Sports fishing at Sorg, Waller, 1874

Waller arrives at Sorg. He sends his guide, Bjarni, off to Reykjavik on errand. Waller enjoys sports fishing and he asks the local farmer to take him to fish. When they arrive at the river bank, the farmer says, “It’s cloudy. That’s good. The flies won’t bother us. The farmer tells Waller some stories about how dreadful the flies are and Waller dismisses it all as exaggeration.
He has a wonderful day fishing. Every time he casts his rod, he catches a fish.
When Bjarni returns, Waller asks him to go with him to the nearby lake. But, this time, the sun is hot. When they get close, they can see “a sort of mist hanging over the shore.”
“ ‘Oh, Helveta!” said Bjarni, “the flies are up.’ “
Suddenly, Waller begins to feel hundreds of sharp little stings. A wind comes up, chases the flies away, then the sun goes behind a cloud and all seems well. Waller begins to fish.
Iceland may have not fierce tigers or lions, no venomous snakes, no rampaging elephants, but it has its hoards of midges and just after Waller has hooked his first fish, the sun comes out again and, in a moment, “ ‘the devil was unchained’ “…from the earth, the grass, the rocks, in fact, from everywhere rose a living fog of countless myriads of long winged flies.
“Sting, sting, sting, on they came. It was useless to attempt to beat them off. We had our handkerchiefs out in a moment, and tied them round our heads, leaving a small slit for one eye….We pulled our socks up over our trousers, put the wading boots over the socks, tied string round our sleeves, and attempted to get away.
“our poor horses, maddened by the attacks…had galloped away….My broad-brimmed hat was weighed down upon my shoulders by the heaving masses of these insects. Not a spot of colour of my coat was visible…(Bjarni) had the  appearance of a  man wrapped in a living cloak, and as he walked, solid lumps of flies fell from his back on to the ground.”
Bjarni chases after the horses, gets them and brings them to Waller. “They (the  horses) were covered with blood, and much frightened….Murder’s white coat showing the (blood) stains very vividly. His eyes were swollen and full of flies, as were the nostrils of both.”
When they get back to the farm, Waller discovers that his face, neck, and wrists were swollen dreadfully, and covered with bites, and his right arm was covered in a rash from the shoulder downwards.
No crazed berserker could have been more formidable than the tiny Icelandic flies for what they lacked in size, they made up in numbers. Myvatn, midge lake, takes its name from them, midge water, but the name seems harmless enough. Even in Canada, Mosquito Lake doesn’t conjure up a desperate fight for survival against a tiny enemy. Although, when I taught at Snow Lake, Manitoba, I went fishing in a creek when the black flies were out and my daughter’s sweat shirt came loose at the back without our noticing it for a few minutes. By the time we did notice, it looked like she had a cluster of grapes on both sides of her spine.
The farmer, on the first fishing expedition, had said to Waller, that two horses had died from fly bites and Waller had thought it a gross exaggeration. By the time the second fishing trip is over and he and Bjarni are back at the farm, he knows it was no tall tale.
The next time you visit Iceland and go to Mývatn, think of Waller and his desperately running for a mile before he escapes from the midges.

An Icelandic Wedding, Waller, 1874

As our young English painter, S. E. Waller continues his journey sketching saga sites, he goes to Kross.
While he is there, he is told that a wedding is going to take place. He wants to see as much about the manners and customs of the country as possible so he is keen to attend. The wedding is to occur at twelve o’clock. All he has is his traveling clothes so he combs his hair and puts a coloured handkerchief around his neck.
When he goes out of the house, he sees a lot of little dots on the horizon but they quickly turn into trains of horsemen. They’re the wedding guests of course, and they come in parties of five or six, dressed in every sort of Icelandic costume.
Everyone in the house is busy so Waller, the gregarious fellow that he is, goes down the muddy pathway and greets the guests as they arrive. He can’t speak a lot of Icelandic but he says he shook hands with the men, took off his hat to the women, and kissed the children and it all worked out fine.
The guests have had long, wet rides. Some are muddy and they sit on the grass to change their stockings before going into the house. There’s a fair amount of drinking going on in the house and after everybody has had something to help them overcome the fatigue of their trip, they march out of the house in couples, led by the bride and groom to the tune of one of the most dismal songs that Waller has ever heard.
The women, he says, are wearing wadmal dresses but the bride wore a large faldr. The bridegroom was old and fat but good-natured. The bride was much younger and a dreadful shrew. Waller said he felt sorry for the bridegroom. Because he is English, he doesn’t understand that a man cannot marry unless he is worth four hundreds, that is, the worth of four cows. Seldom would any young man be worth four hundreds. The young woman will not have chosen her husband. Her father will have arranged the marriage and she will be under great pressure to marry and move out for it is likely that her parent’s home is crowded. With her gone, there is one less mouth to feed. Behind the picturesqueness of the landscape, the clothes, the language, is always the need to survive. It is 1872, the mass migration to America has just begun.
The ceremony takes about three quarters of an hour. There’s a prayer, hymn, exhortation, and blessing.
The wedding dinner took place at a house ten miles away. Sixty men, women and children, he says, start off “trotting, galloping, and tumbling, over hills, through water, and into the bogs, amidst plenty of good-natured laughter. And talking of the children, how they do ride! Behind me for ten miles of most difficult country rode two little girls astride, with halters for bridles, on two raw-boned Iceland ponies. One was nine years old, the other seven, and they went splendidly, and enjoyed the journey more than any of us.
“When we reached the farm where the feast was to be held we found tents had been erected to accommodate the numerous company, and in one of these (a spacious marquee about four feet high, in which we were obliged to sit because we simply could not stand) the dinner was prepared.”
Everyone wants him to stay. He’s obviously made a good impression on the Icelanders. However, he explains that he has to get to Selja that evening. He says the countryside they had to cross was nasty for riding and they had much difficulty in crossing two rivers swollen by rain. At each river crossing, they had to hire a local guide to show them how to get across safely.
What risks Waller takes, riding through the heaths and bogs, risking quicksand and bottomless mud, crossing rivers with rocks rolling along the bottom that could break a horse’s leg or sweep its legs from under it, getting soaked in glacial water, riding for miles soaking wet, putting his life completely into his Icelandic guide’s hands, confident that they’ll find shelter. Yet, what rewards. 
Before the wedding, he has attended a confirmation. He has seen things and met people like he’s never met before. He’s taken into people’s homes, shared meals with them, sung with them, struggled to communicate with his limited Icelandic. He’s been wakened in the morning by, as he says, a very pretty young woman, bringing him coffee and something to eat for breakfast. What young man wouldn’t want these experiences? How could life be any more interesting or thrilling? He’s living a mad, romantic adventure as he rides from place to place so that he can make sketches of the places in Njal’s saga. He’s treading on the ground of his heroes.
What young man’s heart wouldn’t beat faster when faced with a dangerous river crossing, his guide a pretty young woman who, when she gets him safely to the other side, turns on her horse, kisses him on the cheek and, before he can react, plunges  her horse into the current and makes her way to the far bank?
1872. More than a hundred years ago, approaching one hundred and fifty years, but Waller singing with his hosts, sharing their meals, riding over vast expanses of wasteland, being kissed, all come alive as if it were yesterday. There is nothing ornate about his writing, thank goodness. It is heartfelt, honest and enriched by an artist’s eye for details.

