The Mastiff at the Faroes, 1878

Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909

Trollope and his friends leave St. Kilda and head for the Faroe Islands. They are on a sightseeing junket paid by the head of Cunard Lines. They’re travelling on the yacht, the Mastiff. They hold high positions, individually, or as members of important families. They are used to life in European cities. At St. Kilda, they’ve seen what life is like in an isolated place where bare survival requires charity. Where good fortune is the gift of a few feet of rope. Now, they go to the Faroes, also isolated, but with a population of around ten thousand and circumstances that allow them to fish and farm more successfully. This visit is good preparation for when the Mastiffs  reach Iceland.
The Faroes are inextricably linked with Iceland. Numerous books about Iceland are also about the Faroes. Harper&Brothers published a book, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes in 1841. Kneeland says in his book, Travels In Iceland, 1874, that travellers should go to Iceland via Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, and the Faroes. Russell’s, Iceland, 1914, starts with a chapter on the Faroes.
The Faroes, as small as they are, were the first country to offer Iceland financial aid during the recent economic crises. In spite of that, the Faroes are often dismissed by Icelanders, brushed off with a sniff. That may be because of their size or it may be lingering resentment that the Faroes were always treated well by the Danish king. When Christian IX stopped at the Faroes on his way to Iceland in 1874, the Faroese had nothing to ask from him. No one asked for a new constitution. The population was quite satisfied with the way it was being treated. The Icelanders wanted a new constitution and independence. They’d suffered for centuries under harsh Danish law and trading monopolies that exploited them.
When the Mastiff’s passengers arrive at Thorshavn, Trollop says, “The postmaster, with a considerable proportion of the population, was there, on the rocks, to receive us.
“We were taken first to the postmaster’s house, – only, I think, because the doing so was an act of hospitality. Here we found ourselves in a very pretty room, comfortably furnished, overlooking a beautifully picturesque nook of the sea.” This would be, in Iceland, the description of a Danish trader’s house, not an Icelanders. Ida Pfeiffer, in 1845, upon arriving in Iceland describes the Danish traders’ houses this way: “If any person could suddenly and without having made the journey, be transported into one of these houses, he would certainly fancy himself in some continental town, rather than in the distant and barren island of Iceland.
She then adds, “From these handsome houses I betook myself to the cottages of the peasants, which have a more indigenous, Icelandic appearance….Throughout my subsequent journeys into the interior, I found the cottages of the peasant everywere alike squalid and filthy.”
Trollope, having landed safely and been greeted politely, says, “Then we proceeded upon a walk, a number of men and a long string of pretty maidens accompanying us. We went about among the narrow streets, – streets which are required for no wheeled vehicles, – and saw other maidens looking at us from out of the windows. These streets were not rectangular, straight, and ugly, but ran crookedly here and there, up and down hills, round the little indented bays of the sea, with houses standing sometimes angularly, sometimes with gables to the roadway. And the houses were all covered with green turf, with turf that at this time of the year was growing, – a mode of roofing which gave a singularly picturesque appearance to the place.
“The turf is used as a protection against snow, and is a protection of which the ‘Mastiffs’ saw more when they found themselves in Iceland. That it should have been found necessary here I am surprised, as Thorshavn though it lies between 61 and 62 N.L., is not a place of very much snow. The climate is moist and foggy, and storms are frequent; but the winters are not severe. The frost lasts hardly beyond a month, and the harbours are seldom icebound. But there are the houses covered with grass, giving to the place from a little distance the appearance of a town under the sods.
“When we had perambulated the streets we were taken up to a little hill over the town so that we might look down upon and see the nature of its situation and its structure. Thorshavn lies all around various little nooks of the sea, and has the smell and flavour of the sea which is peculiar to such places. It is very pretty, but its smell and flavour, combining that of many fishes, is one to which the visitor must become accustomed before it will be palatable. There is certainly the ancient and the fish-like smell; – otherwise Thorshavn is delightful.
