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Alone in a Strange Land

By Noelle Grosse

Imba Fedorowich wears her grandmother's Icelandic costumeImba Fedorowich wears her grandmother's Icelandic costume.
WDM Archives

Gudrun Bjornsson had to sell all her possessions to move from Iceland to Canada, but she saved one special symbol of the rugged land of fire and ice she left behind.

Bjornsson brought to Canada an elaborate black dress that she wore on her wedding day in 1890. The dress, called a skautbuningur, is a formal costume still worn at festive occasions in both Iceland and Canada. Today, residents of Icelandic settlements on the Prairies still celebrate some of the island’s ancient traditions.

Gudrun (Ulu) Jonsson of Regina, Saskatchewan became an active member of the province’s Icelandic community after moving to Canada in 1970. She said that the dress worn by Bjornsson is the most formal of the three women’s national costumes in Iceland.

"The skautbuningur is the kind of costume that you would wear now to a royal wedding," Jonsson remarked. "You would not see common people dressed like that anymore."

Gudrun Bjornsson’s outfit consists of a two-piece dress made of black wool, the traditional fabric and colour. Ornate patterns of gold and silver thread, symbolizing glittering rays of sun, decorate the sleeves and cuffs of the jacket. Bjornsson hand-embroidered the floral pattern along the bottom of the skirt, the pattern represents an Icelandic summer.

The skautbuningur was designed in the 1860s by Sigurdur Gudmundsson, an Icelandic painter who wanted to revive the popularity of traditional costumes and curb demand for continental European fashions entering the country.

The most distinctive feature of the costume is probably its elaborate head-dress.

"I would suspect it wasn’t very comfortable to wear," said Jonsson. The linen cap and veil were held in place by a brass ring worn on top of the head and further secured with hair pins. The white veil is symbolic of the glaciers that cover over ten percent of Iceland’s surface.

Though there are several Icelandic communities on the Canadian prairies, most people know little of the island in the North Atlantic. Iceland has a stark landscape that includes both glaciers and volcanic deserts, and much of the island’s interior is uninhabitable. Most of Iceland’s 270,000 residents trace their origins to Viking settlers, and the Icelandic language is so similar to Old Norse that children can read ancient Viking sagas with little difficulty.

The use of patronymics instead of surnames is a longstanding Icelandic tradition that has not survived on Canadian soil. Ninety percent of Iceland’s population follows the ancient tradition where a father's first name becomes the surname of his children, with the words "son" or "dottir" added to the end.

"In the telephone book, you look people up by their first name," stated Ulu Jonsson, adding that a person's occupation is often listed so they are easier to find. Jonsson said her own surname is actually Gudbergsdottir, because women do not usually change their names when they marry.

Icelandic settlement in Saskatchewan began about 1885, a decade after the first settlement on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. The area north of Gimli, Manitoba was once called New Iceland, and the territory had its own constitution and local government.

One of the largest Icelandic settlements in Saskatchewan was the "lake district" that includes Elfros, Leslie and Foam Lake.

The lake district eventually became home to Gudrun Bjornsson. Bjornsson’s husband died after seven years of marriage and she moved to Canada with her three young daughters in 1900. Bjornsson's granddaughter, Imba Fedorowich, said her grandmother only decided to leave Iceland because her brother convinced her to go with him.

"Right before they were going to leave, her father and brother changed their minds," said Fedorowich. She says her grandmother had no choice but to leave because she had sold almost everything she owned.

Bjornsson arrived in Canada and helped look after a farm north of Gimli.

"It was tough country," remarked Fedorowich. Another tragedy struck the family when Bjornsson's seven-year-old daughter Margret suddenly disappeared.

"She went out to get the cows and she never came back," said Fedorowich. "They never knew what happened to her." Bjornsson and her two remaining daughters started a farm at Icelandic River.

When she got older, Bjornsson spent many years with her youngest daughter’s family in Wynyard, Saskatchewan. She kept the black dress and other small items from her homeland with her until her death in 1945. Imba Fedorowich said she decided to donate her grandmother's costume to the Western Development Museum at Yorkton in 1976 because it offered a small piece of Iceland's history.

In Canada, Icelandic history is still celebrated in places like Gimli, where the original New Iceland territory was settled in the 1800s. Each year, a woman from the community wears the skautbuningur costume when she is honoured as the Fjallkona, the Maid of the Mountain.

Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection

This article was originally published as part of a newspaper articles written by Noelle Grosse in celebration of the Western Development Museum's 50th anniversary in 1999. The articles appeared as regular features over the course of late 1998 and 1999 in the Saskatoon Sun,Yorkton This Week and Enterprise, and as intermittent features in the Regina Sun. In 2001, all 65 articles were gathered into a publication - Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection.

Museum Gold is available in WDM Gift Shops.

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