On To Oddi, Waller, 1874

S. E. Waller is a young English artist. He doesn’t have much money but is determined to go to Iceland to sketch and paint the scenes of Njal’s Saga. He has had some hard riding before he reached Eyrarbakki but he finds there wonderful accommodation and kind hosts.
With his three horses and his guide, Bjarni, he leaves for Oddi which is thirty miles away. However, because of the bogs and heaths, the need to cross a river, the distance they have to travel is sixty miles. It becomes the hardest journey they have had so far. Bjarni nearly is killed when he rides into some quicksand. However, his horse manages to thrash his way out of it.
The river Thjórsá is in flood. It is so wide at this time of year that it takes them more than an hour to cross it. It is hard to imagine today what it must have been like to travel where there were no roads, only trails, over land so treacherous, filled with hidden dangers, that, time and again, a local guide had to be hired to show the traveler how to cross a river.
They start the crossing of the Thjórsá by going from sandbank to sandbank. To make matters more dangerous, most of the sandbanks are under two or three feet of water. The horses wade and even swim for twenty minutes to get to the middle of the river. Here they stop on a gravel bank that feels like it could suddenly disintegrate. They are now surrounded by water. Ahead of them is deep water, a half-mile wide.   
The melting snow in the interior has turned the river into a torrent.
In the distance, they can see a boat coming toward them. Some drovers are bringing over a herd of horses. As the boat and horses come closer, he can hear how frightened the horses are as they swim across the current.
Once the boat arrives, they put their saddles and baggage. They tie ropes to the horses and Bjarni takes two ropes and Waller takes the other. Waller’s self-confidence is not increased by Bjarni saying that horses are often lost while crossing a river.
They reach the other side, after which they have to cross two smaller rivers on their own. They left Eyrarbakki at half-past twelve in the morning and don’t reach Oddi until half-past eight at night. Waller is delighted that the priest has some good pasture and allows the three horses to graze there.
Waller says, “The little house at Oddi was exceedingly comfortable, the food good, the bed clean, our host kindness itself. All this we were very grateful for; but to make the evening complete, I found, to my intense joy, a Shakespeare lying in a dusty corner. I had brought no books with me, fearing they might tend to idleness, so that, on discovering this treasure, my delight was great.”
Rain pours down during the night. He hopes that the morning will bring clear skies but, instead, it is still pouring rain. Since there is little he can do, he tries to learn some Icelandic. Bjarni helps him learn some Icelandic words. He says, “I made desperate efforts to talk with the son of our host, who was physician to the district and had spent some years in Copenhagen. He was exceedingly good natured over my blunders, and produced a Danish-English phrase-book, which helped us along considerably.
“I shall always remember the kindness of both father and son. They begged me to stay a week with them, an invitation I was very sorry to refuse. When leaving on the Friday morning, Sr. Jonson positively refused to allow me to give compensation to any member of his household.”
On Friday, the weather is good so Waller decides to stay at Oddi all day and travel at night. All morning he works on a sketch of their white horse, then a view of Thryhriningr.
Their next destination is Kross, on the extreme south coast.
The hardship, the danger, the weather, the dangerous river crossing, are nothing exceptional in Iceland in 1874. These were the conditions everyone encountered. People buying and selling horses or sheep experienced these difficulties. Farmers and their families, t heir workers, faced these conditions on a daily basis.
In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses, goes searching for sheep. He gets caught in a blizzard. “but still the blizzard assailed him with undiminished fury when he reached the next ridge, clawed at his eyes and the roots of his beard, howled vindictively in his ears, and tried to hurl him to the ground….he forced his way at first with lowered  head against the storm, but when he reached the ridge above the gully, he could no longer make any headway in this fashion, so he slumped forward on to  his hands and knees and made his way through the blizzard on all fours.”
In Indridason’s novels, the main character Erlender is obsessed with the loss of his younger brother in a storm. He realizes that with the bogs and quicksand that his brother could simply have disappeared and his body would never be found.

