The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

The Icelanders: The seasons

Life was governed by the seasons. Once the welcome spring sun had begun to melt the winter snow and the days grew a little longer, the year's farming could begin in earnest. Few homesteads could provide sufficient income by farming alone so the menfolk would begin fishing in March, once the icy grip of winter had eased a little. The lambing season soon brought them back to the land, however, and once they had finished their work there, they had to be ready to venture out to sea once more in their rowing boats. When the fish were brought home they were cured by the women — laid outside and allowed to dry in the sun — before they were taken to one of the larger settlements to be sold.

Summer was often hectic, especially if its arrival was delayed by drift ice from the north, but the busiest period was harvest time as it often coincided with favourable fishing weather, and on such occasions almost the entire population was involved in winning food by one means or another. Even today, in some places, schoolchildren may leave their schoolbooks behind to go down to help at the harbour when an important catch has to be landed. Food in the summer months could be plentiful; milk and fish, together with mutton and the few vegetables that could be raised, formed the basic diet. Flour had to be imported and was very expensive, so bread and cakes were not as common as in other European countries. The need to stockpile food for winter, together with the difficulty of providing fodder for the animals, meant that many of the sheep had to be slaughtered each autumn and the meat preserved. The national delicacy of hangikjöt (smoked mutton) was made in a specially–constructed sod hut where the brine–soaked mutton could be smoked over a fire of birchwood or dried sheep–dung. It still remains a popular dish, but the farms no longer smoke their own meat; they now leave this to the urban curing factories. Fish too were often smoked or dried, after which they could be kept a long time until needed; they were usually eaten with butter. When shark was caught the peculiarly Icelandic dish of hákarl could be made from the cured flesh.

While the long summer days may be an attraction to today's visitors, in the past for the Icelanders they meant long working hours — and sometimes they still do; jobs like hay–gathering which are best done when the weather is fine may be carried out for hours on end with hardly a break. The pace of life used to slow down as winter approached; there was little that could be done on the land and fewer calm days on which a boat could go out to fish. This was the time for preparing for the next year: the men would mend nets, make tools or perhaps learn a new skill while the women made clothes for the family. After brushing and spinning, the raw wool was woven and shared out to give the women about seven metres of homespun each to make up into clothes, while the men received the same length, already made up. The grey undyed wool was by far the most important clothing material, and was used for jerseys, hats, gloves and socks, but in very wet and cold weather the fishermen would also wear a one–piece leather garment — the forerunner in design for today's skiwear. Footwear, tough enough to protect the feet on the rough lava tracks, was made from a single piece of hide from a cow, sheep or seal. The hide would be cured and cut to the right size; after being soaked it would be worn until it had dried out, shrinking to take up the most comfortable shape around the foot.

The long winter nights were family affairs, the women working with the wool while the men practised the ancient craft of wood carving. As the adults worked one of the children read aloud, perhaps from one of the Sagas: reading prose or poetry or singing folksongs were popular ways of whiling away the dark hours in the smoky atmosphere of the farmhouse.

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The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy