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Saga of Othere Fra Hålogaland (S Mouat)
The story of Othere Fra Hålogaland and how he was the first Norwegian to round the North Cape and sail eastward to the land of the Bjarmer People is recounted by King Alfred when Othere visited his court about 875 and also in the poem by Longfellow. Of his early life and his second and more famous voyage nothing was written down, until the visit of Dr. Jacob Jacobson in 1893, when visiting a house in the Easting of Unst an old man recounted the following tale that had been passed through the generations and had been survived being translated from the Norn into the dialect.
Othere was born in Unst, his mother Gudrun was the granddaughter of one of the early Norwegian settlers and his father was a Dane who came to settle but after a few years decided to try his luck fighting in England and was never heard of again. As Othere grew up he showed a great aptitude for hunting, he was an excellent bowman, could throw a spear accurately but perhaps his greatest accomplishment was his ability in throwing stones. “At twenty ells wi a beach stone he could hit a stock duick liftin.” He was taught all about boats by his grandfather who passed on to Othere all that he knew about sailing, fishing and reading of the wind and the tides. When he was fourteen Othere decided that he would circumnavigate Unst but before doing so confided in his friend Nai what he intended to do.
It was thought that Nai was a relation but the saga does not enlighten us. What it does tell us is that his real name was Njal but when he was young he could not pronounce his name properly and later when an idea was advanced his first reaction was to say “Nai.“ Nai when he grew up was a tall athletic man, extremely quick in his reactions and immensely strong. He was also a skilled craftsman working in wood and metal. Once when practicing with the Viking war axe he threw it away in disgust exclaiming that “It might be a’ right for shappin firewid, but nae use for shappin heads.” So he set to and designed his own as he said “ Wan dat can fell an ox.” The axe had a great curved blade and the weight of the head was such that few could wield it, but Nai swung it with ease and when he did it gave of a low mournful sigh which Nai called the Sang of the Valkyries and so the axe became known by the shortened name of Sangova and Nai as Nai the Smith. Nai agreed to tell his folk after he left but warned him not to go ashore at Öysund as it was the home of the trows. Othere accomplished his journey in two days returning to a very relieved mother and a grandfather who complained that he might have damaged his boat.
Some years later Othere went to visit his relations in Norway and became involved in trading, eventually settling in Hålogaland in the north of Norway where he prospered. On his return voyage from King Alfred’s court he came back to Unst where he spent several weeks renewing old acquaintances and telling of his adventures. During his stay Nai suggested that it might be worth another voyage to the land of the Bjarmer which Othere quickly agreed to and with a few local recruits they sailed to Hålogaland to prepare for the expedition in the spring of the following year.
After much preparation they set of northwards shortly after midsummer and all went well until they were near the Nordkapp when they were struck by a severe southerly gale which drove them north for six days, while they fought hard to keep the ship afloat and streamed ropes aft to keep her from broaching. Eventually the storm moderated and by “scrimming the moder dy” Othere knew that there was land ahead. When they eventually reached land it was a bleak hostile place with snow still lying, but with an abundance of wildlife. Othere ordered that a tent be erected on shore where most of the crew would stay as they collected down from the nests of eider ducks and geese. They also hunted the seals, arctic foxes and walruses for their hides and also the tusks from the latter. Occasionally they would see a polar bear but they did not come near the camp. After a month of hunting it was decided that they had enough to make this a very profitable voyage and all the hides and down were safely stored on board the ship.
On the last night ashore following a small celebration and after all the crew had retired to the tent, Othere went for a short walk to clear his head and plan the voyage home. He was sitting juggling two stones when he was aware that he was being watched and a short distance away there was a very large polar bear. Othere slowly got to his feet and began to walk towards the tent followed by the bear. Knowing he could not outrun the bear and hoping to frighten the animal, he turned and threw one of the stones which hit the bear on its nose bringing it to a standstill with pain. Othere taking advantage of the pause began running as fast as he could, followed very shortly by a very angry bear. Realising that he was not going to make the camp he whirled round and threw the second stone which again hit the bear on the nose bringing it to a sudden stop. “Twice wi pain da ice bear yalkit.” This gave Othere the few precious seconds to reach the tent before the bear resumed the chase. Luckily Nai’s axe was just within the entrance and as the bear burst into the tent Othere killed it with one blow. It was then that Othere uttered the immortal words that have been repeated endlessly by those that went to the north ice and recounted stories of the polar bear. “Weel boys you buggy flay yon wan and I’ll ging oot an fin annider een.” Ever after Othere wore the skin of the “Is Bjørn” as a cloak during the cold of the winter. On their return home their cargo made the crew a handsome profit and Othere a very rich man.
In his latter years Othere returned to the Easting in Unst and built a stok stova (wooden house) imported from Norway down near the beach and there along with Nai would entertain with tales of voyages and adventures past.