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Lasses Trust in Providence: Aud the Deep Minded

by Claire White -

Shetland fiddler and singer-songwriter, Claire White, profiles extraordinary northern women

Aud the Deep-Minded. I first heard that name four years ago today, on the 1st of February 2015, and my mind boggled. I was in the departure lounge of Shetland’s Sumburgh airport chatting with a friend about the Up-Helly-Aa celebrations we’d just enjoyed. I grew up in Lerwick where the guizing (masquerading) tradition has been a male one throughout this Viking-themed fire festival’s c.150 year history. My friend and I pondered what part women had once played in Viking society and she asked if I knew about Aud the Deep-Minded, a prominent female Icelandic settler. I hadn’t heard of Aud, but my songwriting instincts told me that I needed to find out more about this woman.

How had Aud earned her ‘Deep-Minded’ epithet? This was the question which drove my international research journey. Visits to Norwegian and Estonian Viking exhibitions brought home the perceived power of women in the domestic sphere and their capacity to predict and manipulate destiny. Books about Scandinavian history layered on Aud’s status as a poster girl for female settler competence. In March 2015 Shetland’s first adult female Guizer Jarl, Lesley Simpson, depicted Aud in the South Mainland Up Helly Aa. It was time to find out the details of this Scandinavian woman’s life and achievements.

Aud was born around 830 into a powerful Norwegian family who fled a tyrannical king and settled in the Scottish Hebrides. From here they raided Ireland where Aud was married off to the King of Dublin. Together they had a son, Thorstein the Red, who returned to the Hebrides with his mother when Aud was widowed. Here Thorstein learned the art of campaigning, conquering large parts of northern Scotland and fathering seven children before dying in battle. Now Aud was a widowed, orphaned, grieving mother living in a treacherous country, but she hatched an escape plan. Aud commissioned the secret construction of a wooden ship under Caithness forest cover, crewing it with twenty family members, slaves and friends. They set sail for Iceland, first stopping in Orkney to marry a granddaughter to a Scottish Earl. A visit to Faroe followed where another granddaughter was married off to produce ‘noble kin’. On arriving at her final destination, Aud settled the Breidafjord area in western Iceland and gifted land to her crew. The process of strategically pairing her grandchildren continued until the wedding feast of her youngest grandchild c.900. That celebration was also Aud’s wake. She may have begun life as a power play pawn but she ended it as an independent, honourable and influential woman.

The task of distilling Aud’s epic life story into a song was challenging but satisfying:

Song of Aud the Deep-Minded

My father Ketil Flatnose

From Raumsdal he fled

Escaping Harald Finehair

A king we’d come to dread

The Hebrides called hersirs

To Scotland’s kinder land

From these isles we sailed forth

A-Viking to expand

Hold, hold

Steadfast, resolute

Hold, hold

Destiny refute

The quest to conquer Ireland

Was fought by love and raid

Olaf the White I married

A Dublin Queen was made

A son, Thorstein, we nurtured

Before my man was slayed

For Irish king tomb raiding

With Olaf’s life we paid

The Hebrides our refuge

Thorstein the Red and me

Grandson he met grandfather

Learned campaigns at his knee

North Scotland Thorstein conquered

He wed and brought forth young

Scots treachery then claimed him

And Ketil too was gone

This left me now defenceless

With rancour all around

Lost mother, orphan, widow

A daring plan I found

A ship was built in Caithness

Concealed by forest shade

The knarr was bound for Iceland

Strategic stops we made

With kin and slaves and free men

An Orkney trip I led

The first of my granddaughters

A Scottish chief she wed

Then on we sailed to Faroe

And married one more girl

Before wild Iceland beckoned

My fate at last to thirl

My crew of twenty members

Gained liberty and land

Dales then I claimed for me

As home, my final hand

With youngest grandchild married

My life’s work it was done

The wedding feast, my funeral

In death and life I’d won

Sharing these lyrics via social media connected me with Icelandic writer, Vilborg Davíðsdóttir, who has penned three historical novels featuring Aud as protagonist. Vilborg advised on song content and sparked the idea of seeing Aud’s Iceland for myself.

She may have begun life as a power play pawn but she ended it as an independent, honourable and influential woman.

A tiny transit van with a mattress in the back was my mode of transport on a journey in Aud’s footsteps through Iceland’s wild west. Mile after mile of gravel road delivered me to her stomping ground, signposted by the Krosshólaborg stone memorial established by local women in 1965. This pointed the way to Hvammur where Aud created her farm. Here, fertile green pasture shone oasis-like in an otherwise barren landscape, revealing this wise settlement location choice. Nearby was Dagverdarnes where Aud and her crew ate breakfast. Here too I ate my camping stove dinner and gazed out at a landscape seemingly untouched by human hand over the course of one thousand years. Finally, there was just time to visit Kambsnes where Aud lost her comb before the sun set on a remarkable day.

My exploration of Aud’s life isn’t complete. I’d like to know more about her time in Faroe, Orkney, the Hebrides and Caithess. It would be great to read the sagas in which she features, and to follow her family tree forward. Hopefully my song will reach others who are curious about women in the Viking age, and perhaps new ears will now prick up at the mention of that unforgettable name.

‘Song of Aud the Deep-Minded’ features on the ‘Lasses Trust In Providence’ CD which is available here:

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