Ghosts stories and folklore from Iceland
The Icelandic settlers in Manitoba brought their traditional folklore with them from Iceland, including some colourful ghost stories. I’ve already discussed dreams about speaking with the dead in the story of Betsy Ramsay’s grave at Sandy Bar. But there were also tales of Fylgjur (followers) that would assume the shapes of animals and were always seen in the vicinity of certain people.
More ominously, there were also stories of drauger (ghosts) and uppvakningar (those raised from the dead by spells). These sorts of spectres struck fear into the hearts of even the most sceptical and bold. The most well-known stories of these ghosts are about the old homestead of Nes, on the bank of the Icelandic River just north of the old townsite of Lundii.
How Nes Got Its Name
First a bit of background. In 1875, a large group of Icelanders came to settle the Riverton area. They had barely got things started when a terrible smallpox epidemic swept the settlement, also affecting the unfortunate neighbours, the Sandy Bar aboriginal band. The sickness seems to have started in the immigration sheds in Quebec and someone among the Icelandic settlers had brought it with them to Manitoba.
At first, since many of the Icelanders had been vaccinated, it manifested as only a mild sickness of some of the settlers. But once the illness reached the unvaccinated aboriginals, it exploded into its most virulent form, decimating the Sandy Bar community. Smallpox killed most of the members of that unfortunate band, leaving only about 16 or 17 of them alive. They fled their homes at Sandy Bar and put up tents at Riverton. Since they were too sick to hunt or fish, they needed help from the settlers. The Sandy Bar survivors eventually abandoned the area to join with people from Norway House who were going to live in Fisher River.
Needless to say, smallpox graves were all over the area. Many Icelanders buried their dead on their family farms, and some people, mostly aboriginal were buried at Sandy Bar. But by far, the largest number of graves of those who died in 1876 are to be found at Nes.
However, even before the smallpox epidemic and the Icelandic settlement at Riverton, the burial plot at Nes had been used by aboriginals in the area for many years. So there were already a large number of graves, even before 1876. And after the epidemic, since it was the only established cemetery in the area, people continued to bury their dead at Nes. The area was dotted with thick logs stood on end to mark the graves. The site became so crowed with burials that it was abandoned as a graveyard in the early 1880s, since it was pretty much full.
At some point in the 1880s, Magnús Hallgrímsson, a man who had originally settled on Hecla Island, came to the area and decided to settle on the land at Nes. Being a brave soul with nerves of steel, he pulled out all the logs marking the burials and levelled the graves to clear the land of any trace of the cemetery. Then he built his house smack-dab in the middle of the graves. He cheekily called the place Náströnd (Corpse Strand) or Graftarnes (Grave Ness) but it came to be known by most people as Nes.
Magnús came to a bad end however – he died a horrible death in 1890, and his widow refused to live in the house. Shortly after, strange stories began to circulate about the goings-on at Nes. The spot became so notorious, it was avoided at all costs, especially at night. How terribly it was feared can be judged by the following story by Guttormur J. Guttormsson, the noted Icelandic poet and musician from Viðivellir just next door to Nes.
“This house was one of those strangely eerie places, and all the more so because of the cellar… I myself never saw anything unusual there, but that could have been because I never dared go near the place once evening approached. I dared not even enter the house by myself in broad daylight. On one occasion, though, I happened to accompany some young ladies home from an evening’s entertainment, and our way lay by the old house. On the return trip I waded through swamp up to the crotch of my good pants rather than go anywhere close to it!”
Since the swamps in the area are very deep and extensive, you can imagine the terror about Nes that would make it preferable to wade through them in your best clothes rather than to go anywhere near the place!
A Place to Be Avoided at All Costs
Another story about Nes concerns a boy who lived at Viðimýri, the farm just to the other side of Nes north along the Icelandic River. He arrived home one night soaked to the skin. He had been passing by Nes when he heard an eerie voice calling to him, “Won’t you come in… come in… come in…?” At which point, he took to his heels in terror and ran home by the most direct route, which meant charging through the creek.
At other times, an elderly couple named Sigmundur and Jóhanna, who lived across the river from Nes, noticed strange lights appearing in the deserted house once it had got dark. Sigmundur wanted to row across and see what was going on. But Jóhanna wouldn’t let him, even if he took his Bible with him!
But not everyone was so easily frightened off by tales. Björn Jónsson, a man noted for his pragmatism and distain for superstition, was one man who wasn’t so easily deterred from visiting Nes at night. He had obtained permission to hay the meadows at Nes. Since he lived two miles upriver at Fagranes, it was a bother to row up there every evening just to have to return in the morning. So he decided to spend the nights while he was haying in the old cabin at Nes.
When questioned after sleeping in the house the first night, he just laughed and said nothing unusual had happened. Then he set out to hay the fields for the day. However, the next night, he showed up beating on the door at Viðivellir in the middle of the night, rousing the family from a deep sleep to ask if he could sleep in their house for the night. He wouldn’t give any reason, but he refused to stay in the house at Nes ever again.
Another hard-nosed man who refused to believe in the supernatural was Tómas Jónasson of Engimýri. Nevertheless, he was convinced that Nes was haunted. He avowed he had seen a group of black apparitions emerging from the house and wouldn’t go near the place.
Neglected and Abandoned
Eventually the house was pulled down and no one ever lived there again. Not only because of its shady past but also because the land is very low-lying and only fit for pasture in the dry years, the site has been severely neglected for over a hundred years. Periodically, it floods and sometimes bones are exposed. Gilbert Guttormsson, who lives next door at Viðivellir has used the land as pasture for his cows and he faithfully collects the exposed bones and reburies them. Severe erosion plagues the area and sometimes whole skeletons are exposed. A number of them have been collected and are awaiting burial in the Riverton town cemetery.
About 10 years ago, a group of students from Arborg Collegiate put up a small sign that identifies the site. The town of Riverton appears to have plans someday to commemorate Nes with a park and a memorial.
Until then, Nes remains a bleak and neglected place, marked only by the remains of an abandoned house foundation, a small blue sign, and a stone angel.