At Last, In Iceland, 1900

And so, your wooden boxes for the horses are ready, your fishing equipment is packed, also your shotgun and shells. You’ve got flannel shirts, some woollen underclothing, a good stout mackintosh. You’ve a bottle of that good Scotch whiskey the guidebook recommends.
According to the guide book–remember it is the year 1900–“pack saddles, guides, and ponies can be hired, the usual charge for a pony and a saddle being 2 kroner per diem, and that for a guide from 4 to 6 kroner per diem, the kroner being equivalent to about 1 shilling 1 pence. Guides and tents can be hired at the capital—Reykjavik. It may be well to mention, however, that tents for those who wish them are usually obtainable from most of the farmers. This saves the trouble and expense transporting them about the country.”
Now, that surprised me. I, for one, didn’t realize that tourism had become such an established business from 1875 to 1900 that farmers kept tents for hire. That didn’t fit in with my impression of Iceland. Interestingly, the short, recommended tour is the same tour that people take today, except today, they go on buses instead of on horseback. The writer recommends Thingveller, Geysir, Mt. Hekla, Gulfoss.
After suggesting that tents can be rented from the farmers, the author cavils a bit and says that while the local people used to charge very little, as Iceland has become more of a tourist attraction, the prices have gone up. Also, most farms only have one tent and that is often old and dilapidated.
The author also suggests that the tourist make certain that he’s got a firm agreement about the price of hay. In this, he’s simply repeating what travelers have commented on since the 1700s. Hay is precious. Some farmers will charge whatever they think they can get for it.
Conditions in Iceland have changed enough that he can say that a night’s lodging “is obtainable almost everywhere throughout the country at the higher class farms, where the best room in the house is invariably reserved for the use of tourists.”
For tourists only visiting Thingveller and the Geysir, there is lots of accommodation. However, for people going farther afield, they have to be careful about their numbers. A party of two can “depend wholly on the farms and parsonages for quarters, and mainly for provisions. At all of the better class farms, there is an abundance of excellent coffee, milk, pancakes, butter, rye bread, smoked, salted, or fresh mutton, and fish…with a few preserved provisions and biscuits, travellers will not fare badly. Of course, at a little expense, another pony can be freighted with say one hundred weight of tinned luxuries and a case or two of wine.”
“The usual charge for a night’s lodging at a farmhouse, with supper and breakfast, varies from 2 to 3 kroner….the daily expense of two tourists travelling together with one guide and their ponies amounts to rather less than 1 pound per day each.” The day of providing shelter and food for travelers without charge but with the giving of a gift, a gift that was often refused, has passed. At one time, a farmer might have one foreigner as a guest in a lifetime. Now, the explorers, the members of Royal Societies, scientists, have been replaced by the curiosity seekers.
Our good Icelandic entrepreneur, Thorgrimur adds a note that nowadays, pasturage for the horses is usually 16 to 20 ore per head, and saddles are charged at 60 ore per day, except when ponies are hired by the month when saddles are free.”
In spite of the much better accommodation, traveling by horse is still hard, the weather unpredictable. Therefore it is recommended that the traveler bring good stout sea-boots, reaching up the thighs and a light pair of porpoise hide shooting-boots for ordinary wear. A good stout macintosh is indispensable and should be made of waterproofed tweed.
The writer emphasizes that everything has to be packed into the wooden boxes made for horse travel. The test of both the packing and the boxes is once they are packed, to roll them down a lengthy flight of stairs.
Reykjavik he praises. “It is pleasantly situated on the shore of a shallow bay on the north of a headland. Seen from a vessel in the harbour, the town has rather a colonial appearance, with its white painted wooden stores built round the curve of the shore with their little jetties stretching far out into the harbour….the streets are broad, and cleanly kept, and the drying of fish is mainly confined to the shore.”
“The chief buildings, none of which can boast of any architectural beauty, are the Cathedral, the Senate, the College, Hospital, Government House, the Antiquarian Museum, and a Free Library.”
“There are two  hotels and a few boarding-houses, in all of which charges are very moderate; a number of stores where everything required by the Icelanders is sold from a needle to an anchor; a post office, two booksellers, a number of silversmiths, printers, harness-makers, photographers, one druggist, a hatter, and several handy-craftsmen.”
This change is absolutely remarkable. In 25 years, Reykjavik has grown, people have been able to break free from the clutches of the farms. They have begun to have professions and trades. Heavens, there is even a road. The author says, “What strikes the stranger most is the almost entire absence of wheeled vehicles, though now that a good road has been made between Reykjavik and Thingvellir, a few vehicles and bicycles are to be seen.” A good road. This is like a miracle. With good roads being built, everything will change.
It has only been 26 years since Christian IX visited and gave the Icelanders their constitution. The picture of Iceland then, given by Bayard Taylor and Samuel Kneeland, or a few years before that, by Richard Burton, was of a populace locked into a rural, agricultural fiefdom which beggared everyone but Danish merchants and a few select farmers. Douglas Scott is giving would-be travelers a picture of a country that while still exotic is changing, is entering a new age.
(With quotes and notes from Sportsman’s and Tourist’s Handbook to Iceland by Douglas Hill Scott)

