Cape Breton Island, PEI, les Iles de la Madeleine and Newfoundland shorelines described in first Vinland Saga

Three years ago, February 18, 2013, while researching Jim Fitzpatrick’s Celtic art, and Laval, Quebec’s historical roadside Croix de chemin, I stumbled upon a curious trailhead – a very Norse-looking site that had me digging out my old copy of The Vinland Sagas and, inadvertently, “reopening” the trail to one of the continent’s oldest cold cases: the whereabouts of the Norse in North America.

Armed with new bearings, and a very close re-read, I then began interpreting (and blogging about) the plausibility that Bjarni Herjolfsson, the first Scandinavian to view the shorelines of North America, didn’t just explore the Labrador and Baffin Island coasts. Examined closely The Vinland Sagas support the theory that Bjarni sailed further south, entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence through the Cabot Strait, then out the Strait of Belle Isle to encircle the island of Newfoundland.

Bjarni 1

So, after three years of further research, here is my refined, “updated” interpretation of the first of The Vinland Sagas: “Bjarni sights land to the west”. As always I use as my historical baseline the 1965 Penguin Books’ translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson: The Vinland Sagas, The Norse Discovery of America.

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“Bjarni Herjolfsson and his men put out to sea as soon as they were ready, and sailed for three days until the land was lost to sight below the horizon.”

The Vinland Sagas begin circa 985/6, before Leif Eiriksson’s expedition to “Vinland”, when Bjarni Herjolfsson leaves Iceland for Greenland, only to get lost for three days in the Greenland Sea… but not really.

Upon closer examination – and calculating a Norse “Day” (doegr) to mean the crossing of a body of water between two Norse “countries” – Bjarni actually follows the safest route to mainland North America: from Greenland across the Davis Strait to Baffin Island, then south to Labrador.

Bjarni 2

“Until the land was lost to sight below the horizon. Then the fair wind failed and northerly winds and fog set in, and for many days they had no idea what their course was. After that they saw the sun again, and were able to get their bearings.”

At the tip of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula there are kilometres of lowland brush and bog, until the Long Range Mountains appear. The optics there at L’Anse au Meadows, from the point of view of an approaching ship, are that the foot of the Mountains in the southwest are “lost to sight below the horizon”.

Down and around Newfoundland’s east coast, it is impossible to count the capes and bays (“Days”) you pass. So after the Avalon Peninsula, along the south coast, this Saga instructs how to expect and line up the islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon to get your “bearings”, and sail perfectly straight across the Cabot Strait, the shortest route to Cape Breton Island.

Bjarni 3Bjarni 4

“They hoisted the sail and after a days sailing they sighted land. They discussed amongst themselves what country this might be. Bjarni said he thought it could not be Greenland. They sailed in close and soon they could see that the country was not mountainous, but was well wooded and with low hills.”

After crossing the Cabot Strait (“a days sailing”) from St. Pierre et Miquelon, Bjarni sees Cape Breton Island’s northeast shore (today’s Cabot Trail), and its unmistakeable “well wooded, low hills”.

Bjarni 5

“Leaving the land on the port quarter, after sailing for two days they sighted land once more. Bjarni’s men asked if he thought this was Greenland yet; he said he did not think this was Greenland, ″for there are said to be huge glaciers in Greenland.″ They closed the land quickly and saw that it was flat and wooded.”

With Cape Breton at the rear, on the left hand side of the boat, Bjarni sets sail on the shortest route to Prince Edward Island (Day 2.1), and then across (Day 2.2) to the “flat and wooded” Les Iles de la Madeleine.

Bjarni 6

“Bjarni ordered them to hoist sail, and they did so. They turned the prow out to sea and sailed before a south-west wind for three days before they sighted a third land.”

Headed north-east toward the Strait of Belle Isle, Bjarni takes the safest route, to Anticosti island (Day 3.1), to the Quebec mainland (Day 3.2), to Newfoundland’s west coast (Day 3.3) the “third land” sighted.

Bjarni 7

“This one was high and mountainous, and topped by a glacier.”

From Gros Morne to St. Barbe the “high and mountainous” Long Range Mountains dominate the off shore views of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. Entering the Strait of Belle Isle the perpetually snow-covered North and South Summit mountain peaks make their appearance, as if “topped by a glacier”.

Bjarni 8

 “They followed the coastline and saw that it was an island.”

Finally, Bjarni and his crew sail around the tip of the Northern Peninsula. At L’Anse au Meadows seeing that Newfoundland “was an island”. Then north toward Belle Isle and the four “Day” journey home to Greenland, and Bjarni’s father’s farm at Herjolfsness.

Donald Wiedman
Toronto, Canada
February 18, 2016

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“Bjarni sights (Newfound) land to the west!” is an update of the original 03/03/2013 post: “Saga I: Bjarni sights land to the west”.

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