According to the Laxdæla saga, a man named Kotkel moved with his whole family from the Hebrides to Iceland sometime during the 10th century. Kotkel had a wife named Grima and two sons, Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye and Stigandi. These new immigrants brought with them some covetable skills—Kotkel was apparently a masterful horse breeder, or at least had an instinctively keen eye for choosing the best horses out of a herd.
Kotkel attempted to set up a new life for his family in the region of Skalmarfjord. There, the immigrants gained the support of a local leader named Hallstein the Godi and, with his help, they were allowed to settle in Urdir. Although Kotkel and his family were given protection by Hallstein, other settlers in the Skalmarfjord region never warmed to the newcomers. A contributing factor to the region’s cold reception of Kotkel (at least in the family’s portrayal in the Laxdæla saga) was the stereotype that Hebrideans were mischievous and treacherous people, often with nefarious knowledge of sorcery. With this stereotype always on their minds, the people of Skalmarfjord used the Hebridean immigrants as scapegoats for any famine, bad weather, or sudden and unexpected deaths in their region.
The downfall of Kotkel and his family began when a prominent lawyer named Thord Ingunnarson began to boast to his fellow Icelanders that he planned to try the Hebridean family with charges of theft and sorcery during the next Althing (the national assembly of Iceland). Yet, before Thord could bring his case to court, his ship sank during a storm and he drowned. The Icelanders, rather than attributing Thord’s death to faulty shipbuilding, poor seamanship or horrid luck, claimed that the cause of Thord’s death had to be the sorcery of Kotkel and his family.
Hallstein the Godi, who had long been a protector of the Hebridean immigrants, began to waver in his support of them after the death of Thord Ingunnarson. As public pressure mounted, Hallstein eventually banished Kotkel and his family from the Skalmarfjord region. Forced from their land, the refugees fled to the Hvammsfjord communities of Laxardal and Kambsnes in Iceland. According to the Laxdæla saga, they finally found shelter with the well-connected Thorleik Hoskuldsson, who was impressed by Kotkel’s talent with horses. In exchange for Kotkel’s impressive animals, Thorleik let the Hebrideans settle in Leifdolfsstadir, Laxardal.
In Leifdolfsstadir, the sad cycle began to repeat for Kotkel. The locals distrusted the new Hebridean settlers, but put up with their presence because Kotkel had an influential patron—Thorleik Hokuldsson. Yet, although Thorleik was powerful and well-connected, he was also known to feud from time to time with other members of his wealthy family. As Kotkel was now in Thorleik’s entourage, he was in danger of being drawn into the family drama of the Laxardal region. As it happened, relations broke down between Thorleik and his uncle, Hrut, soon after Kotkel settled in Leifdolfsstadir. Thorleik’s prominent half-brother, Olaf Peacock (so-called because of his pride and gilded clothing), backed Hrut in the dispute and family tensions heightened to threatening levels. Yet, before kin began to attack kin, tragedy struck and diverted Hrut’s wrath away from Thorleik.
In the midst of the feud between the prominent men of Laxardal, Hrut’s beloved twelve-year-old son, Kari, died suddenly without any forewarning symptoms, and the 10th-century Icelanders could find no explanation for his unexpected death. The grief-stricken Hrut and his nephew, Olaf Peacock, came to believe that Kotkel had killed young Kari with sorcery on behalf of Thorleik. Spurred on by this theory, Hrut and Olaf gathered a posse and invaded Leifdolfsstadir to capture the Hebrideans.
Kotkel and his family were able to see the posse of Icelanders approaching in the distance and the hunted Hebrideans attempted to run away toward the mountains. Nevertheless, Hrut and Olaf intercepted them and only one of Kotkel’s sons, Stigandi, was able to escape capture. The rest of the family suffered horrid fates. According to the Laxdæla saga, the less fortunate son, Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye, was caught first. Hrut and Olaf reportedly tied a stone around his neck, rowed him out to sea and pushed him overboard to drown in the dark, cold depths. As for Kotkel and his wife, Grima—the two were reportedly stoned to death and buried in a shallow grave, which was covered in rock and called the Sorcerers’ Cairn.
Stigandi, the only survivor of the ill-fated family, understandably had a grudge with Iceland and the prominent local families for the rest of his life. After successfully escaping from Hrut’s posse, Stigandi reportedly became a bandit based out of Hundadal, Iceland. There, he became something of a Robin Hood figure, stealing from the landowners and giving away his loot to slaves and other less fortunate inhabitants of the region. According to the Laxdæla saga, Stigandi fancied a slave-woman in Hundadal, and much of his stolen wealth ended up in her hands. Unfortunately for Stigandi, the news of banditry had caught the attention of Olaf Peacock, who then came to the region to investigate.
After hearing from witnesses, Olaf was convinced that the bandit was none other than Kotkel’s last surviving son. Therefore, Olaf Peacock tracked down the slave-woman who had come into unexplained wealth and he offered to buy her freedom in exchange for her help in capturing the bandit. She agreed to the proposal, and the next time Stigandi arrived at her home with more gifts, he was immediately arrested by Olaf Peacock. As had happened with his parents, Stigandi was reportedly stoned to death and buried in a shallow grave. His fate was remarkably different than Kotkel’s patron, Thorleik Hoskuldsson, who was forgiven by Olaf Peacock and allowed to go into exile.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (A scene from the Laxdæla saga by Andreas Bloch (1860–1917), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Laxdæla saga by an unknown 13th century Icelander, translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.