Peasant Autonomy
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Story 54

A remote farm in the marshlands of Iceland – 1911 (2)

Independent after thirty years

for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Observe The Banana)


“Yes, my dear Jón, this is my last payment. Thirty years I have worked for you, but from now on I am no longer indebted to you.” Bjartur of Summerhouses, a strong square-faced farmer with a bushy dark beard, looks Jón the Bailiff, the pale big landowner, right in the face. Jón shifts his chew of tobacco to the other cheek, and says softly “Poor wretch.” This arrogance is what Bjartur hates more than anything else. How often he has gotten annoyed about it. But today he will not let it spoil his pleasure. He is independent! He has never been happier.

For eighteen years Bjartur laboured for the family of the Rauðsmýri estate, the family of Jón the Bailiff, as a sheep hand – in winter feeding the animals in freezing cold, in spring helping ewes to litter, and in summer haying till late in the evening. He has never disliked it. He was crazy about sheep, and still he is. He knows everything about it, knows all the sheep by name, and he knows the peculiarities of every single animal.
In these eighteen years Bjartur has put aside öre after öre, to someday buy a small herd for himself, and some building materials for a simple farm. Suddenly he got the chance to buy a piece of land from Rauðsmýri on credit. It was a big marshy land nobody wanted to buy, because the area was haunted. But Bjartur doesn't believe in ghosts, and he seized the opportunity with both hands. He himself built a small sod farmhouse, with a stable downstairs for his ewes, his rams, and his work horse. Upstairs under the sloped roof was the living-room. After that he married Rósa, a servant of the estate.

for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Eric Sonstroem)


For twelve years Bjartur has repaid his debt every spring, when he had sold his suckling lambs to the merchant in the city. Twelve years of toiling with his wife, and later with their children. During hay harvest, sixteen-hour work days. Sometimes they worked the whole day in pouring rain.
Bjartur has lost a lot. His first wife died during the delivery of her first child. From his second wife, three young children died. Many sheep he has lost to animal diseases that plague the region. But Bjartur doesn't look back on what he has lost; instead he looks ahead to what he still has, and how he will go on with it. Because the annual repayments are over now, he can save money for a big ewe stable. At long last, the worst poverty is over.


Independent People (1934) by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness is a monumental novel about the small sheep farmers in his country: powerful and moving.

Go to:
= part 1: The reindeer - a remote farm in the marshlands of Iceland – 1899 (1), story 32.
= part 3: Rich for a few years - a remote farm in the marshlands of Iceland – 1922 (3), story 72.
= the next page: 'Saint Isidore, don't desert us!' - a mountain village in Peru – 1912 (1), story 55.
= the Table of contents, story 54.