In 1810, Mackenzie says that he had begun to ascend near several craters larger than any we had yet seen. “While examining some of the fissures, we found the remains of a woman who had been lost about a year before, and of whom there had hitherto been no tiding. Her clothes and bones were lying scatttered about; the bones of one leg remained in the stocking. It is probably that she had missed the path during a thick shower of snow, and had fallen over the precipice, where her body was torn to pieces by eagles and foxes.It’s astonishing how the Icelanders find their way during winter across these trackless deserts.”

The weather, in every traveler’s book, is front and centre. It determines what can and can’t be done. It brings good grass or no grass, a full belly or starvation. There is no escaping it. Even if people are at a farm, it imprisons them just as it imprisons Waller. Once a journey has begun, it can, as with Bjartur, bring the traveler close to death or to death itself.
A ten day journey, sleeping in churches, farmhouses, tents, even in good weather , was demanding. As Waller discovers, as-the-crow-flies meant nothing in terms of the distance to be covered for bogs had to be skirted, rivers crossed where there were ferries or fords.
No wonder Icelandic families were used to getting up at any time during the night to provide refuge for a traveler. Their farm may have been the only place of shelter in the area. When Bjartur finally makes it to Brun, it is night, everyone is in bed, but the farm wife hears someone groaning, hammering on the door. They go to the door with a light and Bjartur topples in. He’s covered in ice.
This is later in the season but the weather that Waller and many others describe during June, July, August, can be a deadly. That makes the welcome that Waller has had at Eyrarbakki and Oddi all the warmer, all the more appreciated, all the more remembered. What feels better than to be safe in a warm house as a storm rages outside
(Quotes from Six Weeks in the Saddle, S. E. Waller, 1874)
Waller gives the priest’s name as Sr. Jonson but there are many Jonsons. Nor does he give the name of the priest’s son who is the doctor for the district. If anyone reading this knows who these two were, would you please write to let me know.  If they are relatives, I’d like to hear about that.

Sigrun Davidsdottir: the kreppa

 Dr. John Tucker and Sigurn Davidsdóttir
Photo by W. D. Valgardson
Sigrun Davidsdóttir´s third Beck lecture was a smashing success. Luckily, Trish Baer and John Tucker had anticipated the crowd and had booked a regular room plus a larger room. Well before the lecture was to start, we all  had to move to the larger room.
It may be that people love hearing about disasters. It may be Sigrun´s reputation. It may be that people are fascinated by Iceland and all the bits and pieces they´ve heard about the economic crash over the past four years.  Maybe it was a bit of all three but the audience was intent and after the lecture, the question period went on for a long time. Sigrun is good at answering questions. Here answers were clear and to the point.
She started off saying that Iceland lost 80% of its financial sector from 2008-2011. That got people’s attention.
She called the story about the crash a saga with thirty protagonists, several hundred fellow travelers and a whole nation of spectators.
Her position, living in London, England, reporting for Icelandic radio, with a father and brother who were both bankers, gave her a unique position from which to observe and analyze what has happened.
She emphasized, once again, that the collapse of a bank or an economic system is not a natural event. It is an event caused by some people.  No one person can do it alone so other people have to be involved. And, a lot more know what is going on but refuse to admit it.
There were the fellow travelers. The politicians, the people who worked in the banks, then there were the general population who saw what was going on but didn’t understand it.
As Sigrun talked about the Kreppa, I couldn’t help but think of the Costa Concordia. Ships don’t run onto the rocks by themselves. There was the captain. There were his senior officers. There were all the people who might have noticed something was amiss and there were all the people on the ship who were forced to be participants against their will.
Sigrun took us back in time and gave us an historical context for the crash. Iceland has several political parties. The Conservatives have been the political backbone of the system. The Independent party brought about changes to the Icelandic fisheries. Quotas could e bought and sold. This was done in such a way that quotas that hadn’t been purchased could be sold for large amounts of money. This brought an inflow of money into the Icelandic market.
As well, the banks were privatized in 2003. The banks had been controlled by political parties and many people thought the privatization would end the political influence but it didn’t. Other changes were made so that there could be international business companies that aren’t owned by anyone in the country. All these changes were part of a dream to make Iceland a financial centre.
Iceland, Sigrun pointed out, is a country of contacts. Who you know is critical to how well you get ahead.
Who you know if more important than what you know. From 2002-2006 there was record growth, record profits. But in 2006 the Geysir crises occurred. It was a mini crisis. Financial institutions outside of Iceland started to pay attention to what was going on in Iceland. Other banks started to give Icelandic banks bad reviews. The Icelandic banks were not being funded by the Icelandic people. Instead, bonds were being issued to outside organizations.
From 2006-2008 a difficult time started with short spells of things going well. The credit crunch had begun.
When she was working in Copenhagen she started having questions about the Icelandic economy because businessmen would contact her saying they were going to set up businesses but the businesses never were started. In London in 2005, 2006, Icelandic businessmen were happy but other business people dealing with them were not.  One Swedish banker described Icelandic businessmen as teenagers.
I was amused by this description. I immediately remembered the year that Landsbanki representatives came to Gimli. They set up a display at Islindingadagurinn with the intent, I was told, of getting people to invest. Iceland was offering stupendous rates on its bonds while other countries were offering paltry amounts. I asked a friend if he was going to invest in the bank. He said no, he only had a few thousand dollars to invest and the people from Iceland weren’t interested in anything under a million dollars. The lecture brought back a host of memories from the years just before the crash.
Teenagers are known for their enthusiasm but they aren’t great managers. Not surprisingly, things started to come apart. There were attempts to save the banks. The Central bank was aware that the banks were running out of liquidity. The UK offered financial advice. It was ignored. One gets the impression of incredible arrogance on the part of the Icelanders involved. There was a meeting with UK authorities in 2008, the Icelanders promised all sorts of things to make the situation better. None of the promises were kept. After a meeting with the Icelanders about the ICE SAVE accounts, after the Icelanders left the room, the UK minister said to his people don’t believe anything these people say.  Icelandic financial credibility was gone.
The banks collapsed. This created a power vacuum. For ordinary people there was a sense of relief by the end of December. There had been tremendous pressure for everyone to make money.If people weren’t making large amounts of money, they felt they were being left out and were failures. With the collapse, the pressure disappeared.
After Oct 2008, the banks were split into domestic and foreign. The foreign  banks went bankrupt. Currency controls were put in place.  A special prosecutor’s office was set up. A thousand page report on the crises was released. After that, it was not possible for the people responsible to say that they did not know what was happening.
What were the things that were done that brought about the crash? Sigrun gave us a list. It was shocking.
1.       The banks had favoured clients.
2.       There was unsecured lending.
3.       Loans, when they came due, were rolled over.
4.       There were no margin calls.
5.       Clusters of companies were set up off-shore. They were given huge amounts of money.
6.       There were big schemes and small schemes of various kinds.
 For example, one man had 6 companies. The assets that were worth something were put into one of these companies and the debts put into another. The one with the assets he would keep and the one with the debts would go bankrupt and the bank and its depositors would lose.
The big losers in all this were the foreigners who had loaned the Iceland banks money. German creditors took a huge loss. Icelanders who had some money to invest, lost. People with foreign exchange loans. The pension funds.The all lost.
As vast as this credit crash was, with so many people both in Iceland and abroad affected, there were only a small number of people who directly caused it. Sigrun estimates about fifty. Many people at the centre of the crash haven’t suffered. They’ve managed to hang onto money through various schemes.
However, the law grinds slowly but it does grind and, it is inclined to grind very finely. The first charges have been laid. There will be others.
The lecture was packed with information. It sparked an array of questions. What more could one ask? The topic, of course, is so complicated and vast that it could be the topic of an entire semester’s course.
The Richard and Margaret Beck trust is a foundation set up by the Becks for lectures on Iceland. 

