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.

Saving or heritage: clothes

 Sunna Pam Furstenau. Photo taken by her cousin, Hjálmar Stefán Brynjólfsson. The upphlutur is modern and was sewn by Oddný Kristjaánsdóttir.
One of the most noticeable things in photos taken during and shortly after immigrants arrived in Canada are their clothes. You see crowds on train platforms and you know right away from where these people have come. Icelandic clothes, German clothes, Ukrainian clothes, Mennonite clothes. 
Today, the same is true in the West End of Winnipeg. You see people in clothes from the Middle East and from Africa. You know they’re definitely not Icelandic and that they’re probably recent arrivals.
The most obvious sign of integration and assimilation into Canadian society is the changing of ethnic clothes for whatever the local people wear. Part of that is because people want to fit in. However, the need to wear clothes appropriate to both work and the climate are paramount. 


Photo from

Icelanders wore clothes in Iceland that were suitable for unheated houses that were constantly damp. The people also were constantly damp. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses says that he has been wet all his life and it has never done him any harm. Visitors to Iceland in the 1800s frequently mention being soaked through and how difficult it was to get their clothes dried out before they had to put them on the next day.

C. W. Shephard in 1867 and his companions, trapped for days by a May storm, decide to go out to try to bag some wild fowl. He says, “returning at night, draggled and drenched, to cook our supper in the dark recesses of the kitchen, while we hung up our soaking garments in the vain hope that the smoke from the smouldering fire might dry them.”
There were no roaring log fires, no fireplaces, no chimneys, only holes in the floor where the precious fuel of dwarf willow, peat and dried sheep dung were burned to cook porridge or bake flat bread. Skyr didn’t require cooking. Neither did dried fish. It was pounded with a stone hammer until it could be chewed.
Visitors to Iceland in the 1800s and even before always comment on the clothing that Icelandic women wear. There are often long sections describing women’s clothes. These are frequently accompanied by sketches or paintings. There are fewer descriptions of men’s clothes.
John Coles, in 1882, describes Jón of Vidrkær this way: He wore a dark suit of homespun cloth of homely cut, trousers much patched about  the knees regardless of colour and material, a black felt wideawake, and a knitted comforter round the neck…Though in outward looks he may have passed for a gentleman in reduced circumstances rather out at elbows, he was prompt in action, civil, and obliging. A bargain was soon struck for the hire of his services as guide”
Photo from
Jon’s wife, Johanna Katrin, is described as “a fair woman, about 30 years of age, with a pleasing expression of face and bright, healthy complexion. She wore the usual Icelandic cap with silken tassel falling down on one side of her head, and a thick woollen dress, such as is worn by any Scotch wife.”
S. E. Waller arrives in Reykjavik on a Sunday in 1874 and says this, “Just about this time the beauty and fashion of Reykjavik came pouring out of church, and we had ample opportunity for inspecting any peculiarities of dress and appearance. Many of the Iceland ladies wore bonnets and carried parasols of Danish or English manufacture, but the generality had nothing on their heads but the little black woolen cap with the silver ornament and long silk tassel used alike by rich and poor,  in-doors and out. The fashionable colour was black…The men were all dressed in dark clothes, and almost all had round felt hats.”
The appearance of the parasols and bonnets indicate that even in Iceland clothing is changing, being influenced by European fashion in Reykjavik.

Sketch by Jemima Blackburn, from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland, 1878

However, when Trollope comes to Iceland in 1878, he writes with great enthusiasm about “Our other Iceland beauties, Sigridur and Gudrun, were there in the full picturesqueness of their native costume. It was all very unlike the dresses of our own girls, but most unlike no doubt in the head-dress. This consisted of a white hat, with, I think, yellow bands to it, made something in the shape of Minerva’s helmet, with the crest turned forwards. From this depended a light veil covering the shoulders, and hanging down the back, but leaving the face free. Then there was a jaunty jacket, partly open in the centre, with large bright buttons down the front and on the sleeves. The skirt beneath was of some bright colour, projecting forward like an extinguisher, coming even quite down to the ground so as to hide the feet, but with no inclination towards a train. In fact it seemed to be of exactly the same length before and behind. The head-dress, as may be seen in the excellent portrait furnished by our artist, for which Sigridur had that morning sat, is very pretty. The costume as a whole is picturesque and the jacket is becoming.”
As hard as life in Iceland could be, account after account describes the shock of the Icelandic immigrants in Canada when winter set in. Icelanders had never experienced anything like it. Their houses in Iceland were made of layers of rock and turf with walls two to six feet thick. Heat was provided by body heat. Twenty people might sleep in one room. Often, heat came from the sheep and cows that were stabled next to the living quarters. Clothes were made of wool. Wool holds body heat even when wet. However, body heat and wool couldn’t keep anyone warm in forty degrees below zero in a Canadian winter.
Survival required that the Icelanders adapt in every way possible, including their clothes, as quickly as possible. The picturesque quality of the women’s clothes didn’t keep them warm.
Also, many women stayed in the cities, particularly Winnipeg, and took work as domestics. There, they learned English ways of being clean, of dressing in an English way, of how they needed to dress to fit into city society. They had risked hardship and death for opportunity and were determined to make the best of their traveling to a new country.
Living conditions outside of the city were extremely difficult. For the first few years, just as in Iceland, the struggle was to get enough food to survive. But building homes that would hold out the cold and hold in the heat from stoves was also a challenge. Cutting down trees, grubbing out tree roots, tilling the earth, were completely new. There was no farming in Iceland beyond pounding sheep manure to dust and then spreading it on the home field. The frost heaves made scything difficult and everyone worked at the haying but this wasn’t harvesting as it was known in Canada.
Icelandic clothing had to give way to clothing suitable for daily life in a country where the summers were hot, the winters, cold. Icelandic clothes had to be regulated to the closet where they would remain except for special occasions.
Today, women still wear the traditional Icelandic dresses on special occasions such as weddings or formal occasions. They are most seen at Islindingadagurinn , the INL convention or August the Deuce. They are a way of reminding people of the time of immigration, of our heritage. They’re a way of saying, “Remember your mother or amma or lang amma or lang lang amma. Remember our Icelandic heritage.”
Today, we can encourage the wearing of historic Icelandic women’s clothes as a way of reminding ourselves of our identity. It helps arouse curiosity. It gives us a chance to answer questions, to impart a bit of history. It helps set us apart as our ethnic clothes are different from that of others. 
Wearing clothes from the time of immigration pays respect to our ancestors. It says, I remember you. I haven’t forgotten. However, it would be good if at various functions there were displays naming and explaining the different costumes so that along with a sense of the exotic there is an element of education for both ourselves and strangers.
I’m quite sure that Sunna Pam Furstenau has a lot more impact on her audiences because she’s wearing her traditional Icelandic costume.             

Trollope’s picnic, Iceland,1878

Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)

In 1878, Iceland, faced with disastrous weather, recent volcanic eruption, the continuing domination of Denmark in spite of the new constitution brought to Iceland by Christian IX in 1874, was riven with conflict. Some, seeing the end of Danish rule, the actual appearance of coinage brought in payment by the English and Scottish traders who were buying cattle, the possibility of Icelanders becoming merchants and traders instead of just the providers of goods to trade in a monopoly situation, were strongly opposed to the emigration that was going on. These were the nationalists and idealists. Also opposed were the better off large landowning farmers who were seeing their cheap labour disappear and, as a result, wages, little as they were, going up. In a marginal economy with one crop, hay, even well-to-do farmers could be reduced to penury by a summer when the grass didn’t grow. Conservative, opposed to change, the dominant land owners’ solution was to keep costs as low as possible. That meant keeping the majority of the population as indentured servants. On the other hand those who had no future were determined to leave. They rode, or often walked, to the coast, waited for ships that were frequently delayed by bad weather. The conflict between those who wanted no emigration and those determined to search for a life where there was opportunity was often bitter.
In the midst of this social upheaval, the Mastiffs, Trollope says “were all engaged in frivolous pursuits of buying silver ornaments and talking to the good-natured people in the shops, – all of whom seemed to possess a little English”
John Burns, the wealthy host of the trip, was busy on his own errands. He was going about Reykjavik asking “all the greater people of the town to come and eat dinner on board the Mastiff.” Burns also decides that there should be a picnic in the afternoon of the Saturday even though the dinner is Saturday night. None of the travelers, of course, has anything to do but be presentable. The food was prepared by the on-board cook.
Trollope has mentioned before that except for curds (skyr?), milk and cream, none of the travellers try any Icelandic food. On the coming Monday, they intend to pack a hundredweight of English cooked meat and bread with them to the Geysers.
The picnic is a great success. Thora “the divine” goes with them. She’s fluent in English and can translate for them. They sail three or four miles to an island devoted to the breeding of eider ducks.
Thora leads them to the home of the owner of the island. For Iceland, he has a fine house. Trollope can’t resist a little sarcasm by saying that Icelanders all seem to like English gold and gives as an example a lot of Icelandic silver work set out on the piano that is obviously there so the English visitors will buy it. Word, it would seem, has gone ahead about the Mastiffs shopping for trinkets in Reykjavik.
Trollope says that it was while they were having their picnic that “Thora made herself so divine that our Wilson seemed altogether to succumb to her attractions.”
 According to Trollope, the picnic lunch was stupendous. However, they didn’t dally as they had to get back to the Mastiff to prepare for “the grand dinner.”
The English travellers are worldly, used to the best of everything. Their lives could probably be described as sumptuous. There is nothing in Iceland to compare with Castle Wymess or even the grand houses of the other members of the party. To these visitors, intent not on geology, politics, history, ornithology, but only on seeing the famous geysers, what must be, for them, a primitive and poor society is no more than amusing. It’s a diversion paid for by someone else. Unlike Charles Lock they are not in search of the Eddas. Of course, it is impossible to know what any of the other party members thought or felt for it is throughTrollope’s lens that everything is reported and his description is constrained by good manners and obligation.
There is probably no more telling detail of the attitude of the travellers to the Icelanders than the attitude toward Icelandic food. What was available, it is true, was limited. And, one might add, when the Danish king came to Reykjavik, the food for the banquet in the city was brought with him. However, when the reception in his honour was held at the Almannagjá, it was Icelandic food that was served him and no one mentioned that he declined.
The only items of value to the English travellers, it seems, are the bits and pieces of silver jewelry that are bought as souvenirs and, even some of these, Trollope says, may have come from the British Isles. Unlike S. E. Waller, a young painter who, inspired by the sagas, had so little money that he could not afford more than three horses and a single guide, the Mastiffs were not seeking the home of Burnt Njál. Waller travelled across Iceland to paint scenes from the sagas. Even a small amount of money would have made his travels less arduous. However, the Icelandic farmers, recognizing that he was not rich, befriended him. He learned something of the Icelandic people’s generosity and kindness. They often provided food and accommodation without charge. Nor did they charge for their precious grass. Waller came to Iceland with a deep appreciation of Icelandic literature and history. He sought, in the face of hardship, to create something of lasting value. The Mastiffs brought nothing, it seems, with them beyond English gold and took away nothing but trinkets.