Embrace Our Heritage Part 8

If we want to embrace our heritage, we must know a number of basic things about the Iceland of the 1800s. Even some of the most ordinary things are so different that, today, they require explanation.
For example, in Canada, land is valued and sold by size. In Iceland our families valued land by what it produced. That value wasn’t expressed in kronur or rigs dollars but in Wadmal. Or it was expressed in how much fish an ell of wadmal was worth, that is two heads of fish and a fraction.
Many valuations were made in hundreds. When I first came across it, the term hundreds, like the term ell, completely puzzled me. How can one embrace one’s heritage when even the most basic concepts are not understood? How can one understand one’s people,  how they thought, what they believed, when something as simple as measurement isn’t understood?
What was a hundred? In 1810, the value of a hundred represented one milk cow or two horses. Each of the horses would be worth 60 ells. That half a hundred would be worth a horse and half a hundred was worth 60 ells of wadmall which was, remember, 2 3/8 English feet.
In 1872 a hundred represented six milk or eight milkless ewes; or eighteen sheep, one or two years old. A hundred is equal to 240 fish weighing over two pounds.
A major concern of the landowning farmers–and most immigrant families were not landowning farmers–was that Icelandic women had a lot of children. Many had 12 or more.
Grazing land was in short supply and when there was poor weather, people on marginal land became paupers could not feed their sheep and cows. A family of parents and twelve children became fourteen paupers. There was a law that said men couldn’t marry unless they were worth four hundreds. That meant they needed enough land to support the equivalent of four cows. That was what was needed to support a family. If you couldn’t afford to support a family, you couldn’t have one. If you want to know what a struggle it was to support a family read Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Bjartur of Summerhouses attempts it and fails.
Today, we are used to instant communication. The internet, the IPad, the Kindle, the tablet, the telephone, email, courier service, have been around long enough for people to forget how slow communication was only fifty years ago. This is a major change over a relatively short time. I remember when my parents got a telephone. Before that if there was an emergency and people only phoned in emergencies, my mother’s parents who lived in Winnipeg, phoned the local doctor and a member of his family came to get my mother. West of Gimli some local farmers created their own phone line using the barbed wire fences. News and entertainment were delivered by radio.
In the land of our ancestors, there were no telephones, no roads, and a mail system that was inefficient, cumbersome and incredibly slow. In Copenhagen a letter could be posted but only the cost to Iceland could be paid. When a letter arrived in Reykjavik, it would sit there unless a friend re-posted and paid the postage to its destination in Iceland. Letters written in January might not be reach the east coast of Iceland until July. Burton says that “There is a northern courier road which takes five days via Reykholt and Arnarvatnsheiði to Akureyri but in winter it is impassable.” A postman only visits the eastern coast a few times during the year. No overnight courier service there.
Gudmundur Stefansson, an Icelandic immigrant in Canada,  refers to the high cost of mail when he says “Since it is costly to send many letters to Iceland from  here, please let our relatives at Eyjadalsa read this scribble, if you yourself, can read it. I do not want them to hear our news second hand.”
Research about this first world, the world of Iceland in the 1800s is full of surprises. Strange as it may seem, there was a demand from Europe for the hair of Icelandic women. Traders came to Iceland and traveled from farm to farm to buy hair. It is details like this that surprise me, make me realize how little I really know about my heritage.
I have discovered the existence of Luasa-fé, the rent on movable property, especially cattle and sheep, opposed to land, or even land with its cattle. The rent was generally levied in butter.
In the immigrant ships‘ manifests, many of our male ancestors are listed as farmers. However, most of them were not farm owners but share croppers.
Most of our ancestors usually rented farms from year to year, with the right of the landlord to evict them with six months notice. They could be evicted for neglect or misconduct. Rich people with political connections with the sherrif and the local priest and government officials found it easy to prove that poor people had neglected something or misbehaved. Our people were often critized for not having initiative and improving the land they rented but people had little reason to improve rented land because the rents would then be raised.
I think what surprised me most, since I was brought up to believe that Iceland was a country where everyone was equal, was the social and legal ranking of the tenants on a farm. How can we embrace our heritage if we don‘t know what our people were? 
Which of these following six were your ancestors? Mine were Kaupamenn.
1.   Bonders, the land owners. These were the big shots. They had economic, social and political power.
2.   Husmenn. People who have houses at a farm but can´t use the pastures or make hay. They were just renters.
3.    Kaupamenn, labourers working for hire.
4.    Hjaleigumenn, crofters, they occupy a small farm that is part of a larger farm. Share croppers.
5.    Servants Vinnumenn
6.    Paupers,

Embrace Our Heritage Part 7

Ragnaheiður Straumfjord Magnusson´s spinning wheel, thought to have been made in Canada, now in Lauga Magnusson’s possession (Winnipeg, May 2012) Photograph W. D. Valgardson

When our ancestors came to Canada, butter was still being used as currency. In 1878, Athony Trollope, the English novelist who comes to Iceland as a guest of John Burns on the yacht, The Mastiff, is amazed that there is no bank in Reykjavik. Where there is no currency, there is no need for a bank. Although sour butter could be kept for years without spoiling, no bank wanted to keep its vault full of butter.
Our ancestors, if they were share croppers, paid their rent and debts in June and July with the “wool which was washed and ready for sale; and in September and October by wether-mutton smoked and cured; by grease and tallow, and by sheep-skins and lamb-skins with the coat on.” They reserve the butter and cheese (skyr) mostly for household use. “…Besides supplying food, the animals yield material for local industries—coarse cloth, clothes, frocks and jackets, mittens, stocking and socks.”
The production of wool and turning it into clothes was an essential part of life in Iceland. In Iceland, Burton says “The principal occupation of the women is spinning yarn during the summer, and knitting and weaving in winter. A rude loom fixed and upstanding…stands in every farm. A good hand can weave three yards a day.”
This wadmal was sold by the ell. You can’t embrace what you don’t know or understand and I, when I first came across a measurement called an ell, had  never heard of it and didn’t know what it meant. What was an ell? It was two Danish feet and two Danish feet were two and three eighths English feet. Our ancestors had to be able to do these comparative sums in their heads. In some places, these measures were drawn on church walls so people could check to see that they were measuring correctly.
How important was all this making of coarse cloth, all this knitting? Mr. Consul Crowe (he was an English consul) in his report of 1870-71 reports that there were 76,816 two threaded stockings produced, one threaded, 1,092, Socks, 28,431, mittens, one fingered, 55,601, full fingered, 69 and wadmal, measured in yards, 280. Your ancestors and mine knitted and wove some of those stockings, mittens, wadmal.
In writing a book, you dishonour a people and a subject by making errors. It is your obligation as an author to get facts right. This is as true for fiction as non-fiction. To include errors because of casual carelessness insults the subject. However, even with the best of intentions, the closest attention to the material, errors crop up. Often an author is tripped up by the obvious because it is the obvious that isn’t checked and double checked. The devil in writing is always in the details. I had mentioned in an early draft of one story in What The Bear Said that a farmer was shearing his sheep. However, that detail was wrong and had to be changed. Fortunately, I kept researching and stumbled across the fact that sheep were not sheared. The wool was pulled off when it came loose.
During my childhood many homes in New Iceland had spinning wheels. They were essential to survival in Iceland. In the beginning, they were essential to survival in New Iceland. These spinning wheels, along with carders and combs were a common sight. These spinning wheels were part of the In Between World. However, what was called European cloth was available in New Iceland. There were North American fashions and clothes that more properly suited the climate with its hot summers and cold winters.
My great grandmother, Freddrika Gottskalksdottir had a spinning wheel in her living room. Our great grandmothers’ spinning wheels have pride of place in many of our homes but, today, they are not essential parts of our lives. They are treasures from the past. They are reminders of our families, bits of nostalgia.
In spite of the general poverty in Iceland with its one crop (grass) economy, caused by the cold summers that kept the grass from growing, Burton says “The peasant sells his cattle and sheep to buy for himself vile tobacco; “bogus” cognac; brenivin or kornschnaps,and perhaps even “port” and “sherry;” and for his wife chignon and crinolines, silks and calicoes, instead of the homely but lasting frieze cloth. His grandfather infused Iceland moss; he must drink coffee, while raisins…are replaced by candied or loaf sugar…The Althing has attempted to curb the crying evil of ever increasing drunkneness, the worst disease of the island because the most general”.
If we are going to embrace our heritage, we need to embrace all of it and that includes the Danish trading posts that sold 600 gallons of cheap brandy every year. That includes some Danish trade ships that, instead of bringing desperately needed goods such as horseshoes, metal bars, rye flour, they brought only cheap brandy because it gave the greatest profit.

The Trading Ships

It‘s 1872 and after a long, hard winter, isolated from neighbouring farms by wind, snow and sleet that come in howling storms, trapped inside with no heat but body heat from the other household members plus some heat from the cattle in their pens, it‘s time to ride to the coast to a Markaðr, the annual trip to trade goods with the Danish ships that have anchored off-shore, a trip that each way may take ten days.

The winter has been spent with everyone knitting and weaving on a fixed and standing loom. The good weavers wove three yards a day of wadmal, as the cloth is called. It comes in a variety of colors: grey, black, light blue, the russet brown of undyed wool, and sometimes white.