Advertising Iceland, 1900

If you’d been traveling to Iceland in 1900 and bought the Handbook to Iceland, you’d have been assured by an advertisement that Thistle Scotch Whiskey is pure, old, and reliable. It has been awarded five diplomas. It is recommended as a palatable spirit.
You’d have been pleased to know that if you took Somerville’s export whiskey with you, you’d be drinking a liqueur blend of selected old highland whiskeys bottled in pyramid-shaped bottles.
The analytical laboratory, Surgeons’ Hall, Edinburgh stated on the 12th of May, 1899 that it had made a careful analysis of John Somerville’s Export whiskey and that it was clear and well flavoured and free from impurities. So says W. Ivision Macadam, analytical and consulting chemist.
And, if your photographs didn’t turn out, that is if you took a large, bulky camera and all its accoutrements, you can buy F. W. W. Howell’s Photographs of Iceland, the best and most comprehensive collection in existence.
There’s also an ad for The London and Edinburgh Shipping Company’s First Class Screw steamships, the Fingal, Iona, Malyina, Marmion which are lighted by electricity. There are also other company vessels available unless the weather, casualties or strikes interfere. A ship will leave Victoria Dock, Leith, every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and from Hermitage Steam Wharf, Wapping, London, E., on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.
The fares seem quite reasonable. These include the Steward’s fee. First class cabin, 22 shilling. Second class, 16 shillings. Deck accommodation available only to soldiers and sailors for 10 shillings. Round trip tickets can be purchased but must be used within twelve months.
There is an assurance that Shas. Mackinlay & Co’s celebrated scotch whiskeys, B.O.B. and Benvorlich Blends will be available. It is so fine a whiskey that it is supplied to the Houses of Parliament, the officers of H. M. Ships, also the principal clubs, hotels of the United Kingdom, India, and the Colonies.
Of primary importance is that you can purchase it at all the principal merchants in Iceland and at the Hotel Iceland in Reykjavik.
f you are an angler, Turnbull and Co, the eminent Edinburgh fishing tackle makers who fit out anglers for all parts of the world will outfit you. Thornton & Co. will provide registered waterproofs. They have an astounding number of different waterproofs. Pocket, cycling, driving, ventilating, shooting, regulation, fishing, tweed, livery, plus, The Cavalier Waterproof Cloak, the best ever produced, perfectly ventilated. There are ladies’ waterproofs. You know that these waterproofs will be waterproof even in Iceland because the firm has won seven gold medals for its waterproofs.
If you still haven’t got those damned horse boxes finished, you can purchase some for Icelandic travel with a few day’s notice.
And if these boxes are stressing you out, you can buy very old scotch whisky from Daniel Crawford & Son, distilled entirely from the finest Malt. This whiskey is so good that it is supplied to the P.&O. and other large shipping companies, to leading  hotels and clubs throughout the world and to officers’ messes of the Royal Navy and Regiments serving abroad.
If, with all this fine Scotch whiskey, you think you can stay sober enough to stay on a horse or cast a line, you can call on R. Anderson & Sons, the fishing tackle makers to Her Majesty the Queen. From their long experience in catering for fishing in Iceland, they are in a special position, or so they say, to supply anglers with the tackle which former visitors to Iceland have found to be best suited.
If you manage to swim through all the fine whiskey to Hotel Leith, it is near the docks and close to the railway station. Buses and cars to Edinburgh and Granton pass the door every few minutes. It’s 1900 remember and there is a telephone, No. 58S.
Thorgrimur Gudmundsen, he who has helped with the guidebook, has an ad. It says that he furnishes tourists with excellent English-speaking guides, ponies and anything needed for your trip.
Thorgrimur has been in business since 1873. Gracious! That’s just when our families were packing up to leave Iceland. It is now 27 years later. All the time people were dying on the voyages to North America and were being buried at sea, traveling to Nova Scotia, to Kinmount, building shelters on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, dying of smallpox, he’s been managing quite well. So well, in fact, that he has the very best recommendations.
He’s been a guide for Rider Haggard, the Prince of Hesse, etc., etc. He is highly recommended to tourists by the current British Consul. He speaks English, Danish and French. And his charges are moderate.
It’s the year 1900. The beginning of a new century. Things are looking up in Iceland. The emigration is turning from a flood into a trickle. 
Our good Thorgrimur has hung on, found a business supported not by sheep, cows and fish but by tourists, tourists with ready money, who paid in silver, who could afford the supplies, the travel costs, the food, the accommodation, the horses, the guides. He’s an entrepreneur because his ad says that he doesn’t just guide himself. He provides guides and horses and anything else that might be needed.
The world has grown smaller. The miles may be the same but the time taken to cross them has shortened. Travel has become more reliable with steam ships. In England and Scotland, getting about is much easier with those cars, buses, trains. Travel is no longer just for the very wealthy who can afford to own or rent a yacht. The Industrial Revolution is starting to spread around the new wealth. Thorgrimur is in the right place at the right time.
(Any chance that any of my readers are related to Thorgrimur?)

Embrace your heritage

 Photograph taken by Kristin Johnson (Valgardson), their daughter.
These are my great grandparents, Ketill Valgarðsson and Soffia Sveinbjarnardóttir.
Ketill did not come to Canada to steal, rob, pillage, burn down buildings, kidnap people and sell slaves. He worked in Iceland, like his father, as a laborer. He came to Canada to work.
He did not wear a Viking helmet with or without horns.
In Iceland, he took care of dairy cattle and sheep. He cut hay. He fished. He had no future. He had no opportunity to advance beyond being a hired man. He worked for his room and board, a small amount of money and some cloth with which to have clothes made.
He was the son of Valgardur Jonsson and Kristin Brynjolfsdottir. His mother died in Iceland and his father, who was seriously ill when he came to Canada, died in New Iceland and was buried at Sandy Bar outside of Riverton in an unmarked grave.
Ketill came to Canada in 1878 on the SSWaldensian. He and his father traveled from Quebec City to New Iceland. Ketill worked on the railway and as a fisherman.  He moved to Winnipeg, married Soffia, and worked for the city as a laborer and then as a foreman.
In 1894, 16 years after his arrival in Canada, he was able to start a dairy business and to buy land at the northwest corner of Simcoe Street and Ellice Avenue. He had a business there until 1903. He then moved to Gimli and set up a flour and feed business that lasted until 1909. He bought a farm outside of Gimli which he called Adabol. He lived there until 1920. He moved back to Gimli, built a house there, a house in which I lived for the first year of my life.
He was not a pagan. He was a Christian. He didn´t worship Thor or Odin or any other gods. He was one of the founders of the Tjaldbud congregation in Winnipeg in 1893. When he moved to Gimli he became a member of the Lutheran church council.
He was active politically in that he was a member of the first council of the Village of Gimli in 1908.
He wasn´t a goði or a bishop or even a rich farm owner. He was a farm laborer. He came from a hard life to a hard life. It was no fun being a laborer on the railway. I expect it was no fun being a laborer for the city of Winnipeg.However, his work and his thrift meant that he could save money and buy land and start a business.
He and Soffia had three children. In Iceland those children would have become farm laborers, if not paupers. Raised in Gimli, one son, Sveinbjorn, became a master carpenter; the other son, Valentinus earned a gold medal in Mathematics at the University of Manitoba and a Master´s degree and became a high school Mathematics teacher in Moosejaw; Kristin, his daughter, became a bookkeeper and an accomplished artist.
In his retirement, he was financially independent. He’d raised and educated his children so that they did not have to be indentured servants. He owned his own house. He’d owned businesses. He could afford to keep a fine coffin in his basement for when he died. He wanted no pauper’s grave.
He and Soffia are my heritage. I’m proud of them. They’re the heritage I embrace. Ketill never killed anyone, stole from anyone, burned down any houses or monasteries. Soffia never scared off a bunch of angry aboriginals by beating her bare breasts with a sword.
They came with little or nothing. They made a good life for themselves. Their descendants have prospered.
Ketill’s story is not unique. I expect it is the story of many, if not all, of the people who came with him on the SSWaldensian. This is our real heritage. Laborers, farmers, domestics, paupers. Seeking opportunity. Building a life, a shovel full of earth at a time, adapting to a new society, learning a new language, adjusting to foreign neighbours, finding hope and solace in their church. Being brave.
My last memories of Ketill are the taste of peppermint and his woodpile. The peppermint because he always gave me a peppermint when I went with my father to visit him and the woodpile because it was while he was chopping wood at 84 that he had a heart attack and died.   

Easter ritual

“The great bulk of the population being absent at the fishing-places, there was no public worship at Stadarhraun; yet I was in no ordinary degree interested by witnessing the piety and devotion manifested by the clergyman and his family, eight in number, in the exercise of their domestic worship. We assembled round the altar, which was extremely simple, consisting merely of a coarse wooden table, when several appropriate psalms were sung in a very lively manner, after which a solemn and impressive prayer was offered up, the females, meanwhile, placing their hands on their faces, so as entirely to cover their eyes. The clergyman now read an excellent sermon on Regeneration, from Vidalin’s collection, which is in great repute over the whole island, and has, perhaps, more than any thing else, contributed to perpetuate a clear and distinct knowledge of the fundamental principles of Christianity among the natives. The service concluded with singing and prayer; after which, the members of the family gave each other the primitive kiss; and I could discover, from the joy that beamed in every eye, the actual increase of happiness derived from their renewed approach to the Fountain of Bliss.”
This quote is from Iceland; or the Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815 by Ebenezer Henderson. I would have preferred to have had a description of an Easter service but found  none in my sources. Yet, it serves the purpose.
Our Icelandic ancestors were both superstitious and religious. The superstition began to fade with more contact with the outside world. The appearance of steam ships meant that schedules could be set and followed. No longer were trips to and from Iceland constantly disrupted or aborted because of the weather. Certainty begat traffic in both directions and, with the increased contact, scientific knowledge spread. However, the hold of superstition resurfaced with the widespread belief in spiritualism.
There is more evidence of religious belief in the time of emigration than of superstition simply because of the large number of bibles brought with the settlers. It is further evidenced by the passionate, and often, divisive religious debates that fractured the community. People took their religion seriously.
However, those black bibles have largely succumbed to mould and death. Few people in North America can read the Icelandic. The Icelandic bibles haven’t been replaced with English bibles. Society, blame or credit who you will, education, TV, the rise of materialism, advertising, mechanization, multiculturalism, pick your favorite culprit, has become more and more secular. Christmas now belongs to a fellow with a dozen magical reindeer and the maxing out of credit cards on gifts. 
The suffering, death and resurrection of Christ has been replaced by a bunch of rabbits hopping about with chocolate candy to give as gifts. Even the Lamb of God has faded to insignificance, its connection to Christ mostly unknown.