World Book Day

The crazies are out there.
They’re not who you usually think of. They’re not the guy talking to himself as he walks down the street. The poor woman who is sitting against a stone building with a cap open hoping you’ll give her some change. They’re not the people at the coffee shop who are out for a few hours from the local mental hospital. They’re not the guy who can’t stop moving, his feet going up and down to some invisible music while he holds out pages of paper on which are poems he has written. They’re not even the guy who thought his mother was a space alien and stabbed her.
Nope. Nope. The real crazies are the book burners. They wear suits, white shirts, their wives dress in conservative dresses, their hair is neatly trimmed. They are clothed in self-righteousness.
I know about them from personal experience. My novel, Gentle Sinners, was taught in a Winnipeg high school. The parents of one of the students violently objected. Not only that but they raised up the wrath of their congregation and campaigned against the book for two years. Yes, a lot of craziness comes from people who claim a religious text as the authority for their craziness. Even craziness needs justification. In some places it is, “I’m going to blow this airplane and three hundred people to simithereens by setting off explosives in my shorts, underwear, hat, shoes because God, whatever  his name, wants me to.”  “I’m going to ban, burn your book because God wants me to.” “I’m going to ________ because God wants me to.” 
God wants me to. Great line. A personal app to God. It used to be, “Long distance, operator, I want God.” Now, no need to call the operator. Wifi does the job direct.Some people don´t even need a phone.
If it’s not a personal wifi line, then it’s an interpretation of some selected lines from a religious text by someone who knows zilch about religion, the history of religion, the theory of religion. In a book the size of most religious tomes, you can find justification for just about anything. Including burning books.
Did Christ burn books? No, but that’s only because there were no books to burn. He did drive the moneylenders out of the temple and pictures of the temple sort of look like library buildings I have known so maybe he was driving readers out of the library. Could be.
You think this is crazy? Hey, Gentle Sinners was accused of leading kids to suicide. I was in league with the devil. I insulted religion. The real sin of Gentle Sinners is that it made fun of fundamentalist nitwits who were narrow-mindeded and ignorant. Particularly, it made fun of some fundamentalist preachers for their lack of Christian charity.Here I am, Lutheran, small c conservative, a believer who writes books with titles like Gentle Sinners, God Is Not A Fish Inspector in league with the devil. That makes it worse, don’tchaknow? A traitor. Not willing to tie authors to a stake, pile their books around their feet, soak them in gasoline and set them alight. Preaching that people should be free to read whatever they want.
I was invited to libraries to speak about books and attempts to censor books. That was because the campaign to get my novel kicked out of the school system went national. That’s when I discovered the crazies. Like the person who wanted to ban Treasure Island because it promoted homosexuality. In those days, the term gay hadn’t been invented. How did Treasure Island promote homosexuality, you may ask? Well, as the potential banner said, what do you think was going on in a ship with all those men and a cabin boy? Another wanted TI banned because it created a bad image for handicapped people. Yup, Long John Silver had a wooden leg and he was a bad guy. Someone else wanted Robin Hood banned because it promoted communism. Steal from the rich and give to the poor.Someone will, I’m sure, want to ban Sigrun Davidsdóttirs new book, Samhengi hlutana, because it exposes corruption leading up to the Kreppa. In Russia during the rule of Stalin, they didn´t bother banning books. They just shot the author.
You see, all the nut cases aren’t religious. Many of them are secular. Being a bit deranged isn’t the exclusive preserve of the young man who objected mightily to the title of my book of stories, God Is Not A Fish Inspector. He wanted me to kneel right there in the shopping mall where I was reading from it so that we could pray for the salvation of my soul. Hadn’t read the book and, if he had, probably wouldn’t have been able to understand it.
We’re lucky, folks. We come from a culture, whatever its short comings, that values books. We have a long history of publishing books. We have a history of literacy that visitors to Iceland regularly commented on. The tradition continues. Iceland produces more books per capita than any place in the world. They have 170 publishers and publish more than 1,500 books a year. Iceland’s population is the size of Victoria´s.    
They publish, buy and read this many books with a population of just over 300,000 people. Imagine Victoria producing 1,500 books a year.
In Iceland, fishermen write books, farmers write books, housewives write books, teachers write books, entertainers write books, clerks write books. They also read them. 
Someone standing on a street corner of Reykjavik with a sign saying ban every book I don’t agree with, would be known to be hopelessly insane. In North America they probably would be the leader of a sect or even a political party. They might even be the mayor of a major Canadian city.
The Icelandic Publishers Association, Félag islenska bökaútgefenda was founded in 1889. Incredible! 1889. A country that was reeling from harsh economic conditions, that was losing people to a major out-migration and here was an organization being formed whose purpose was to build a professional network of booksellers across the entire country.
It’s not surprising that a publishing organization should be formed in a country where in 1835, John Barrow could say that although the minster of Gardé was so poor that he didn´t have proper clothes for his position   “this poor man had a considerable collection of books, and among others, translations of some of the works of Pope and Young’s Night Thoughts!”
John Coles in 1882 said “we stopped to change horses and get our mid-day meal of skyr, coffee, and black bread. In the room where we were sitting I noticed a book shelf, and being curious to know the kind of literature which found favour with the small farmer of this country, I took the book down, when to my astonishment, I found it to be a Danish edition of Lockyer’s ‘Solar Physics.’ Our host, and elderly man, who had just come in from his work, was good enough to show me some other books in his small collection, amongst which were some of the works of Darwin and Lardner; he had also a Virgil. They had evidently been well used”.

