Fishing itself is one of the oldest traceable human practices and dates back at least 40,000 years. Iceland has not been inhabited for that long, but for as long as it has been inhabited, the Icelanders have fished.
Life in Iceland has always been hard. We keep saying this, but its difficult to express how important this point is. If the the settlers of Iceland had not fished, they would have had little chance of survival. Without this essential knowledge and expertise, they would almost certainly not have made it.
The Life Of The Fisherman
For a long time, fishing in Iceland was a simple affair. Although it was simple, it was treacherous and very laborious, requiring the efforts of entire communities, both men and women.
Apart from sails which are ancient, oars have been a primary method of propulsion for boats for time immemorial, this is also more reliable for steady direction than winds that are constantly changing (as they are in Iceland). Groups of men would row out on small wooden row boats out on to the seas, cast their nets (usually woven by the women, more on them below!) or their lines and bring back as much fish as they could fit in the boat.
Relentlessly blasted by towering waves, multidirectional gale-force winds and all of the unsteadiness that comes with that, its easy to see how these men were constantly risking their lives for the catch.
Fishing The Old Fashioned Way
It is well known in Iceland that fishing was extremely dangerous and a extremely necessary job. For this reason the role of the fisherman was lifted to national reverence. In the 1950s and 1960s, sailing songs grew very popular, where the fisherman was celebrated as heroes and are still today referred to as “heroes of the sea” or hetjur hafsins.
Fishing was always an activity that involved the whole community, women and children included. While, the men were out doing the direct fishing, if they had tools that were not well-maintained and nets with holes, they would not have been able to do their job very well. Women did many of these jobs, and many others; gutting, salting and drying the catches, like the the Herring Girls who worked so hard to get the Herring ready for export in the Northern towns of Iceland!
Dry By Wax, Warm By Wool
The traditional clothing of Icelandic fisherman has always aimed to serve one purpose: protect them from the harshest of elements, yet what they had available was relatively simple, and not so fit for purpose.
Since the period of settlement and until around 1935 Icelandic fishermen braced the cold and wet dressed up in sjóklæði, translating literally to sea clothes. Those consisted of a stack and trousers made from animal leather. The trousers were tied around the waist and crotch area with a rope; to make sure if something were to happen they would not be filled with water. Some of the trousers had detachable leather shoes – probably quite slippery. Lýsi, Icelandic cod liver oil, was applied to the clothing to make them more waterproof (and adding to the smell, which you can imagine is quite fishy!).
Things changed considerably from 1935 onwards this changes considerably when a company called 66 North brought out waxed cotton as some of the first waterproof fabrics; in the early days this two-piece smock comprising a top with a hood and pants to keep as much rain off as possible. This was a huge innovation, making the fisherman easier to sea, drier and of course safer out at sea. 66 North continue to this day make rubberised and high-visibility version of the traditional two piece and still provide many Icelandic fishermen with their workwear.
And what about for warmth? In a word: wool. Fisherman have always used wool to stay warm at sea. How is a pair of fisherman’s mitten different from a pair of regular mittens? Fishermans mittens have an extra thumb already stitched into them, so when the first thumb wears out, the other is ready to use straight away.
Of course, the role of the lopapeysa, the traditional Icelandic wool sweater cannot be ignored either. Beneath the waterproof layer, you will likely find that each fisherman is wearing a thick wool sweater made the the unwoven lopi yarns of the Icelandic sheep.
Winds Of Change: Steam-Powered Fishing And The 20th Century
Things have changed very much since the early days of Icelandic fishing (except for the weather obviously!). The fishing boats got bigger, more powerful, more efficient and safer, all of this means more fish and less risk. Changes brought about by the introduction of steam technology and then later with diesel engines and huge trawlers could fish in one trip what it may have taken a year to fish by hand in the days of the settlement period. These changes had far-reaching consequences for the organisation of Icelandic society.
Once upon a time, Iceland was sprinkled with small villages. This is because small vessels favour small communities. When large vessels were increasingly adopted they required a lot less manpower to catch a lot more fish. This meant that that the villages were not sustainable anymore, and they were left for derelict. The remnants of these villages are scattered all over the country; one example is the village of Skálar, located on the Langanes peninsula int he northeast of Iceland. There, you will find only hollowed-out concrete walls, the village was abandoned in 1948. There is nothing to lament here necessarily; living standards since this time have increased vastly since then, when much of Iceland still lived in turf houses.
The Whole, Fishy Picture
In this series of six blog posts, we have explored how crucial fish have been to Iceland throughout the centuries, and how important it continues to be today. Fishing has come a long way in Iceland, and the prosperity of the nation today would be much less without it.
The technological advances that came with the passing of time and the massive social changes that this brought about have made Iceland into the highly developed nation that is today. The initial spark, brought in by the wisdoms of old, the power of the new and perhaps most importantly the simple act of never forgetting where you came from provide a sense of humility moving forward, a reminder of how much has been achieved.