Icelanders have always considered sagas to be the most reliable source
of information about their history. One class of sagas, known as the
Saga of the Icelanders, tells almost exclusively about the earliest
settlers in Iceland, from the time A.D. 870 until the conversion to
Christianity in A.D. 1000. According to the sagas, most settlers were
established families who left Norway rather than submit to the growing
power of the king. But the sagas also shed light on the Celtic admixture
in the Icelandic settlement. As a literary form, the sagas have their
closest parallels to Irish literature, indicating that the impetus for
writing sagas may have been inspired by Celtic traditions.
Many sagas begin in Norway, where a wealthy and well respected chieftain is harassed by King Harald Fairhair (A.D. 890-930), who, according to the these sagas, was the first to unite the Norwegian kingdom. Instead of submitting to his rule, this and other chieftains decided to leave Norway and come to Iceland. The Saga of the Faeroe Islanders says that the first settler of the Faeroes, Grim Kamban, was also fleeing King Harald, but his Celtic style surname has led many to suspect he come to the Faeroes from the Hebrides or Ireland. Also, the Faeroes were likely settled several decades before Iceland, well before the reign of King Harald.
Even after the initial settlement, legal troubles in Norway served
as a constant motivation for new immigrants to Iceland, such as Erik
the Red who was banished from Norway to Iceland and then fled Iceland
and settled Greenland. Nevertheless, Icelanders continued to value their
relationship with Norway. Many saga tales include scenes where the protagonist
travels to Norway and is warmly received by the king, including Leif
Eriksson, and many others.
in the Sagas
Despite the overwhelming emphasis on the Norwegian component in the
settlement of Iceland, some of the most memorable early settler saga
characters have their origin in the Western Isles. Aud the Deep Minded
was the daughter of Ketil Flatnose, the Norwegian Viking who had conquered
the Shetlands and Orkneys. Aud left the Orkneys after her husband was
killed, and moved to Iceland, taking possession of a large area called
Laxdal. She took with her a number of freeborn Celtic servants. Her
favorite was a man named Vifil, to whom she gave a portion of her land.
Vifil's grand-daughter was Gudrid Thornbjornadottir, who traveled to
Vinland and there gave birth to Snorri, the first child of European
descent born in the New World.
Intermarriage (or childbearing) between Viking men and the Celtic women
was also common. Leif the Lucky stopped in the Hebrides and there impregnated
Thorgunna, an Irish aristocrat. There seems to be no preference for
nor prejudice against Celts; in fact, Celtic women, because the Celts
had converted to Christianity before the Vikings, may be more highly
regarded in the minds of the Christian monks writing the sagas.