Media release: Documentary tells story of female Viking, ‘The Far Traveller’, who had Scottish ancestry


A STUNNING new documentary reveals the largely untold story of an intrepid female Viking traveller during the Middle Ages who had Scottish ancestry.

BBC ALBA’s first Icelandic co-production An Taistealaiche/The Far Traveller is based on the Icelandic Sagas (precious documents written in the 12th and 13th centuries, which recorded stories passed through generations) and modern archaeological discoveries. It tells, through interview and drama re-enactment, the story of Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir, the granddaughter of a slave in Scotland.

Known as ‘The Far Traveller’, she was one of the most adventurous explorers of the Middle Ages.

The Sagas tell how Gudridur sailed to North America, where she gave birth to what would have been the first child there of an European mother.

All this was in the late tenth/early 11th century, some 500 years before Columbus arrived in the New World. This would make her the furthest travelled woman of the Viking Age.

The Sagas present a vivid account of her life, and the epic journeys she undertook. They speak of treacherous ocean voyages to Greenland; of unprecedented meetings with the indigenous peoples of North America and triumphant returns to Europe on her sturdy Viking ship. They also contain a memory of 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, explains 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.”

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: “I call her (Gudridor) the Far Traveller and I’m not the first person to give her that name. She was given that by some other scholars in earlier centuries, because there were some men of her time who were called The Far Traveller and they didn’t travel nearly as far as she did.

“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.”

This documentary also tells how there are many Norse place names in Scotland, especially on the North and West coast, and in the islands.

Dr Andrew Jennings added: “The Scots, particularly those living in Orkney and Shetland, I think, are proud of their Norse heritage. The Vikings had a big impact on Scotland, particularly in the Middle Ages. They have left their place names in the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. They have contributed to our gene pool and, if you go to Shetland, you will discover that the Scandinavian language there only died out in about 1800.”

An Taistealaiche/The Far Traveller was produced for BBC ALBA by Stornoway-based TV production company MacTV, in co-production with Profilm Iceland.

Seumas Mactaggart, executive producer for MacTV, said: “We were delighted to collaborate with Profilm on this programme. Gudridur’s story deserves to be celebrated as much as the better-known achievements of male explorers. She was a brave and intrepid character who pushed the boundaries of what women could do. From humble roots, she rose to prominence, becoming the most travelled woman of the era.

“To sail the Atlantic Ocean eight times in an open boat, including travels to Greenland, Rome and her epic voyage to the New World, was an astounding feat – then or now.”

Margaret Cameron, commissioning editor BBC ALBA, added: “The partnership forged with Icelandic partners is an important step in our international co-production portfolio. We’re delighted to have such an intriguing story form part of BBC ALBA’s autumn schedule and we’re sure it will play well for our audiences.”

The programme airs on BBC ALBA on Thursday, October 1 at 9pm. It is also available on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards and an international version will be distributed by Cineflix Rights.

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