On the trip to the trading station, every rider had two horses so that the rider could change as the horses got tired. With them was also a string of pack horses loaded with supplies. In the packs would be woolen mittens, stockings, fine socks, ordinary wadmal jackets, fine wadmal jackets, wool, eiderdown, other bird feathers, tallow, butter, salted mutton and beef. There might even have been one or two fox skins and maybe some bird skins. Swan skins have become rare by this time, and command a high price.

Women rode side saddle to the harbour where the trading fair was held. Side-saddles were little more than chairs set sideways on a horse. The side-saddles gave the rider little control over the horse and women were at greater risk than men when fording rivers. The side-saddles used for this yearly event had unusually elaborate foot-boards, with backs of worked brass to display the farmer’s wealth and status.

As you get closer to the harbour, you can see other groups of horses and riders that are descending from the hills and, before you, groups of farmers and peasants have already gathered in clusters in front of the shore. The men greet each other with the traditional kiss, then study the ships.

You pitch your tents and begin by finding out what is being charged and paid by the Danish merchants. No cash changes hands. Everything is done by trading goods. The Danes control both the selling and buying prices.

The Sýslumaðr, in his gold-laced cap and uniform buttons struts about to keep order, because the drinking is heavy. The Sýslumaðr was similar to a sheriff. He was granted an area called Sýsla in which he was responsible for collecting tolls, taxes and fines, and upholding the law. The Danish merchants are free-handed with liquor before the bargaining begins so there is a party atmosphere to the gathering.

The men row out to the two Danish ships and scramble up the ladders. The women wear white head-kerchiefs over their usual black caps, and instead of shawls they cover their shoulders with short scarves that reach only to the waist. In spite of their bulky petticoats, they manage to climb the ladders and over the gunwales of the ships.

The ships have been constructed like a store. There´s a desk and a counter. Sometimes, the stores supply most of the Icelanders necessities—dry goods, clothes and caps, saddlery, wool carders, querns of basalt for grinding grain, horse shoes, and spinnning wheels; sugar, grain, tobacco, and especially rye spirits. Everything is needed: timber, salt, grain, coffee, spices. The timber consists of pine and fir, the forms are beams for roofing and framing, twenty-two to twenty-four feet long, one-inch boards for siding for houses, three-inch planks and finer woods for the cabinet maker. Salt is essential for salting both fish and meat and the only local salt that is available sometimes is called dirty salt because it comes from burning seaweed. There may be birch wood, sawn and split for fuel, but it is not for ordinary people. Only the Danish merchants can afford it. There are cereals – rye and wheat – that can be bought as grain, flour or already made into biscuits. The farmers prefer the grain because the flour is often mouldy or in poor condition. Buying grain means the laborious task of grinding it with a handmill but that is work for the servants. They can do that when they are not pounding hardfish with a stone hammer to ready it for eating. You will be buying a lower-quality rice in quantity, because, like most Icelanders, you like to make rice milk. In the years between 1864 and 1870, the amount of imported rice quintupled. The available spices are usually cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Twist tobacco is bought for chewing as well as smoking. The favorite form of tobacco is snuff.

The merchants have a large cargo of port, sherry, claret and champagne, rum and cognac, and even cherry brandy to trade with the better off farmers. Most such liquor is expensive and of poor quality. Sometimes, the traders bring so much liquor that they don’t have room for the supplies the Icelanders want and need. The brennivin, kornschnapps and rye spirits are cheap. The profits for the traders are high.

According to F. R. Burton, who attended one of these markets, there was considerable hard drinking and loud hymn singing at night.

When the trading and visiting are done, it is time to return to the farm. The horses’ pack saddles are set on pieces of turf to protect the horses from saddle sores. Each saddle has wooden pegs jutting from its sides, and wooden chests full of the traded goods are hung from the pegs. The trip will be slow because the packs often shift and have to be righted.

Although it is summer, traversing the quaking bogs, ravines and rivers may be made more difficult by rain, sleet and snow. The hæði and the river fords have holes filled with quicksand that horses sink into and have to be pulled out. Some rivers have ice rushing down from the glaciers.There is the occasional ferry. In most cases, it is a small rowboat that can only take people and their supplies. The horses have to be driven into the water to swim for the other bank. Some turn back and have to be caught and forced back into the river. Most of the time, though, there is no ferry and you have to follow a local guide across the least dangerous path.

But you‘ve been to visit the fair, boarded the trade ships, purchased at least some of the goods you need for the coming year, seen people you haven´t seen for twelve months, caught up on news. In the weeks ahead, there is shortening daylight, growing darkness, winter wind and rain and cold, but you‘ve been to the fair, been inside the ships and bought at least some of the things you’ll need to survive for another year.

(With notes and quotes from F.R. Burton, 1872)