Few celebrate Easter by saying, “Christ is risen.” Or replying, “Truly, Christ has risen.”
My own memories of Sunday school and church when I was a child and teenager are strong but most of those memories center on Christmas, the three wise men, the cradle, Mary, Joseph and the Christ child. I have only the vaguest memories of Easter. Perhaps, it was all too complicated, with this day and that day. The image of the Last Supper, of Christ on the cross is strong, and so is the image of the open tomb but it is as if the Church (I use a capital C because, this comment falls not just at the door of the Lutheran church) has taken this time for itself, made it an insider’s time of complexity. Perhaps in other religions or other countries where there is still public ritual attached to the death and resurrection of Christ, the meaning of this time is still understood and preserved but not here in North America.
However, a search of the internet about Easter in Iceland returned posts about meals, going to the countryside, visiting with family, having four days holiday and competitions among families as to who could give their children the largest Easter egg. In Canada, the trend is similar. Easter is a holiday, a time for getting family together for a large meal (no reference to the Last Supper), the giving of Easter cards picturing rabbits with baskets full of chocolate eggs, and the giving of Easter eggs.
For me, my memories of Easter are secular, the religious rituals, if there ever were any, forgotten. The memories are of family being together, of cooking them a large brunch, of an Easter egg hunt by the youngest members of the family searching out chocolate eggs with the names of the guests on them. The only religious symbol seems to have been the cross on the hot cross buns but I don’t think anyone, including me, thought to explain the significance.
What is it that separates us from the family that Ebenezer Henderson describes during his year in Iceland? What, in spite of their poverty, did they have that we, with our prosperity, have lost?
Religion was a big part of being Icelandic. It seems, sometimes, without the faith our families had that helped them weather the hardest of hard times, our Icelandicness is less than what it could be.

Sheep make you rich

Without sheep our Icelandic ancestors would have been driven from Iceland or died. Sheep, more than any other animal, fed and clothes our people. From such a humble animal came life. Today, sheep are no longer the centre of existence for Icelanders or for Icelandic North Americans. While sheep are still often seen in Iceland, they are only seen in Canada occasionally. Their breeding is specialized. Their wool has been replaced by synthetics. Their milk is seldom used. Mutton is seldom seen in stores and when lamb is found, it is usually from New Zealand and Australia.
Icelandic lamb is universally praised. However, it is no longer the staff of life. Here, on the West Cost of Canada, there are Icelandic sheep being raised. The wool from them is processed at a mill on Salt Spring Island. What once came from Icelandic sheep, wool, meat, milk is exotic, specialized, no longer the products necessary for life.
It seems a hard fate for an animal that was central to the survival and prosperity of our Icelandic ancestors.
Wealth in Iceland was measured in the number of sheep a farmer owned.
In 1772 when von Troil visited Iceland, he had much to say about the importance of sheep.
“There is no breed of cattle so much attended to in Iceland as that of sheep. As these can easily find subsistence there, the Icelanders look upon it as less troublesome and less expensive to breed them; and there are many peasants who have from two to four hundred sheep. Before the epidemical disease which raged among the sheep from 1740 to 1750, it was not uncommon to see flocks of one thousand or twelve hundred, the sole property of one person.”
By 1863 Burton says, “Paijkull assigned 350,000 sheep and 22,000 head of black cattle to 68,000 souls. In 1871 the official numbers are Milch ewes and lambs, 173,562; Barren ewes, 18,615; Wethers and rams above one year old, 55,710; Yearlings, 118,243.” This was a total of 366,130.
Those numbers seem impressive until you compare them with John Barrow’s report that in 1834-35 that there were 500,000 sheep. In 1845 M. Eugene Robert gives the total as 617,401. But then in 1855 scabies appears and kills 200,000 sheep. When Burton is writing in 1874 scabies is still raging.
Sheep were the major food supply. In two years, 200,000 sheep are killed by scabies. No wonder there was hunger. 200,000 sheep not producing milk, wool or meat.
“The Icelandic sheep differ from ours in several particulars; they have strait ears standing upright, a small tail, and it is common to meet with those that have four or five horns: in some places they are kept in stables during winter; but they are generally left to seek their food themselves in the fields.”
Von Troil says that the sheep like hiding in caves. That’s not surprising given the dreadful weather on the heaths. He says that some people believe that there are wild sheep but it is not true. The Icelanders mark there sheep and when they are driven into the mountains to grave, they are scarcely ever without a shepherd.
He admires Icelandic sheep for being fat. The farmers figure that it requires one kapal of hay grown on the tún but two kapals if grown from unfertilized meadows. Like the cows, in a bad year with not enough grass harvested, the fodder is made of chopped fish bones mixed with hay.
The value of a sheep is greater alive than dead for the milk it produces is a greater source of food than its flesh. “Good sheep give from two to six quarts of milk a day…it has likewise a good taste when boiled.”
But the principal benefit from the sheep comes from the wool. It is not shorn but stays on the sheep until the end of May. At that time, it becomes naturally loose and is stripped off. This is called Ultafat. If there is a cold, wet spring, a piece of wadmal is cinched around the stomachs of the weakest sheep.
A good sheep, he says, is defined by by-laws as a sheep that provides four pounds of wool. Many sheep produce more.
The ewes often have twins and sometimes three lambs. When they do, the farmer takes one lamb and gives it to a mother who has lost her lamb. If lambs are too weak to follow their mothers, they are fed milk using a quill and a wet piece of skin.
How valuable were these sheep? What was the calculated wealth of a farmer’s herd? According to von Troil, “The price of six ewes, from two to four years old, together with their lambs and wool, is four dollars in autumn….a weather of four years old is sold for one dollar.” It is interesting that if someone butchers a lamb, its value is determined by the amount of fat it has. The meat, without the head, feet, entrails, fat, skin and wool is valued at twenty yards of wadmal. The law says that a pound of dried mutton is worth half a yard of wadmal. The skin is sold by weight.
Wadmal, the coarse woolen cloth that the Icelanders wove, was supposed to be produced at three yards a day. So the meat of a lamb by itself is worth 20/3 = 6 2/3 day’s labor. One pound of dried mutton is worth 1/6 of a day’s labor.
However, the yearly wages of a man were fixed by municipal law at four dollars and twelve yards of wadmal and those of a woman at two dollars and five yards of wadmal. A laborer who wanted to buy a lamb, meat only, would need to work two years to get enough wadmal.
It is no wonder that von Troil says “Their food principally consists of dried fish, sour butter, which they consider as a great dainty, milk mixed with water and whey, and a little meat. They receive so little bread from the Danish company, that there is scarcely any peasant who eats it above three or four months in the year.”
To understand value today is difficult for as von Troil says, “Their accounts are not all kept in money, but according to yards and fishes. In 1878, 106 years later, Anthony Trollope comments on the fact that there is no bank in Iceland. It would be difficult enough to compare value in Iceland in 1772 or, in 1884, even if there was enough silver coin in the country to cause a bank to be established. Everything financial is comparative, after all. If you put a dollar on the table, its value is what objects can be purchased with it.
To make matters more difficult, there were constant new issues of money in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Money was being debased by inflation.
“In the late 18th century coins were issued in denominations of ½, 1, 2, 4, 8, 24 and 32 skilling, 1/15, ¼, 1/3, ½ and 1 rigsdaler.” (Wicki) Those, travellers changed into English sterling. Complicated? You bet. Especially without any computer but your head. The best way to figure out what your sheep were worth was how much wadmal, butter, or fish you could get for one sheep.

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.

