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My Icelandic Immigrant Ghost

By Doreen (Borgfjorð) McFarlane IR 602083

October is the month of Hallowe’en, so it is a time that many people think about ghosts and goblins. But Icelanders seem to keep them in mind all year round. And for good reason!

Do Ghosts Emigrate?
Do Ghosts Emigrate?

As I was told in an E-mail message from a retired pastor from Reykholt in Borgarfjarðarsýsla, where I visited in 2017, “You know, our ghosts are very real, not mere apparitions as those civilized Anglo-Saxon ghosts of your surroundings.”

I had gotten up my nerve after a lecture he gave to ask him first about my ancestors from that area and then about a particular ghost named Leirárskotta. Much to my surprise, he was filled with information about my family and the ghost, which made my trip doubly worthwhile. I’d been there to attend the magnificent Iceland Writer’s Retreat under the auspices of Iceland’s first lady (and also a Canadian) Eliza Reid, and our group was on a special literary side trip to Reykholt.

To explain further, I need to take you back to about five years earlier. One day, I had the brilliant idea to type my grandmother’s name into Google Search. This was, of course, ridiculous because she’d passed away in 1953, and her name was Guðrún Eggertsdóttir Borgfjorð (IR 326752). What chance on earth could she be found in any Google search so many years later? She was neither a poet nor a painter. She was a homesteader and housewife who emigrated from Iceland to Manitoba in 1888.

I was surprised when her name popped up in a lecture presented in 2004 as part of a series given at the University of Victoria, British Columbia! The title of the lecture was “Icelandic Immigrant Ghosts.” What? Ghosts? Who gives university lectures about ghosts? And where did my little grandmother fit into such a lecture? Well, I expect you will be as surprised as I was. It turns out that the lecturer had spoken about an Icelandic girl ghost named Leirárskotta who emigrated to Canada with her host family, my great-grandparents Sigríður Jónsdóttir (1837-1906) IR 68554 and Eggert Jónsson (1837-1897) IR 78606. (Icelandic ghosts, it seems, stick with one family for as many as eight generations.)

Photo of Guðrún Eggertsdóttir Borgfjorð
Guðrún Eggertsdóttir Borgfjorð

Once she’d arrived, she decided to live with one of the daughters, and that daughter turned out to be my grandmother, Guðrún. The lecturer went on to write that Icelandic ghosts did not thrive in the new land. She offered a few possible reasons. One was that they encountered difficulties with indigenous ghosts, mainly because they had different purposes and sensibilities. Another was that they were lonely for their homeland. A third issue was that after a while, the Icelandic families stopped believing in ghosts and no longer talked about them or told their children about them, so, in time, they just faded away. I realized quickly that this last thing seemed to have happened in my family. My father was the youngest of nine siblings and, although being one to tell me every family story he could remember, he’d not spoken one word to me about Leirárskotta, our family ghost. My father was a schoolteacher and did not believe in ghosts!

Now that this story was coming to light, I couldn’t have been more surprised, amazed, and intrigued. I promptly set about finding everything I could possibly learn about her.

My mind was filled with questions. How many generations had she been in my family? Did my father know about her? Had anyone in the family actually laid eyes on her? How did she get conjured up in the first place, and for what reason? How long ago? Who were the first people to have her join the “family?” Were they happy about it or upset? Was she a positive or a negative influence? Exactly how long had she been in “existence?” What did she look like? What did she wear? Did she speak? Or sing? Did she eat? If so, what did she eat? Was she dangerous to the family? To others? After coming to Canada, was she happy, or did she wish she’d stayed in Iceland? Did she want to go back? Did she ever go back? Did Icelandic ghosts age like people do, only slower? Do they ever die?

Since first hearing about her sometime around 2008, there are many facts I have learned. But, there is also much I do not know and cannot ever know about Leirárskotta.

Most importantly, I do know that she was a real, young Icelandic woman who passed away around 1704 and was conjured up from the dead by a couple of young men who had been rejected as suitors of a young woman named Ólöf Jónsdóttir (IR 49891) when she chose to marry Sigurður Jónsson (IR 25179), sheriff of Borgarfjarðarsýsla. At first, they had conjured a male ghost named Stormhöttur, but Sigurður managed to put him down. Then, they brought forth the girl ghost, and the rest is “ghost history – eight generations of it.” Is she still with us, you may ask? Well, I can't really say yes or no.

The author’s rendition of Leirárskotta.
The author’s rendition of Leirárskotta.

Leirárskotta was known for wearing her Icelandic headdress backward and red socks.

The pastor from Reykholt did write to me, "So, my lady, you are accompanied by quite a presence.” I had not suggested that I was, but this may be true. When I told my secretary (who has substantial gifts!) about it, she asked me one question. “Have you asked the ghost to talk with you?” I responded in the negative, saying, “I have never believed in ghosts. It never occurred to me!” Instead, I decided to research this ghost of ours and then write her story to the best of my ability. In the end, it has little to do with what one “believes in” because her story is emerging from the experiences my family over eight generations has believed and what they believed they saw or heard or experienced.

Are Icelandic ghosts “real,” as the pastor from Reykholt told me? Or are they figments of our lively Icelandic imaginations, emanating from a people who arrived from Norway to live on an empty island, with ghosts and hidden people and giants whom they created in order, perhaps, to push away their loneliness on long dark winter nights?

From that time, I have been engaged in seeking out as much information as I can find on our ghost and then in writing her story. I did locate, very much to my surprise, a book written by a German historian in 1860 about his travels to Iceland. And, lo and behold, Leirárskotta, our family ghost, was named!

He only spoke of other such ghosts and mentioned that he didn’t learn much about her.

But now, I knew she had some history, going back in writing to the year 1860. My greatest questions, of course, are these: Who was she when she lived as a human, and why did she die as a young woman? Well, that information seems hidden forever. But I did locate, in Icelandic Roots, a young woman who had no family, had been adopted, had been working in Borgarfjarðarsýsla, and died in her early twenties. Because I had been told that Icelandic ghosts had often been people who died of a broken heart, I was ready to begin weaving my story.

To write her story, I have taken on her role and written as if in her own words. This task has incredibly humbled me, and I realize how many pieces of the equation I have no legitimate information for. But I have also squeezed in everything I learned about her: life in Iceland from 1704, family life going back to that period, volcanos and famines and emigration ships and homestead life in Canada, and maps and farm locations. Nearly all of this I located on the magnificent Icelandic Roots website. I also traced my family back to that first couple in 1704 and then chose which family I guessed she may have lived with in each generation.

To my surprise, I ended the book by having her live with me and saying she was tired now and ready to leave this world but certainly wouldn’t mind redemption and a chance for heaven. After all, she notes, she has lived three of her lifetimes in the homes of pastors in our family. I ran this past my secretary, who calmly said, “But she wants to leave from Iceland. You’ll have to take her there and then say a few words and send her on her way!” (Yes, I have a truly amazing secretary.)

As for the book about her, it is written though not yet published. So, I guess it is time for me to take Leirárskotta, my now beloved family ghost, back to Iceland, release her, and send her on her way!

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