Today is World book day. It is organized by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. It was first celebrated in 1995. It’s nice to see that the world is catching up to Iceland.

Celebrate World Book Day by going out and buying a book. Be defiant. I’d say go out and buy my books but there’s only one book still in print, What The Bear Said: Folktales from Lake Winnipeg. I doubt if there are many left in stores. The print run is pretty well sold out. That’s what it’s like to be a member of the Icelandic North American community. They buy books. So, buy someone else’s book. Buy a book unlike what you usually buy. Buy a book on growing potatoes, bird watching, espionage, 18th C watercolors, Canadian artists, Laxness, Icelandic turf houses. Buy non-fiction, buy fiction.
Read them for the enjoyment but, more than that, read them defiantly, read them as your act for sanity against insanity, for knowledge against ignorance, for tolerance against intolerance, for freedom against dictatorship. 
Read them because you are proud of your heritage.

Shopping In Reykjavik, 1874

If your ancestors lived in Reykjavik or, more likely, visited there to trade, who would they have dealt with? Who were the people who decided what they’d be paid for their precious trade goods and what they’d paid for the supplies they needed to survive for a year?

Richard Burton, 1874, gives a good picture of who made up the business establishment.

Since the trading season was the summer when the weather was at its best, the traders would all be in Reykjavik but, not surprisingly, most of them left for Copenhagen as the trading season ended. From RB’s description, it sounds like the traders kept a good deal to themselves, making the best of this hardship post by having picnics at the Laxá River and by going riding in the countryside. The country folk, and since Reykjavik was little more than a small town, virtually everyone was country folk, might be working  long days getting in the hay, taking care of animals, pounding dried fish, knitting, doing everything possible to see that there would be enough food to last through the coming winter, but the traders, as they picnicked, had no such concerns. Come the end of the season, they were heading back to Denmark and civilization.

The storekeepers were called merchants (kaupmaðr). They were the big shots. They called the shots.  Their establishments had no signs or names on them but had prime positions facing the sea. The people who worked in these stores were mostly hired  help working for Copenhagen firms. They received fixed salaries rather than being on commissions.

According to RB, these are the people your ancestors would have had to deal with:

1.       Hr Egill Egilsson (Icelander), of the Glasgow House, and agent of the “Jón Sigurðsson‘ steamer
2.       2. Hr Fischer, A Dane, married to an Icelandic wife, settled at Copenhagen, and occasionally visiting the island. He occupies the corner tenement to the right of the Bridge House and he has large stores fronting his shop.
3.       Hr Havstein (Dane), who has not long been established; his private dwelling is attached to his store at the west end of Harbour Street, but he usually lives at Copenhagen. This house charters two or three ships a year to carry its goods.
4.       4. Hr Hannes Jónsson, an Icelander, son of the former Bishop Steingrimur Jónsson. His stock is furnished by Hr Jonsen of Copenhagen, who has also establishments at Hafnafjörð, Papós, and Seyðisfjörð.
5.       Hr Robb, the son of an English merchant, who settled at and was naturalised in Iceland. He speaks German, but not a word of English. It is the smallest of all the establishments and seems to do business only in lollipops. (Naturalisation is wisely  made easy in Iceland. The foreigner swears allegiance, pays $2, and straighway becomes a citizen.)
6.       Hr P.C.Knutzen, a Dane, whose agent is Hr Sviertsen. He trades on his own account, without a company and, being young and wealthy, he prefers Copenhagen to Rekjavik. At Hafnafjörð he has another establishment, and an agent(Hr Zimsen).
7.       Hr Möller. The Club is held at  his house.
8.       Hr Schmidt (Danish), who hires a house at Reykjavik, and passes the winter at Copenhagen. He is consul for Holland.
9.       Hr Th. A. Thomsen, a Dane of Flensburg, born in Iceland. He passes the winter at Copenhagen; and, besides being one of the principal traders, he is well-known for his civility and kindness to strangers.
10.   Hr Edward Siemsen, at the east end of the town. He is agent for his brother and their nephew, and he also acts as Consul for Denmark.