“There are, I was told, about 10,000 inhabitants in the islands, of which the capital holds about 900. Looking at statistics composed as to the Faroes about twenty-five years ago, I find the number of the people given as 8,150 for the group altogether, and 1,500 for the capital.…The cultivation is very poor, the ground being too rocky for the general use of ploughs. Horses and cattle are rare. The wealth of the farmers consists in their sheep. The sheep, however, are never housed, and the wool is torn from their backs instead of being shorn. Here, as at St. Kilda, there is a great enterprise of bird-catching, for the sake of the flesh as well as the feathers. There seemed to be little or no poverty. A good carpenter in Thorshavn would earn 4s. a week; in other parts of the islands a moderate carpenter would earn 2s. They use Danish coins, of which the crown contains 100 farthings; this crown is worth something over as. The people generally are healthy; the girls appear to be remarkably strong. But here again I was told that rheumatism prevails.
“When we descended from the hill… to see the church. It was now considerably past midnight, and yet there seemed to be no difficulty in finding the key. The church was spacious, – not at all unlike one of our own ugly churches, with pews, and a gallery, and an organ. It seemed to me to be larger than would be wanted in England for a population of 900; but it is probably the case that a larger proportion of the population attends Divine service than is the case with ourselves. It was evident that they were proud of their church, and that they who accompanied us were anxious that we should see it.”
Although the Faroese appear much more Danish than the Icelanders–they have adopted the Danish system easily, the language, the coins, the postal service, the government appointments, and they appear to be better off–there is much similarity with Iceland. Some are in the details Trollope mentions.
Neither shear sheep. They pull off loose wool. It is an odd, wasteful practice that results in poor quality wool even though wool is a major trading item. If North American Icelandic beliefs about Iceland being held back because of lack of contact with more efficient ways of doing things were true, one could understand sheep not being sheared. It could be assumed the Faroese and Icelanders simply didn’t know that sheep should be sheared. However, the oddity of the practice of pulling off loose wool is such that not only does Trollope mention it but so do any number of other English travellers. One has to assume that the travellers mentioned it to people in both the Faroes and Iceland. Nearly every account of travels in Iceland states that wealth is not in silver but in sheep. The practice would seem to be more about attitude, a crippling refusal to change that Laxness repeatedly mentions in his novels,  than lack of knowledge.
Faroese buildings, like Icelandic ones, have turf roofs. Again, Trollope’s eye for detail, that essential quality of the novelist, notes both the turf roofs and the incongruity of them for there are other roofing materials available. In Iceland, he will see a situation where the people have no choice but to use sod, where wood is so scarce that whale ribs are used as roof beams.
Trollope notes that the streets of Thorshavn won’t accommodate wheeled vehicles. The stop in the Faroes prepares the travellers for Iceland, a country with hardly any attempt at building roads where everything, even the dead, are moved on horseback.
The major difference is that the climate is milder and Trollope makes note of it. Oats and barley will ripen. However, the winds can be fierce, so fierce that it actually strips away sod. In Iceland, the ripening of grain stopped far back in history. The one crop is grass. The Icelanders, like the Faroese, cut sod and dry it for fuel because fuel of any kind is in such short supply. In Iceland, it is so scarce that farmhouses are not heated. In the Faroes, the houses are heated but Trollope notes that the use of sod for fuel relentlessly reduces the pasture for the sheep.
This brief stop gives the travellers a preview of what is to come. Trollope, the famous writer, is the guest of Mr. John Burns, the owner of the Cunard Lines. He comes in luxury, the guest of a man who lives in a castle, a member of the nobility, the kind of successful businessman who can afford to take sixteen people on a yacht the size of the Mastiff.  A man who can afford to be both demanding and generous. One gets the impression that these tourists are no more enlightened about the condition of life for those outside their social class than today’s tourists on a cruise that stops at various ports of call. They look at the sights and buy local souvenirs. It may be when they return home, that in describing the people they saw, they will use the word “quaint”.
Trollope, used to upper class English society, a society in which he has made a place for himself among the rich and powerful, can’t help but see, because he is a novelist, what people’s lives are like. However, he is writing about the trip as a gesture of friendship to John Burns so the account of the trip must please his patron. There is no curiosity about the “peasants”, no visits to the earth like hovels like those Ida Pfeiffer made. There’s no point in complaining that Trollope isn’t Dickens. After all, none of the passengers would have any reason to enter the hovels of the local peasants in the areas from which they came. Why would they when abroad? Money shields the Mastiffs from daily reality. However, Anthony Trollope had a keen eye, and from some of his observations, one might expect that he had much to think about after he had his nightly whiskey and water and went to bed.
(Quotes from How the Mastiffs Went to Iceland)

When Anthony Trollope Visited Iceland, 1878

Part 1
As I was growing up in Gimli, Manitoba, nearly everything I was told about Iceland was incorrect. Memories of Iceland were distorted by time and distance. Events and social conditions were filtered through a lens of misunderstanding. In the days of my childhood, people didn’t fly over the pole to Iceland. People seldom flew anywhere. When one person moved to Gimli from Iceland, it was the talk of the town.
Perhaps one of the largest distortions was the picture of Iceland as a country so far from everything that it was completely isolated.  While Iceland wasn’t a hub of activity like Denmark or Norway, it certainly wasn’t an isolated place with no communication with the outside world. The Danish traders had stores in Iceland and Danish families lived at some of these posts. Danish trading ships came to Icelandic ports in the summer. Well-to-do Icelandic farmers and officials travelled to Denmark and sent their children to school in Copenhagen.
However, contact wasn’t just with the Danes. Europeans were fascinated by Iceland. Germans and French came but most of all, English people came. Not just men but women as well. Summer after summer, they came to study the geology, the fisheries, the bird life. They came to see if the sulphur beds could be mined. They came, time and again to see the geysers for the geysers were one of the wonders of the world. Some came to travel to the places described in the sagas. When the Danish trade restrictions were lifted, the English came to buy horses and sheep. They also fished offshore.
Most of those visiting Iceland came with a serious purpose. Many were members of the Royal Society of England. They came to learn about volcanoes and lava and glaciers. They took the temperature of the Great Geyser and of Strokkur. They pondered how the geysers worked. They recorded daily life on the isolated farms. They wrote reports on the fisheries. They came to sell Bibles and spread the word of God.
However, one person who came in 1878, during the time of emigration, didn’t come for a serious purpose. He and his fifteen companions came to party and visit the geysers. They did both. He was Anthony Trollope, Victorian England’s most popular novelist. When he returned to England he wrote a short account of this excursion. His account is deceiving because it says nothing about the importance of the visitors. A quick read through might leave the reader thinking these were just ordinary, everyday people who came to ride Icelandic horses and party with the elite of Reykjavik.
No ordinary people could afford to visit Iceland. If ordinary people saw Iceland it was sailors like the thirty-four crew on the yacht, The Mastiff that brought Trollope. The owner of the yacht was Mr. John Burns, the owner of the Cunard Lines. He lived at Castle Wemyss with his wife. He paid for the entire trip. The yacht, the supplies, the horses and guides. His fourteen guests were allowed to buy antique Icelandic jewelry and other trinkets but, otherwise, were not to mention money.
Trollope lists those guests but says nothing much about their social station or their accomplishments. For example, in the list of the members of the party, he simply says there is a  Mrs. H. Blackburn. He doesn’t tell us that the lady is Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909) a Scottish painter who was one of the most popular illustrators in Victorian Britain. She illustrated 27 books. She provides the illustrations for Trollope’s book, How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland.
The party’s two Nautical Advisors are Admiral Ryder and Admiral Farquhar. These are not honourary titles. Ryder is Sir Phillips Ryder, Admiral of the Fleet. Farquhar is a Scottish rear-admiral. One guest is simply described as Mr. Albert Grey. He is Earl Grey, the son of a former prime minister of England and a member of Parliament.

Besides Jemima, there are three other women, Miss Campbell, Miss Stuart and Miss Reddie along to keep Mrs. Burns company. These are no helpless, shrinking Victorian violets. They’re horsewomen and manage to outride all but the Icelandic guide.
In the next excerpt, I’ll tell you about the beginning of this madcap adventure to Iceland. But before we get to Reykjavik, we’ll visit a couple of interesting ports along with the distinguished partiers.
(with notes from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went To Iceland and Wickipedia)

Denouement in Reykjavik

We had a disagreement during supper. Joseph had misjudged me. He said if I’d write a letter nominating Gorbachev for the Nobel prize for Peace, someone would write a letter nominating me for the Nobel prize in Literature.
I’d have been happy to write the letter but I was insulted by the idea that first of all, I could be bribed and, secondly, that I was so vain that I would think that I was anything more than a minor Canadian writer. I don’t handle hurt feelings well and, instead of letting the suggestion pass, I hit back by saying maybe Joseph should nominate Brodsky. Joseph looked like he was going to choke on his caviar. We’d hardly spoken to each other for the rest of the meal.
