Shetland singer-songwriter, Claire White, follows in the footsteps of her Viking heroine

Aud the Deep-Minded. It’s a woman’s name. Yes, really. It captivated me too when I first heard it on the 1st of February 2015 at Sumburgh airport in Shetland.

I’d returned home from work in the city of Aberdeen to attend Up-Helly-Aa, Lerwick’s annual Viking-themed fire festival. My friend and I exchanged party stories in the departure lounge and the conversation turned to the inevitable gender debate. In Lerwick, women have never been guizers (masqueraders) in the festival’s c.150 year history, so I’d long wondered what part women played in Viking society. My friend said ‘You know about Aud the Deep-Minded, don’t you? She was a prominent female Viking.’ ‘Really?’ I asked as creative sparks danced in my mind. When stories of women’s history with a Shetland theme are gifted to me the urge to write a song is strong.

I wanted to know Aud and to understand how she earned her epithet.

My research journey began with visits to Norwegian and Estonian Viking exhibitions. Here I learned about the power of Viking women in the domestic sphere and about their capacity to predict and manipulate destiny.

On return to Scotland I read Scandinavian history books and Aud again surfaced as a poster girl for female Viking competence. She 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 still she found strength to hatch an audacious escape plan. She commissioned the secret construction of a wooden ship in Caithness forest, 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 to be Aud’s wake. She may have begun life as a power play pawn but she ended it as an independent, honourable and influential woman.

Distilling Aud’s formidable life story into a song was daunting but enjoyable.

The epic narrative was soon neatly packaged into six verses and a rousing chorus which were shared on social media towards the end of 2016. The digital gods then smiled on me as I was e-introduced to Icelandic writer, Vilborg Davíðsdóttir, who has penned three historical novels with Aud as protagonist. Vilborg checked the facts of my song, advised on pronunciation, and inspired me to learn more about our shared heroine. In passing, Vilborg mentioned a Reykjavik non-fiction writing conference planned for June 2017 and the creative sparks danced again. Here was my opportunity to see Aud’s Iceland for myself.

In Iceland, Aud’s name is pronounced Oythur Djupooyga.

I discovered this when I explained the reason for my travels to a campsite attendant. I’d left Reykjavik bound for Iceland’s wild west in a tiny hired transit van, secretly wondering whether it was heavy enough to keep me grounded on gravel roads in notoriously high winds.

But miles of empty highway delivered me safely to Aud country, signposted by the Krosshólaborg stone cross memorial established by local women in 1965. This pointed the way to Hvammur where Aud lived and created her farm. It was clear why a wise woman chose this place in which to settle. Acres of green pasture were horseshoed by surrounding hills and the sea, creating a fertile oasis in an otherwise barren landscape.

Nearby was Dagverdarnes where Aud and her crew ate breakfast. The long road into this secluded spot was barely passable, being bumpy, narrow and riddled with potholes. But every sump scrape was worth it for the beautiful view which awaited. A rarely-used church gave the promontory a focal point as it resounded with the richest birdsong I’d ever heard. Looking inland from where Aud’s boat may have come aground I could put myself in her shoes, transporting myself instantly back over one thousand years. There was no sign of a human hand on the landscape as I gazed up from my camper van supper and imagined Aud’s crew walking into the unknown.

Mission accomplished, I was left awestruck by the bravery of these ancient ancestors.

My journey through Aud’s world isn’t yet complete.

I’d like to trace her footprints in Faroe, Orkney and the Hebrides, to read the sagas in which she features, and to follow her lineage forward. Hopefully my song will reach others who are curious about Viking women, and perhaps new ears will now prick up at the mention of that curious name.

Song of Aud the Deep-Minded will feature on Claire White’s 2018 album: