Two brothers, Hildir and Hallgeir, along with their sister, Ljot, journeyed to Iceland during the so-called Age of Settlement (c. 860-930). This trio reportedly came from the British Isles, but no specific details were given about their place of birth. On their origins, the medieval Icelandic Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), simply said that they “were of British stock” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 349). Perhaps places such as Ireland, the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, and the Faroes could be taken off the list, for the authors of Iceland’s early texts and sagas seemed quite knowledgeable about who came to Iceland from these particular places, often specifically mentioning the islands by name in their accounts of early immigrants to Iceland. Maybe the vagueness of Hildir, Hallgeir and Ljot’s place of origin means they were born on the British mainland, such as in the Danelaw of England—a relatively uncited place in the stories of Icelandic settlers. Whatever the case, as the Book of Settlements claimed, the siblings had British blood from one place or another.
Given that Hildir, Hallgeir and Ljot were dated to the Age of Settlement period (860-930), their early life in Britain must have been quite turbulent. The so-called Great Heathen Army of Vikings had arrived in England around 865 and began wreaking havoc on the kingdoms there, rampaging through Kent in 865, then marauding around East Anglia by 866, conquering Northumbria in 867, and invading Mercia in 868. Viking Armies repeatedly clashed with King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871-899). King Alfred made peace with (or bought off) Vikings in his inaugural year as king in 871, and made peace agreements two more times with Vikings between 875-877. Guthrum’s famous invasion of Wessex began in 878, temporarily driving King Alfred into hiding, but the king of Wessex recovered and defeated the invasion with a counterattack within the year. Alfred the Great later had to defend against a new wave of Viking raids that began around 892, but by then he had reformed Wessex’ military and therefore the Vikings found England to be a much harder target to pillage. The English counter-attack against the Vikings and the Danelaw was continued by Alfred’s children, King Edward the Elder of Wessex (r. 899-924) and Queen Æthelflaed of Mercia (sole rule c. 911-918), and the family dream of bringing all of England under the dynasty’s control was cinched by Alfred’s grandson, King Athelstan (r. 925-939). An environment such as this, or similar waves of warfare that were simultaneously occurring in Ireland and Scotland, were what Hildir, Hallgeir and Ljot would have been sailing away from when they decided to move to Iceland in the late 9th century or early 10th century.
After departing from the British Isles, Hildir, Hallgeir and Ljot sailed to southern Iceland, settling close together along the mainland coast at a site opposite the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. Each of the siblings, as was common of early Icelandic settlers, named their estates after themselves. Hildir’s home became known as Hildir’s Isle, while Hallgeir settled at the similarly-named Hallgeir’s Isle. Ljot, however, changed things up slightly by naming her home Ljotarstead.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from illustration till Herrauds och Bosa Saga, by Pehr Hörberg (c. 1746-1816), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Stockholm Sweden).
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version), translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.
- Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated, introduced and denoted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.