. Instead, the actions of the visitors are transferred onto other possible immigrant groups. Other immigrant groups are exotic, strange, mysterious, capable, in our fantasies, of anything.

Selkirk settlers, 1817.

This is a story with new possibilities, with not just the joining of an invisible person (which is also told in Icelandic folk tales) and a visible person but of choices, of new places. This is why people shouldn’t refer to the huldafolk as elves. Not that there are not elvish names for them in Icelandic but because the term has been taken over by Disney, Hollywood, etc. The huldafolk are God’s childen just as we are. They are not gnomes or dwarves or monsters. This is why it is a travesty to see, in Iceland, people making small elve’s houses for the tourists, as if the huldafolk were Irish gnomes. Remember, the huldafolk are Eve’s children, made invisible not because they had sinned but because Eve lied to God. Because they are human, just as we are, is why, from time to time, those who are invisible marry with the visible. As our ancestors lives became better, became more like the imagined world of the huldafolk why shouldn’t they join together? 
Is it not because our ancestors were able to imagine, through their beliefs in the huldafolk, a better life, that your ancestors and mine risked their lives to come to this new world? If they could not imagine the possibility of a better life, a life like that of the huldafolk, why risk the ocean voyage, why die and be buried in a lonely cemetery at Quebec City or Gimli or Grund or a thousand other places. It was their desire, their dream, to live like the huldafolk.
This story is about more than just folk beliefs. It is about our reaction to “others”, those people different from us, it is about kindness and self-importance, about dreams of a possible better life. Today, the food we eat, the houses we live in, the luxury that surrounds us, is the life envisioned for the huldfolk. Food everywhere, vast amounts of it. Warm, dry houses. Good clothes. Medicine to treat our diseases. Jobs, no matter how much we grouse about them, that are beyond compare better than being an indentured servant.
Some people, having read WTBS, have told me that there was never any mention of ghosts, trolls, huldafolk, magical creatures in their families, just as some have told me that there was no religion in their families. Their parents often said, “We are in a new country. We don’t need any of that anymore.”
 However, others have told me about all sorts of “others” who came with their families: trolls, ghosts, fylgjas, huldafolk, the devil himself. As for my family, we had a troll who lived in the basement cistern. I was terrified of him. I have known people who took and take fylgjas for granted.
Perhaps these others have faded away in this scientific age or, perhaps, when nothing works, when the internet becomes a mystery, when people behave in untypical ways, when accidents happen, we might have reason to believe that “others” are still around.
Sometimes, no matter what one does, everything goes wrong but, equally, I have often felt that when I’ve been in difficult and dangerous conditions that it’s more than just me who got me out of them.

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 6

In 1872 when Richard Burton visits Iceland, he says “Their hay was not housed but heaped in stacks two yards square, upon raised mounds, at short distances, and covered with sloping turf to lead the rain into surrounding ditches.”
Did you know that? Did you know that hay was placed on raised mounds, that it was covered in turf to shed water. If your great great grandparents worked on a farm, their tasks would have been to scythe the grass, rake it, stack it, and cover the stacks with turf. They would have worked long, exhausting hours, every day the same. Hay came before everything because there was only one crop in Iceland and it fed the sheep and cows and these cattle fed the people.
“In summer they ate cods’  heads, boiled, like most other food for it had to be cooked in a pot over an open fire. In winter they ate sheep’s heads kept in fermented vinegar of sour milk (Syra), or in the juice of sorrel (Sura) and other plants.  The mutton was sold.” Why was the mutton sold? Because they could not afford to keep it for themselves. Everything they needed, horseshoes, nails, iron bars, rye flour, needles, thread, spices, rice, everything except the very few things that could be produced on a farm had to be obtained by trade with the Danish merchants.
In the 1800s in Iceland, “bread was not the staff of life. It was eaten only on high days and holidays, that is at births, marriages, and deaths.” The better off “farmers baked cakes, broad and thin, like sea biscuits, of black rye flour from Copenhagen.”
In 1872 the yearly death rate per thousand in Reykjavik was 59-60 compared to 20 in London. Burton says, “The list of diseases is so extensive that little beyond the names can be mentioned.” There was nothing romantic about living in unheated homes made of turf and lava. The floors were often wet dirt. There was little light. There was no ventilation as the body heat had to be kept inside. Houses were crowded. Communicable diseases spread quickly because of the crowding and because of the kissing that was used in greeting.
There was always a shortage of fuel. Our families burned peat, birch twigs, dried sheep dung, fish bones, brown coal (if there was some in their area) and driftwood. Only the Danish traders or a very well off farmer could afford imported wood. A number of travelers report that there is only one stove in an Icelandic home in the entire country. Stoves only make sense when there is a lot of fuel and it is cheap. If, as I did, you grew up with a wood stove and wood furnace, you’ll remember the cords and cords of wood required to keep the house warm and food cooked.
Our ancestors’ world was one largely without money. As long as the Danish restrictions on trade existed, the traders had no competition either as buyers or sellers. They set both the price they would pay and the price at which they would sell. They also just gave credits against purchases. It was only with the lifting of the trade restrictions and the coming of the English and Scots buyers of horses and sheep that money was injected into the system. The English and Scots paid in silver. If you want to read about an Icelandic agent who worked for the Scots, read Paradise Reclaimed. One of the characters, Bjorn of Leirur, is a buyer of sheep and cows for Scots businessmen.

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”.

Jón Bjarman: Memories a Year Later

Hanna Katrín Pálsdóttir and Jon Bjarman with son Pall shortly after they came to Lundar in Nov. 1958

by Nina Lee Colwill

When Jón Bjarman died on March 17, 2011, his loss was keenly felt in many places. And today, a year later, his absence continues to arouse bittersweet memories. For Jón touched numerous lives in his 78 years.  As his longterm friend and fellow pastor, Ingthor Isfeld said, “I remember Jón as a good conversationalist, a patient and empathetic listener, and a trustworthy friend, with a cup of coffee in hand.”

It would be easy to write about Jón’s many accomplishments: author; pastor to congregations in Canada and Iceland; pastor in towns and hospitals and prisons; advocate for the humane treatment of prisoners worldwide; and a driving force behind and lifetime president of the International Christian Youth Exchange (ICYE).  But Jón was far more than the sum of his achievements, and this is a tribute, not to his professional acumen, but to the love and admiration he engendered in others.

It’s difficult to think about Jón without thinking of Jóhanna Katrín Pálsdóttir—his Hanna. They were born less than a month apart; they fell in love at 16, married at 21, and spent the next 57 years together in Canada, USA, and Iceland. Their hospitality is legendary—a tradition that Hanna continues with joy.

The founding of the Lundar Luther League, March 1959 Back row: Chris Erlendson, Norman Johnson, Michael Danielson, Ken Sigurdson and Jón; Middle row: Donald Coldwell, Linda (Rafnkelsson) Williamson, Lorne Foster, Joan (Andrews) Proctor and Hope (Olson) McNeil; Front row: Bill Breckman, Ethel (Arnason) Desjarlais, Margaret Johnson and Judy (Danielson) Thorsteinson
One of Jón’s most telling characteristics was the affection he inspired in children and teenagers. He worked tirelessly for ICYE and with teenagers in Lundar Manitoba, Akureyri, and Reykjavík. As his granddaughter, Hanna, wrote in Morgunblaðið, Our grandfather had a way with children. He treated us all with respect, and we felt our opinions were always fully valid. We had long discussions on all kinds of topics, and when we were a bit older, he became our most important teacher… Our grandparents were tireless in taking us to see a play, a movie, an exhibition, or just out to dinner.”1

Jón and Hanna with their grandchildren 1997
Jón was a brilliant writer who switched languages with ease.  His ability to bring his love of language into conversation was a constant joy to everyone who knew him.  Johann Ulfar Sigurdsson lived with the family for awhile: “During my time with Jón and Hanna in Lundar,” he said, “I realized that Jón had a very carefree and fun side to his personality and a keen sense of humour. Language fascinated him—such as the frequently humorous outcome when Icelandic and English were mixed together. He then started to mix the languages deliberately, creating some humorous outcomes.

Some twenty years ago, Jón was faced with a situation that would challenge the magnanimous spirit of the strongest person.  He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But even here his equanimity prevailed.  As he wrote in his book, Af föngum og frjálsum mönnum (Of Free Men and Jailed): “It is better to make fun of oneself and not to take oneself too seriously … Hanna…has not shown me pity, but treated me the same as before, made the same demands of me, and never viewed me as a patient.  Nevertheless she is considerate of me, stands by my side, and follows me in joy and sorrow.”2

Jón’s work life and personal life were so inextricably intertwined that people like Conrad Sigurdson, a friend of Jón and Hanna’s for over half a century, could easily envision him in work situations: “He was intelligent, kind, patient, and generous. He lived and worked for others. I can imagine how patient he was in his affiliation with the prisons and in his dedication to his work with international students.” 

Hanna and Jón on a cruise in the Mediterranean, Sept.2000
Even in his routine professional tasks – like the conducting of marriage ceremonies – Jón brought his unique poetic touch. In 2000 he married our daughter Erla Louise Colwill Anderson and our son-in-law, Ármann Ingólfsson in Akureyri, and, like the rest of us, Ármann marvelled at the way Jón “wove the histories of our two families together, mentioning my afi’s work in growing Kjarni Forest and talking about Erla’s ancestors, some of whom lived on the Kjarni Farm. He drew an analogy between planting trees in a barren place and consoling and encouraging people in desperate situations.  It made me think of Jón’s work with prisoners and hospital patients.  I can’t think of a person I would rather have had presiding over our wedding.”

Conrad Sigurdson sums it up perfectly: “Over the years we shared in all that Jón was to others.  Thinking of Jón brings good memories of a beautiful friend and wonderful friendship.  Our world is a better place because Jón was a part of it.”


1 Translation by Páll Jónsson, son of Hanna Pálsdóttir and Jón Bjarman

2 Translation by Ármann Ingólfsson, son of Hrefna Hjálmarsdóttir and Ingólfur Ármannsson
(This article was first published in Lögberg-Heimskringla, Canada’s oldest ethnic newspaper. LH is published in English and on-line subscriptions are available.)