Uno von Troil, Iceland, 1772

 Uno von Troil
In 1772, Uno Von Troil, joined Joseph Banks in a journey to Iceland. Afterwards, he wrote a series of letters about the expedition. The language is now archaic and, for many people, difficult to read. Therefore, I have “translated” as best I can, some of his writing into modern day English. There will, of course, be errors, for I am no scholar, but hopefully they will be minor and will neither mislead the reader, nor interfere with the pleasure of reading about Iceland a hundred years before our ancestors began to leave for North America.
Because I must change the archaic spelling so much, I’ll use quotation marks only to indicate that the material is taken from von Troil.
“The Icelanders are of a good honest disposition, but they are, at the same time, so serious that I hardly remember to  have seen any one of them laugh; they are by no means so strong as might be supposed, and much less handsome. Their chief amusement, in their leisure hours, is to recount to one another the history of former times; so that to this day you do not meet with an Icelander who is not well acquainted with the history of his own country; they also play at cards.
“Their houses are thatched with turf and so small that you can hardly find room to turn in. They have no floors; and their windows, instead of glass, are composed of thin membranes of certain animals. They make no use of chimneys, as they never light a fire, except to dress their victuals, when they only lay the turf on the ground. You will not think it strange, when I inform you, that we saw no inns, except shops and warehouses; and on our journey to Hecla we were obliged to take up our lodgings in the churches. 
“Their food principally consists of dried fish, sour butter, which they consider as a great dainty, milk mixed with water and whey, and a little meat. They receive so little bread from the Danish company, that there is scarcely any peasant who eats it above three or four months in the year. They likewise boil groats, of a kind of moss (Lichen Islandicus) which has an agreeable taste. The principal occupation of the men is fishing, which they follow both winter and summer. The women take care of the cattle, knit stockings, etc. They likewise gut and dry the fishes brought home by the men, and otherwise assist in the preparing this stable commodity of the country.
“Besides this, the company has yearly sent fifteen or twenty ships hither, and who possess a monopoly which is very burdensome to the country, export from hence some meat, eider-down, and falcons, which are sold in the country for seven, ten and fifteen rix-dollars apiece. Money is very rare, which is the reason that all the trade is carried on by fish and ells of coarse unshorn cloth, called here wadmal; one ell of wadmal is worth two fishes; and forty-eight fishes are worth a rix dollar in coin.”
The startling thing about von Troil’s letters is that they differ very little from Mackenzie’s account of Iceland in 1810, 38 years later, or even from Kneeland’s description in 1874, just over a hundred years later. It is accounts like these that make clear how trapped the people were by the small amount of useable land (one cannot say it was arable for it was only used as pasture except for the home fields and those were not cultivated, only fertilized), by the weather that would not allow grain to ripen, and by a Danish monopoly that sold commercial rights to a group of traders whose sole purpose was to extract as much wealth from the country as possible.However, something that is occasionally mentioned is that the lack of progress was also the result of a land rental system (share cropping) that penalized any land renter who improved his land. If he leveled the frost mounds in his home field, for example, the land owner would raise the rent.Any benefit from making improvements would not go to the renter but to the large land owner.
As much as the Hanseatic League traders exploited Icelanders, the turning over of trade to a commercial  monopoly was not unique. Numerous governments sold the rights of trade to companies, including the English government when it gave the Hudson Bay Company the right to vast amounts of Canada. There was no kinship between the kings and queens and the natives in North America, South America, Australia, the Dutch Indies, India. The people there were there to be exploited so that wealth could be accumulated in the “mother” country.
The surprising, even shocking element in Iceland’s story, is that there was, in fact, kinship between the Icelanders and the Norwegian and Danish crowns yet they were exploited as if there were no kinship. The Icelanders were not savages in a distant land. They were the descendants of Norwegians, Irish, Scottish, some Danish, settlers. They were Lutheran. They spoke a Scandinavian language. The farming landowners often sent their children to Denmark for their education. It made no difference. For whatever reason, the Icelanders were “other”.
When the Danish king came in 1874 to give Iceland a constitution, he said he was sorry that he could not speak or understand Icelandic but that his son was learning it. Iceland had been a vassal state of Denmark’s for hundreds of years but was so unimportant to the Danish crown that Icelandic was not learned by members of the royal family. The language, except for the romantic aura of the sagas, was relegated to all those other colonial languages that weren’t worth learning.

The Langspil, Mackenzie, 1810

When Sir George Mackenzie travels around Iceland, he is accompanied by letters of introduction. He is no young man without means but a powerful, titled, well-to-do Scotsman, highly educated and recognized. He was the youngest person, age 18, to ever be inducted into the Scottish Royal Society. His recognition was for proving that diamonds are made of pure carbon.
He comes to Iceland because of his interest in the geology. However, since, there are no commercial inns or way stations in Iceland, he and his friends must stay in churches, farmhouses or tents. They must find grass for their horses. Although they have with them some food and are able to shoot birds and catch fish, they are in need of the milk, cream, skyr, rye bread and fish that can be provided by the local farms. Because of his connections, Mackenzie is able to stay at the homes of the wealthiest farm owners, the best-off priests. He does not have to stay in the Icelandic farm homes that he describes as wretched, filthy, ill-smelling and crowded.
Yet, his book, Travels in the Island of Iceland During the Summer of the year MDCCCX (1810), is highly valuable because of his observations of life in Iceland.
His attention to culture can best be seen during his visit to Indreholm, the home of Chief Justice Stephenson. It is here, during a supper unimaginable to the ordinary Icelander who lived on coarse rye bread, skyr, milk, butter, dried fish and, perhaps once or twice a year, meat. There is boiled salmon, baked mutton, potatoes imported from England, sago and cram, London Porter (imported), and port wine (imported).
It is while dining on this banquet that Mackenzie’s group hears music coming from another room. They were delighted. They’d never heard anything like it before and thought it might come from a piano-forte. To their amazement, the music was from an Icelandic instrument called a Lang-spiel. The musicians were Mr. Stephenson’s son and daughter.
The Lang-spiel (as he spells it) was brought to the guests so they could see it. Mackenzie, in his thorough manner, describes it.
It “consists of a narrow wooden box, about three feet long, bulging at one end, where there is a sound-hole, and terminating at the other like a violin. It has three brass wires stretched along it, two of which are tuned to the same note, and one an octave lower. One of the two passes over little projections, with bits of wire on the upper part. These are so placed, that when the wire above them is pressed down by  the thumb-nail, the different notes are produced on drawing a bow across; and the other wires perform the same office as the drones of a bagpipe. In short, it is simply a monochord, with two additional strings, to form a sort of bass.

