Iceland,1929: the great adventure

Olive with her Icelandic horses

Olive Murray Chapman went to Iceland in 1929. She wrote a book, Across Iceland, about her adventure. Nineteen twenty-nine. Between the wars. WWI had ended in 1918, eleven years before her visit. WWII would begin in 1939, ten years after her visit.

Much has changed in Iceland. The most noticeable changes are roads and motor cars, although as her book makes clear, the roads sometimes were dried stream beds and the roads often ended abruptly. Waiting at the end of such road were horses, ready to take her and others to their destinations.

Think of it. An Englishwoman, on her own, not knowing the language, having only a pocket dictionary that was given to her by a friend. Her assets are self-confidence, good health and flexibility.

She starts out by taking a taxi from Edinburgh to the docks at Leith. She finds the Brúarfoss which she describes as “beautifully clean and very well appointed.” Two hours later, the ship sets sail. There is a lot of cargo, chiefly timber. The weather is so bad that during the first twenty-four hours no one eats. However, the next day, the weather improves and the passengers all come to breakfast.

She says, “It is the custom in an Icelandic boat to have tea or coffee at 8, breakfast at 11:30, coffee at 3:30, dinner at 5:30, and tea and biscuits at 8 o’clock.”
One of the great charms of Olive’s book, if I may be so familiar as to call her by her first name, is its naivety.

She meets “a cheery little Icelander” on board who speak English. She says to him that she is going to Iceland because “some years before I had met a charming Icelandic girl, and her description of the wonders and beauties of her native land had filled me with a desire to go and paint there. Also I was anxious to travel right across country from south to north if possible and to get to know something about the people and customs”.

The Icelander explains that she’ll need a tent and a guide. Olive says that she hopes to not have a regular guide but, instead, to travel from farm to farm, “taking ponies from different places, and local guides form stage to stage.”
The Icelander wants to know how she’ll manage since she doesn’t speak Icelandic. She shows him her pocket dictionary and says she’s going to ask someone to write out the phrases she will need. The Icelander goes over a map with her.

The ship, after stopping in the Westman Islands, reaches Reykjavik in four days. Given the early journeys of the sailing ships of the British explorers or even the ships that took the Icelandic emigrants to Leith, this is remarkable.

Her description of the four hour stop in the Westman Islands contains some nice details. She describes how the local fowlers risk their lives to capture birds. She also describes the drying of cod. However, it is her description of the taking on of passengers that I found most interesting.

“We remained at the islands four hours to unload cargo, and I watched a lot of timber being taken off in small boats; and after a party of Westman Islanders, who were coming to Reykjavik, were taken on board from a rowing-boat. The sea was rough and it was a wonder how they ever managed to get on board! The men would wait till a big wave would lift the boat on a level with the iron steps up the side of the “Brúarfoss”, they would then make a wild jump for it and land safely on the steps. The women were lifted up by a man in the rowing-boat and half thrown into the arms of two others who waited to catch them on the steps. One woman had a baby; it was thrown across and caught in the same casual way! Another had a crutch and her leg in irons, but somehow or other she was hauled aboard, and to my admiration none of the women showed the slightest fear or consternation whatever during this risky proceeding!One or two of them wore the national dress, with their hair in long plaits down their backs, but others wore quite fashionable coats with fur collars, and thin high-heeled shoes!”

I’ll write more about her journey. Although she is inclined to use adjectives with great abandon, she has a sharp eye and a good heart. By the time I finished this little book, I admired her greatly and wished that I could have known her. Her adventure is, perhaps, a small adventure, but it is definitely an adventure and took courage and resourcefulness. It is, after all, 1929. Travel in Iceland, in spite of motor cars, a few roads, and plucky little steamships, was still demanding . I’m not sure that I would have gone off to an unknown land with nothing but a pocket book of phrases.

Ebenezer Henderson’s Iceland

ebenezer

Ebenezer Henderson was the first British traveler to stay over a winter in Iceland. Other travelers had come but they stayed only during the summer. To stay longer was to risk being trapped by the weather. Raging storms regularly sank sailboats. There are many reports of foreign fishing vessels being sunk with no survivors. The evidence of such shipwrecks came in bits and pieces washing onto shore.

ebenezer2

There were no Inns in Iceland, no hotels as in mainland Europe. There were no roads. The weather that modern day tourists in Iceland talk about, horizontal rain, sudden bitter cold winds off the sea, having to take a set of warm underwear even though it is summer, all existed and, to make matters worse, today’s modern insulated, weather proof clothes didn’t exist.