Only two of the traders are Icelandic, Egill Egillsson and Hannes Jónsson; however, Hannes is only an agent working for Jonsen of Copenhagen, a company large enough to not only have a trading post in Reykjavik but stores at Hafnafjörð, Papós, and Seyðisfjörð.

The Icelanders weren’t bringing money. There was very little silver (rigs dollars or the occasional shilling).

When they rode into Reykjavik with their pack train of horses, they were bringing “salt meat, beef, and mutton; tallow; butter, close packed; wool in the grease; skins of sheep, foxes, and seals; feathers, especially eider down;  oil of whales, sharks and seals; fine and coarse jackets of Wadmal, woolen stockings, and mitts; stock-fish and sulfur. The major items they wanted in return for their goods were timber, mostly pine and fir, salt, coal, grain, coffee, spices, tobacco and liquor. They could get beams for roofing and framing, twenty-two to twenty-four feet long, one inch boards for side-lining of houses, three-inch planks, and finer woods” for the cabinet maker.

They had to pay $2 for a 44 gallon barrel of salt. They had to have salt for the fishing season.

The coal that was available came from Britain. There was a chronic lack of fuel but coal was both expensive and difficult to transport on horseback. Split birch stove wood was imported but it wasn’t available to the ordinary Icelander.

The wheat and rye came as grain, flour and made into biscuits. Baking ovens, RB says, only exist in Reykjavik. Grain being taken into the countryside would be made as loaves cooked in the ground or as flat bread. An oven would take too much fuel.

Rice had become a staple commodity and was used for making rice-milk. A number of travelers from around this time mention being served rice milk.

There were luxuries. Cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg were available. Coffee was available but tea was very rare. A little chocolate, RB says, was brought from Copenhagen.

Large amounts of snuff were imported and sold at $3 a lb.

The trading shops sell port, sherry, claret, champagne, rum and cognac. They are expensive and of poor quality. The beer is used for commercial establishments. Brennivín, Korn-schnapps, or rye spirits are so cheap that there is no need to water them down unless you’re selling them to the peasants and adding a little water is a way the merchant can make a few extra cents. Apparently country merchants can sell 600 gallons of liquor a year.

So, there you have it. You ride into Reykjavik with your trade goods to get a year’s supply of everything you need to survive the coming winter and you  ride out with salt, lots of salt, enough grain, probably rye, to last the year, some wood planks if you’ve had a good year and can afford it, some bags of Rangoon rice and, if you’ve had a really good year, some spices to add to your daily diet of fish, skyr, rye bread and porridge.

You probably have a bottle of brandy in your pocket and sway a little in the saddle as you take some fresh snuff out of your horn.

There were more goods than that available, of course, but it will have to wait for tomorrow for a more detailed list of the items your great great grandmother hoped to buy when she arrived in Reykjavik.

(Material from Richard Burton’s Ultima Thule, 1875.)

