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Iceland: An Outsider's View (1845)

by Brian Borgford


“I must confess that I found the character of the Icelanders in every respect

below the estimate I had previously formed of it, and still further below

the standard given in books.”


“Since my first arrival in Iceland I had considered the inhabitants an

indolent race of people.”


“…if I attempted to describe some of their nauseous habits, I might fill



“…the Icelanders are second to no nation in uncleanliness…they are also

insuperably lazy.”

A Visit to Iceland by Ida Pfeiffer
A Visit to Iceland by Ida Pfeiffer

These are only some of the quotes by Ida Pfeiffer from her book, Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North, based on her travels in Iceland during the summer of 1845. Although she did not speak highly of Icelanders, she did acknowledge they were surprisingly literate and even the poorest of households had many books. She also commented on their honesty and the lack of crime in the country.

Ida Pfeiffer was a 47-year-old married mother of grown children when she decided to fulfil her childhood dream of travelling the world. Iceland was one of the many countries she visited and wrote about. A German-speaking Austrian, Ida was fluent in Danish which was commonly spoken by the upper class of Iceland and by some of the local population.

Ida arrived in Iceland, landing in Hafnarfjörður on May 15, 1845, having travelled by ship from Copenhagen. The following day, she travelled on horseback, with a local seventy-something female guide to Reykjavik. She stayed the house of a local baker, Daniel Tonnes Bernhoft (IR I323339), referred to as Herr Brernhoft, who was born in Germany and lived in Denmark before making Iceland his home.

While in Reykjavik she visited with the Stiftamtmand (governor appointed by Denmark), whom she met while in Copenhagen. She refers to him in her book as Herr von H---. This appears to be T.A. von Hoppe who resided in Reykjavik with his family, as per the 1845 census. With von Hoppe and some resident officials, Ida made several outings to local sites, including a nearby island (Viðey), a lake (she refers to as Vatne), and the river (likely Elliðaár, she called it Laxselv) where she watched the salmon fishery.

On June 4th, 1845 she embarked on a multi-day journey to the Krýsuvík geothermal area and Kleifarvatn lake, returning to Reykjavik via Grindavik and Keflavik spending a night at the local church in Staðarsókn, hosted by the parish priest (likely Geir Jónsson Backmann/Bachmann; IR I343950). She travelled by horseback and was accompanied by an Icelandic guide from Reykjavik. She estimated this journey covered 114 miles.

Her next journey covered 560 miles on horseback. Ida’s local benefactors arranged an Icelandic guide who spoke Danish. This trip started on June 16th when she travelled to Þingvellir, Reykholt, Kalmanstunga, Geysir, and climbed to the top of Mount Hecla. In Reykholt she met the parish priest, Jónas Jónsson (IR I160671), who served as her guide. She returned to Reykjavik on July 4 after travelling through and staying in other small communities along the way.

By July 8th, she had finished with her journeys in Iceland but had to wait in Reykjavik until July 29th before there was an available ship to take her to Europe where she travelled to other Nordic countries.

Ida Pfeiffer (photographed by Franz Hanfstaengl)
Ida Pfeiffer (photographed by Franz Hanfstaengl)

Ida was pleased with her travels, despite her low esteem towards the residents. In her book, she describes the land and climate in vivid detail. She provides thorough descriptions of the food, buildings, farms, animals, and activities.

Ida encountered considerable physical hardship on her travels but did not complain about the experience. She was in awe of the beauty of the rugged and unforgiving land. Although she was not complimentary of Icelandic cuisine, she loved Iceland’s coffee and made several comments about its unequalled flavour.

Because the book is public domain and the ebook is freely available on Project Gutenberg, I have taken the liberty of publishing a paperback copy that can be purchased on Amazon.

Editor's Note: If you have read the book Woman, Captain, Rebel by Margaret Willson, a book that was reviewed in the Icelandic Roots Book Club this past February, you may find a portion of the above article familiar. As stated, Ida Pfeiffer disembarked in Hafnarfjörður on May 15, 1845, and met her guide, "a local seventy-something female", who took Ida to Reykjavik. That guide was Thurídur Einarsdóttir, the seacaptain at the center of Woman, Captain, Rebel. You can find the interaction between Thurídur and Ida in Chapter 29 A Guide for all Seasons.



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