Today, there are cafes and restaurants of many kinds, the tourist can buy a hot dog on the street or a fancy European style meal at the Pearl. In Henderson’s day, you brought your food with you plus all your equipment: cooking utensils, tents, clothes, gifts for farmers where you might stay.

Henderson endured an Icelandic winter because he was driven by his passion for spreading the Bible in a country where there were few Bibles. He was a messenger from both the English and Foreign Bible Society and God. Unlike the Mormon bishop forty years later in Laxness’s novel, Paradise Regained, Henderson was welcome wherever he went. That has to be qualified, of course, by the fact that he was, in spite of being a representative of his church and of God, a snob. He was not a street minister responsible for the welfare of the poor. He was welcome in the homes of Iceland’s upper class. In his daily life, he didn’t spend his time visiting the poverty stricken cottages of tenant farmers or labourers in whatever country in which he happened to be as he distributed bibles.

In Iceland, the ministers, whether pagan or Christian, served their political masters. It was no different in places like England. As Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, makes fun of Collins, the minister who is Elizabeth’s distant cousin, but who will inherit her family’s land through entailment, she gives us a clear picture of how he kowtows to his patron, Lady Catherine. It is Lady Catherine’s right to bestow a living upon the local minister. Collins knows that it is more important to please her than to please God. What the local dignitary can give, she can also take away.

Henderson pays no attention to the misery around him when he is in Iceland. He only wants to associate with those he feels are his social equals. He wants to discuss religious philosophy not the misery in the huts of the fishermen.

He comes with a purpose and a narrow view but, like travelers before and after him, Iceland captures his imagination. In the introduction to his book,

Iceland, Or, The Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815, he says “It is impossible for a stranger to take a single step in Iceland, without having some uncommon object of this description presented to his view; and I, in taking down notes of his progress, his principal difficulty lies in the selection of subjects where such a multiplicity claim his attention. It not infrequently happens that he is denied the pleasure of seeing a human being for several days together, when proceeding from one part of the island to another. In crossing the deserts of the interior, he may travel two hundred miles without perceiving the smallest symptom of animated being of any description whatever; and, even in traversing the inhabited parts, he still finds himself more surrounded by nature than by human society, owing to the distance from one farm-house to another.”

Today, the population has grown from 40,000 to over 300,000. Where there were horse tracks through the wilderness, there are now paved highways and tunnels. Iceland is the most wired country in the world. Airplanes and ships bring more visitors than there are Icelanders. The isolation Henderson describes has largely disappeared. Iceland is the Connected Country.

Iceland, over the last two hundred years, has drawn explorers and scientists, then wealthy tourists and, finally, the burgeoning of ordinary tourists. Henderson was not an ordinary tourist but, still, he left silver behind. There was a bit of money in some people’s pockets after his visit. Today, there is a lot of money left behind. Iceland has few natural resources outside of hydro electricity, other than its striking natural beauty. The uniqueness of the landscape brings people. They come for the Icelandic experience.

The danger is that in trying to attract those dollars and yen and marks and pounds people will create that which is not Icelandic, that which is something people can find anywhere. Tivoli is a historic part of Copenhagen. Coney Island is an integral part of New York. Disney Land is as brash as America.

The challenge for Iceland as it works to repair its economy and finds sources of wealth that will allow it to purchase all those things it does not produce at home (this is a struggle that has existed from the time of Settlement) is to retain its Icelandic character. People came and come for the sagas, for the Viking golden age, for the landscape, for the history, and , nowadays, for the artistic and intellectual events that are regularly held, not to participate in experiences they can better have elsewhere. I don’t want to sound like those Icelandic bishops that got a law passed that said, essentially, that Icelanders shouldn’t be allowed to have any fun but Carnival is best held in sunny climes.

In all the places I have traveled, what has intrigued and interested, fascinated me was the difference between my life and the life of the local people. If there hadn’t been this difference, I might as well have stayed home. Like Henderson, Waller, Burton and uncountable numbers of others, I love those things that make Iceland uniquely Icelandic. The challenge for Icelanders will be to bring tourist money to Iceland to help heal the wounds of the kreppa while retaining their historic, cultural and artistic heritage in this new, connected world.

On the Way to Iceland

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Travelers on the way to Iceland usually stopped at the Faroes. The descriptions of the Faroese and their houses are similar to what is later described in Iceland but with some surprising differences. Symington, like travelers before him, gets off the boat at Thorshaven and keen observer that he is, has this to say about the town.

“Houses, stone for a few feet next the ground, then wood, tarred or painted black, and generally two stories in height; small windows, the sashes of which are painted white; green turf on the roofs. The interiors of the poorer sort of houses are very dark; an utter absence of voluntary ventilation; one fire, and that in the kitchen, the chimney often only a hole in the roof. Yet even in these hovels there is generally a guest-room, comfortably boarded and furnished. In such apartments we observed chairs, tales, chests of drawers, feather-beds, down coverlets, a few books, engravings on the walls, specimens of ingenious native handiwork, curiosities, etc. This juxtaposition under the same roof was new to us, and struck every one as something quite peculiar and contrary to all our previous experiences. The streets of Thorshavn are only narrow dirty irregular passages, often not more than two or three feet wide; one walks upon are rock or mud. These passages wind up steep places, and run in all manner of zigzag directions, so that the most direct line from one point to another generally leads “straight down crooked land and all round the square.” Observed a man on the top of a house cutting grass with a sickle. Here the approach of spring is first indicated by the turf roofs of the house becoming green. Being invited, we entered several fishermen’s houses; they seemed dark, smoky, and dirty; and, in all, the air was close and stifling. In one, observed a savoury pot of puffin broth, suspended from the ceiling and boiling on a turf fire built open like a smith’s forge, the smoke finding only a very partial egress by the hole overhead; on the wall hung a number of plucked puffins and guillemots; several hens seen through the smoke sitting contentedly perched on a spar evidently intended for their accommodation. In the corner of the apartment; a stone hand-mill for grinding barley, such as Sarah may have used, lay on the floor; reminding one of the East, from whence the Scandinavians came in the days of Odin.

Faroese boatman

Faroese boatman

In passing along the street we saw strips of whale-flesh, black and reddish-coloured, hanging outside the gable of almost every house to dry, just as we have seen herrings in fishing-villages on our own coasts. When a shoal of whales is driven ashore by the boatmen, there are great rejoicings among the islanders, whose faces, we were told, actually shine for weeks after this their season of feasting. What cannot be eaten at the time is dried for future use. Boiled or roasted it is nutritious, and not very unpalatable. The dried flesh which I tasted resembled tough beef, with a flavour of venison. Being “blood-meat,” I would not have known it to be from the sea; and have been told that, when fresh and properly cooked, tender steaks from a young whale can scarcely be distinguished for beef-steak.”

This description is one of the best I’ve read simply for its details. Symington sees a man on the roof of a house with a sickle cutting grass for his livestock. Spring is heralded by the roofs of the houses turning green. He actually gives us a description of cooking being done and of both plucked birds and live chickens in the house. He tries the whale meat and describes it as tough beef.

The Faroese are less well known than the Icelanders. That may be for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps, in part, it was their greater willingness to be part of the Danish empire, partly because it was the Icelanders who had the sagas, partly because Iceland excited a great deal of curiosity during the 19th C. because of its geology. However, the Faroes have always been a safe harbour, a stopping point on a dangerous journey, and Icelanders have, through the centuries, sought shelter in Faroese harbours. The climate is just enough different that grain can be grown. There has been enough prosperity that as Symington describes, there are a variety of crafts, often admirably done in spite of the dark, dank, unhealthy living conditions.

It is a shame that the visitors who came to Iceland were more interested in the geology than the people. Because they come from wealthy, often noble families, they have little or no interest in ordinary people and if they comment on the fishermen or the paupers, it is dismissively. Even Ebenezer Henderson, the minister who comes to distribute Bibles is a snob, interested only in associating with individuals he considers worthy of his attention. His Christ would have been quite comfortable in the temple of the money changers.

The scientific reports that came of all the expeditions to Iceland have long ago become irrelevant. The mechanisms of the geysers have been revealed, the rocks, classified. Quite by accident, the simple fact that there were no commercial inns or hotels, meant that the people where the travellers stayed were described. That, ironically, is what is valuable.

It is impossible to separate the Faroes and Iceland. Historically, they are joined. Politically they were joined. They are bound by custom and circumstance. Symington is quite right to call his book Faroe and Iceland.

It is by comparing the Faroese and the Icelanders that we can obtain a deeper understanding of our ancestors. Too often we talk and write of Iceland as if, somehow, it was separate from all the islands between it and Europe but nothing could be further from the truth. Ships and sailors seek shelter. They seek trade. They establish social and business relationships. It is in these other places where we can get a glimpse of what our ancestors were and were not like.

