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Review: The most important foreigner to have done business with Iceland on the mid-1800s

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Review by Olafur R. Dyrmundsson of the Farmers Association, Iceland 01 July 2014

“The most important foreigner to have done business with Iceland on the 1800s”

bookslimonlr.jpgOf all the horse traders who came to Iceland, John Coghill would become the best-known. He was, however, already a legendary character while he was alive. Coghill was born in the spring of 1835 in Thurso, on the northernmost peninsula of Scotland, and was of humble origins. While he was still young Coghill’s parents moved the family across waters to Orkney, where Coghill grew up and began working early on for the sheep farmers of the island. Later, after his father died, Coghill, his mother and his siblings moved back to mainland Scotland, where he became a deckhand on a merchant ship. He was made first mate in 1867 and qualified as captain three years later. Coghill is first heard of in Iceland in that same summer, in 1870, when he was captain of the merchant ship “John & James”, which was under ownership of Robert Slimon and others. Over the next years, Coghill sailed very regularly over to Iceland, and was in charge of the steamship “Yarrow”, which brought in coal and exported horses.

It appears that Coghill did not begin running errands for Slimon in Iceland earlier than 1875. That summer he held horse markets in the north while Slimon himself bought horses in the south of Iceland. Thereafter Coghill was a frequent visitor to the country - arriving in the spring to buy horses, and staying until after the gathering of sheep in the autumn to buy live sheep. He quickly became Slimon´s most trusted representative in Iceland, and saw to most of his affairs in the country. Slimon obviously trusted his old captain fully, and with good reason, because early on Coghill earned a reputation among Icelanders for being reliable and fair in his business transactions. In Þjóðólf´s news regarding the arrival of Slimon´s ship in autumn 1881, it is stated:

“...(Slimon’s ship) also imported foodstuffs which had been ordered by some men from Mr Coghill, Slimon’s chief agent here (in Iceland). The general consensus is that: (Mr Coghill) is as reliable as the bank. And nobody would claim to have been cheated in a negotiation with this foreigner, despite the fact that he has done business with vast numbers of people across all quarters of the land every year.”

Coghill’s was soon a widely-recognised name, and he was by no means an inconspicuous character. His heavy build, handsome full black beard and Scottish hat which he often wore were well remarked upon. His contemporaries described him as light-hearted with a hearty laugh, and he is said to have enjoyed smoking fine cigars and drinking moderately. People were clearly fond of both his appearance and manner, and he probably reminded many Icelanders of the heroes of the Icelandic Sagas. Proof of this is in a news excerpt regarding a fire, which took place in the storeroom of the Krygers pharmacist in Reykjavík, in mid-summer 1882. The products in storage were highly flammable and the whole town was said to be in danger:

“Officials and students had to play the biggest roles in putting out the fire, as many of the town’s fire fighters were ill with measles; many of them did well but we have heard particular praises of the merchant Coghill. He charged into the fire like a berserk and as if it were snow, his clothes and hair alight akin to Kári Sölmundarsson long ago.”

Coghill understood Icelandic very well but never mastered speaking it. Even so, he was familiar with most Icelandic swear words, and was known to follow every two or three words with one. Although some people thought this inappropriate, most did not take offense, as there was rarely ever any ill intent behind it. Coghill often addressed housewives with the words: “Good day bloody woman. Is the damn man at home?”, when he was inquiring after the master of the house. He was accustomed to welcoming his own guests by saying: “The bloody man Andrés from Hvítarbakki has arrived”, or: “Damned Þórður Leirá is here”, and was then warmly greeting his closest friends. In his associates’ memoirs, Coghill’s profanities are often mentioned, and apparently many drew inspiration from him in this trait, especially teenage boys.

When Coghill held markets he had to travel far in a short space of time. He was said to ride very fast and usually with many horses accompanying him. His way of riding was well-known, and in some areas, men who rode their horses hard were said to “ride like Coghill”. He never stopped to rest except momentarily when changing horses, and never considered stopping to eat unless he had reached the night’s lodgings. It was also widely-noticed that Coghill wore old-fashioned Icelandic sheepskin shoes when he rode around the country. He apparently considered them much more comfortable than modern boots. Then there was his forsaken whip; which had an unsually long leather band. Today this excellent object is in the possession of the National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn).

