Sheep make you rich

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 Their wool has been replaced by synthetics.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

Icelandic farm workers, 1772

In 1774, Uno von Troil wrote about how Icelanders were employed. They principally fish and take care of cattle.
In both summer and winter, they fish. When they return home after having cleaned their fish, they give them to their wives to dry them. During the winter, when the weather is so bad they can’t fish, they take care of their sheep and cows and spin wool. In summer, the mow the grass, dig turf, collect fuel and search for their sheep and goats that have wandered away. They also butcher their cattle. They weave wadmal that they wash in urine. Wives tan leather. A few men work with gold and silver.
The women, he says prepare fish, take care of cattle, the milk and the wool, sew, spin and gather eggs and down.
The amount of work farm workers have to do is set out in local bylaws. A man has to mow an area of 30 fathoms square of manured soil (as would grow on a tún) of hay. That’s a square of 180 feet. Or, if the land is not manured, then he has to scythe forty fathoms square, 240 feet to a side.
If he is not scything grass but digging turf, then he has to dig 700 pieces of turf eight feet long and three feet wide in a day.
If there is a snow fall and the snow piles up so it reaches the horses bellies (small Icelandic horses, remember, their bellies are close to the ground), he has to clear away snow from enough ground to feed a hundred sheep.
As for women, they have to rake as much hay as three men can scythe. That’s a square 90 x 90 fathoms or 540 feet to a side. If a woman is weaving, she has to weave three yards of wadmal in a day.
 The wages of man are four rigs dollars and twelve yards of wadmal. A woman gets two rigs dollars and five yards of wadmal.
When working men aren’t needed at the haying and are sent to the coast to fish from the 25th of September to the 14th of May, the farmer is to supply them with six pounds of butter and 18 pounds of dried fish every week. Von Troil thinks this is quite generous but then points out that when they are at the farm, they can get milk, skyr, etc. and that is not available at the fishing stations. When they are at the farm, the working men are to be fed five pounds of dried fish and three quarters of a pound of butter each week.
A hundred years later when our ancestors were faced with one natural calamity after another, cold weather, volcanic eruptions, communicable diseases, and they saw that it was now possible, because of the English ships that came to buy sheep and horses, that they could leave, conditions had not changed much for the people working on the farms.
Someone writing in 1872 would have said the chief occupations of the Icelanders is fishing and taking care of their cattle. There were no forests, mines, cities. Iceland was still a country of farms with the wealthy farm owners doing everything possible through politics and control of the law, to keep society the same. Why wouldn’t they? They had a supply of cheap labour. While the resources of the country were such that there was no wealthy aristocracy, descriptions of the well-to-do farmers show that they lived in comfort, that their children were educated, were given preference for positions in the civil service, the church and in business.
Given the scarcity of land, the poor wages that meant it was difficult to save enough money to buy even marginal land, the rules that restricted people from fishing more lucratively, it was no wonder that stories of land and opportunity were passed from farm to farm. If a man could scythe a field 180 feet square of manured hay in a day for someone else, he could scythe it for himself. If a woman could rake a square plot of hay 540 feet to a side in a day for a farm owner, she could rake it on her own farm just as well.
There was no way of creating more grazing land in Iceland. There were no opportunities for young people. Icelandic women, von Troil, says are very fertile, many have twelve or fifteen children. A farm could not be divided into twelve or fifteen plots. The eldest son might get the farm but that left a dozen brothers and sisters having to become indentured servants. This wasn’t just a problem in Iceland. The same problem, although perhaps not so severe, existed in other countries. In an agrarian society, everything depends on ownership and control of land. There is only so much of it.
A hundred years would pass from the time of von Troil’s visit until the emigration to North America began but little would change except, finally, the giving up of the Danish trade monopoly, the coming of the English and Scots with silver and gold that could be used to buy passage to the New World. The availability of ships that would take people to England and Scotland and others that would take them from there to North America. And, finally, the need of both the United States and Canada for settlers, a need that meant both governments and businesses such as the railways, would encourage and assist the emigration.
As a boy, I used a scythe but the most I scythed in a day was half a lot, 66 feet by 75 feet. It was hard work. To do it well, your body has to work like a machine, your arms and body swinging, not stopping until you need to take out a whetstone and sharpen the blade and that blade must be razor sharp. There is a skill to it. 
It demands much of your arms, your back, your legs. It is mind-numbing like any repetitious physical job. Paintings of the noble workers scything and raking hay may look romantic, nostalgic, but there is nothing romantic or nostalgic about work that turns people into machines. In Canada, the settlers worked on farms at harvest time to earn cash. The work was brutal but, at least, they said, there was lots of food. They were paid in cash and there was lots of food. And they were already living on their own land.