Oversexed Soldiers in Iceland

britsoldiersmarchingiceland

The Brits came in the night, landed at Reykjavik with no fuss, no bayonets, no shots fired. They arrived to occupy Iceland because the Nazis had been sending delegations, were showing great interest in Iceland. Their interest was understandable since Iceland was like a great aircraft carrier in the North Sea. It provided a critical link in the supply route from North America to England.

Iceland has never had an army, navy or air force, no experience of warfare and, for centuries were forbidden to carry weapons, so the arrival of the British army occasioned a great deal of curiosity. Efforts were made on both sides to make the occupation as conflict free as possible. There were restrictions on when armed forces personnel could leave their base, on their behavior when off the base.

quonsethutsiceland
The problem, however, was that first the Brits and then the Americans arrived in large numbers for such a small country. The soldiers were young, male, had some money to spend, were different. It was inevitable that there would be clashes between young Icelandic men and the soldiers. It was equally inevitable that many of the Icelanders would resent the occupation and the disruption of their lives.

Daisy Neijmann gave a talk at the University of Victoria (sponsored by the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust) during the Learneds on the way that British and American soldiers have been portrayed in Icelandic fiction.

She pointed out that the soldiers were seen by some as engaged in trangressive behaviour exploiting women and children. The victims of this behaviour were women and children. The occupation was described as a fairy tale, a fantasy realm where monsters violated social order. It’s not surprising that some writers saw the soldiers as monsters. They were not “us” but “other”. They had uniforms, their behaviours were strange, they carried weapons, they spoke a language few Icelanders spoke and they didn’t speak Icelandic. With Iceland just emerging from a Middle Aged society, there was no previous experience of how to behave toward an occupying force.

Because the soldiers came in such large numbers, they were seen not as individuals but as indistinguishable from one another with references to them not with names but as the soldier, the major, with dark skins, moustaches, sharp facial features. They seemed to have no individuality. Given the number of soldiers, the uniforms, the military behavior, it is not surprising that they were seen that way.

The general attitude toward the soldiers was summed up by the Prime Ministers telling the people to avoid the soldiers as much as possible but to be polite.

Daisy gave examples from numerous books. In some of them the soldiers are seen as made of steel. In another, the lack of individuality of the soldiers is compared to the individuality of the Icelanders and the military ability of the soldiers is mocked.

Some of the books, Daisy mentioned were “Lover’s Gifts” (1955), “Jon the Cobbler”(1940), “Dancing by Daylight(1947), “North of War”(1971).

Through everything there is sexual tension. How real it was can be ascertained by the fact that women found consorting with soldiers were forcibly removed to the countryside away from temptation.

In “Her”(1968), there is this little dialogue.
“Hev jú sister?”
“Jes.“
“Is sí bjútifúl?“
“Jes.“

Those few lines capture the attitude about the soldiers. Oversexed, predatory, interested in nothing but seducing Icelandic women.

In “Lover‘s Gifts“ there is this line. “And these soldiers, well, they have nothing else to do but sleep with girls.“

What surprised me was not the attitude toward the soldiers. I‘d seen the same thing toward all the single airmen at the Gimli airbase. There was many a fist fight over some local girl. The local boys didn‘t like the competition by guys in snazzy uniforms who represented exotic places far away.

What did surprise me is that the writers repeatedly express contempt for women. And, more difficult yet, that the few women who wrote stories that included soldiers were just as contemptuous of women. It is as if women were the enemy.

However, in 1955, in a novel by Svava Dún, the main character says ‚ ”It had never been as fun to live in Reykjavik as these past days.“ The arrival of the soldiers is seen as very positive and life as better.

Daisy finished by saying that Indridason in one of his recent novels portrays an American soldier in a very positive light. The soldier is kind, empathetic, and protects a brutally abused Icelandic wife from a dreadful, violent Icelandic husband. This is a reversal of the way that the soldiers have been portrayed in the past.

Not many people of Icelandic descent in North America know much about the early occupation of Iceland by the British and then the Americans. It was interesting to hear how that era was experienced and reported by Icelandic authors.

A Sketch from Iceland in1862

I have a soft spot for A. J. Symington’s travel book on Iceland, Faroe and Iceland. One aspect of the original book that I enjoy is the numerous sketches of Icelandic places in 1862. A disappointment, though, is that the book is small and the sketches are small. However, with the magic of computer technology, it is possible to copy the pictures and enlarge them without losing the quality. Here is one picture of what Symington saw on his travels around Iceland ten years before our people began to leave for Amerika.

priest's house at thingvalla

“at five o’clock in the afternoon rode up to the priest’s house on the other side. It was simply a farm, like others we had seen, consisting of a group of separate erections with wooden gables, green sod on the roof and the whole surrounded with a low stone wall coped with turf. Beside it was the silent churchyard with its simple grassy graves of all sizes.

Immediately behind the house were piles of sawn timber, and several carpenters at work rebuilding the little church, which having become old and frail had been taken down. Its site was only about 25 feet by 10

“Zöga went in to tell the pastor of our arrival, leaving us to dismount in the deep, miry lane between two rough stone walls leading to the house. He had been busy with his hay, but speedily appeared and hospitably offered us what shelter he could afford.

“Zöga arranged for the grazing of the ponies; we were to dine in the largest room of the house, and he was to have the use of the kitchen fire to cook our dinner—the preserved meats, soups, &c.—which of course we had brought with us. The pastor provided a splendid trout from the river, to the great delectation of half a dozen travellers all as hungry as hawks.“

My Oldest Book: 1752-1757

Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson traveled through Iceland during 1752-1757 at the king’s bidding and recorded all that they observed. Their document is called Travels in Iceland.

It says, at the beginning, “Containing Observations on the manners and customs of the inhabitants, a description of the lakes, rivers, glaciers, hot-springs and volcanoes; of the various kinds of earths, stones, fossils and petrifications; as well as of the animals, insects, fishes, & c.”

It is this book that forms the basis for much that is later written by travelers. Travel writers read available sources and what they do not see with their own eye or hear with their own ear, they extract from the work of previous writers. Before Olafsson and Pálsson there were stories and poems written about Iceland but most were fantastical tales with little in them that was true. O & P actually did travel the quarters of Iceland to obtain information for the Danish king.

Travels In Iceland begins by saying, “In the month of July, 1752, Messrs. Ólafsson and Pálsson set off from Copenhagen and arrived at Laugarnes, in the district of Gullbringusýsla: they thence passed into that of Kjósarsýsla, but being desirous of entering the northern quarter before the approach of winter, by crossing the mountains via Kjölur, they at first went through a very small portion of this southern district. They however returned thither in the following year, and concluded their vast undertaking by completing their observations of the southern part of Iceland.“

How easy to say. One paragraph. It is 1752, more than a hundred years before our ancestors begin their journey to Amerika. Travelers accounts from the 1800s detail how difficult travel is. There are no roads, no bridges. Iceland is a vast tract of lava desert, volcanic rock, rushing rivers, vast bogs, treacherous mountains. There is nothing soft or easy about the landscape. This isn‘t the world of Thomas Gray and his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard“.

There are no wheeled vehicles. Ólafsson and Pálsson, like the travelers who follow them, will travel the length and breadth of Iceland on horseback. They´ll trust in local guides to get them from one isolated place to another. They´ll trust locals to get them safely across dangerous rivers. They´ll stay in farmhouses. They´ll drink milk, eat skyr, dried fish, pudding made from Icelandic moss, smoked meat, bread when it is available. They´ll be wet a lot of the time. Time and again, they´ll hunker down and wait out storms.

Always, they´ll observe. Early in the book, they say this about turf (Humus bituminosus). “Beneath this swampy or putrid soil, is found a bituminous earth, which the inhabitants call Mór or Torf; its layers are from six to eight feet deep. It is dug up with a kind of spade, and being cut into cubes and dried, is used as fuel.

“This bituminous earth is here of great advantage as well as in the whole southern part of the island; because it is a substitute for wood. In digging it they meet with branches of trees, and sometimes even with lumps of wood of a considerable size; and the places where this bitumen is found, were, according to the accounts of the ancient historians, once covered with forests.”

“At low water, there is also obtained on the shore of Kjalarnes another kind of turf, which the inhabitants call Sjótorf; it burns well, but sparkles and emits a sulphurous smell. It is likewise remarkable, that this turf contains branches of trees, which proves that the place where it is found was formerly a part of the land”.

Remember, it is 1752. Think of the primitive travel conditions, the primitive accommodations, the sheer energy necessary to ride from place to place in Iceland’s constantly changing weather where, as other travelers report, you can be broiling in the sun, then drenched by rain, then freezing in winds from the glaciers or the North Sea, all in one day.

No one travels Hollywood style, galloping alone on a horse. Everything that is needed has to be brought on horseback, packed and unpacked. The horses have to be fed and, from the tales of other travelers, that can mean, along with supplies needed by the riders, hay for the horses.

Anyone who has traveled through Iceland’s lava deserts knows grass is seldom seen.

Travels in Iceland. Could I have done it? I wonder. Somehow, I doubt it. Could you have done it? If the king had said to you, “Off to Iceland and bring me back a detailed report on these strange Icelanders.” Could you have done it? Faced the isolation, the weather, the accommodation, the food, the danger, the loneliness and then put together a report worthy of a king?

As much as I admire and am interested in the report, I find myself more interested in these two travelers, wish I could watch them as they make their way to the far corners of Iceland. They must have been exceptional individuals. I’d like to see them fording rivers, traveling over the hraun, heading into the horizontal rain, getting off their horses at some farmhouse that looked like it was part of the earth itself. It’s too bad they didn’t have their own Boswell to bring them alive for us.

Travels in Iceland, Ólafsson and Pálsson. 1752-1757. Jim Anderson found me this copy on the internet. This English copy was published in 1975. It’s a handsome book with many illustrations, some of them in color. There might be another one around. It’s worth taking a look.

Why A. J. Symington loves Iceland

picture provided by Jósep H Jósepsson

picture provided by Jósep H Jósepsson

It is 1862 and A. J. Symington has come to Iceland. He’s traveled to the usual places Thingvella and the Geysers. He’s a good artist and has made many sketches of the priest’s house at Thingvalla, of crossing the Bruara, of Mount Hekla, and Snaefell Jokull, among others. On Aug. 3, he has returned to Reykjavik and is back on board the Arcturus, the ship that brought him to Iceland. The ship has lifted anchor and is heading for the “east of the island.”

On the Iceland Review site today, there is a request that people write in and tell them why they love Iceland. Since A.J.S. is not able to do that, I’ll do it for him. Here is what he has to say about the bay at Reykjavik.

“The bay at Reykjavik is very lovely. Every crevice of the Esian mountains is distinctly shown; while the positive colours and delicate tints of these and other heights rising far inland, which the eye takes in, in sweeping round the semicircle from Snaefell to Skagi, are bright, varied, and beautiful beyond description. Deep indigoes dashed with purple, violet peaks, pale lilac ranges; and, relieved against t hem, cones of dazzling snow and ice glittering like silver, side by side with rosy pinks and warm sunny brown, all rising over a foreground of black lava. The sky overhead is blue; and the northern horizon lit up with a mellow glow of golden light.

The frigate Artemise, the brig Agile, the Danish schooner Emma and several trading vessels lying at anchor, animate the scene.

Snaefell Jokul—rising to the north-west on the extreme of yonder narrow ridge that runs out due west into the sea for nearly fifty miles separating the Faxa from the Breida fiord—dome-shaped, isolated and perpetually covered with snow, is now touched with living rosy light.

At its foot lie the singular basaltic rocks of Stappen, somewhat like the Giant’s Causeway, or the island of Staffa in the Hebrides. Indeed, stapp is the same word as staff, and indicates the character of the columnar formation.

For the first time, since leaving home, we see the stars. One or two, only, are shining in the quivering blue overhead, with a quiet, subdued, pale golden light. I made a sketch of Snaefell as it appeared from the quarter deck of the steamer at a distance of fifty miles; it seems a low cone rising from the sea. As the evening was calm and beautiful, ere retiring, we walked the deck till a late hour, musing on the structure and marvelous phenomena of this half-formed chaotic island, where Frost and Fire still strive for the mastery before our very eyes.

Making Hay, 1862

making hay

The first time I went to Iceland, Finboggi Gudmundsson took me to the farm where my great great grandfather and my great grandfather lived and worked before they left for Amerika.

It was one of those fine Icelandic days with no wind off the North Sea, the sky was cloudless, the sun warm. It was the perfect day for making hay and, when we reached the farm, the farmer and his wife were in the hay field.

It was the greatest compliment they could give that they stopped haymaking long enough to serve us coffee and cake and have a brief conversation. I walked the beach were my great grandfather Ketill walked, sat on the stone wall where he used to sit. Then we were away and the farmer and his wife were back to the field making the precious hay for their sheep and cows.

In 1862 when A. J. Symington goes to Iceland, he stops at Thingvalla. They are treated well by the priest, Mr. S. D. Beck (are any of you descendants of his?).

“He is a pastor literally and metaphorically, farming and fishing as well as preaching. Hay, however, is the only crop which is raised here; and the Icelanders are consequently very dependent upon the h ay-harvest. With their short summer they might not inappropriately quote Shakspeare’s lines,

“The sun shines hot; and if we use delay
Cold biting winter marks our hoped for hay.”

Symington gives us one of the clearest pictures of haying that I have found. He says, “The scythe used by the Icelanders is quite straight and not half the length of ours. The numerous little hummocks, with which pasture land is covered, necessitate the use of a short implement, so that it may mow between and around them; the hillocks are form one to two feet high, and from one to four feet across. In some places the ground presents quite the appearance of a churchyard or an old battle-field. These elevations are occasioned by the winter’s frost acting on the wet subsoil. If levelled they would rise again to the same height in about 7 or 8 years; but the farmers let them alone, because they fancy they get a larger crop from the greater superficial area of the field, and this old let-alone custom certainly saves them much labour. The primitive state of their agriculture, as well as the peculiar nature of the Icelandic soil, may be inferred from the fact, that there are only two plows in the whole island and no carts. A spade, a scythe two feet long, a small rake with teeth about an inch and a half deep, and ropes made of grass or hair to bind the hay, which is carried on men’s backs or conveyed by horses to be stacked, are all that the farmer requires for his simple operations. The hay, especially that which grown in the tuns, is of fine quality, tender and nutritive; and, with even any ordinary attention to drainage, many a fertile vale cold be made to yield much more than is now obtained from it.”

One crop. Upon it life depended. Everyone turned to making hay for this was not a grain economy. The Icelandic population lived on hay for hay fed their sheep and cows and those two beasts provided milk, meat and wool.

The rule was simple. Harvest enough hay to keep your animals through the winter or you will die of hunger. Those who lived close to the ocean might supplement the hay with seaweed but it was a supplement, not a staple.

With every stroke of the short scythe, with every pull of the rake, the haymakers could think that will be another mouthful of skyr, a drink of whey, a piece of smoked meat this winter. It was a direct equation your ancestors all understood.

Icelandic census, 1855

1855mormonhouse
Icelandic census, 1855

The population is 64,603.

52,475 live by farming

5,055 live by fishing

“There were…65 persons deaf and dumb, and 202 blind.”

“There was not then a single watchmaker on the island. The extreme paucity of common tradesmen—less than 11 to the 1000—indicates a very primitive pastoral state of society amongst the islanders; home wants being generally supplied by home skill.”

Clergymen, professor and teachers at the college, and employes at churches 2,365

Civil officers 454

Do. Out of office 140

Farmers who live by agriculture 52,475

Farmers who depend chiefly on the fisheries 5,055

Tradesmen as follows:
Bakers 10
Coopers 35
Gold and silversmiths 80
Carpenters 61
Blacksmiths 80
Masons 6
Millers 4
Turners 8
Boat builders 38
Shoemakers 18
Tailors 27
Joiners 174
Saddlers 46
Weavers 20
Men who live by other industrial occupations 103
Merchants and innkeepers 730
Pensioners, and people living on teir own means 356
Day labourers 523
Miscellaneous occupations not classed 586
Paupers 1,207
Prisoners 2

This census was taken the same year that a group of Icelandic Mormons left Iceland.

Remember, Symington is reporting this in 1862; however, the census was in 1855. Personally,

I’m amazed at some of the figures. How did they define weavers? Nearly every farm had some weaving done on it. Were there people who did nothing but weave?

730 merchants and innkeepers. There were no inns as we know them. There was the hotel in Reykjavik and something, I believe in Akureryri but all travellers tales are of sleeping in tents, churches or farm houses. Were there really 730 Danish traders and their minions?

How can it be that there were only 46 saddlers when horses were the main mode of transportation? Did most farmers make their own saddles?

Gold and silversmiths are a mystery. Apparently, Icelanders used Danish silver coins to make jewelry. There’s no silver or gold in Iceland. The jewelry was worn by the women. Some of it may have been traded to the Danes. But, seriously, there were 80 people making their living from being silver and goldsmiths?

Given that Iceland had a home schooling system, the 2,365 clergymen, professors and teachers at the college, and employees at churches seems excessive. That’s a lot of men living off the rest of the population. Many of them were not well paid, of course. Many clergymen lived in poverty. There were itinerant teachers and the clergy took an active part in seeing that children could read and write. You couldn’t get confirmed if you couldn’t read and write and if you didn’t get confirmed, you couldn’t get married. Also, if you didn’t get confirmed, it was a public disgrace on your family.