Coghill’s business in Iceland was always bustling, and he employed many workers in the buying and selling of livestock. Pétur Kristófersson, the farmer at Stóruborg in Víðidal, was made Coghill´s chief representative and companion when he travelled through the north. This was for the most part because Pétur had studied agricultural sciences in Scotland, and had a good command of English. Pétur had to hire household managers in the summers to oversee the hay-gathering at his farm in Stóruborg while he and Coghill travelled on business. Coghill also had representatives in other regions of Iceland, in addition to numerous livestock drivers, who were in charge of gathering the animals and transporting them to the harbours for export. Often the merchant ships experienced long delays, and Coghill then also required people to look after the horses or sheep who were waiting for export. Davíð Jóhannesson, of Stöðlakot in Reykjavík, remembers that one summer he had to look after 1200 horses in Mosfellsheiði moor, after they had been transported from the north for export. Reverend Jóhann Þorkelsson of Mosfell had offered to look after the horses until the arrival of Coghill´s ship, which was severely delayed. The people of Mosfell were kept very busy looking after the horses as they were want to run away. In the end, Reverend Johann decided to erect a pen around them. The Reverend himself worked the hardest of all in carrying stones for the pen as he had a reputation for being a very strong man.

Coghill undoubtedly made a huge impression when he rode around the land with his party, and gold and silver coins in rattling trunks. However, he and Slimon usually paid farmers in precious metal, which was very rare in those days. Coghill himself carried bags of money in his pocket when he was rounding up horses, and would also use the bags as bullrings if he needed to hurry. Kristófer, Pétur´s son in Stóruborg, said this about Coghill´s gold:

“ (Coghill) arrived in the spring with 40 thousand in gold, which he brought over in two large packs. Upon arrival in Iceland, everything was carried by the packhorses. The gold was then divided into small bags and the ends sown up. They resembled the 20-pound bullet bags which were well-known at the time. The bags were then lined up inside two iron chests. When they stayed at Stóruborg, the chests were taken to the living room and opened. I remember as a child how I enjoyed pulling Coghill´s bags up out of the chests and dragging them around, running with them in circles around the living room floor and then stacking them in a pile one on top of the other.”

The so-called “sheep’s’ gold” was much talked about and probably increased the mysterious aura surrounding Coghill. Many stories surrounded the gold, one of these being that a money bag belonging to Coghill was lost in the harbour in Reykjavík. This was at the time when the harbour was still unprotected. The story goes that the money washed ashore after persistent northerly winds. After this kind of weather it was indeed common to see men searching in the sand on both sides of the old stone pier, and sometimes they scraped some gold for their pains. Accordingly, many farmers were said to have acquired large funds of gold, which they sat on for a long time. Well into the middle of the last century, sheep merchants’ gold cropped up from time to time, and one such reappearance is described in this newspaper excerpt:

“It is reported that two purses of gold have been discovered recently in a deceased one’s estate, as well as chunks of raw gold. Many people were in possession of gold coins at the turn of the last century, when Coghill was here buying sheep, and some if not all of this gold, is said to be of those origins.”

Coghill was known to be skilled in inspecting horses´ teeth, and reacted very angrily to attempts at deceiving him about a horse’s age or other features. He was also angered on other occasions, as the story of the market in Svartardalur bears witness to. Coghill had organised a horse market at Skeggjastaðir in Svartardalur valley, and invited many farmers. He was somewhat late to arrive, causing some of the men to begin to curse his tardiness, some even claiming that the damn man probably would not come at all. At this exact moment Coghill rode into the farmyard and overheard this. He reacted very badly, and began to shout: “Bloody Sigvaldur of Skeggjastaðir, now the damn man is gone and will never return.” He then rode away with his trunks and never held a market in Svartardalur again. Another such story takes place in the east in Vellir, where it so happened that Coghill´s trunks bashed into a shed at Ketilsstaðir, broke a part of the wall and skewed the shed. The farmer, Sigurður, immediately demanded compensation, and received it, but Coghill took great offence and did not buy horses from him for a long time afterwards. Otherwise Coghill´s relations with farmers were good, and he clearly even admired many. “Christ Above, does Iceland have good farmers!” he was known to say when his favourite farmers were mentioned. It has also often been noted how magnanimous Coghill was in his business deals. If someone, likely a poor man, offered a lower price for sheep or horses than others, Coghill would burst out laughing and say: “Bloody crazy guy! The man doesn´t know how to sell!” and then proceed to pay the man more than usual.

Coghill had no less of an eye for sheep than he did for horses, and his past experience herding sheep for farmers in Orkney served him well. He never weighed sheep at markets, preferring instead to take the effort to choose them by eye. The well-known entrepreneur Thor Jensen was a 15-year-old shop assistant in Borðeyri when Coghill began to frequent the countryside there. Regarding Coghill’s methods for choosing sheep, Thor made these comments in his memoirs:

“If a lot of sheep were brought to Coghill’s market in one go, he would often have them grouped by age in a pen. He would then walk around the pen and grab onto the spines of the individual sheep, before looking over the whole group and deciding on an offer for the lot.”

Torfi Bjarnason, headmaster of the agricultural college in Ólafsdal, said that Coghill put the most worth in sheep with broad and fleshy spines, and that farmers began to selectively breed their sheep with this in mind. It is apparent that Coghill saw the need for a lot change in Icelandic farming practices. He pressured men to discontinue the old practice of taking the sheep into the mountains in the 21st or 22nd week of summer, and to begin taking them into the mountains earlier in the year, and on a specific day of the month. He was speaking to deaf ears, however, because this old practice, which was probably based on the terms of Grágásar, was to prove persistent and continued until late last century.

When it was suspected that some sheep herds had been struck by scabies in the year 1890, Coghill published two short articles in Ísafold, in which he criticized the lack of veterinary surgeons in the country. Iceland had at this point had one veterinary surgeon in their service since 1874, but who had that year been told his services were no longer needed. Snorri Jónsson, who had completed his studies in veterinary medicine in Copenhagen in 1870, then turned to farming in the east in Papey, where he died two years later. In his article Coghill pointed out to MPs the imminent disaster which would be incurred if disease was to bring the export of sheep to a halt, and he was also openly critical of the Icelanders for their parochialism and conservatism:

„I have, as you know, travelled widely around Iceland, and I have always found the biggest problem of its citizens to be their slowness and carelessness in taking their ancestors´ place. As I see it, it is the duty of every man to become better than his forefather and stop this ugly word „sometime“, and try to the best of one´s ability with drive and diligence to eliminate any ugly customs and damaging habits of one´s forefathers. The sooner the parliament and the government see to it that well-educated veterinary surgeons are assigned to various regionsof the country, the better it will be in both moral and financial terms for the land as a whole.“

This critique from Coghill moved people to action as there were important interests at stake. Parliament acted on this matter, but twice before, in 1875 and 1877, draft resolutions for the appointment of veterinary surgeons had not been passed. This time, the government proposed a bill which would establish two veterinary offices in the country, and this was passed in the summer parliament session 1891.

Soon after Coghill began frequenting Iceland, he began importing various necessary goods which farmers ordered from him. His goods were believed to be cheaper than those of other merchants, but often also better in quality. This business of his grew and grew, leading Coghill to encourage farmers to take after their English counterparts and start purchasing their essentials in a cooperative ordering system. It then happened that ordering companies/cooperatives were established on various farms, and out of their foundations grew the cooperative movement in Iceland. Coghill did most of his business with the ordering company of Húnvetningar and Skagfirðingar, which was established 1884 and that summer he started importing goods to Sauðárkrókur for 20 thousand krónur. Established merchantswere very unhappy with this, but Coghill seemed to be completely indifferent. Coghill is also known to have supported individual men in their efforts to set up merchant businesses. Þorvaldur Björnsson, later a member of Parliament and a farmer at Þorvaldseyri, was one of the farmers who benefitted from Coghill’s support. When Þorvaldur still lived at Núpakoti he set up shop there and received goods from Coghill, who loaned him 5 thousand krónur for the purchase. Þorvaldur moved the goods by boat from Reykjavík to Eyjafjallasandur and from there back home to Núpakot. Coghill also took over the outstanding debts to companies which had ceased business in Iceland or gone bankrupt. To assist with debt collection he had no less a figure than Hannes Hafstein, later the First Minister of Iceland, who had just moved back to Iceland after finishing his law studies in Copenhagen. Many people have shown much gratitude to Slimon and Coghill for their trading in Iceland, including the wealthy farmer of Kornsá, Björn Sigfússon, who called Coghill the most important foreigner to have traded in Iceland. The most significant recognition received by Slimon and Coghill is, however, an ornate document from members of Parliament in 1885. This document says of Coghill:

“... we remember with the highest honour and gratitude Mr Coghill, who for many years has been a representative and shareholder of the aforementioned commerce. He has with diligence and magnanimity, honesty and good will, acquired the confidence, favour and respect of the many with whom he has done business ...“

When Coghill was not riding all over the country he had a home in Reykjavík, and was quite prominent in the town life. He lived in a little house which stood on the corner of Vallarstræti and Aðalstræti in the city centre, which was attached to the building of the Hotel Iceland. It is said that Coghill used to relish teasing the girls who worked at the hotel and laughed loud and long when they replied gruffly to his jokes and advances. It was also said that Coghill was a ladies´ man, and he left a considerable number of descendants in Iceland. He was compassionate towards the less fortunate and more vulnerable in town but at the same time wanted people to be resourceful in looking out for themselves. As an example, he donated for many years free swede seeds to the poor, so that they could grow their own vegetables. He also took the appearance of the town and general conduct of its inhabitants quite seriously. In 1883 a letter from him was published in Ísafold where he sorely complained over the unsightliness of the town’s gutters. He pointed out that the gutters were not only smelly but were also the source of a great risk of infection. Coghill said claimed that though he had been to all the world’s continents, he had never seen dirtier or more dangerous sewers than those in Iceland. At the time when Coghill lived in Reykjavík, the Skólavarða [literal translation: school cairn] tower building was one of the biggest landmarks of the town, looming as it did at the top of the hill, which would later get its name from the tower. This peculiar tower building had been erected in 1868 on the site where school boysof the Hólavalla school had built themselves a cairn nearly a hundred years earlier - which explains its name. Now, however, the building was falling into disrepair and Coghill undertook to renovate it. He got the municipality to allocate funds for the project, collected contributions from townspeople and was not niggardly with his own contribution. So well did he fundraise for the project that a considerable amount was left over and it was agreed that it should be used to plant trees, shrubs and plants in Austurvellir. The plan was unsuccessful, however, as the plants thrived badly, and thus the first attempt at cultivating greenery in central Reykjavík failed. The Skólavarða tower, however, became a most elegant building after its renovations, but was then torn down in 1932 when space was needed for the statue of Leifur the Lucky, gifted to Iceland by America. One might therefore conclude that no evidence of Coghill´s efforts to change the face of Reykjavík have survived, but nothing could be further from the truth. Coghill was the first man to import corrugated iron to Iceland and introduced this remarkable building material to Icelanders.

Not much is known of Coghill´s personal circumstances in Scotland but a number of Icelanders did meet him at home when they travelled abroad. In 1868 he married a widow, of the name Ann, who was quite a bit older than him, and he took the father´s place of her seven children. They themselves had one son together, who was named Donald after Coghill´s father. He later followed in his father´s footsteps and became a captain on a merchant ship, but died of polio in his prime. Coghill became a widower at the age of 50 and from then on kept home with one of his foster daughters.

Towards the close of the century, Coghill and Slimon were getting older, and competition with other merchants was becoming fiercer. However, there were no signs of them slowing down, and they travelled to Iceland in 1894 and 1895, to purchase quite a lot of live sheep. In the autumn of 1896, Coghill travelled yet again to Iceland in Slimon´s live stock ship, but he died while still at sea. It was known that he wanted to be buried in Icelandic soil, because he was fond of the country and had spent most of his working life there. The crew kept his body for a few days, but when the ship got caught in bad northerly weather they slid it into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Some say that the reason for the disposal of Coghill’s body was the crew’s superstitious belief that carrying a dead body was a bad omen. 

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