According to Iceland’s Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), two figures named Gils Ship-Nose and Thorbjorn Bitra were among the first waves of settlers to move to Iceland during the 9th and 10th centuries. They both claimed a fjord in the northwest region of the island, each lending their names to their respective waterway (Gilsfjörður and Bitrufjörður). Gils Ship-Nose seemed to have had a clean record when he arrived in Iceland—he was not known to have committed any crimes or violence before settling in his new homeland. Thorbjorn Bitra, contrastingly, was a lawless figure who was fond of going on Viking raids. The territories of these two contrary settlers were located close together, situated on opposite sides of the same relatively narrow stretch of land, yet these men of differing personalities were able to coexist as they set up their homesteads.
In the early days of their settlements, Gils Ship-Nose and Thorbjorn Bitra behaved similarly, each of them trying to set up a farm that could provide for their families. Yet, as the rigors of planning and construction began to subside, Gils and Thorbjorn were able to focus on their differing interests. Gils Ship-Nose, for his part, was pleased with the progression that his settlement was making, so he sent word to his brother, Gudlaud, offering him and his family a home somewhere in the Gilsfjörður region. Gils, however, was not the only one thinking of future possibilities. Thorbjorn Bitra, now that his settlement was steady, began to feel the urge to resume his previous Viking ways.
Thorbjorn was giving in to that violent state of mind one day, reminiscing about hauling stolen wealth and slaves to his ship, when he noticed a disturbance in the waters offshore near his land. Upon closer inspection, what caught his attention happened to be a shipwreck, and it had occurred far enough out that most of the crew onboard drowned. Thorbjorn Bitra, the former Viking, scoured the shore for survivors. His search eventually proved fruitful—he found a couple who had managed to swim with their small child to the safety of land. The story does not have a happy ending; rather than rescuing the family and helping them reach their destination, the lawless and violent-minded Thorbjorn Bitra instead decided to murder the couple and steal their young child—a girl.
In the nearby settlement around the area of Gilsfjörður, news of the deadly shipwreck worried Gils Ship-Nose. He had been expecting his brother, Gudlaug, to arrive in Iceland at any moment, accompanied by a wife and daughter. When rumors soon began to circulate that Thorbjorn Bitra had mysteriously obtained a young slave-girl soon after the wreck, Gils became more and more suspicious about his neighbor. After investigating the matter of the unexplained slave, Gils eventually came to the conclusion that the girl was his own niece. Continuing his investigation, Gils Ship-Nose found evidence to also link the deaths of his brother, Gudlaug, as well as Gudlaug’s wife, to the hands of Thorbjorn. Whether or not this evidence was solid is unknown, but it was enough to convince Gils’ kinsmen and friends to help him seek revenge against Thorbjorn Bitra. Setting out on his mission of vengeance, Gils Ship-Nose attacked his neighbor’s settlement. As told by the Landnámabók, “he set out to avenge his brother, killing Thorbjorn Bitra and other men besides. Gudlaugsvik takes its name from Gudlaug” (Sturlubók Manuscript, chapter 165). The text did not elaborate on what happened to Gil’s niece after the battle, but it can be hoped that she was rescued and had a better life from that point onward.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration inspired by the Heimskringla, created by Halfdan Egedius (1877–1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.