On the way back to the hotel, Joseph said, I’ll check to see if Ivan is there. He can’t be trusted to get things right. Maybe he’s not arranged your train tickets properly and your visa is running out. At the hotel, Joseph had gone ahead and come back immediately.
“He’s not here. Go to your room in case he phones. I’ll start checking to find him. There’s only an hour. This is very serious. You could be in a great deal of trouble. Do not leave until I call.” I went to my room, unsettled by the unexpected conflict, and finished my packing. I was, suddenly worried, remembering all the warning I’d been given before I left Canada. All the relatives who’d said the Checka or the KGB or the GRU would get me. That I would disappear into the Gulag and glasnost and peristroika were nothing but a trick.
I thought about the day when I was in my office at the university and someone had knocked on my door. I’d opened it and a man with brown hair and brown moustache had said he wanted to talk to me. As he came into the room, he flashed his ID but so quickly I couldn’t read the card. “My name is Brown,” he said. “I’m with SIS. I went and sat behind my desk. He took a chair opposite me. SIS is not supposed to come onto Canadian campuses.
“We heard,” he said, “you are going to Ukraine.” I nodded once. “You had a meeting here, in Victoria, with a Joseph Rapunski.”
“He’s a journalist. He was with a group of musicians.”
“That’s his cover. He’s a KGB major. He’s their minder. His job is to see no one defects. How did you meet?”
“He works for a magazine in Kiev. They publish my work.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go. There’ll be traps. Sparrows.” When he saw I didn’t understand, he said, “Young girls. Pretty girls. Ballerinas who have to make an extra dollar or two. Photographs in compromising positions.”
“I’m a bachelor,” I replied. “They’d be trophy photos.”
He went very still. “A smart alec,” he said. “You don’t want to be a smart alec with these people. Your Joseph is a KGB major.”

I sat there and didn’t say anything. Finally, he stood up. “Have a good trip,” he said.
We’d had a little party the evening before I left and the next door neighbor said, “Look for a good Ukrainian girl to marry, Bill. One who’ll stay home and who can cook.”
A friend of theirs had gone to the Ukraine years before and when he’d got back to Canada, he kneeled down and kissed the ground. He’d wanted to visit the village from which his people came. Now, I had been told everything had changed.
I began to pace, something I had not done for a long time, then I remembered what Olga and Margarita had both said, that Ivan never left anything to chance, that everything was checked three times because when he started the job, he’d made a mistake and he never wanted that to happen again. They’d also said if there was a mistake it wasn’t my problem. The hammer would come down on Ivan. He’d lose the meals he loved so much and the first class travel and entertainment. I picked up my bag and went out into the hall. There was no baba in her little room. I slipped down the back stairs. I caught Joseph and Ivan sitting in the Intourist Office, talking and laughing. When Joseph saw me he looked shocked and quickly said, “I have just found him. I was going to call you.”
“Good,” I said. I ignored the empty brandy glasses sitting on the table and said to Ivan,. “Joseph thought you might have got lost.”
Ivan looked away and his face flushed the way it always did when he was uncomfortable. We went to the cash bar in the foyer and Joseph bought us all double brandies. I took a sip of mine, then put it down.
At the platform, Joseph said good bye. My annoyance was overshadowed by a feeling that we wouldn’t meet again, not the three of us, that one of us was going to die. Sometimes the future comes to me like this and it makes me afraid. I thought of the good things about Joseph. How I owed him this trip. After we’d had coffee together at a mutual friend’s house and he’d returned to Ukraine, he’d called me in the middle of the night and said, “Bill, it’s Joseph. You want to come to Ukraine.” I’d agreed and in a couple of weeks, a letter of invitation had arrived. I thought it was Joseph who would meet me at the airport, who would show me around but it was Ivan who was in charge. Now, grateful for a trip of a lifetime, I said, “Don’t work too hard. I don’t want to come back and hear that you’ve died of a heart attack.”
“No, no, don’t say that. That’s bad luck.” If he’d dared, I think he would have crossed himself.
