The Langspil, Mackenzie, 1810

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

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

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

Social class in Iceland, 1810

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

Trollope at Reykjavik, 1878

The Mastiff arrives in Reykjavik early in the morning. After bathing in the ocean, the travellers go ashore. 
They first visit Governor Finsen, the Governor-General of Iceland. Trollope comments on how kindly the sixteen unexpected guests were received. The Governor also provides them with all the information required for finding a guide and horses for their ride to the Geysers. 
From there, they go to the Sheriff’s, then to the Bishop’s ( The bishop is considered Iceland’s greatest theological writer since Gubrandur Thorlaksson, the first translator of the Bible into Icelandic. He served as a member of the Icelandic Althing, or parliament, from 1849 until 1886, for the last eleven years as speaker of the upper house.
There, they meet Thora, the Bishop’s daughter. She is so beautiful, so charming, so vivacious, that she is repeatedly mentioned in Trollope’s account of their stay in Reykjavik. He even suggests, teasingly, that one of the male members of the English party has fallen in love with Thora and might return to Iceland to court and marry her.    
He says, “But at the Bishop’s we became acquainted with Thora, the Bishop’s daughter. Thora, before we left, had become to all of us the heroine of Reykjavik. Even Wilson, the unhappy one, was softened altogether by the charm and wit of Thora, and became quite devoted and almost gay in her presence.” ( A book about Thora has recently been released in Iceland. Unfortunately, it is only in Icelandic.
After these formal visits to the dignitaries of Reykjavik, they roam about town like typical tourists of today. They buy silver ornaments, silvered belts and filigree work as souvenirs. They also buy leather whips and satchels.
Fish, he notices, is spread out on every available piece of ground, that bread is rare and that the mutton (he was told) is good.
What is more interesting is that he says, “I do not think that any one of our party ate a morsel of Icelandic food during our sojourn beyond curds, cream, and milk, – unless it might be a biscuit taken with a glass of wine. Our provisions had all been brought from Scotland, and from our ship’s stores we carried with us up to the Geysers what was needed.” They ate no Icelandic lamb, no fish.
What he praises is the education of the people. However, he does not know that from his own experience. He quotes from Sir George MacKenzie who published a book about Iceland in 1811, sixty-seven years before.
“The amount of reading which certainly does prevail throughout Iceland is marvellous. There is hardly in the island what can be called an upper class. There is no rich body, as there is with us, for whose special advantage luxurious schools and aristocratic universities can be maintained. But there is a thoroughly good college at Reykjavik, with a rector and professors, at which a sound classical education is given; and there are now also minor schools….There are five newspapers published in the island, two of them at Reykjavik.”
He’s surprised that there is no bank. The result is that most commerce is based on the barter of goods. “The imports and exports are considerable, fish, oil, skins, tallow, and wool being sent away in exchange for timber, wood, tea, sugar, and all those thousand little articles of comfort which a civilised community uses every day almost without knowing it. But nothing can be imported or exported without payment being rendered in the old world fashion of barter.”
In a walk he took by himself around “the back of the town, where lies a little lake with marshy land around it, I found a number of women and children turning the peat for drying, or sending away in baskets on their ponies that which was fit, carrying on their operations very much as they do in Ireland. Fuel to them is a matter of great solicitude. During eight months of the year artificial warmth is necessary; and not only have they no coals, but neither have they wood. Coal imported from Scotland may be bought at Reykjavik; but as there is no carriage for anything through the country except on the backs of ponies, very little coal can ever be seen beyond the limits of the town.”
The Mastiffs are typical well-to-do tourists. Their accommodation is on the ship. They buy what souvenirs they can find. In Iceland, in 1878, the emigration to North America is well underway. Hunger is widespread, there’s been a major volcanic eruption, economic and social conditions are driving away what will eventually be twenty percent of Iceland’s population. There is no mention of any of it. There’s not even any awareness revealed.
It is, perhaps, instructive that Trollope made his walk around the back of the town by himself. Perhaps a writer, even one who has made himself a place among the wealthy and the prominent, has a wider interest in the world than his wealthy, privileged friends.
(Quotes from How the ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland)