Viking-age headstone, St. Blane’s Chapel, near Kingarth, Scotland, CC BY-SA 2.0
Accounts conflict as to why Ketill (Björnsson) Flatnose, a Viking chieftain from Romsdal and the father of his “tall and portly” yet wisely regal second daughter, Aud the Deepminded, left Norway for the Hebrides (Suðreyjar) in the years of Harald Fairhair’s rise to power. The thirteenth-century Laxdæla saga claims Ketill fled from Harald’s oppressive dictates while the later Eyrbyggia saga says Ketill first conquered the islands off the Scottish coast at the behest of his king but kept them as his personal domain:
Because of the discord that arose from King Harald’s coercive rule, many notable men from Norway flew, some to the east… others to the west over the sea. Some stayed over the winter on the Southern Isles [Hebrides and Man] or Orkney Islands, but ravaged Norway in the summer, and did much damage in King Harald’s kingdom. The peasants complained about this to the king… Then King Harald decided to send a fleet… and appointed Ketil as chief over it. Ketil refused, but the King said he had to. And when Ketil realized the king’s seriousness, he decided to depart, and took his wife and children with him. When he came to the western lands, he held several battles, and was still victorious… and became their chieftain, then made peace with the greatest chieftains… [and] entered into brotherhood with them and sent the fleet home. But when they reached King Harald, the Norwegians told him that Ketil Fladnæse was the chief of the Southern Islands… When the King now heard this, he confiscated Ketil’s possessions in Norway.
The truth perhaps lies somewhere in between but the historian Eiríkr Magnússon noted in the late nineteenth century that Ketill “became a man of great might and influence” in a region colonized by Norsemen a hundred years before Harald united the petty kingdoms of Norway and seized the islands around the Norwegian Sea. Ketill’s daughter Aud – known as Unn in the Laxdæla saga – benefited from Ketill’s status and perpetuated their family’s pedigree by marrying Olaf the White, son of King Ingjald of Dublin. In 850, three years before Olaf became king, he and Aud had a son named Thorstein the Red. Thorstein grew to become a great warrior like his grandfather and fought to carve out for himself a small realm on the northern Scottish mainland near the Orkneys – which were known by the Vikings as the Norðreyjar, or northern isles. Thorstein had six daughters and one son, Olaf Feilan – named after his grandfather. By all accounts, Aud had a good life and shared in the success that surrounded her until around 870 when Olaf passed away and Aud and Thorstein were forced to return to the Hebrides to live with her father Ketill. The Saga of Erik the Red says that Olaf…
…fell in battle in Ireland, and then Aud and Thorstein went into the Sudreyjar (the Hebrides). There Thorstein married Thorid… and they had many children. Thorstein became a warrior king, and formed an alliance with Earl Sigurd the Great, son of Eystein the Battler. They conquered Caithness, Sutherland, Boss, and Moray, and more than half Scotland. Over these Thorstein was king until the Scots plotted against him, and he fell there in battle.
Demise of the Ketill Clan
The Heimskringla states it was King Harald who subdued the “Hjaltland” or the Shetlands, and the “Sudreys” (Hebrides). “He then plundered far and wide in Scotland itself, …as far as the Isle of Man…” Before returning to Norway, Harald gave the Orkneys and Shetlands to his dearest friend Ragnvald, the Earl of More, who then gave them to his brother Sigurd. While Harald’s direct involvement in the conquest is questioned, the account indicates that “Thorstein the Red, a son of Olaf the White and of Aud the Wealthy, entered into partnership with him [Sigurd]; and after plundering in Scotland, they subdued Caithness and Sutherland…” In that case, Harald may have been on amicable terms with Ketill’s clan, but the situation obviously changed for Aud when her father died. The Laxdæla saga notes that around the time Aud was in Caithness Scots “treacherously murdered” her son Thorstein and she “deemed she would have no prospering in store there.” Likely in fear for her family’s safety, Aud decided to flee Scotland for northwestern Iceland where her brother Bjorn settled after their father was expelled from Norway. At the time Iceland had an abundance of available land and was sparsely populated. The sagasays her brother Bjorn “took for himself all the land, between Staffriver and Lavafirth, and abode in the place that ever after was called Bjornhaven.” With her destination clear, Aud hatched a plan.
