The importance of being Vinland

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
Published on July 22, 2014

This summer, Charlottetown mariner Geoff Ralling is sailing a new version of a more than 1,000-year-old voyage to Vinland, following the route depicted above that Norse scholars say Vikings may have taken to access the “land of wine”.

©Guardian graphic

Guest Opinion: What’s all this “to-do” about Vinland, you may be asking. Why should we Islanders concern ourselves about this? Don’t we have enough on our minds already with the 1864-Birthplace-of-Confederation brouhaha?

Perhaps. But Vinland is nevertheless significant, for it’s at the centre of one of the most important events in human history — the first documented arrival by Europeans in North America, 500 years before Columbus. And we’re part of the story.

Vinland — or “Wineland” — is the “promised land” of the Vikings, made famous in two Icelandic Sagas, first written down in the 13th and 14th centuries, telling stories about voyages taken by their ancestors a few hundred years earlier. The main characters in this real-life drama are Erik the Red, who founded the Norse colony in Greenland in 986, and his son Leif the Lucky, who sailed south from there about 15 years later, to Vinland.

For centuries, the location — and even the existence — of this Vinland remained a matter of intense dispute, with many places on the North American Atlantic seaboard vying for the honour.

A major breakthrough occurred in the early 1960s, with the sensational discovery of an actual Viking site, which could be carbon-dated to about the year 1000 A.D. This, of course, is L’Anse aux Meadows, at the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. And so, most thought, the site of the fabled Vinland had been discovered at last.

Or had it?

According to Birgitta Wallace, the Parks Canada archaeologist who headed up the excavation at L’Anse aux Meadows, that site was used, primarily, as an overwintering camp. For her, “the Vinland of the sagas encompasses all the coasts around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and L’Anse aux Meadows was the base from which it was explored, the gateway into Vinland.”

And if you sail into the Gulf, exploring Vinland, then the warmer and more attractive lands will be in the south — that is, Prince Edward Island and environs. Looked at from this perspective, I find it difficult to imagine that Leif Eriksson and his men did not in fact walk upon our shores. And since this was a period of global warming, with Norse settlers farming in Greenland, our climate would have been milder then.

Icelandic saga scholar Gisli Sigurdsson tends to agree, and bases his conclusions on details from the Saga stories themselves. In his words, “… the likely location of Leif’s Vinland can be narrowed down to Prince Edward Island and the southern shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

So — what are we able to conclude, with some certainty? Is our Island the Vinland specifically mentioned in The Saga of the Greenlanders? Perhaps: but we’ll never know for sure, even if archaeological evidence were discovered here. Is it part of a general area described as Vinland? Yes, almost certainly. There’s both magic and power to this word Vinland: I think Islanders should take advantage of that. We can also use it as inspiration — as a reminder of a time, a thousand years ago, when our lofty forests were inhabited by bears, our shorelines by walrus, our skies by passenger pigeons and our rivers and streams ran clear and deep and clean.


Harry Baglole, of Bonshaw, is president of the Vinland Society of Prince Edward Island.