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“What A Hard Life Is That Of The Poor Icelanders!”

“What A Hard Life Is That Of The Poor Icelanders!”

Published September 5, 2014

One day in August 1888, the British steamer ‘Camoens’ docked in the town of Akureyri in Northern Iceland. The ‘Camoens’-for some reason named for Portugal’s national poet, Luís de Camões- sailed regularly between Scotland and Iceland with passengers and cargo.

Debarking the ‘Camoens’ that day was a group of British friends, three young men and two women, on their annual autumn holiday, fresh from a busy summer of high society parties and picnics. They came to Iceland looking for adventure and experiences, and—not the least—to be different from their friends and acquaintances, who mostly chose the more fashionable Switzerland and Austria for their autumn jaunts.

Among them was Ethel Tweedie, recently married at only eighteen, accompanied by her young husband. At her father’s urging, Ethel kept a detailed diary during her trip—and a few years later she published a book recounting her travels on horseback through Iceland, ‘A Girl’s Ride In Iceland’—her first step towards a successful career as a travel writer.

Scandal & tourism

Upon publication, Ethel’s travelogue stirred somewhat of a scandal in Victorian England, due to her espousing the then-radical view that women should ride astride on horseback, like men, rather than bother with uncomfortable sidesaddles.

 “What A Hard Life Is That Of The Poor Icelanders!”

But ‘A Girl’s Ride In Iceland’ is also notable as a treasury of tourists’ view of Iceland in the late 19th century. It is obvious that Ethel and her compatriots think Iceland an exotic and challenging destination—arriving in Akureyri, the poverty and general misery of the locals is the first thing Ethel notes:

The first thing that struck us on landing was the sad, dejected look of the men and women who surrounded us. There was neither life nor interest depicted on their faces, nothing but stolid indifference. 

This apathy is no doubt caused by the hard lives these people live, the intense cold they have to endure, and the absence of variety in their every-day existence. What a contrast their faces afforded to the bright colouring and smiling looks one meets with in the sunny South.

 The Icelanders enjoy but little sun, and we know ourselves, in its absence, how sombre existence becomes. Their complexions too, were very sallow, and their deportment struck us as sadly sober.

Quaint, short, Hobbit Eskimos

” These shoes are tied to their feet by a string made of gut, and lined merely with a piece of flannel or serge, a most extraordinary covering in a country so rocky as Iceland, where at every step sharp stones, or fragments of lava, are encountered. Mocassins are also sometimes worn.”

The men were of low stature, and broadly built, and wore fur caps and vests, with huge mufflers round their throats. These latter, we observed, were mostly of a saffron colour, which, combined with their fur caps, tawny beards, and long locks, gave them a very quaint appearance.

Men, women, and children alike wore skin shoes, made from the skin of the sheep or seal, cut out and sewn together to the shape of the foot, and pointed at the toe. These shoes are tied to their feet by a string made of gut, and lined merely with a piece of flannel or serge, a most extraordinary covering in a country so rocky as Iceland, where at every step sharp stones, or fragments of lava, are encountered. Mocassins are also sometimes worn.

The Icelanders, however, do not seem to mind any obstacles, but run and leap on or over them in their ‘skin skurs’ as though impervious to feeling. Later on we saw a higher class of Icelanders wearing fishermen’s boots, but such luxuries were unknown in the little town where we first landed. The men being short of stature, in their curious kit much resembled Eskimos.

Where the streets are paved with fish heads

The smell of the fish while drying is terrible, the whole atmosphere being permeated with the odour. The streets are also paved with old fish heads and fish bones; indeed, at each port we touched, the smell of fish, fresh or dried, assailed eyes and noses in every direction.

While in Akureyri we saw some poultry, perhaps half a dozen cocks and hens, but they were the only ones we met with in the Island; nor did we ever come across a pig! Fancy a land without these common accessories to a peasant’s board! Eggs are only eaten on state occasions, and are considered a luxury, being imported from France; the eggs of the eider duck are considered very good food: they are, of course, only procurable round the coast.

What a hard life is that of the poor Icelanders! When our ship arrived, they were on the verge of starvation, their supplies being all exhausted. Glad indeed they must have been to welcome the ‘Camoens,’ and know that flour and other staple articles of food were once again within their reach.

Akureyri is both famous for, and proud of, its trees. There are actually five of them: these are almost the only trees in the Island. Miserable specimens indeed they appeared to us southerners, not being more than 10 feet high at most, and yet they were thought more of by the natives, than the chesnuts of Bushey Park by a Londoner.

Sauðárkrókur savages

The Icelanders encountered by Tweedie and her companions are not only miserable paupers — but appear, at times, like complete savages, like in this description from Sauðárkrókur, also in Northern Iceland:

On one occasion, while the rest of the party were settling and arranging about ponies, which always occupied some time, I sat down to sketch on a barrel of dried fish, and was at once surrounded by men, women, and children, who stood still and stared, beckoning to all their passing friends to join them, till quite a crowd collected.

 They seemed to think me a most extraordinary being. The bolder ones of the party ventured near and touched me, feeling my clothes, discussed the material, and calmly lifted my dress to examine my high riding-boots, a great curiosity to them, as they nearly all wear the peculiar skin shoes already described. The odour of fish not only from the barrel on which I was seated, but also from my admiring crowd, was somewhat appalling as they stood around, nodding and chatting to one another.

Their interest in my sketch was so great I cannot believe they had ever seen such a thing before, and I much regretted my inability to speak their language, so as to answer the many questions I was asked about it all. I fancied they were satisfied, however, for before going away, they one and all shook hands with me, till my hand quite ached from so many friendly grasps.

The men in Iceland always kiss one another when they meet, as also do the women, but I only once saw a man kiss a woman!

Lemúrinn is an Icelandic web magazine (Icelandic for the native primate of Madagascar). A winner of the 2012 Icelandic Web Awards, Lemurinn.is covers all things strange and interesting!


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