What do you know about your great-greats? Were any of them goldsmiths, coopers, saddle makers?

Bakers? Who were these bakers in 1855? There were stoves in the Danish traders houses but none or very few in Icelandic houses. The trade ships brought wood but it was so expensive that it was only for wealthy farmers and for the Danes. They also brought coal but it was so expensive that it was bought by the pound to be used in a forge. I’d sure like to know who, in 1855, was a baker? With what? Grain was dreadfully expensive. People on the farms made flat bread or baked rye bread in the ground in areas where the ground was hot enough. Maybe some Icelandic historian will enlighten us.

Do any of the readers of this blog have family stories that might help explain these figures?
(From Andrew James Symington, Faroe and Iceland)

Icelandic lambs, 1862

icelandic sheep

Am I the only person from the Icelandic community in Manitoba who grew up knowing so little about our Icelandic heritage?

I knew about the Icelandic Celebration, except we called it Islendingadagurinn and were proud that it sounded so foreign and exotic.

I visited Grandma Bristow with my mother. They played cards. I got to look at stereoscopic pictures. I got to eat ponnukokur. However, I didn’t get to hear them talk Icelandic because my mother was an Irish girl from the city.In spite of her married name Grandma Bristow had come from Iceland.

Outside of someone having an Icelandic sweater, I don’t remember much about Iceland in Gimli. There was the Lutheran church but by the time I was going, the services were in English and the posters on the bulletin board were about raising money for Africa.

People had Icelandic names: Ejyolfson, Sigurdsson, Bjarnason, Narfason. Nobody was called –dottir.
When I read about farmers in Iceland getting together and discussing the sagas in great detail, I’m quite amazed. I didn’t hear about the sagas until I took a course on the sagas in translation with Haraldur Besesson. By that time I was in university.

Most of our childhood life was about Gimli. Hockey, playing baseball, soccer, football, riding our bicycles, going swimming at the dock, going skating on the lake or at the rink, prairie blizzards, deer, moose, pickerel, white fish. Icelandic only appeared in grade three when lessons were offered after school. I went a couple of times. My dad talked a little Icelandic in the barber shop. When we went for coffee at the relatives, they sometimes talked in Icelandic but not everyone could speak it so they usually stuck to English.

I don’t remember any Icelandic holidays. No bursting day. Although my mother did make cream puffs.

I don’t remember any Icelandic history. We didn’t know any Canadian history, never mind Icelandic.

Maybe it was because Gimli was more cosmopolitan than most small towns. From the time the trains arrived, I think in 1906, there were summer cottagers. They brought their city manners and behaviours with them. Then there was the airbase. We all knew airmen. The local girls married airmen. A lot of people got jobs at the airbase. We mixed with people from all across Canada and, later, from other countries.

Maybe I’m just making excuses for my own ignorance but it wasn’t until I took an interest in 19th C Iceland and began to do a lot of research that I started to learn about what life was like for my great great grandparents and my great grandparents in Iceland. The few things I’d heard when a few people were bragging about being descended from Icelanders turned out to nonsense. No, Iceland was not a democracy. No, everyone wasn’t equal. No, they didn’t just eat lichen in times of starvation. Etc.

That’s why it’s a joy to read a book such as Faroe and Iceland by A. J. Symington. It’s not a deep or profound book, it’s not crammed with statistics, but his descriptions and anecdotes are clear. As he and his companions travel through the Icelandic wilderness, he says

“We saw numerous farms as we passed along, each consisting of a group of irregular hillocks, with the windows hid deep in the grassy turf like portholes, and generally turned inwards so as to be sheltered from the roaring blasts of winter. We met ponies trudging along conveying lambs from one farm to the next. It was curious to see the little animals looking out of square crate-like boxes, made of spars of wood, slung in the manner of panniers on a donkey, and to hear them bleat: reminding one of the old nursery rhyme “young lambs to sell!”

That anecdote is worth the book. Isn’t a fine picture of how lambs were moved in a country without roads or wheeled vehicles. I’ve not come across such a description anywhere else.

I like to think of my great great grandparents riding with lambs in cages on either side of an Icelandic horse. It isn’t a Gimli scene. It is a purely Icelandic scene. What scene could be more romantic than Icelandic horses in a line threading their way through the wilderness, carrying crates with lambs?