On Being Canadian

Canada is an immigrant country. Our immigrations have happened at different times in Canada’s history. The flood of refugees from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, happened around the same time. However, when those surges ended because of population pressure easing, because of economic conditions improving, refugees started to come from other countries.
We all like to think that our group’s immigrant experience was unique. However, the challenges faced by having to adapt to Canada have proven to be much the same. The need to learn English or French. The need to adapt to Canadian law. The need to learn to work in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community. The need to adapt to new ways of working, of learning new skills. The need to accept change of their most dearly held beliefs.  The need to accept intermarriage. The need to be tolerant of people who look, think, and believe differently. The need to change one’s identity from I’m Icelandic, Ukrainian, German, Polish, English, or X, to I’m Canadian.
We all want to hang onto some aspects of our community’s pre-immigration life.
Religion, for example. It has a structure that helps bind the community. It often provides organized support. The religious leaders, whatever they are called, are usually the best educated. Religious leaders can provide guidance, provide help with documents, make their believers feel less isolated. However, both the Roman Catholic priests and the Lutheran ministers, of my childhood, once powerful decision makers,  have faded away, become mostly irrelevant in a growing secular society. We no longer hold church services in Icelandic. Pews in every church are empty.
Clothes. At first, we hang onto them because that’s what we’ve got to wear. But living conditions are different and soon they are replaced and become something to wear on special holidays. Some end up in museums.When that happens, they have become the past.
Food. Food is the easiest to hold onto. Recipes come in heads of wives and mothers and grandmothers and are shared in a tight knit community. Early cook books testify to this with every recipe having a name attached to it. Runa´s peanut butter cookies. After a time, they are codified in recipe books, made available for those leaving the community and for those outside the community. Food is often part of ritual and even when it is something not eaten regularly, it appears at certain holidays. Hakarl, rotted shark, is one of those. However, some foods adapt well, are easily copied, commercialized. The perogi is probably the best Canadian example. It appears at buffets from Victoria to Newfoundland. What buffet in Gimli, the heart of New Iceland, would be complete without perogis?
Holidays. Immigrant groups keep some of these but often they fade away because the larger society has its own holidays and the larger society accommodates variety by making these holidays secular. Christmas has traded Christ for consumerism. Gifts to the Christ child have become midnight madness at Walmart. The death and resurrection of Christ have become a rabbit hopping about giving away chocolates. In an attempt to regain some sense of ethnicity, older immigrant cultures such as ours, create events around holidays that have been long forgotten, and these are fun,  but they are history lessons.
Publications. We created publications for our people out of necessity. It was the best way to provide new immigrants with information on everything from Canadian law to how to grow and store potatoes. Advice was desperately needed. Information about where and how to get work. Help with learning English. Newspapers like Lögberg and Heimskringla were essential. Now, over a hundred years later, those essential tasks no longer need to be done. We are so integrated, we no longer have immigrant needs.The paper´s current role is to provide connectivity to a widespread population of people whose relationship to their heritage is often tenuous. Intermarriage, the loss of Icelandic as a daily language, migration within and away from Canada, all are forces of ethnic community dispersal and integration into the larger society.LH can provide context, history, connection, a relationship with Iceland.
Language. At first there is no need to try to preserve language. It is the language of the immigrant community. But the demands of survival are that at a minimum, English be learned. If other ethnic groups live in the area, then there is often the need to learn those languages. My grandfather’s solution was to stop the babel of Icelandic, German, Polish, Ukrainian by declaring that English be spoken in his house. There were many like him. Many parents didn’t want their children to learn the original language so as to avoid discrimination because of having an accent. Later, when people were more established, there were classes set up but with the classes there was the acknowledgement that the immigrant language was no longer the working language of the community. For us, at the beginning, church services were in Icelandic. Newspapers were in Icelandic. But, gradually, that had to change as the language was lost. It became irrelevant to daily life and particularly irrelevant to members of the community who migrated to other areas.
What makes me think of these things is that on the weekend, I went to the funeral of a friend. She was Jamaican. The gathering of mourners was the largest I´ve ever seen. Sarah was beloved in the Jamaican community. At the service, a number of the people who spoke said how much they loved Jamaica. They reminisced about going back to Jamaica for holidays. They spoke much like some people in the Icelandic Canadian community speak about Iceland. After the service, we gathered for the reception and shared a meal of curried goat, red beans and rice, spiced chicken, salad. It was a fine reception.
Some of my people came from Iceland in 1875, others in the 1880s. We´ve been here a long time. Our connection with Iceland is not so passionate, so filled with recent loss, so closely attached as the Jamaican mourners. The large majority of the people at the funeral and reception were Jamaican but, already, there were us others, these descendents of Icelanders, sharing  friendship, grief and a meal.
Afterwards, on the trip home, I thought about me and my generation, about how my Irish half has faded, simply become Canadian, how my Icelandic half has retained something of an ethnic identity because of living in an Icelandic Canadian community when I was a child, becoming and staying involved with other Icelandic Canadian communities, and I wouldn´t want to give that up, but as I sat at Swartz Bay, waiting to drive off the ferry onto Vancouver Island, I thought about the funeral, the reception, my friends, that I would not want to give up any of this, and said to myself, this is what it means to be Canadian.

Rite of Passage

Photograph provided by Ken Kristjanson

Lake Winnipeg is big. People who haven’t travelled on it don’t realize just how big. There 9,465 sq miles of water. It’s 300 miles long and, in places, 50 miles wide. It’s a lake of ferocious storms with winds from Hudson Bay combining with shallow water,  creating dangerous waves. It’s a lake made for drowning. In winter, it’s a great plain of ice, driving winds, drifting snow, booming cracks.

It’s a lake filled with fish. The native population fed themselves on the fish. In 1875, the Icelandic settlers arrived. Flummoxed by fish that weren’t cod, by water that froze six feet thick, by having nets meant for the ocean but useless in fresh water, the best they could do was catch enough fish to stay alive. However, it didn’t take long for them to learn the skills that were needed, to build boats for the open water, to make nets that would catch whitefish, pickerel, sauger, jackfish, sunfish, goldeye, fish that could be eaten fresh, wind dried or smoked. Fish that could be transported to Winnipeg to be sold or traded.

The Icelandic settlers were mostly sheep farmers but, in Iceland, once the hay harvest was in, hired men and even the farm owners walked or rode to the coast to fish during the winter. Iceland’s was a survival economy. Each year it was a struggle to get through the winter. Many did not. For the unlucky, mutton, butter, milk, skyr, dried fish, lichen, ran out. The summers were spent taking care of the dairy cows and sheep, in harvesting the hay, in cutting turf, in collecting lichen and seaweed, the winters, in fishing. The ocean fishing skills were largely irrelevant to survival on Lake Winnipeg, but the attitude was not.

What, at first, was subsistence fishing, providing enough for a full belly, soon turned into an opportunity to trade for necessary goods or even to be paid in cash. It didn’t take long for an Icelandic fishery to be established and among the Icelanders some families began to create fishing stations, build boats, set up commercial enterprises and become what was known as fishing families.

Among these were the Kristjansons. Sigurdur T. Kristjansson was born in Skagafjordur, in 1879. He came to Canada with his foster parents in 1885. He became a fisherman and lake station operator. Two of his sons, Hannes and Ted, in turn, became fishermen. Although, of Ted’s two sons, it is Robert who continues the tradition of fishing, it is Ken who has been writing reminiscences of fishing on Lake Winnipeg.

The lake was a dangerous place. It was a world mostly of men who worked hard, faced danger on a daily basis, lived in isolation for long periods of time. Those who worked on the lake created a culture, shared a life, and when a boy first entered this world, there were initiations. But, it’s Ken’s story, and I’ll let him tell it.

“In 1950 our family became the operators of the Booth Fisheries Whitefish Station on George Island, in the north basin of Lake Winnipeg. (Although the charts list it as ‘George’ Island, it was always called  “George’s Island”.) After high school was finished for the year, I was to board the M.S. Goldfield for the 200 mile trip to George’s to work as a junior shore-hand. My first time making the trip on my own.
“With a stop at Rabbit Point, it would normally take a day and a night to reach the island, so the trip was like a relaxing cruise. Captain Albertson and the crew of eight knew my family well and they weren’t above playing a little trick on me. Shortly after boarding, The Captain called me over and said very seriously that the “Key to the Keelson” was missing. As the crew was busy at their various tasks, would I help them find this important item? Being young and eager to please, I readily agreed.
“The Captain dead-panned that some member of the crew must have The Key. So off I went looking.  But the whole ship, save for me, was in on the game. They had played this stunt many times on ‘green horns’ before me and they had their acting parts down to a science.  One by one I dutifully searched out all the crew members, asking if they knew the whereabouts of this missing key. Each one shook their heads solemnly.
“Seeing my frustration and fearing I would give up after searching for so long, one of the crew said that the Engineer must have it. The problem was he was off watch and sleeping in his room. But on the ship, the Captain’s word was law and so I gingerly opened the door to the Engineer’s room. As quietly as possible, I explained my mission. Grumpily he arose from his bunk and with a stream of complaints about the frequent disappearance of the key, he searched his cabin while a 14 year old boy stood shaking at attention. Sadly no key could be found. In despair I made my way to the wheel house to report to the Captain my inability to find the elusive key. By now it was almost suppertime and the crew had gathered for the meal. The smiles on their faces should have tipped me off. As I approached, they all said in unison, “Gotcha!”
Ken  Kristjanson

Feb 2012

Will Paradise Be Reclaimed?

Get ready for Obama to face off with Romney. Two outsiders contesting the position of president of the most powerful nation on earth. When Jack Kennedy was going to run for president, there were many who said, he couldn’t be president because he was Catholic, that if he won, the Pope would run America. It was all nonsense and ignorance, of course. And, since in America, if you have one speck of black blood, you’re black, but if you are half white, you’re not white, then it looks like America will be voting for a black man or a white man who is a Mormon.

Romney won Florida today.  As he continues to roll up votes, he’s breaking down barriers, making it possible for a wider spectrum of people to become president, just as Obama has done, just as Jack Kennedy did.

Romney’s candidacy will be interesting to people of Icelandic descent in America, not because they would necessarily vote for him, but because of the historic connection of the Latter Day Saints to Iceland.

Mormon converts left for Utah in 1854. They arrived in September of 1855. Between 1855 and 1914, 381 Icelanders emigrated to Utah. This was a small number of the total emigrants who left for North America but the fact that they have retained some of their original culture and identity and stayed within a relatively small geographic space, they have a recognizable presence.

Although the Mormons have recorded their story in detail, what made their story come alive for Icelanders was Halldor Laxness’s novel Paradise Reclaimed. In Professor Fred E. Woods’ lecture “Icelandic Migration To and Through Utah” there is a “photo that inspired Laxness’s descriptions in Paradise Reclaimed.” Outside a house sits Margarét Gísladóttir, Halldóra Aranadóttir, and Guðrun Halldoórsdóttir with Gísli Einarsson Bjarnason standing behind them.   

On seeing the photo, I immediately recognized the moment in Paradise Reclaimed that it depicted. Steinar of Hliðar has abandoned  his family, gone to Denmark to meet the king, then continued on his way until he reaches Salt Lake City. He finds a welcome there. His preciseness that has kept his small farm in Iceland prosperous plus his skills with his hands help him sustain himself and, eventually, to bring his family to him. But, in the moment of Salt Lake City, he sees houses and people like those in the pictures or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, that Laxness saw in the picture, the people he would place in his novel.

The novel never preaches, for what purpose would a transitory Catholic, then Communist, preach. Instead, it portrays the Mormon missionaries through Bishop Þjóðrekur. Steinar first meets him at Þingvellur. The Bishop is being assaulted by angry farmers but Steinar refuses to let them have his riding crop with which to beat him. Later, he comes across the Bishop again. This time the Bishop is tied to a rock outside a church. Steinar frees him.

In Prof. Wood´s lecture, he makes the point, more than once, that the Mormon converts who returned to Iceland to proselytize were, like Bishop Þjóðrekur, subjected to persecution. And so they were. It was hardly to be expected to be otherwise. Iceland converted to Lutheranism in 1550. It was the state church with religion and politics tightly entwined.

The story of Bishop Þjóðrekur´s persecution is archetypal. It becomes the story of every Mormon missionary, even Romney. It is said that while Romney was on a foreign mission for the church as a young man that he had to defend some female missionaries. It´s not exactly being tied to a post and shot through with arrows or even being tied to a rock while everyone else is at a Lutheran church service but it will do. Missionaries, because they are outsiders, are inclined to be rejected, sworn at, even spat upon. Sometimes, they get tossed in jail. Try being a Christian missionary in Saudi Arabia today. See where that gets you.

With Romney leading the GOP pack, reading Paradise Reclaimed is a worthwhile venture. There is something about Mormonism that attracted some of our people. Laxness, I think, captures the sense, not of devoutness, but of uncertainty and circumstance. North America and, in this case, the Latter Day Saints, offered hope to a poverty stricken and oppressed people with no hope for the future.

Today, America is caught in a financial and social crises. Unemployment is high. The future looks bleak. The lives people assumed they could have are being taken away as they lose their homes, their jobs. The world around America, it´s normal allies, are themselves in crises. When the Russians threw off Communism´s yoke and got to see America as it really was, they named it The Big Store. If that´s all that has distinguished it and, if now, the shopping is coming to a halt, people have got to redefine what it means to be America. The Church of the Latter Day Saints did that at one time for some Icelanders. The question is will Romney be the Bishop Þjóðrekur of today? Not that he would lead them to religion but to a belief in the future.  

Trollope on St. Kilda, 1878

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