Untold story of female Viking with Scottish ancestry brought to life

The largely untold story of an intrepid female Viking traveller with Scottish ancestry is being revealed in a new documentary.

Tuesday, 29th September 2020, 5:01 pm
Updated Tuesday, 29th September 2020, 6:57 pm
The story of Viking adventurer Gudridor Thorbjarnardottir, who had Scottish ancestry, is being told in a new BBC ALBA documentary. PIC: BBC ALBA.
The story of Viking adventurer Gudridor Thorbjarnardottir, who had Scottish ancestry, is being told in a new BBC ALBA documentary. PIC: BBC ALBA.

An Taistealaiche/The Far Traveller looks at the life of Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir, the granddaughter of a slave in Scotland. Her epic story has been pulled together by BBC ALBA using the Icelandic Sagas, written in the 12th and 13th centuries, and modern archaeological discoveries in the broadcaster’s first Icelandic co-production.

Gudridur has been described as the most adventurous explorer of the Middle Ages; the only woman in the world whose expeditions took her both to mainland Europe, and to the coastal lands of North America.

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Gudridur sailed to North America, where she gave birth to the first child there of a European mother in the 10th or 11th Century, making her the furthest travelled woman of the Viking Age, the broadcaster said

She endured treacherous ocean voyages to Greenland; held unprecedented meetings with the indigenous peoples of North America and enjoyed a triumphant return to Europe on her sturdy Viking ship. The sagas also detail one final pilgrimage to Rome, towards the end of her life.Gudridur was born in Iceland, but her ancestry can be traced back to both Scotland and Ireland.

Her grandfather, Vifill, was brought as an enslaved nobleman on a Viking ship across the North Atlantic from Scotland, accompanying the Queen of Dublin, Audur (The Deep-minded).

The Sagas do not specify if Vifill was born in Scotland, but he certainly lived there for a time, and when he arrived in Iceland Audur gave him freedom and land.

Dr Andrew Jennings, who teaches Viking Studies at the Institute for Northern Studies at UHI, said that Audur's own father Kjetill Flatnefr or “Flatnose”, a chieftain from western Norway, had come to the west of Scotland and conquered the entire Hebrides.

After her husband’s death Audur fled to the Hebrides, but then her son was also killed and she decided to flee Scotland. She commissioned a large Viking ship to be built and captained a voyage to the newly discovered country of Iceland in search of safety.

Dr Jennings said: “Audur was an uncommon woman of her time. She had the bravery to set off to settle a new country and commanded the respect to order her own ships.

“She recognised the threat to her safety after the deaths of her husband and son and took steps to protect herself by leaving Scotland. She was audacious, and must have had to hold her nerve in a male dominated society. To later generations like Gudridur her story may have been inspiring.

“Audur was very important in Icelandic folklore. I am sure Gudridur would have heard stories about her.”

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Nancy Marie Brown, an American author, has written several books about the Vikings and was inspired by the life and times of Gudridur.

She said: “She is a very important person in the history of Iceland but also the history of North America. Her life, the most far-travelled of the Viking Age, truly is a remarkable one.

The documentary also looks at the many Norse place names in Scotland, especially those found on the North and West coast, and in the islands.

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