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Speaking of turf houses

In 1906, my great-grandfather Stefán drowned. In those years, widows and their children automatically became wards of the district council. My great-grandmother Þórdís was sent away to work on a farm in the vicinity and one of her children – her daughter Guðrún – went there with her. The other three children were all sent away to different farms.

I’ve read some of the letters they wrote to each other in those years and it’s very moving to see how strong their bond remained, not to mention their affection for each other, despite the family being divided up.

The farm my great-grandmother was sent to was called Neðri-Núpur, and it was made of turf. This is what it looked like:

Neðri Núpur Miðfirði

Here is the entrance, on the other side:

Nedri núpur

In a letter dated 1920 that Guðrún sent to her sister – my grandmother, Elínborg – she describes some of the living conditions at the time:

I’m going to get myself together and write a few lines to you, although there is not much news except of this continued hardship and shortage of hay and firewood. The health situation is fairly good of late, typhoid fever has been eradicated as we know, and the affected farms have been disinfected. Magnús at Torfust. [sic] did the disinfecting at Tunga and Bjarg. They are all running out of hay, one after the other, with Mundi at Sel and Rögnvaldur at Hnausakot among those worst affected, they ran out completely a while back. The farmers in Vesturárdalur are helping them, and Siggi at Sel has started getting hay and firewood down in Finnmörk. Jóhannes is virtually out of hay here, and mamma is completely out of firewood. A great deal of food is being handed out.

Space was pretty tight at Neðri-Núpur. She doesn’t say how many people lived there, but later in the same letter she describes how she’s worried about a trunk belonging to my grandmother that she’s obviously keeping for her:

Your trunk is causing me such trouble, I’m trying to protect it from being damaged because I’m really not allowed to keep it anywhere, there is so little space up front. But I’m trying my best to keep it from being damaged.

This is less than a century ago in this country. And despite our quips about going back to the turf houses, it’s pretty unthinkable that we’ll return to the way things were.

Elínborg amma og systkini

[My great-grandmother Þórdís with her four children. My grandmother is the one on the far left; Guðrún is the one in the middle. The others are Signý and Stefán. Þórdís went on to have two more children with her second husband.]

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  • Michael Lewis February 23, 2010, 10:49 pm

    “automatically became wards of the district council”
    Sigh…. show me a situation that isn’t made worse by government interference.

  • giustino February 23, 2010, 11:15 pm

    Takk fyrir! Very cool. Here’s something I wrote about my roots. http://sangiorgioalbanese.wordpress.com/

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson February 23, 2010, 11:27 pm

    My grandmother was born in a big concrete building (built in 1905 or thereabouts) but my mother and her older sister were born in a turf house, one of the last standing in their area. The family moved into a new stone house on the farm when mum was ca 7 0r 8 years old.
    Most of the turf farms were replaced between the 1930´s and the 1950´s but people were still occupying turf buildings as late as the 1970´s (IIRC)

  • Harold February 23, 2010, 11:41 pm

    A very interesting story and one that is very similar to my gradmother Gudveig Jonsdottir’s experience. Gudveig was born in Grimstodum a Myrum. Her mother died when she was five, so she and her three sisters were scattered amongst various farms to work as servants . My amma lived and worked in five different households before leaving for Canada in 1889 at the age of 31 with her nephew (her sister Gudgrun’s son – who as an adult in Winnipeg anglicized his name to be Jack Swanson ). Gudveig told my father that she was 16 years of age before receiving any affection at any of the farms where she had worked. The incredible thing is that, although I never knew her, Gudveig had a reputation amongst all for kindness and generosity, and continued to identify warmly with her Icelandic heritage.

  • Tom Thumb February 23, 2010, 11:46 pm

    I heat my house with only firewood and I know what it is like to feel terrified of running out of burnable wood. If I was in Iceland I would volunteer to plant seedlings to reforest the land. I have done that here with some success (spruce). The weather here has become colder in the Winters so I spend quite a bit of time cutting, splitting and stacking firewood. But I cannot imagine what it must have been like to do all my work without my chainsaw (by hand). Maybe their Winters were milder then; I do not know. But to cut all of that wood by hand must have been quite a chore! My apologies if my enthusiasm for the Hobbit’s houses seemed unempathic in the prior thread.

  • sylvia hikins February 23, 2010, 11:59 pm

    Michael Lewis: I suggest it wasn’t government ‘interference’ but government ‘ intervention’ and without it people (especially women on their own with children) would have starved to death. Perhaps if there had been more ‘intervention’ during the Potato Famine fewer people would have starved to death in Ireland or been driven to cities likeLiverpool to work for a pittance on the docks and live short and brutish lives in disease ridden cellars.
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • sylvia hikins February 24, 2010, 12:09 am

    Alda: How fantastic to have such beautiful pictures of your great greandmother and letters too. Was it common during your great grandmother’s time for girls to get an education?
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Michael Lewis February 24, 2010, 12:16 am

    Tom interesting story, I remember growing up on our family farm in Wales, where we too only burned wood for heating – we had two huge fireplaces in our farmhouse. Thankfully our farm backed onto forestry commission land (state owned land, where they plant pine). When I was about 12, I decided to ‘help’ my dad without his knowing … when he went away for a day, I skipped school, took his chainsaw and drove the tractor with trailer up to the forestry land and promptly cut down enough pine to last a couple of winters. Onto the back of the trailer and drove the tractor back to our farm. Needless to say, my father wasn’t best pleased (I was just 12 at the time!) … go forth and chop yourself some firewood 😉

  • Jessica February 24, 2010, 1:17 am

    I’m not surprised Harold’s amma left for Canada…

    So let me see…your husband dies and regardless of your husband’s house/property/assets (if any) and regardless of ties with your own family (parents, siblings, cousins…) and any support they could provide, you and your children are split up and force-ably thrust into indentured servitude at the hands of insensitive strangers.

    Wow, way to kick a person when they’re down. One of the fascinating, dark chapters of Icelandic history. When did this rule change? Was it concurrent with a women’s suffrage movement?

  • North Horsies February 24, 2010, 1:23 am

    An interesting story and -and as much the remaining turf houses are fascinating, it’s hard to be in one of them, without shivering at the memory of living there — even if your people never actually did!

    The photo is wonderful – imagine what a deal it was in those kids lives to be dressed up and photographed. Am I imagining it but do you, Alda, not resemble Elinborg? Nice to have soem family history as you do. Thanks!

  • Stephen Cowdery February 24, 2010, 2:09 am

    That is one big helping of perspective! I thank you again for your great blog.

  • Mark February 24, 2010, 2:17 am

    @Tom Thumb

    he who cuts the wood warms himself two times.

  • shelley February 24, 2010, 3:21 am

    How interesting. This past autumn my mum and I were in Scotland where she was born on an island in the Hebrides. We walked through a field to see the ruins she was born in and spent the first 5 years of her life. It was moving to see the place where, in two rooms, her mother birthed and raised 8 children with only an open fire to cook over. Amazing, how much has changed in two generations. I come from hardy stock:)

  • Dorothy Gale February 24, 2010, 4:17 am

    Best post ever! How many inhabitants in Iceland in 1906?

    I finished reading the book “Iceland: its scenes and sagas By Sabine Baring-Gould” written in 1863. Page 59 has a good (I assume) illustration of what the inside of a farm might look like.
    http://books.google.com/books?id=ftsRAAAAYAAJ&dq=iceland%20sabine%20baring-gould&pg=PA59#v=onepage&q=&f=false

  • NWO February 24, 2010, 4:26 am

    That is fascinating! Thanks.

  • Joerg February 24, 2010, 8:00 am

    While foreigners might perceive the turfhouses just as a figure of speech, it is fascinating to see, how fresh actually the memories of this not too faraway past are in Iceland. I think, the recent development in Iceland cannot be understood without bearing this in mind.

  • Sigga February 24, 2010, 9:02 am

    http://freyjadog.blogspot.com/2009/11/grandmas-hold-our-tiny-hands-for-just.html

    Just to keep plugging the amazing grandmothers that we had! I can not even begin to imagine what life was like for them, however, I think that we are privelaged to have them as our ancestors and to have these stories to remind us of how good we have it today! Thanks for sharing your great grandmothers story with us. Wonderful photos too by the way!

  • mary February 24, 2010, 10:00 am

    A lovely and interesting post.
    Have you got any other letters or photographs of the family at that time?

  • alda February 24, 2010, 10:06 am

    Thanks for your kind comments and input, everyone!

    Sylvia – I suggest it wasn’t government ‘interference’ but government ‘ intervention’ and without it people (especially women on their own with children) would have starved to death. — Actually I agree with Jessica’s assessment. No evaluation was made of whether the woman was able to support herself or not — the property of the husband (and hers too, by extension, although I wonder if women were perhaps not able to inherit from their husbands at this time, I don’t actually know) was confiscated by the local authorities and the widow and children were sent into forced servitude.

    My great-grandfather owned the property on which they lived, but my great-grandmother was not given the option of continuing to live there. My grandmother was initially sent to people who were very cruel to her — she spoke of that sometimes before she died. She later found foster parents who were extremely kind and good to her — many letters from them to her also exist.

    So in my opinion this is definitely a dark chapter in Iceland’s history. And these sorts of circumstances were VERY common — Icelandic seafarers did not know how to swim — until EPI’s great-grandfather came along and made it is mission to teach them,so many many of the men died.

    Was it common during your great grandmother’s time for girls to get an education? — No definitely not. But there were teachers that travelled the country and stayed at farms for longer or shorter periods and taught at an elementary level. So even though there was widespread poverty there was no illiteracy.

  • alda February 24, 2010, 10:08 am

    Mary – many letters, but not many photos, at least not on hand.

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson February 24, 2010, 10:19 am

    Jessica, I think Alda was a bit mistaken there, this only applied when the husband had not left behind any property or other means of providing for his family. A large percentage of Icelanders at the time were tenants and did not have the property or other means so they had to apply for help from the community.
    The Hreppur (Alda, would it not be correct to translate it as “municipality”?) is one of Iceland´s oldest institutions, dating from before AD 1000 and were tasked with the relief of the poor and needy from the beginning.
    Dorothy, the population of Iceland in 1906 was 81 026.

  • alda February 24, 2010, 10:25 am

    this only applied when the husband had not left behind any property or other means of providing for his family.

    Sigvaldi, are you sure about this? I have always heard that my great-grandparents owned the farm they lived on, but their property was confiscated by the hreppur (municipality or district council).

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson February 24, 2010, 10:39 am

    I must admit that I am not 100% sure but is it possible that their property, following evaluation, was considered insufficient to provide for the whole family because I´ve heard stories of people staying on after one spouse died, they just hired someone to help with the tasks that the deceased had been doing (and in many cases they ended up marrying the helpers), how this was solved seemed to have differed a lot between cases.

  • jpeeps February 24, 2010, 11:06 am

    Alda, this is a fabulous post – thank you. It all seems such a long time ago but actually it isn’t, which is not necessarily a comforting thought.

  • Joerg February 24, 2010, 12:30 pm

    Somehow, I find the patronizing behaviour of the municipality in these bygone times reflected in reports about secretive, intransparent governmental institutions of today. The concept of people as a flock of sheep, which have to be herded and don’t understand much about their own matters, seems to have prevailed in some fields.

    Apart from this, governmental interference in supervising and regulating the banks, before they became too big, would have spared the current mess. So, too little governmental interference is not always a good solution either.

  • sylvia hikins February 24, 2010, 1:09 pm

    Thanks Alda for giving such an in depth and illuminating explanation. We are so fortunate to live in more enlightened times, improvements only achieved by the hardship, poverty and political struggles endured and undertaken the people before us. My own great grandmother was born and raised in the slums of Canongate in Edinburgh. All I have of hers is her marriage certificate which she signed with a cross and one photograph taken the year before she died at the age of 43-she looked old and worn out having borne 9 children, 3 of them still under school age. But I suppose when we look globally, the same terrible inequalities still exist eg: one child dies every three minutes in Africa due to a water borne disease (ie: lack of clean drinking water) and women all over the world stuggle to get even basic rights to education and birth control.
    Thanks for this blog- and just look at the amazing responses to it.
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • maja February 24, 2010, 3:14 pm

    It’s so interesting to hear about this. I haven’t been able to read your website at work due to it being blocked by websense, so I just thought I’d let you know I still catch up on your posts at home every now and then!

  • VINCENT February 24, 2010, 4:34 pm

    dear Alda, the history of your coutry is really fascinating… It is unbelievable how many goals your people has wins during last century…
    but now? Iceland will rise again??
    ….yes …of course…

  • Great Eastern February 24, 2010, 4:37 pm

    That´s really interesing story of government interfering, family farm house confiscated, etc.
    If there are german people here then I´d like to get confirmation of the following fact. I was told that my grandfather liked how german farms were managed. If a farmer died then his farm still belonged to the family but local government would appoint a professional manager (today we´d call it CEO 🙂 ), capable of running the farm “to the best interest of everyone”. I am talking about the period between those two wars (WWI and II)
    Not a big surprise such economies as prewar German were capable of high productivity even being restricted by resource shortage.

  • elín February 24, 2010, 6:44 pm

    What a haunting story. Not surprised that it is not filed under “My Iceland”

  • alda February 24, 2010, 6:50 pm

    Not surprised that it is not filed under “My Iceland” — Oh, but it is!

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson February 24, 2010, 7:16 pm

    Great Eastern, this was actually quite far from being the government interfering, the hrepppur (or municipality) were the surrounding farms and their interference is likely what kept her great-grandmother alive.
    My great-grandmother (born 1871) went (at the age of 20 or so) to live with her older sister during her illness.
    Her sister dies and she continues to help the widower and his children and ends up marrying him, adopting her sisters children as her own and she had 2 more children before her husband dies (in 1908) leaving her with 2 small children (her sister´s children were grown-up by that time)
    Now I am not sure in what way her case differed from Alda´s great-grandmother but she was allowed to keep her farm and she was married soon after to the man she most likely always intended to marry in the first place, her late husband´s younger brother and had three more children (my grandmother included)

  • alda February 24, 2010, 7:31 pm

    Now I am not sure in what way her case differed from Alda´s great-grandmother

    Precisely. For that reason I would appreciate it if you refrained from drawing conclusions about things you know nothing about.

  • James February 24, 2010, 8:42 pm

    I enjoyed reading this article.

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland February 25, 2010, 2:52 pm

    Wow Icelanders did do it rough then. In Ireland we used to be famous for our poverty, potato famine etc etc but that’s amazing some people still there up to the 70’s, my idea of poverty is not having a top of the range mac pro ha ha.

  • Rósa S. Jónsdóttir July 12, 2010, 4:07 pm

    Þórdís was my great-grandmother, and with her later husband, she did have 3 children, not 2.