One morning in the late ninth century a Viking ship sailed up Breiðafjörður. The leader of the small group of people on the ship had been a nobleman’s daughter in Norway, a Viking queen in Dublin, the mother of a Viking king in the Hebrides and Scotland, and now she was about to become the one of the most distinguished of the original settlers of Iceland. Her name was Aud, sometimes called Unn, and she was known as ‘the Deep-Minded’.
The ship sailed along the southern shore of the wide fjord until it began to narrow, and there they stopped for breakfast on a peninsula still known as Dagverðanes – ‘Breakfast Headland’. Then they continued past a series of little islands, and on down what would become known as Hvammsfjörður. At the end of the fjord they stopped again on another headland, where Aud happened to lose one of her bone-tooth combs. This place is today known as Kambsnes – ‘Comb Point’. They made their final journey northwards along the end of the fjord until they came to a protected valley with the fjord in front of it and high heathland around it. Here Aud established a farm, and on a hill above the settlement she raised crosses for the strange new religion she had brought from the British Isles. She called her farm Hvammur, and that is still its name, eleven hundred years later. In 1965 a stone cross was raised in commemoration of the tradition Aud started:
Aud’s importance as one of the most prominent early settlers is clear. Her story, in rather abbreviated forms, is told at the beginning of both the Saga of the People of Laxardal, and the Saga of Eirik the Red. She was the daughter of Ketil Flat-nose, a Norwegian lord who became king over the Hebrides following the supposed unification of Norway by Harald Fine-hair in the late 9th century. The accounts differ on how this came about – some say he went west to escape the tyranny of King Harald, the same reason given for much of the early settlement of Iceland. Others say Harald sent him to extend Norwegian rule into the Western Isles, but having established himself there Ketil then felt little compulsion to send any taxes back to Norway. Certainly he fell out with the king, and with their Norwegian lands confiscated Ketil’s descendants ended up living all over the western part of the Viking world.
Aud had a number of adventures, including a desperate escape to Orkney in a hastily built little boat, following her son’s defeat and death at the hands of a Scottish army in Caithness – a story reminiscent of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape to Skye. Eventually Aud arrived in Iceland, where two of her brothers had already settled. She stayed her first winter with her brother Bjorn, further out along the southern shore of Breiðafjörður. The following spring she set out to claim some land of her own, and somewhere just outside Stykkishólmur her route transected my own, as my early morning ferry steamed out of the harbour and northwards across the fjord.
Visibility was poor, but in the distance beyond the islands I could see a dark smudge of land that I fancied was Aud’s Dagverðanes:
To the west of the ferry we passed Elliðaey, now home only to a lighthouse and a large colony of seabirds, nesting on the basalt cliffs. At one time, however, Elliðaey was an important waymark for voyagers leaving Iceland. Out in the middle of the fjord, it was the perfect spot to wait for the right wind to begin a journey, particularly if you had killed a few too many people to be safe on the mainland. If a wind blew up that could bring an outlaw’s enemies out to attack him there, the same wind would carry him out to the relative safety of the ocean long before they got there.
An open stretch of ocean followed, and with the weather worsening I retired to the middle deck to read up on the outlaw Gisli Sursson, whose realm I was about to enter – only to be called back up on deck by a garbled message from the speaker system, the only intelligible word of which was echoed all over the ship – ‘dolphins!’ They were far away and dropping back further as the ferry ploughed on, but unmistakable as their fins and backs broke the surface. By the time the ferry steamed up to the jetty at Flatey we were mostly pretty cold and wet, but excited too. Breiðafjörður is a teeming haven for numerous bird species, as well as seals, dolphins, and whales, and I was keeping a particular look out for the latter, though without success.
Flatey is the only one of the thousands of islands in Breiðafjörður still inhabited year round, albeit only just – its winter population is reputed to be five people and a dog. For centuries it was an important monastic and then trading centre, and the home of the invaluable medieval manuscript collection Flateyjarbók, but these days it is advertised primarily as a place to stroll among the attractive painted houses and birdwatch – on a nice day.
This day was wet and windy, and the next ferry wasn’t for another five hours, so I did my admiring from the upper deck of the ship as it continued northwards through fog and rain to the remote Westfjords, homeland of one of my favourite of all the saga characters, Gisli Sursson.