1772, Iceland: making a living


If, when you transported yourself to the Iceland of 1772 with the help of a green bottle’s contents, you had stayed more than a day and a night, you might have discovered quite a bit about how lang lang ammas and avis managed to survive in this inhospitable climate.

You’d have quickly discovered that they survived by fishing and stock raising.
When your avi was fishing on the coast, he’d clean and gut the fish, then give them to your lang amma. The job of the women was to dry the fish. Once dried, the fish can last a long time, can be easily transported on the back of a horse, and provides protein. The drying takes a lot of work for the fish have to be lain out and turned. If rain threatens, lang amma has to take the fish inside inside or pile it up and cover it for if it gets wet, it will be spoiled.

In summer, your lang avi mows the grass, digs turf, collects whatever he can to use as fuel. Men and women go searching for sheep and goats (it is interesting that von Troil mentions goats but it is unlikely that any such goats existed in 1772. They were too destructive of grazing ground. He probably took that information from an earlier publication.) and butcher cattle for the winter.

When your lang amma wasn’t milking goats, sheep and cows, taking care of the animals, raking grass, cooking food, sewing, spinning, gathering eggs and eider down, she worked at weaving wadmal, a coarse cloth that was used locally but also traded to the Danish trading ships.

Von Troil mentions that the Icelanders make use of urine for cleaning the wool. This wasn’t uncommen in other countries. Farms would have containers for people to pee into as the urine was important for the treating of wool.

The men, he says, prepare leather, but gives no description. Later travellers describe the process in some detail. He says that in the tanning process, the Icelanders use meadow sweet.

He does mention that there are a few who work in gold and silver and others have been instructed in mechanics but he makes no mention of what kind of mechanics or to what purpose.

If you had been in the right place at the right time, you might have seen a sledge that a farmer built like a ship with sails. It was big enough to hold four or five people. In the winter, it was used to sail over even country (frozen lake, maybe?). Unfortunately, two of the farmer’s sons took it out and sailing home from church they overturned it and it was broken to pieces. (When my father was a boy, people in Gimli were building ice-boats, that is ships with sails meant to travel over the ice of Lake Winnipeg. I wonder if any of them knew they were following an old example?)

You would find that the amount of work your lang afi and amma did on the farm was laid down by local bylaws. One such bylaw said that “a man is to mow as much hay in one day, as grows on thirty fathoms square of manured soil, or forty fathoms square of land not manured, or he is obliged to dig 700 pieces of turf eight feet long and three broad.

“In winter, if the snow drifts reach to the horses bellies, then your afi was to clear snow off an area for a hundred sheep.

In talking to your host and his workers, you’d discover that wages are fixed by law. Your lang afi would tell you that his wages are four dollars and twelve yards of wadmal. Your lang amma would tell you that her wages are two dollars and five yards of wadmal. Imagine trying to save enough to put a down payment on a small farm such as Summerhouses. It takes Bjartur, the main character in Independent People, eighteen years to save up enough to make a down payment on a poor piece of land.

In summer your lang amma is to rake together as much hay as three men can mow. She is to weave three yards of wadmal in a day.Those rules are set out in the bylaws of the sysla.

When your lang avi is sent fishing in the winter, that is from 25th of September to May 14, he is allowed six pounds of butter and eighteen pounds of dried fish every week. This is all he gets to eat. No puddings, pies, cakes, roast beef, hot porridge, bacon and eggs. He’ll wash his food down with whey mixed with water. When he goes out fishing, he takes no food with him. This is the North Atlantic, in winter, with howling winds, high seas, bitter cold, in an open boat, rowing. No hot food. No food. Just whey and water to drink.

So there you are, this is what von Troil has observed and heard about the life of your lang, lang, lang, lang, lang, lang afi and amma in 1772, a hundred years before our ancestors started leaving for North America. This is what you’d have heard if you’d slipped away from Islendingadagurinn, vinartera, rulupylsa, good beer, laden tables and spent a day or two with the people you are supposed to be honouring at The Icelandic Celebration.

Time Travel: Food You’d Eat, 1772, Iceland

fishskeltonSo, there you are, a few drinks of Black Death have transported back to Iceland in 1772 and you’ve wakened hungry. What’s to eat? You start walking and what you get, if you get anything, because that will depend whether or not it is a time of plenty or a time of famine.

Surprisingly, if you do get something to eat, traditional food has changed so little since 1772, that you would recognize some of it from Thorrablots.

You’d be served milk, warm from the cow or cold, and sometimes, boiled. You might be served butter milk, straight or diluted with water.


If you get any bread, it will probably be sour biscuit imported from Copenhagen but there isn’t much of this because it is expensive. You might get some rye bread if your host was able to get some from the trade ship because all the rye flour comes from Copenhagen. Your host’s wife will have mixed the flour with some fermented whey (syra) and kneaded it into a dough. She’ll then have made a flat cake about a foot long and three inches thick. She’ll have boiled this dough in water or whey and then dried it on a hot stone or an iron plate. If you host has an iron plate.

If you are lucky enough to be offered butter (fat of all kinds is always in short supply), you’ll get sour butter. The Icelanders seldom ate fresh or salted butter. The advantage of that it that it kept for as long as twenty years. According to von Troil, the Icelanders thought so highly of sour butter that they figured one pound of sour was worth two pounds of fresh.

You might get served mysost. Or, you might get beinga-ftriug, that is the bones and cartilages of beef and mutton, and bones of cod that have been boiled in whey until they are so soft and fermented that they can be served with milk.

If you are fortunate, you might get a piece of dried cod with a bowl of sour butter.

If you are on the coast, you’d probably get a drink of blanda, that is water mixed with one twelfth syra which is quite acidic. If it is winter time, you might get some black crow berries in your blanda. That would be good to stave of scurvy.

You might get a drink of sour milk. Our host would have paid two-fifths of a Danish rigs dollar for a cask. If you were visiting a well off farmer you might get a drink of beer imported from Copenhagen or he might have brewed some of his own. If you were lucky enough to be at one of the important farmsteads where the farmer owned a lot of land and sheep and cows, you might get coffee. If you were at an ordinary person’s house, you’d likely get a kind of tea which they’d make from the leaves of Speedwell which they could collect wild.

Iceland was no different than any other country then or now. If you were an important farmer, you could afford to eat meat, butter, shark and whale. If you were a crofter or hired help, indentured servant, you had to make do with fish, blanda, milk pottage made with rock-grass (Icelandic moss), and boiled and fermented bones.

Most of the time, the diets were very monotonous, the ingredients unvarying but adequate. However, Iceland suffered tremendous famines. Large numbers of people died of hunger. According to von Troil, these came about because the ice from Greenland came in great quantities into the harbours and prevented the grass from growing and kept people from fishing.

What he thinks of the Icelandic diet, remember this is a person from the upper class on an expedition financed by a wealthy nobleman, can be seen in that they drank “port, and several other sorts of good wine, and a French cook prepared for us some savoury dishes, and excellent puddings.”

They did ask a wealthy Icelander to provide them with a supper made from Icelandic ingredients. The fish and lamb were wonderful. The dried fish and sour butter were only tasted but the rotted shark drove them from the table.

So, there you have it, what you’ll get to eat if you try time travel, Icelandic style.

One thing is for certain, unless it was a time of famine, although food was often short, even the poorest people would give you something to eat. When people entered a home, they invoked god, and although we may have fallen away from the church, they took their religious lessons seriously and did as the Good Samaritan for the stranger even though he was of a different faith.