It turned out it wasn’t Joseph. It was Ivan. After he dropped me off, he picked up a group of Americans at Shermetyvo. He’d toured them around for two weeks, then took them back to the airport. He then caught the train back to Kiev by himself–when I read the letter I’d got telling me of the circumstances of his death, I could hear the roar of Moscow station, the thousands of feet on the floor sounding like surf, the lines of people moving like a dark current, the piles of brilliant Egyptian oranges being sold by Gorbachev’s new entrepreneurs, and Ivan’s short, wide shape and worn coat, moving ahead of me–and had been killed on the train. The letter and the obituary I got in the mail made it sound like an accident. But one night late the phone rang and it had been someone wanting help with a visiting writer from the USSR. I’d mentioned Ivan, how he’d been killed in an accident and the caller said, it wasn’t that way. Ivan had been murdered. After I put the phone down, I wondered who would dare murder a travel guide. He wasn’t, I was sure, just a travel guide but like Joseph, had a second career. When they were together they were equals, neither gave the other orders. I assumed  that meant he was also a KGB major.
For the next few days I thought about the train a lot, remembering the compartments with their stainless steel bars which locked the doors, the passageway, the conductress who kept such a close eye on things that the first time I used the washroom at the end of the coach and had knocked on the he wrong compartment door, she’d come flying down the passageway, saying, “Nyet, nyet!” The only place he could be murdered without witnesses was in a washroom or in his own compartment.
Ivan, though, had suffered from loneliness and, late in the evening, sometimes visited the day coaches. Good people sit back there, he said. I understood that. I, too, had shoved my way up from the working class but the cost was never feeling like I belonged. It is always like I’m just visiting and never really know the rules or the language.
Ivan was new at his job. “Good in Spanish,” he’d said, during that first taxi ride from the airport, “good Russian, good Ukrainian but only school English.” He’d been nervous about his English. “Maybe you want someone with better English.” He sounded like he hoped it wasn’t true.
“Your English is better than my Ukrainian so I won’t complain.”
The good Spanish came from four years in Cuba. In some minor job. I knew that because when I’d asked him about Castro, he’d only seen him passing in a car.
He had difficulty setting limits. He over ate and although he said, “Gorbachev says no to drunkards.” and refused to drink alone, he still liked to drink. Too much food, too much liquor had stretched his clothes tight. I ran up the stairs leading to the Museum of the great Patriotic War. Half-way up, Ivan had to stop to rest. I ran down to see if he was all right. His face was purple. His breathing was labored and it was five minutes before his colour was normal..
On the last day in Moscow, just before we left for the airport, I took everything I didn’t need for the return trip and piled them on the table and said these are for you. Do what you want with them. I’d meant it as a favor. I thought he might make enough to replace his worn black coast.
After the late night phone call, I often sat in the kitchen thinking about the fact that I’d got part of it right on the platform in Kiev. Be careful, I should have said to Ivan. Sit with your back to wall. Slow down on the food. His marriage was over but his wife and he still had to live in the same apartment. Get a girlfriend, I should have told him, on your travels,  so loneliness doesn’t drive you down train passageways late at night. I put the obituary in my scrapbook, along with my pictures of Kiev.
That would have been the end of it except the Canadian Embassy in Oslo called and asked me to go to Iceland for four days. The first night in Reykjavik, I found myself walking with the cultural attaché through the pouring rain, looking for a restaurant which seemed to constantly elude us. The attaché’s specialty was the Eastern block so I asked him who would dare kill a travel guide?
The attaché was thin and dark and was trying to salvage his umbrella which the wind had turned inside out.
“Criminals,” he said. “Organized crime is a serious problem. The soldiers coming back from Afghanistan are well organized and heavily into the black market. Something that’s worth only a few dollars here is worth a lot there. They’ll kill you for our shoes.”
I thought about the pile of razors and chocolates and writing materials and clothes I’d piled on the table. Three shirts. I wondered, in a job where scarce goods came as gifts, if a man who liked his food too much might not drift into dangerous waters.
“Political?” I asked.
“Something personal, more likely. An argument, perhaps. People get killed for crazy reasons.”
The rain was sheeting down and we were both huddled under an awning. The attaché shoved the umbrella into a garbage container. I studied the neon signs across the street. The restaurant for which we had been searching was directly opposite. We had passed it twice without seeing the entrance. Sometimes, one misses the obvious.
“One has to ask though, why they want you to think he’s dead,” the attaché said.
The wind suddenly shifted, driving the rain sideways, soaking us with ice cold water. I gasped with the shock and wished I’d stayed inside.
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” I said.