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)