“When the instrument in near, it sounds rather harsh; but, from an adjoining room, especially when two are played together, as was the case when we first heard the music, the effect is very pleasing. The tunes we heard played were chiefly Danish and Norwegian. Mr. Stephenson’s daughter made me a present of her Lang-spiel.”

What Mackenzie was listening to was a traditional Icelandic drone zither. It can be played by plucking the strings by hand or with a bow or by hammering on the strings. In Iceland, because wood was not available from locally growing trees, the Langspil was made from a variety of driftwoods.
In 1855, 45 years after Mackenzie’s musical evening, a book was published explaining how to make Langspils and how to play them. However, the Langspil nearly disappeared by the mid 1900s. There has been a concerted effort to resurrect it and various bands include it among the instruments on which they perform.
If you’d like to buy one, you can do so at

Social class in Iceland, 1810

 Portrait of Sir George S. Mackenzie
When reading, Travels in the Island of Iceland by Sir George S. Mackenzie, it is hard to believe that it was published over two hundred years ago. It reads well, is crammed with the details of daily life in the Iceland of the time, and the people he describes, and he describes many, come to life.
Mackenzie’s book was published in 1811. Could it really have been that long ago that he describes his visit to Indreholm? “This is the house of the Chief Justice Stephenson, from whom we had received an invitation when first we met him at Reikiavik…. It is situated in a large extant of flat, boggy ground. We arrived at the house about five o’clock…. It is rather a groupe of buildings than a single habitation; and, together, with the outhouses and the church, it looks like a little village.
The house is quite large. It needs to be, besides Mr. Stephenson there is his wife, daughter, two sons, a young lady under his guardianship; his father-in-law and two nephews. There is no mention of where all the servants required to run this establishment live.
At a short distance from the house is a water mill. The dairy and the other outbuildings are detached from the house. There is a smithy and when Mackenzie visits, the servants are busy sharpening scythes and he notes that they are using charcoal that is locally made from birch wood.
When they arrive at the house, they are “ushered into the best room by Mr. Stephenson…Almost immediately after we had seated ourselves, the ladies of the family made their appearance; and we had coffee, wine, biscuit and English cheese set before us. This was merely a prelude to a more substantial dinner, or rather supper, that was brought in at 8 o’clock. It consisted of boiled salmon, baked mutton, potatoes (from England), sago and cream, London porter and excellent port wine.’
Mackenzie and his friends are certain that the ladies will join with them for supper but they are surprised that “The females, of the highest, as well as the lowest rank, as in former times in our own country, seem to be regarded as mere servants. During our repast, our hostess stood at the door with her arms akimbo, looking at us; while her daughter, and another young woman, were actively employed in exchanging the plates, and running backward and forward with whatever was wanted.”
While they are eating, they hear music and immediately stop eating because they have only once before heard music in Iceland and that was at a ball in Reykjavik which Mackenzie describes as the miserable scraping of a fiddle.
What they were hearing was the Lang-spiel played by played by Mr. Stephenson’s son and daughter. “When the instrument is near, it sounds rather harsh; but, from an adjoining room, especially when two are played together…the effect is very pleasing.” According to Mackenzie, “Mr. Stephenson’s family is the only one in Iceland that can be said to cultivate music at all. He himself plays upon a chamber-organ, which he brought from Copenhagen a few years ago.”
Mackenzie is impressed by Stephenson. Why wouldn’t he be? Mackenzie, himself, is a baronet, a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Mr. Stephenson is “the head of the Icelandic courts of justice, and a privy counsellor of Denmark, with the title of Etatsraad and…has been very assiduous in his endeavours to distinguish himself in the walks of literature….has himself written various works on politics, history, and morals. All these amount to about twenty different books. He is the owner of a very good library of seven or eight hundred volumes, among which are a number of English works, history, novels, and poetry; and a valuable collection of Icelandic books and manuscripts.
Mackenzie says that the pastures around the house are very good. “Adjoining the house are two small gardens, well inclosed with walls of turf, in which cabbages and turnips, and sometimes potatoes, are cultivated with success, for the use of the family.” There is also a small island nearby that produces forty pounds of Eider down for export.
“Mr. Stephenson has considerable property in this part of the country, as well as in more remote districts of Iceland. In his own hands he holds land sufficient for supporting twenty-five cows and three hundred sheep. He has lately brought over from Norway some fine-woolled sheep of the Spanish breed.”
“Connected with his property at Indreholm, there is a large fishing establishment, comprehending about twenty boats of different sizes, the use of which is given to the people coming from the interior of the country.
 The opulence of Mr. Stephenson’s life is provided by the hardships of the ordinary Icelander. Every year men walk or ride to the coast to risk their lives at the fishing. When fish are caught, “they are divided into two shares more than the number of men employed. These two shares belong to the owner of the boat, who provides lines and hooks. When he furnishes nets, which are generally used during the early part of the season, he receives one half of the fish caught. All the people engaged for one boat generally live together in the same hut. The previous arrangements being made, a long period of hardship and privation begins. In darkness, and subjected to intense cold, these poor people seek from the ocean the means for subsisting their families the following winter….They generally remain at sea for eight to twelve  hours” at a time. They take nothing to sea to eat, only some whey to drink.   
Mackenzie, as he and his companions travel about Iceland, notes the condition of the Icelanders who are not so fortunate as to have a special, favorable relationship with the Danes. As they are travelling, they meet up with a country priest who was travelling to the coast to buy fish. The priest pitches his tent beside them for the night. Mackenzie says, “This person was more miserable in his appearance than any one of his profession whom we had seen in Iceland; his habiliments being such as would scarcely have distinguished him from an English beggar.”
“The cottages of the lowest order of people are wretched hovels; so very wretched, that it is wonderful how anything in human form can breathe in them.”
There may not have been royalty in Iceland, no Lords and Ladies, no aristocracy but Mackenzie’s journal makes clear how great was the difference between the wealthy, well connected farm owner and the ordinary person.
(With notes and quotes from Travels in the Island of Iceland by Sir George S. Mackenzie, 1810)

S. E. Waller, artist, 22, gift to Iceland

 The Empty Saddle by S. E. Waller. A friend brings a horse back from battle. The owner is dead. The new widow stands on the balcony.

Six Weeks In The Saddle, by Samuel Edmund Waller, was published in 1874. He traveled to Iceland in the summer of 1872 and spent six weeks with three horses and his local guide, Bjarni. He should have had six horses but the demand for Icelandic horses was so great that the price had doubled before he got to Reykjavik. He didn’t have a lot of money. He’d been making a living by illustrating books.
The astounding thing is that he was born in 1850 and, in 1872, was only 22 years old. He made the trip on a small Danish ship. He arrived by himself in Reykjavik, bought three horses, hired his guide, packed  his belongings onto one of the horses, and went off on a six week adventure filled with danger and hardship. He went to Iceland because he’d read Njal’s Saga and had fallen in love with it. As an artist, he wanted to sketch the landscapes of the saga, plus he wanted to experience as much of Icelandic life as possible.
No wonder he was made so welcome in Icelandic homes. In 1872, there were still no roads. Farms were very isolated. Foreign visitors to any individual farm were rare and, in many cases, the foreigners stuck to themselves bringing tents and food and, except for the guides, being self-sufficient. The big draw were the geysers. They were one of the wonders of the world. Others land in Reykjavik, rent horses, hire guides and drovers, make the trip to the geysers, return to Reykjavik, then they go home.
Waller wanted none of that. He had little money. However, even if he’d had the price of three more horses, he’d have wanted to spend time with Icelanders because he was in love with the sagas and the landscape.
No wonder he was so welcome everywhere he stopped. No wonder the young women played games with him, sang with him, played music for him. While they were exotic to him, he must have been every bit as exotic to them. A young man from England, appearing suddenly, congenial, talented, educated. No wonder beautiful young women kissed him on the cheek.
How exotic he must have appeared can be seen in some of his comments at the end his book. He says, “All over the country I was asked questions upon political economy, the condition of Denmark, the best way of bridging the river Thjorsa, and all varieties of engineering. I was asked to translate Latin and Greek…if I knew the Queen and had spoken with  her..I was asked questions upon fish-curing, upon law-making, and upon currency.
These are people who want to know all sorts of things, who know that knowledge is out there in the wider world, they want to know everything, everything.
One of the last places he visits is Thingvalla. He describes it in detail and tells a bit about its history. “It is impossible to give any idea of the feelings of deep interest with which I regarded every inch of this romantic spot, and tried to imagine what an appearance it must have presented 900 years ago. I wondered where Hallgerda’s booth was. I know that it was just down by the water that Gunnar first saw her sitting in the doorway. Njal‘s booth too, was some two or three hundred yards down the river on the other side. It was here that the desperate battle took place between Njal´s assassins and his avengers, and it was between the water and the lava that so many of t hem were killed.“ How many of us know Njal‘s Saga that well?
Waller’s father was an architect and Waller spent a short time as an apprentice to him;  however, he never practiced architecture but, instead, pursued  his dream of being an artist. He went to art school. He worked for a brief time on a farm and learned to love animals. He was passionate about horses and they figure largely in his paintings. His paintings received acclaim and he had numerous exhibitions at the Royal Academy from 1871 to 1902. He died in 1903 at the age of 53.
If you put his name into Google, you will see a large number of his paintings. They are romantic, sentimental, dramatic, nostalgic, and command high prices. Copies of them are widely available.
I, for one, am glad he made his trip to Iceland and wrote Six Weeks In The Saddle. I’m pleased that I discovered it for it gives a very different view of Iceland and Icelanders than the accounts of many of the explorers and scientists or professional travelers.