By Thomas Arnason McNeil from Halifax, NS
It is a difficult thing to define the people of Svarfaðardalur, Iceland. The residents of this small valley, just a few kilometres from the fishing town of Dalvík, continue to farm and raise livestock as their ancestors did. Despite their association in popular culture with “Bakkabræður”- a series of folk tales staring three notoriously stupid brothers- they tend to be practical people of many talents. Ask my cousin Kristján Eldjárn Hjartarson what he does for a living, and he’ll probably tell you that he works as an architect. But he’s also a farmer, an electrician, a carpenter, a performing musician accompanying his wife Kristjana Arngrímsdóttir, a tour guide and an expert on birds and wildlife. But then there are those in the valley who chose to pursue careers so singularly unique, so utterly impractical, and yet – somehow – essential to their community. “Have you met your ancestor yet?” Kristján asks me as we sit together on his back porch at Tjörn, the family farm. I shake my head. We walk a few steps to the small church next to his home, and as we come to the entrance he stops and stretches out his hand. I take it, expecting to walk inside as part of some strange ceremony. But instead, we pace meaningfully towards a rusted Iron cross directly facing the church’s doors. It is here that my great-great-great-great grandfather Arngrímur Gíslason lies buried. He had only one job, so much a part of him that it would become a moniker: Arngrímur “málari” – the painter. His tiny turf-roof studio overlooks the church, built in the 1870s out of cheap plywood. His frantic pencil scratching still cover the walls, splattered with faded paint. He painted portraits and church idols in an attempt to feed himself or repay others. As a young man, he repaid a preacher’s hospitality by sleeping with his daughter – Þórunn Hjörleifsdottir – who bore him a child. Publicly shamed, Þórunn was made to marry an older farmer while Arngrímur’s name was never spoken in the household again. Arngrímur and Þórunn would meet by chance several decades later in Svarfaðardalur, having each married and subsequently been widowed. Arngrímur’s name could still not be spoken in front of Þórunn’s bedridden mother, until one afternoon when she needed to be turned over. As she was quite heavy, Þórunn could not do it by herself – and all the men were out working in the field. As her mother was very insistent, Þórunn confessed there was one person she could call. Out of options, Arngrímur was begrudgingly summoned. The two were married shortly after. Their daughter – Petrína Soffía – would emigrate to Manitoba in 1895.