Sabine Baring-Gould

So here I am in 21st century Reykjavík, but I expect you're all wondering what Reykjavík was like in the 19th century. This is one of the things I wrote about in my dissertation, and one of my subjects was Sabine Baring-Gould. I thought I'd share a few of his observations because they are pretty funny. In a very unkind sort of way. He was very rude about Iceland, but I can't really help myself laughing.

He is best known for writing the hymn 'Onward Christian Soldiers', but also used to go about with his pet bat on his shoulder. Once he asked one of the guests at a children's party, "And whose little girl are you?". The girl burst into tears and replied, "Yours, Daddy."

Anyway, here are some of the things he thought about Iceland and the Icelanders:
"An Icelander seems to have no sense of smell; perhaps it is well that he has none, for there is no possibility of gratifying that sense, whilst there is every opportunity of mortifying it. The enormous amount of snuff consumed is one cause of this deadness in the perception of scent. Nature has made a mistake in forming Icelanders' faces; she should have inverted their noses, so as to facilitate their plugging them with tobacco."
[On the school] "There are about forty-six boys now in it, which, considering that it is the only educational establishment in the island, is a scanty percentage. This is to be accounted for by the jealous fear which parents feel, lest their offspring should be corrupted by the grandeur and dissipation of the forty or fifty decent shanties which form the capital; lest, also, they should become too fond of the cleanliness of a Danish household, to return to the ancestral dirt of the parental piggery."
[On the cathedral] "This tower is perhaps the most hideous erection which head of man could devise or hand execute [...] the interior of the church is no better. There are galleries for the sake of contributing additional ugliness, I presume, as they can be of manner of use, as the whole population of Reykjavík could be accommodated on the floor [...] There is no east window, and the place is occupied by a baldacchíno enclosing a painting of the Resurrection, feeble in design and bad in colour, belonging to the worst French sentimental school [...] The brass chandeliers are fit only for a gin palace."
"The town is full of idle men, who follow the stranger whithersoever he goes - provided he does not walk too fast for them. They hang about the stores as thickly and stupidly as flies round a sugar-barrel; they stream into the shops after me, throng so closely around me that I can hardly move, listen to what I say, eye me from head to foot, ask the price of every article of clothing I have on; bid for my knickerbockers, which, of course, I cannot spare; feel my stockings, and laugh to scorn their loose texture; criticise my purchases, want to examine my purse, but I object, and by so doing, hurt the feelings of half-a-dozen; they pull out of my hand the comforter and sou'wester I have just bought, and would proceed to try the latter on their own heads, only I snatch it from them. Then they tell the merchant that he has charged too high for the muffler, and put too low a figure on the sou'wester. They make advances towards familiarity, shaking hands, asking my name, then my father's name, then they inquire who was my mother; they offer me a pinch of snuff, or rather a pull at their snuff-horns, which are like powder-flasks, and are applied to the nostril, the head thrown back, and the snuff poured in, till the nose is pretty well choked. One man, very dirty and very drunk, insists on having a kiss - the national salutation; and, when the merchant explains that such is not the English custom, he kisses all the natives in the shop, and embraces the merchant across the counter."
[On the baðstofa - the main room in an Icelandic farmhouse] "The stifling foulness of the atmosphere can hardly be conceived, and, indeed, is quite unendurable to English lungs [...] As the chimney is in the roof ridge, and is not always over the fireplace, the acrid, offensive smoke has to make its way out as best it can, or penetrate every corner of the house, impregnating all articles of clothing with its disgusting odour."
"The natives complain that the Danish Government does nothing for the roads; but surely each hrepp ought to look after its thoroughfares; and Government is like Providence, it only helps those who help themselves. It is essential for the prosperity of the island that these ways should be kept open for traffic; and Althing might well devote its session to a consideration of the means by which money might be raised for improvements of this nature, instead of frittering about its time in idle grumblings against the mild and merciful rule of Denmark."
"In character the people are phlegmatic, conservative to a fault, and desperately indolent. They have a peculiar knack of doing what has to be done in the clumsiest manner imaginable. When, for instance, it is requisite that a box should be corded, a native looks at it for a few minutes to discover how it can be most inconveniently and uncouthly tied up; he then slowly sets himself to work on it, after the fashion he has excogitated. The Icelanders may possibly employ themselves during the winter, but they certainly do nothing during the summer. I have not had the felicity of seeing a native do any real work. To accomplish a task, he takes as many days as an English labourer would take hours."


  1. We want embarassing stories, not educational ones (lol). What language blunders have you made? A few weeks ago I got my Italian mixed up and asked if I could throw my cup of tea at my Italian friend's cousin, instead of throwing it away in her kitchen.... so hilarious. Then when she said thank you for the revision help I said "nothing exists" instead of "no problem".... they sound so similar!

    You done anything like this yet?

  2. The last post was about me falling over on the bus - how much more embarrassing do you want?

    Um... I asked the six-year-old to think a banana instead of hold it the other day (halda vs. halda á). So far I don't think many of the mistakes I've made have meant something bizarre - they've just been nonsense. But you can rest assured that I am making a lot of mistakes, pretty much every time I try and say anything.

    The mother did tell me a funny story about a Western-Icelander who thought she was talking about sandwiches, but kept saying 'samviska' because she was thinking of the English word. LOL Icelandic learners joke.