According to folklore and oral history preserved in the Icelandic Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), an enigmatic figure named Uni lived a troubled life in Iceland during the Age of Settlement period of Icelandic history (c. 860-930). As portrayed by the medieval source, Uni might have had an identity crisis, for Uni’s father, Gardar, was said to have been “of Swedish stock” (Landnámabók, chapter 4), whereas Uni, himself, was nicknamed “the Dane” (Landnámabók, chapter 284). To complicate the matter, Gardar and Uni, despite their unexplained connections to Sweden and Denmark, were both reported to have lived in Norway. Additionally, their family had an important connection to Iceland, for Gardar was said to have been one of the first explorers to discover the island and played a key role in spreading news of Iceland’s existence back to Norway. Whatever the family history might have been for Gardar and his son, Uni, they reportedly chose to stay in Norway during the important reign of Harald Finehair (ruled approximately 860-940), the first Norwegian king with enough influence to proclaim himself king of all Norway.
Although Uni’s family had been involved in spreading news of Iceland’s existence to Scandinavia, their clan was hesitant of moving to the island. Gardar was said to have remained in Norway for the rest of his life, and Uni, too, lived for a long time in King Harald’s Norway before ultimately deciding to give Iceland a try. If Uni thought the new settlers of Iceland would welcome him because of his father’s history with the island, he was sorely mistaken. Instead of community and hospitality, Uni was met with extreme suspicion and hostility. According to the Book of Settlements, Icelandic settlers thought Uni was an agent sent by King Harald Finehair to bring Iceland under Norwegian control. Uni’s complex Danish and Swedish heritage also likely contributed to his tensions with the predominantly Norwegian settlers of Iceland. The Book of Settlements described Uni’s struggles to ingratiate himself into the Icelandic community:
“Uni put in at a place now called Una Estuary, and built a house there. He took possession of land south of Lagarwater, claiming the entire district north of Una Brook. When people realized what he wanted, they grew hostile and wouldn’t sell him livestock and other necessities, so he wasn’t able to stay there. Uni moved over to South Alftafjord, but couldn’t settle there either” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 284).
Uni, after being rejected from community after community, finally found his way to a potential ally and friend. This amiable new character was a man named Leidolf, who was nicknamed “the Champion of Skogarhverfi.” Uni was given protection by Leidolf and also received permission to live on the champion’s land. It was at that time that Uni came face to face with Thorunn, Leidolf’s daughter. As the story goes, Uni and Thorunn were attracted to each other and they began a clandestine affair. Nature took its course, and Thorunn ultimately became pregnant. Leidolf, obviously, soon became aware of his daughter’s situation. He was surprisingly supportive of Thorunn and Uni’s relationship, and he encouraged the two to get married. But, unfortunately for pregnant Thorunn and her father Leidolf, Uni was not keen on the idea of formally settling down to family life.
Faced with Thorunn’s pregnancy and Leidolf’s calls for a marriage ceremony, evasive Uni began devoting all of his time to brainstorming ways to escape Leidolf’s estate. Uni resisted Leidolf’s pressuring’s for a marriage—which, in itself, annoyed the persistent father—but the big break in the cordial atmosphere occurred once Uni made good on his decision to run away. When the neglectful father-to-be fled, Leidolf mustered an armed search party and hunted Uni down, dragging him by force back to pregnant Thorunn. Nevertheless, Uni only ran away a second time. With this second transgression against his family, Leidolf was not as forgiving as he had been before. The Book of Settlements described this peculiar debacle:
“Uni tried to run away with his men, but Leidolf rode off after them and caught up to them at Flangastead. They fought there, because Uni wouldn’t go back with Leidolf. Several of Uni’s men were killed, and he went back against his will, because Leidolf wanted him to marry the girl…A little later Uni ran away again when Leidolf wasn’t at home, but as soon as Leidolf found out, he went off after him. They met up with each other at Kalfagrafir, and Leidolf was in such a rage, he killed Uni and all his companions” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 284).
Such was the end of the odd life of Uni “the Dane.” Thorunn’s child by Uni was a boy named Hroar, who would eventually be nicknamed the Tongue-Priest. Leidolf, fortunately, did not let his anger against Uni taint his relationship with Thorunn’s son. In fact, Hroar Tongue-Priest became Leidolf’s heir and inherited his land and assets.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration for Njal’s Saga, painted by August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Stockholm Sweden).
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.