Fleeing to Iceland
To keep others from finding out about her intentions Aud “had a ship built secretly in a wood, and when it was ready built she arrayed it, and had great wealth withal; and she took with her all her kinsfolk who were left alive…” Seemingly storing an enormous amount of coin, the Laxdæla saga declares that “men deem that scarce may an example be found that any one, a woman only, has ever got out of such a state of war with so much wealth and so great a following. From this it may be seen how peerless among women she was. Unn had with her many men of great worth and high birth.” When the boat was loaded, she sailed the ship to the Orkneys, married off Thorstein’s daughter Gro, and then “steered her ship to the Faroe Isles and stayed there” long enough to marry off Olof, another daughter of Thorstein. After the Faroes she piloted the vessel to Iceland. This occurred sometime around the year 895:
…she came with her ship to the south of Iceland… There they had their ship broken into splinters, but all the men and goods were saved. …and when he [Bjorn] heard she was coming, he went to meet her with many followers, and greeted her warmly, and invited her and all her followers to stay with him, for he knew his sister’s high-mindedness. She liked that right well, and thanked him for his lordly behaviour. She stayed there all the winter, and was entertained in the grandest manner, for there was no lack of means, and money was not spared. In the spring she went across Broadfirth… and took to her lands as wide as she wanted. …Unn spoke to her men and said: “Now you shall be rewarded for all your work, for now I do not lack means with which to pay each one of you for your toil and good-will.”
The Laxdæla saga is named after the Laxárdalr region in the Breiðafjörður, in northwestern Iceland, where Aud and her family settled.
She was a much-admired woman and her family prospered there. Aud passed away around the year 920, the same time she married off her grandson Olaf. She left her estate to him, and was buried with a small ship:
Every one thought it a wonderful thing, how Unn had upheld her dignity to the day of her death. So they now drank together Olaf’s wedding and Unn’s funeral honours, and the last day of the feast Unn was carried to the howe (burial mound) that was made for her. She was laid in a ship in the cairn, and much treasure with her, and after that the cairn was closed up. Then Olaf “Feilan” took over the household of Hvamm and all charge of the wealth there… Olaf became a mighty man and a great chieftain. He lived at Hvamm to old age.
 Israel Gollanz, ed., Laxdæla saga Translated from the Icelandic (London J.M Dent and Co., 1899), 12, 2. Ketill said to his kinsmen: “It seems to me that there are two choices left us, either to fly the land or to be slaughtered each in his own seat.” (p. 2)
 Niels Matthias Peterson, Eyrbyggja saga og Laksdøla saga (Copenhagen: The Nordic Publishing House: Ernst Bojesen, 1901), 3-4.
 Eiríkr Magnússon, “The Conversion of Iceland to Christianity, A.D. 1000,” Saga-Book 2 (1897), 352-353.
 John Sephton, Eirik the Red’s Saga: A Translation (Liverpool: D. Marples & Co., 1880), 5.
 Samuel Laing, The Heimskringla or the Sagas of the Norse Kings From the Icelandic of Snorre Sturlason, Vol. 1 (New York: Scribner & Welford, 1889), 368-369. Rognvald Eysteinsson (Earl Ragnvald) gave Harald “the distinguishing name—Harald Harfager (i.e., fair hair)” (370)
 Gollanz, ed., Laxdæla saga, 4-6. Many viking-age place names in Iceland, like Bjarnarhöfn on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, are still used today.
 Ibid. 6-9.
 Ibid. 12. The Erbyggia saga praises her achievements by saying “she possessed much wisdom, and had with her the whole collection of relatives who were still alive, so that it is difficult to imagine that a single woman has escaped from such strife with so much property and so many companions…” (Peterson, Eyrbyggja saga, 86)
About the author
Benjamin J. Swenson has been living and working in Korea since 2008. His doctoral dissertation at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona, Spain, covered Euro-American military and legal history, and the advent of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency doctrine in the nineteenth century. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department for Human Creativity at Hoseo University in Asan – where he lives with his wife and son. His hobbies include chess, painting, hiking, and bonsai.