Sir Richard Francis Burton spent the summer of 1872 in Iceland. On his return to England he wrote the two-volume work, Ultima Thule; Or, A Summer in Iceland (1875), perhaps the most detailed and objective of all the 19th-century accounts of Iceland. The following paragraphs about farming in Iceland are taken from Ultima Thule.

At present the grass lands are the wealth of the island, as they pasture the flocks and herds, which form the chief means of subsistence, and the most important articles of industry and commerce. The meadows are grassed over by nature, not ploughed or harrowed, such implements being rarely used. Nor are they seeded. The grass is soft and thick, much like our red-top, and about six inches high; only in rare places the ponies wade up to their knees in through the rich meads. The hay is carefully sheared, and is exceedingly sweet. White clover flourishes; and on the streams it is found growing spontaneously with caraway.

The farms are all named, mostly from natural features. The best are on the north side of the island; yet the three most generally cited as models are Viðey off the west coast, and Hólmar and Möðrudalur, to the east. The south-western (not the southern) shore supports a fishing rather than a pastoral or agricultural population. The non-maritime people live in scattered homesteads, which nowhere form the humblest village. The only settlements are the trading-places on the sea-shore.

Agriculture, being absolutely confined to haymaking, is a mere misnomer in Iceland, nearly three-quarters of whose population is pastoral, though not nomad. The wealth of the country consists of sheep, horses, and black cattle; goats are spoken of in the north, but the author did not see a single head. Each farm has, besides the tun, a bit of lowland upon which grass is grown, and a large extent of barren hill and moorland, where the sheep graze during the fine season; this is always assumed to belong to the property. The farm is divided from its neighbours by landmarks, natural and artificial; the latter are stone heaps, the former some marked limit, as a hill, a rock, or a stream. The boundaries are a perpetual cause of dispute, and some of the most complicated lawsuits have thus arisen.

Not a few of the wilder peasantry live in a constant state of land-feud; they "make it up" over their cups, and they return to the natural belligerent condition when sober.

Rural Houses

The following description of the typical rural house in 19th Century Iceland comes from another highly detailed book, James Nicol's An Historical and Descriptive Account of Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands (3rd edition, 1844). The photograph of an old-style farmhouse in southeast Iceland provides a rough idea of what Icelandic houses looked like a century ago, while the drawing comes from the 1860s.

The present houses of the Icelanders differ little from those used by their ancestors, who first colonized the island; and though not according to our ideas of beauty or comfort, are probably the best fitted for the climate. They never exceed one story in height, and as each room is in some measure separate from the others, the buildings on a moderate-sized farm bear some resemblance to a village. The walls are occasionally composed of driftwood, but oftener of stone or lava, having the interstices stuffed with moss or earth, and are about four feet high, by six in thickness. Instead of the usual rafters, the roof often consists of whale-ribs, which are more durable, covered with brushwood and turf, producing good grass, which is carefully cut at the proper season.
From a door a long passage extends to the badstofa or principal room, the common sitting, eating, and sleeping compartment of the family. From the sides of the lobby, doors lead to other rooms used by the servants, or for kitchen and dairy. In the better class of houses, the walls of the principal chamber are wainscoted, and the windows glazed; but these luxuries are unknown in most, and the holes in the roof that admit the light are covered by a hoop, with the amnion of a sheep, or a piece of thin skin, stretched over it. They have no chimneys or grate, the smoke escaping by a hole in the roof; and there is no fire even in the coldest weather, except in the kitchen. The beds are merely open frames filled with seaweed, feathers, or down, over which is thrown two or three folds of wadmal, and a coverlet of divers colours.

From the roof hang various articles of domestic economy; the floor is generally nothing more than the damp earth; and the only seats are the bones of a whale or a horse's skull. The houses are usually surrounded by several others for the cows, horses, and fuel, though these frequently open from the common lobby; and also by numerous ricks of hay covered with turf and stones, which closely resemble the former, and increase the apparent extent of the buildings. It is but seldom that the traveller meets a dwelling a little larger, more airy and better built.

The next description is taken from Niels Horrebow's The Natural History of Iceland, translated into English in 1758:

At the entrance of their houses, a long narrow passage is formed about six foot wide, with beams, a covering, and some holes on the side of the door to admit light sufficient for the passage. In these holes are sometimes panes of glass, but most commonly a thin skin or bladder stretched upon a frame, which afford a tolerable light. At the end of this passage is the entrance into their common room, which is generally twenty-four or twenty-eight feet long, and about twelve or sixteen broad. Here the women sit and dress their wool, spin, and do other necessaries for their family. At the further end of the room is generally a bed-chamber for the master and mistress of the house, and in the loft over it, the children and maid-servants generally lie. On each side of the aforesaid passage, are two rooms, with doors in the passage. The one is used for a dining room, the other a dairy, the third for the kitchen, and the fourth, which is just by the outer door, for men-servants to lie in, or strangers of that sex, who are a-travelling. This whole building consists of six rooms, and but one street or outer door. Holes are made in the several rooms to transmit the light, and as in the passage, are covered with panes of glass, or with a skin or bladder They have warehouses detached from the dwelling-house, to keep their fish, and winter provision in; near this they have another little building, which is their smith's-shop. Here they make all their tools and tackle of iron and wood. At a little distance stand their barns and stables, and one, two, three or four sheep-folds. In one of these they keep the lambs by themselves. Their hay is stacked up about six foot square, and a passage left between each stack, and covered with turf, in a shelving manner, for the rain to run off, by which means their hay is well-preserved....

Their furniture is not any way costly, and consists chiefly of beds, and their vadmal or bays, which serves them for making pillows and bedding of. They have plenty of feathers, but some of their common servants lie very wretchedly, as often the poor and mean people in Denmark do. They have tables, stools, benches, chests, and other necessary utensils for a house. As there is a great scarcity of timber in the island, and as building materials must be bought of the company, which consequently prove very expensive, the inhabitants are obliged to proceed to work in the most frugal manner they can. They therefore lay a foundation of large stones, upon which they erect the framework of their building. The cross beams and joints they fasten the best way they can. Between the timber work, they make a wall of clay or stones, and afterwards lay the rafters for the top, which are but small. The best houses are covered with boards, which are nailed an inch or two over one another, for the rain to run off without running through. Meaner houses have furze and twigs atop instead of board, and are covered with turf. The walls are of stones, and earth, or of clay, with grass or turf between, which besides is laid over all the posts and beams, and thus renders the walls very firm, strong, and well-bound at the foundation. They are usually made four foot thick, and run up slanting, so that at the top they may be about three foot in thickness. This sort of walls makes warm habitations, and keeps out equally the heat in summer, and the cold in winter; so that in this last season, they have no occasion to keep great fires, though some in several parts are provided with stoves. The foundation of the houses built after this manner, is even with the ground, or raised a little higher. When the walls are all green, they appear like so many hillocks. All farmers have not such large habitations as described, nor are they furnished with so many separate buildings, though many have much larger and finer: but in such a general description as this, it is much the better way to keep between extremes.

The following photographs give a rough idea of the type of house construction described above by Horrebow. There are many remnants of old-style buildings scattered around Iceland, some well-preserved as museums, others in almost total disrepair.

Here is John Ross Browne's description of the houses at Þingvellir (The Land of Thor, 1867):

The pastor of Thingvalla and his family reside in a group of sod-covered huts close by the church. These cheerless little hovels are really a curiosity, none of them being over ten or fifteen feet high, and all huddled together without the slightest regard to latitude or longitude, like a parcel of sheep in a storm. Some have windows in the roof, and some have chimneys; grass and weeds grow all over them, and crooked by-ways and dark alleys run among them and through them. At the base they are walled up with big lumps of lava, and two of them have board fronts, painted black, while the remainder are patched up with turf and rubbish of all sorts, very much in the style of a stork's nest. A low stone wall encircles the premises, but seems to be of little use as a barrier against the encroachments of livestock, being broken up in gaps every few yards. In front of the group some attempt has been made at a pavement, which, however, must have been abandoned soon after the work was commenced. It is now littered all over with old tubs, pots, dish-cloths, and other articles of domestic use.

The interior of this strange abode is even more complicated than one would be led to expect from the exterior. Passing through a dilapidated doorway in one of the smaller cabins, which you would hardly suppose to be the main entrance, you find yourself in a long dark passage-way, built of rough stone, and roofed with wooden rafters and brushwood covered with sod. The sides are ornamented with pegs stuck in the crevices between the stones, upon which hang saddles, bridles, horse-shoes, bunches of herbs, dried fish, and various articles of cast-off clothing, including old shoes and sheepskins. Wide or narrow, straight or crooked, to suit the sinuosities of the different cabins into which it forms the entrance, it seems to have been originally located upon the track of a blind boa-constrictor, though Bishop Hatton denies the existence of snakes in Iceland.

The best room, or rather house - for every room is a house - is set apart for the accommodation of travelers. Another cabin is occupied by some members of the pastor's family, who bundle about like a lot of rabbits. The kitchen is also the dog-kennel, and occasionally the sheep-house. A pile of stones in one corner of it, upon which a few twigs or scraps of sheep-manure serve to make the fire, constitute the cooking department. The beams overhead are decorated with pots and kettles, dried fish, stockings, petticoats, and the remains of a pair of boots that probably belonged to the pastor in his younger days. The dark turf walls are pleasantly diversified with bags of oil hung on pegs, scraps of meat, old bottles and jars, and divers rusty-looking instruments for shearing sheep and cleaning their hoofs. The floor consists of the original lava-bed, and artificial puddles composed of slops and offal of divers unctuous kinds. Smoke fills all the cavities in the air not already occupied by foul odors, and the beams, and posts, and rickety old bits of furniture are dyed to the core with the dense and variegated atmosphere around them. This is a fair specimen of the whole establishment, with the exception of the travelers' room.

The beds in these cabins are the chief articles of luxury. Feathers being abundant, they are sewed up in prodigious ticks, which are tumbled topsy-turvy into big boxes on legs that serve for bedsteads, and then covered over with piles of all the loose blankets, petticoats, and cast-off rags possible to be gathered up about the premises. Into these comfortable nests the sleepers dive every night, and, whether in summer or winter, cover themselves up under the odorous mountain of rags, and snooze away till morning. During the long winter nights they spend on an average about sixteen hours out of the twenty-four in this agreeable manner.

When it is borne in mind that every crevice in the house is carefully stopped up in order to keep out the cold air, and that whole families frequently occupy a single apartment not over ten by twelve, the idea of being able to cut through the atmosphere with a cleaver seems perfectly preposterous. A night's respiration in such a hole is quite sufficient to saturate the whole family with the substance of all the fish and sheepskins in the vicinity; and the marvel of it is that they don't come out next day wagging their fins or bleating like sheep; I wonder they ever have any occasion to eat. Absorption must supply them with a large amount of nutriment; but I suppose what is gained in that way is lost in the fattening of certain other members of the household. Warmth seems to be the principal object, and certainly it is no small consideration in a country where fuel is so scarce.

I can not conceive of more wretched abodes for human beings. They are, indeed, very little better than fox-holes, certainly not much sweeter. Yet in such rude habitations as these the priests of Iceland study the classical languages, and perfect themselves in the early literature of their country. Many of them become learned, and devote much of their lives to the pursuits of science. In the northern part of the country the houses are said to be better and more capacious; but the example I have given is a fair average of what I saw.

The passionate devotion of the Icelanders to their homes is almost inconceivable. I have never seen any thing like it.

Farm Life

Mrs. Disney Leith, Peeps At Many Lands: Iceland, 1908.

The women work very hard; I have seen one cutting grass with a scythe, but they more often just make the hay. Once, at a farm in the north, I saw a girl driving three ponies in front of her, laden with hay in soft green bundles tied on each side. As they quite hide the pony, the effect is most laughable, and you would think they were walking hayricks. This girl was riding astride a fourth pony without any saddle; she sat very gracefully, and quite at her ease. I suppose she had brought the hay from some distance. When she reached a grassy spot near the farm she dismounted, shook all the hay bundles down one by one, then jumped on to her pony and drove the three hay-carriers back to the field.

The farmers do not sow corn, only turnips and potatoes; and the only harvest is the natural hay. It is cut in July and August, and in fine weather it soon dries. Most of the farms have big wooden barns in which to keep their hay. Every farmer has a number of ponies, sometimes twenty or more; they do all the work of the farm. No Icelander walks when he can ride! Wherever they have to go, even a short distance, they jump on their handy little pony and skim away to their destination. The little children begin to ride early; sometimes they are tied on! The women ride at all ages; quite old women must ride if they wish to go from place to place. The women's saddles look very funny to us; some are very smartly decorated with brass nails, and cushions in cross-stitch work. They have a broad foot-board, and a rail on the off-side, which the rider holds to steady herself. Some use saddles like our side-saddles of many years ago. But whatever they ride on, they are hardy and plucky riders, and some of the ground they go over would astonish even a hunting Englishwoman. A woman will ride on a long journey by herself, carrying her little bag on her saddle. The funniest loads are put on ponies' backs. I have met a worthy couple jogging along driving a third pony carrying a spinning wheel!

Bessestad (from Lord Dufferin's Letters From High Latitudes)

The first few miles of our ride lay across an undulating plain of dolomite, to a farm situated at the head of an inlet of the sea. At a distance, the farm-steading looked like a little oasis of green, amid the grey stony slopes that surrounded it, and, on a nearer approach, not unlike the vestiges of a Celtic earthwork, with the tumulus of a hero or two in the centre; but the mounds turned out to be nothing more than the grass roofs of the house and offices, and the banks and dykes but circumvallations round the plot of most carefully cleaned meadow, called the "tun," which always surrounds every Icelandic farm. This word" tun" is evidently identical with our own Irish town-land, the Cornish town, and the Scotch loon, terms which, in their local signification, do not mean a congregation of streets and buildings, but the yard, and spaces of grass immediately adjoining a single house, just as in German we have tzaun, and in the Dutch tuyn, a garden.

Turning to the right, round the head of a little bay, we passed within forty yards of an enormous eagle, seated on a crag; but we had no rifle, and all he did was to rise heavily into the air, flap his wings like a barn-door fowl, and plump lazily down twenty yards farther off. Soon after, the district we traversed became more igneous, wrinkled, cracked, and ropy than anything we had yet seen, and another two hours' scamper over such a track as till then I would not have believed horses could have traversed, even at a foot's pace, brought us to the solitary farm-house of Bessestad. Fresh from the neat homesteads of England that we had left sparkling in the bright spring-weather, and sheltered by immemorial elms, the scene before us looked inexpressibly desolate. In front rose a cluster of weather-beaten wooden buildings, and huts like ice-houses, surrounded by a scanty plot of grass, reclaimed from the craggy plain of broken lava that stretched on either side to the horizon. Beyond lay a low black breadth of moorland, intersected by patches of what was neither land nor water, and last, the sullen sea, while above our heads a wind, saturated with the damps of the Atlantic, went moaning over the landscape. Yet this was Bessestad, the ancient home of Snorro Sturleson!

On dismounting from our horses and entering the house things began to look more cheery; a dear old lady, to whom we were successively presented by the Rector, received us with the air of a princess, ushered us into her best room, made us sit down on the sofa – the place of honour – and assisted by her niece, a pale lily-like maiden, proceeded to serve us with hot coffee, rusks, and sweetmeats. At first it used to give me a very disagreeable feeling to be waited upon by the woman-kind of the household, and I was always starting up, and attempting to take the dishes out of their hands, to their infinite surprise; but now I have succeeded in learning to accept their ministrations with the same unembarrassed dignity as my neighbours: In the end, indeed, I have rather got to like it, especially when they are as pretty as Miss Thora. To add, moreover, to our content, it appeared that that young lady spoke a little French, so that we had no longer any need to pay our court by proxy, which many persons besides ourselves have found to be unsatisfactory. Our hostess lives quite alone. Her son, whom I have the pleasure of knowing, is far away, pursuing a career of honour and usefulness at Copenhagen, and it seems quite enough for his mother to know that he is holding his head high among the princes of literature, and the statesmen of Europe, provided only news of his success and advancing reputation shall occasionally reach her across the ocean.

Of the rooms and the interior arrangement of the house, I do not know that I have anything particular to tell you; they seemed to me like those of a good old-fashioned farmhouse, the walls wainscoted with deal, and the doors and staircase of the same material. A few prints, a photograph, some book-shelves, one or two little pictures, decorated the parlour, and a neat iron stove, and massive chests of drawers, served to furnish it very completely.

But you must not, I fear, take the drawing-room of Bessestad as an average specimen of the comfort of an Icelandic interieur. The greater proportion of the inhabitants of the island live much more rudely. The walls of only the more substantial farmsteads are wainscoted with deal, or even partially screened with drift-wood. In most houses the bare blocks of lava, pointed with moss, are left in all their natural ruggedness. Instead of wood, the rafters are made of the ribs of whales. The same room but too often serves as the dining, sitting, and sleeping-place for the whole family; a hole in the roof is the only chimney, and a horse's skull the most luxurious fauteuil into which it is possible for them to induct a stranger. The parquet is that originally laid down by Nature, the beds are merely boxes filled with feathers or sea-weed, and by all accounts the nightly packing is pretty close, and very indiscriminate.

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