This is Part 16 of our ongoing series about Viking Age Iceland. For centuries, this island country, unique in Medieval Europe, operated with no king, no great lords, no foreign policy, and no defense forces but which developed legal and judicial systems to limit the violence of bloodfeud and protect the rights of freemen. Far out in the North Atlantic, Iceland was where the famous sagas developed. To explore Iceland’s place in the medieval world, we present selections from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland that investigate the history, archaeology, culture, systems of feud, and sagas of this magical place.
Skallagrim was an industrious man. He always had many men to gather all provisions that might be useful for the household. This was because in the early stages of the settlement, people had little livestock, considering the number of them who were there. The livestock they did have were left to fend for themselves in the woods during the winter.
Skallagrim was also an active shipbuilder. Because there was no lack of driftwood to be found west of Mýrar [the Wetlands], he built and ran another farm at Alftanes [Swans’ Headland]. From there he sent his men out fishing and seal-hunting. They collected wildfowl eggs and everything was plentiful; they also fetched in his driftwood.
Whales were often stranded, and anything one wanted could be shot. The wildlife was unfamiliar with man, and the animals waited peacefully when hunted. Skallagrim built his third farm by the sea in the west part of Mýrar where it was even easier to wait for the driftwood. He started sowing there, calling the place Akrar [Fields]. Because whales washed up on some offshore islands, they were called the Hvals Isles [Whale’s Isles].
Skallagrim also sent his men up the rivers looking for salmon. He settled Odd the Lone-Dweller on the Gljufur River, where he attended to the salmon fishing. Odd lived at Einbuabrekkur [Lone-Dweller’s Slope], and Einbuanes [Lone-Dweller’s Headland] takes its name from him. Then Skallagrim gave a place on the Nordur River [North River] to a man called Sigmund. He lived at Sigmundarstead, or Haugar as it’s called nowadays, and Sigmundarnes takes its name from him. Later on Sigmund moved his household to Munadarnes, a better place for salmon fishing.
As Skallagrim’s livestock increased the animals started going up to the mountains in the summer. He found a big difference in the livestock, which were much better and fatter when grazing up on the moorland. Above all this was so with the sheep that wintered in the mountain valleys instead of being driven down. As a result, Skallagrim built a farm near the mountains and used it to raise sheep. A man called Gris was in charge of the farm, and Grisartongue was named for him. Thus the wealth of Skallagrim rested on many footings.
This picture of Skallagrim’s land-taking corresponds well with what is known of the early society. Prominent settlers established their main farmsteads with smaller self-supporting outlying farms that provisioned the main house. As is discussed later in this book, the attempt by the first settlers to install a system of territorial control would soon break down, with many of the outlying farms becoming independent households.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland