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Ketil Flatnose


Ketil Flatnose

Ketill Bjǫrnsson, nicknamed Flatnose (Old Norse: Flatnefr), was a Norwegian King of the Isles of the 9th century.[1]

Primary sources

Ketill is a character in such works as the Laxdaela saga, Eyrbyggja saga, and Eirik the Red's Saga and his genealogy is described in detail in the Landnámabók. The story of Ketill and his daughter Auðr (or Aud) was probably first recorded by the Icelander Ari Þorgilsson who lived from 1067 to 1148.[2] These Old Norse sagas were thus written down long after the events they describe and no contemporary record exists of his life with the arguable exception of single entry in the Annals of Ulster.

Saga biography

Ketill Bjǫrnsson was the son of Bjǫrn Grímsson. In the Laxdaela saga he is recorded as being from Romsdal (Raumsdal), a valley in the county of Møre og Romsdal, between Nordmøre and Sunnmøre[3] and from Sogn in the Landnámabók.[4]

After Harald Fairhair had won the decisive Battle of Hafrsfjord in the late 9th century many fled from Norway.[6] According to the Orkneyinga saga some of these Vikings began to raid Norway in summer from the Orkney and Shetland islands north of mainland Scotland. For this reason Harald set sail to uproot the attackers. He defeated them and also took possession of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man.[7] This story is retold in the Eyrbyggja saga but here it is Ketill rather than Harald who led the expedition, and after the initial victory the former retained the islands as "personal domain" rather than bringing them under Harald's rule.[8] In the Laxdaela saga the same story is told, but here Ketill is one of the Vikings who have fled to the Isles to escape Harald's tyranny.[9] In the Landnámabók the initial conquest is led by Harald, but as soon as he had returned to Norway the raiders regrouped. At this point Harald sent Ketill to win the islands back again.[10] Ketill did so but paid no tribute[11] at which point Harald took possession of what was owed from possessions of Ketill in Norway and sent away Ketill's sons. Some sources refer to Ketill as "King of the Sudreys"[12] although there is little evidence that he himself claimed that title.

According to the Landnámabók Kettil became ruler of a region already settled by Scandinavians.[13] He left no successors there and there is little record of Norse activity in the west of Scotland in the first four decades of the 10th century.[12]

Most of Ketill's family eventually emigrated to Iceland. Ketill's wife was Yngvild Ketilsdóttir, daughter of Ketill Wether, a hersir from Ringarike. They had a number of children, including Bjǫrn Ketilsson, who lived at Bjarnarhofn; Helgi Bjola, who lived at Esjuberg on Kjalarnes; Thorunn Ketilsdatter, wife of Helgi the Lean, the first settler in Eyjafjordur bay; and Jorunn Ketilsdatter. Ketill's daughter, Aud the Deep-Minded, married Olaf the White, King of Dublin. Their son, Thorstein the Red, briefly conquered much of northern Scotland during the 870s and 880s before he was killed in battle. Aud and many members of her clan settled in the Laxdael region of Iceland.[14][15]


Hunter (2000) states that Ketill was "in charge of an extensive island realm and, as a result, sufficiently prestigious to contemplate the making of agreements and alliances with other princelings".[16] However, Woolf (2007) suggests that the story of his failing to pay tax to Harald "looks very much like a story created in later days to legitimise Norwegian claims to sovereignty in the region"[11] and some scholars believe that this entire story of Harald's expedition is apocryphal and based on the later voyages of Magnus Barelegs.[17] Although Norse military activity in Ireland in the 9th century is well documented in Irish sources, they contain no record at all of Harald Fairhair's voyage to the west.[18]

Furthermore, Harald is assumed to have annexed the Northern Isles (comprising Orkney and Shetland) in 875 or later. If Ketill's suzerainty post-dates this time, it is hard to see how Thorstein the Red, an adult grandson of his, could have been in active in the 870s and 880s. It is therefore likely that Ketill's floruit in the Hebrides was at a period that pre-dates Harald's victory at Hafrsfjord.[19]

Caittil Find

Ketill Flatnose is also sometimes equated with Caittil Find a reported leader of the Gallgáedil recorded in the Annals of Ulster as fighting in Ireland in 857.[20] This source states simply that "Ímar and Amlaíb inflicted a rout on Caittil the Fair and his Norse-Irish in the lands of Munster."[21] (Ímar and Amlaíb are well-attested Norse leaders active in Ireland and the Isles in the 9th century.)

The Ketill/Caittil relationship was first proposed by E. W. Robertson in 1862,[22] a position supported by W. F. Skene and A. P. Smyth although others are more skeptical.[2] These include A. O. Anderson[2] and the connection is described by Woolf (2007) as "extremely tenuous"[11] although Jennings and Kruse (2009) have supported the identification.

Woolf argues that:

  • Ketill was a common Norse name during this period and there is no certainty that "Ketill" and "Caittil" can be equated.[11] This position has been supported by Donnchadh Ó Corráin and Clare Downham.[23]
  • Find means "white" rather than "flat-nosed".
  • There is nothing in the saga sources to indicate either that Ketill was active in Ireland or of a connection between the Gallgáedil and the Scottish islands in the Irish sources.
  • Ketill is described in the sagas as the father-in-law of Olaf the White, a figure some historians believe to be identical with Amlaíb,[24][25] yet here Caittil is clearly the enemy of Amlaíb.[11]

Jennings and Kruse recognise the deficiencies of the saga materials but suggest that "they should not be summarily written off as void of any historical value".[2] They note that:

  • Ari Þorgilsson was born not long after the death of his great grandmother Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir, a prominent character in the Laxdæla saga and whose husband, Thorkell Eyjolffsson, was descended from Auðr. Þorgilsson was thus a direct descendent of Ketill and drawing on family history that will have "become muddled and mistaken in parts", but is still likely to contain "other parts that can be close to the historical truth".[2]
  • It is widely accepted that Cerball mac Dúnlainge, King of Osraige is synonymous with the saga character Kjarvalr Írakonungr, yet their names are dissimilar.[23]
  • The Norse sources have Ketill's daughters Thorunn marrying Helgi inn magri, a grandson of Cerball mac Dúnlainge, and Auðr marrying Olaf the White, both of whom were prominent figures in Ireland, suggesting significant connections between Ketill and the mid 9th century political landscape of that region.[23]
  • The Norse traditions provide some members of Kettil's family such as his son Helgi and his great grandson Áleif with Gaelic nicknames, suggesting a link with Gallgáedil traditions. (Helgi Bjólan and Áleif Feilan, which mean Helgi "little mouth" and Áleif "little wolf".) His daughter Auðr is recorded as a devout Christian[23] and one of her freedmen, Erpr, has a Pictish name.[4] Ketill's nephew Orlyg Hrappsson is linked to the Celtic church and was a follower of St Columba.[26]
  • An individual can have more than one nickname and dynastic marriages do not always equate to friendship.[23]

Dál Riata

Dál Riata was a Gaelic kingdom in the Argyll and Bute region of Scotland. Jennings and Kruse argue that Ketill Bjornsson could have taken "control of Dál Riata with its islands".[27] They note the correspondence between the Gaelic name Dál Riata and the fact that when Auðr, settled in the Breiðafjörður region of western Iceland it was in a region called called Dalir or Dalaland (modern Dalasýsla).[27] Furthermore "in the Breiðafjörður area there is an indisputably nostalgic Celtic precedent for quite a few names."[28] Examples include islands called Pjattland (Pictland) and Írland (Ireland) and the nearby Patreksfjörður and Trostansfjörður named in honour of two Celtic saints.[28]

They also quote the Irish Martyrology of Tallaght, which refers to a "[Feast of] Bláán, bishop of Kingarth in Gall-Ghàidheil". This indicates that St Blane of Kingarth in Bute was closely connected to the Gallgáedil. The text is dated not later than the early tenth century and it seems that this part of Dál Riata was by then part of Gallgáedil-held territory.[29] Fraser (2009) has suggested that that Little Dunagoil near Kingarth could have been the Dalriadan Cenél Comgaill capital prior to the Norse incursions.[28][30]



  • Ballin Smith, Beverley "Norwick: Shetland's First Viking Settlement?" in Ballin Smith, Beverley, Taylor, Simon and Williams, Gareth (eds) (2007) West Over Sea: Studies in Scandinavian Sea-borne Expansion and Settlement Before 1300. Brill. ISBN 90-04-15893-6
  • Crawford, Barbara E. (1987) Scandinavian Scotland. Leicester University Press. ISBN 0718511972
  • Fraser, James E. (2009) From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Gregory, Donald (1881) The History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland 1493–1625. Edinburgh. Birlinn. 2008 reprint – originally published by Thomas D. Morrison. ISBN 1-904607-57-8
  • Hunter, James (2000) Last of the Free: A History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Edinburgh. Mainstream. ISBN 1-84018-376-4
  • Jennings, Andrew and Kruse, Arne (2009) "From Dál Riata to the Gall-Ghàidheil". Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. 5. Brepols.
  • Ó Corráin, Donnchadh (1998) Vikings in Ireland and Scotland in the Ninth Century. CELT.
  • Pálsson, Hermann and Edwards, Paul Geoffrey (1981). Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044383-5
  • Thomson, William P. L. (2008) The New History of Orkney. Edinburgh. Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-84158-696-0
  • Woolf, Alex (2007) From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070. Edinburgh. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-1234-5
Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of the Isles Succeeded by

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