Passport
Full Episode
Wild Way of the Vikings

Experience the natural world through the eyes of the Vikings. From the killer whales of the North Sea to the duck farms of Iceland, witness the deep history and cultural respect the Vikings had for the land and sea. Ewan McGregor narrates.

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♪♪ ♪♪ McGREGOR: 12,000 years ago the Northern Atlantic was pristine and pure.

A land ruled by gyrfalcon... by walrus... by reindeer.

But ancient people came to claim these lands too -- people like the Vikings.

This was a world they exploited... but it was a world they also nurtured and revered.

Now travel back in time to see the natural world through ancient eyes.

♪♪ Travel back in time to experience... the 'Wild Way of the Vikings.'

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Lava gurgling ] [ Waves crashing ] ♪♪ McGREGOR: Born of fire... and shaped by ice... ...the islands of the North Atlantic are among the harshest places on Earth... ...but the seas and coasts here hold vast natural riches.

From the 9th century onwards, these wild lands were conquered by the most advanced seafarers the world had ever seen... [ Ship creaks ] ...the Vikings.

From their homelands in Scandinavia to the Coast of North America, they traversed the ocean in the greatest adventure of the age.

♪♪ ♪♪ They were renowned as warriors and pirates... ...but there was another side to the Vikings, one we're only just starting to understand... ♪♪ ...their profound relationship with the natural world... its fabulous wild animals... [ Birds squawking ] its awe-inspiring spectacle... ...and above all, its pristine wilderness.

♪♪ [ Bird cawing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ It's late winter in the Viking heartlands of central Norway... ...and the reindeer are on the move.

[ Reindeer grunting ] After six months of broken twilight, at last the sun has lifted itself above the mountain peaks and the animals sense the change.

[ Reindeer grunting ] Big herds of reindeer range these mountains -- herds many thousands strong.

♪♪ They're perhaps the single most significant wild animal for the early Vikings.

Every part of the animal is used -- their hides, their antlers, their meat, their sinews... ...and hunting them is a regular activity.

♪♪ ♪♪ Broad birchwood skis with bindings of twine and leather are the best way of moving across this snowbound landscape.

♪♪ ♪♪ It's a chance encounter with the herd, but one no Viking can resist.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Just a single opportunistic shot, but the alarm waves surge through the herd like an electric current.

It's a defense strategy designed to confuse any predator -- whether wolf, bear, or Viking.

♪♪ ♪♪ But achieving a clean kill in a swirling melee like this is difficult.

Hunting reindeer is a communal activity, using knowledge of animal behavior to nudge them towards the perfect shot.

There will be another chance tomorrow, with more hunters.

♪♪ The herd is heading west now, west to the calving grounds.

♪♪ In the year 800 AD, the Viking peoples are also pushing west -- west across the Atlantic.

♪♪ With a wooden hull lashed together with flexible whale-bone strips, Viking ships can travel faster and further than any vessel of their day.

♪♪ Driven by the desire for conquest and trade, the Atlantic was crossed an island-step at a time, taking the Viking adventurers into inspiring new worlds full of remarkable birds and beasts.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ By the year 810, the Vikings had reached the Shetland Islands.

[ Men shouting ] They weren't the first people to live here.

♪♪ The Iron-Age tower of Mousa Broch had stood for 1,000 years when the longships first arrived.

♪♪ For settlers arriving in this strange and windblown world, Mousa Broch is a critical navigational tool.

Viking sagas tell of it being used as a hideout for lovers eloping from Norway to Iceland.

♪♪ But most Viking age-people seem to have given it a wide berth.

[ Wind howling ] Perhaps because these ancient walls echo with unearthly sounds... [ Cawing ] ♪♪ But these are no trolls or demons... ...not even bats or moths... [ Cawing continues ] ♪♪ They're storm petrels -- at the size of a sparrow, the tiniest seabird in the world.

♪♪ For early mariners, storm petrels are an ill omen.

One of these tiny birds taking refuge on a ship crossing the Atlantic may warn of an approaching storm.

[ Thunder rumbles ] ♪♪ But darkness and ill weather are things that storm petrels are well-adapted to cope with.

Using a remarkable sense of smell, they can they can navigate back to their nest cavities in the pitch darkness.

♪♪ Each pair nurtures a single egg, carefully brooded on the bare rock.

Incubation duty can last for many days, and changeovers can only happen under cover of darkness when there's a gap in the weather.

♪♪ By any stretch of imagination, it's a life of hardship for such a tiny ocean wanderer.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Shetland soon became a vital staging post in the Vikings' great North Atlantic adventure.

♪♪ The archipelago of a hundred islands offered many sheltered anchorages for the settlers... ...surrounded by bountiful seas.

♪♪ Seas which are also perfect for a mammal that seems to have appeared here at the same time as the Viking colonists... ...the otter.

Because the islands are well beyond the swimming range of animals in Norway and Scotland, it's thought by some experts that it was the Vikings that first brought them here.

We don't know whether they arrived as pets or were imported to be farmed for their fur... ...but they quickly established themselves in the wild here.

♪♪ With its endlessly cryptic coastline, Shetland is a wonderful place for an otter family.

Females here often raise three cubs... ...feeding them up on a rich diet of shallow-water fish, crabs, and octopus.

♪♪ The seaweed-covered inlets and bays also offer plenty of spots to rest and bed-down in between fishing trips.

♪♪ ♪♪ In Norse mythology, Otter was the son of the magician Hreidmar -- a man by day but at night a fisherman to surpass all others.

♪♪ ♪♪ Like otters, the Vikings are adept fisherman.

Limpets are used as bait to catch species like coley using nets weighted down with stones.

♪♪ Archaeological records have revealed that fish often made up more than 25% of the Viking diet.

♪♪ ♪♪ In Shetland, much fishing is done in the shallows alongside the otters.

The catch can then be cooked and eaten on the beach straight away.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ The sheltered bays of Shetland also offer sanctuary for harbor seals.

[ Waves crashing ] In the Summer months, females give birth here on these quiet beaches.

Seals are special to the Vikings.

Their skins provide them with clothing, footwear, and rope for rigging, and in some North Atlantic settlements they're a major food supply.

But the Vikings aren't the only ones on the hunt for seals.

♪♪ Orca.

♪♪ Perhaps taking the same route as the Viking colonists themselves, an orca pod can cross from Norway to Shetland in less than 48 hours.

But after a two-day journey... they're hungry.

♪♪ Seal-hunting orca know exactly how to exploit time and tide.

The exposed skerries may offer sanctuary for now, but as the rising tide covers the rocks, the seals will have to enter the water... ...and the orca know it.

♪♪ ♪♪ [ Orca pod calling ] Beneath the surface, all aural communication ceases and the orca pod switches to hunting mode -- total silence.

Any seal in open water is now in peril for its life.

If they can hide in the kelp forest they may escape detection... ♪♪ ...but like Viking raiders, the orca are ruthless, well organized, and fiercely intelligent.

♪♪ ♪♪ Two members of the pod use tail slaps to flush out hiding seals... ♪♪ ...while another pair follow silently behind.

♪♪ ♪♪ They sight a target... ...and split up to cut off any escape routes.

♪♪ ♪♪ The seal makes a dash for open water... ♪♪ ...straight towards the rest of the pod.

The seal must surface, and the circling orca are ready and waiting.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Killed by the orca bull's 'Thor-hammer' tail slap, it never stood a chance.

After sharing the kill, the pod retreats to deeper water.

Like the Vikings themselves, they will hunt seals and other marine mammals across the Atlantic Islands.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Cast from towering volcanic basalt and petrified ash, the Faroe Islands are a symphony in rock and water... ♪♪ By the year 825, the Viking settlers had established a small colony here... ♪♪ ...living by subsistence farming supplemented by one of the richest natural resources in the sub-arctic world... ...seabirds.

In the breeding season, seabirds are a more important food supply than livestock, fish, and whales combined.

Puffins are eaten most often... ...but the larger gannets provide a special prize.

[ Birds cawing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ With bare feet and a well-practiced grip, the Vikings scale the dizzying heights of the colony.

♪♪ The young gannets are the tenderest and most prized, but they've only appeared on the very highest ledges of the colony.

They're protected by dagger-like bills more than six inches long... ♪♪ ...but sooner or later, the adults will have to leave in search of food.

♪♪ ♪♪ Perhaps no other bird masters air and water like a gannet.

With a long, narrow, six-foot wingspan, a gannet can hover, glide, soar, and dive... ♪♪ ♪♪ ...but it's beneath the surface of the water that they really come into their own.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cawing, splashing ] With the Atlantic offering up such bounty, the constant fishing trips barely make a dent in the vast resources of the sea.

The Vikings too only take what they need leaving the colony thriving and ready for the next harvest.

♪♪ In the 9th century, gannet numbers across the Northern World may have run into tens of millions, individual colonies teaming with hundreds of thousands of birds.

♪♪ A few eggs are harvested too... ...and the light, hollow wing bones can be used as cases for needles and pins.

This is the true spirit of the wild way of the Vikings -- take everything that you need, but value it for as long as you can.

A single precious trinket will be used for generations.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ By the year 874, the Viking colonists had reached the island of Iceland.

It's possible that the Vikings were the first people to set foot in this world of ice and fire... ...one of the very last places on Earth to be colonized by humanity.

♪♪ ♪♪ 10% glacier... and 50% mountainous lava desert, the landscape must surely have resonated with Viking settlers whose religion was rich with ice giants, human mountains, and rivers of fire.

♪♪ ♪♪ Only one other land mammal had colonized this savage landscape before the Vikings.

♪♪ Crossing on an ice bridge at the end of the Pleistocene period, it's an animal as tenacious and hardy as any Viking... ...the arctic fox.

In Summer, arctic foxes feed almost exclusively on seabirds.

Their denning is timed exactly to coincide with the bounty on the ledges.

[ Cawing ] The first tiny pups as black as coal start to emerge from the dens four weeks after birth [ Fox pups whine ] Litters of 14 are common... ...so suckling a litter of seven is quite achievable for this experienced female.

Arctic foxes are dedicated and careful parents.

Even the runt in this litter is given special attention.

It's an exhausting schedule for the female and once the feeding is done, she settles down to rest while her litter plays.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Arctic foxes can quite happily exist in temperatures of minus 70 degrees, so it's not surprising that their fur is the warmest of any mammal on earth.

[ Fox pup growling ] The practically minded Vikings soon put this fur to good use for clothing and bedding.

It would also have been a valuable trading commodity for these 9th-century entrepreneurs.

♪♪ Farming in Iceland is challenging... ...but the newly arrived Vikings soon realized that one bird species could be farmed while staying absolutely wild... ...the eider.

♪♪ In the 9th century, these large sea ducks are among the commonest birds in Iceland.

♪♪ [ Eider calling ] Eider always nest near the shoreline, and once a site has been chosen, the females line the bowl of the nest with the down from their breasts.

♪♪ Eider duck farming is big business in Viking-age Iceland, with nesting ducks encouraged and predators like arctic foxes controlled.

Down can be harvested from the nests and carefully replaced with hay without disturbing the brooding ducks.

♪♪ [ Eider calling ] Carefully cleaned of grass and straw, the pure down can be bagged up, used as lining for bedding and clothes, or traded for other goods.

♪♪ Eider down offers superb insulation because the densely barbed feathers hold tiny pockets of air.

This also makes it very buoyant which can create problems for a newly-hatched duckling.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Wings flapping ] [ Eider quacks ] [ Waves crashing ] By the year 950, the Island of Iceland was booming with an influx of new settlers from Norway, Scotland, and Ireland.

Its economy was completely driven by the resources that the North Atlantic was able to offer.

♪♪ Natural products were fashioned into valuable commodities here.

Antler from Norwegian reindeer could be carved into combs and traded for timber... ...a hugely valuable resource in a landscape almost devoid of trees.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Tiny animal immigrants were also arriving, stowing away in sacks of imported feed.

House Mice.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Analysis of modern Icelandic house-mouse DNA has revealed that all the animals in the island have Norwegian ancestors.

♪♪ It seems that these enterprising little creatures carry the genetic signature of human history.

♪♪ ♪♪ [ Mouse squeaking ] The ecology of Iceland was changing fast... ...but some things stayed resolutely the same.

Norse mythology was celebrated here for much longer than in the Viking homelands of Norway.

[ Indistinct conversation ] The oral traditions of saga and history became so inter-twined that fact and fiction merged.

Much of what we know of the pagan Viking past, before the adoption of Christianity, originates from stories told and then written down in Iceland.

These stories are alive with animal characters.

♪♪ ♪♪ But one bird takes pride of place... ...the raven.

♪♪ Wily and highly intelligent, this, the world's largest crow, would have been a familiar sight to the Vikings.

[ Raven caws ] Both hunter and scavenger, ravens are great survivors.

[ Raven caws ] On the seashore, they're happy to scavenge carcasses, outranking the smaller hooded crows.

[ Cawing ] ♪♪ In the Icelandic villages and townships, they're given a special status.

Perhaps even a seat at the king's table.

♪♪ Odin the all-father god was attended by two ravens called Hugin and Munin.

♪♪ Spies for the god, they would fly the world to bring him news of the ways of men.

There are even accounts in the sagas of captive ravens being used for navigation, guiding ships to land after being released at sea.

♪♪ ♪♪ In the year 985, a rogue adventurer called Eric the Red reached a strange new land even further to the west of the known Viking world... ♪♪ ♪♪ ...Greenland.

♪♪ This colony Eric established here flourished from harvests of caribou, seals, and whales, but especially from the bounty offered up by one very significant species... ♪♪ ♪♪ ...the walrus.

♪♪ In late 10th century Greenland, huge colonies of walrus fill the beaches north of the Viking settlements.

In late summer after the breeding season, these groups can be thousands strong.

With a big male weighing in at more than 2,000 pounds, these animals are the biggest seals in the Northern hemisphere.

The Vikings harvest these giants during seasonal expeditions, using their hides to make ropes for rigging, but the most valuable parts of the animals by far are their tusks... ...ivory.

[ Walrus snorts ] ♪♪ Genetic analysis shows that items like the chessmen found in the Hebridean Isle of Lewis were fashioned in the ivory workshops of Norway using tusks from the western Greenland walrus colonies.

♪♪ Precious items like carved chess pieces were treasured by the Vikings, and like all their personal items, they were used, valued, and passed on from generation to generation.

This was no throwaway culture.

In lands with such scant resources, pure beauty was as important as material worth.

♪♪ But ivory wasn't the most valuable resource found in Greenland.

♪♪ Prized above all other birds, trade in the white gyrfalcon was a cornerstone of the far westerly Viking economies for two centuries.

♪♪ Gyrfalcons are the largest and heaviest member of the falcon family.

♪♪ Hunting the subarctic tundra for mountain hare, ptarmigan, and grouse, they can reach speeds of 90 miles an hour in level flight.

♪♪ Historical and archaeological evidence has revealed the Vikings sustainably caught young gyrfalcons and then traded them across their entire network to be used in a sport that was rapidly growing in popularity... ...falconry.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Trained to fly to a lure, a big female gyr could command a price so high that only the highest echelons of European nobility could afford one.

♪♪ ♪♪ Owning a white gyrfalcon is the ultimate statement of power and glamour.

♪♪ ♪♪ By the year 1000, the Vikings had reached the very extremes of the Western Atlantic.

♪♪ Icelandic sagas recount that, in this year, Eric the Red's son Leif found himself blown off course while on a mission to bring the new religion of Christianity to his father's colony in Greenland.

♪♪ ♪♪ In an age before magnetic navigation, Vikings lost at sea may have been able to plot their position using a sun compass... ♪♪ ...but above all, the movements of birds and mammals gave the Vikings important clues about their position.

♪♪ Breeding seabirds will always guide a ship to land, but the sagas reveal that the mightiest pathfinders of all... ...were the great whales.

♪♪ [ Whale calling ] With a range that covers the whole North Atlantic, humpback whales are special travelling companions to the Vikings.

[ Calling continues ] Humpbacks always feed in inshore waters, so a whale located at sea will eventually lead you to land.

♪♪ ♪♪ The sagas tell us that Leif eventually made landfall in a place that he called Vinland, but we now know it as Newfoundland.

♪♪ ♪♪ Could Leif's guides to this new world have been the whales?

Did they pilot his ship to this new land which seemed so strange and yet so similar to the Viking homelands in distant Norway?

We'll never know for sure, but it's certain that the seas around this part of North America would have been teaming with whales at the time of Leif's voyage.

And it's certainly possible they led these 11th-century pioneers to landfall... ...the first Europeans to reach North America.

♪♪ In less than 200 years, the Vikings had traversed the North Atlantic... [ Birds cawing ] ...learned how to work with its vast natural resources... ...and created a trading network that covered much of the known world.

♪♪ So, what can we in the 21st century learn from the wild way of the Vikings?

♪♪ Our world has tipped in humanity's favor.

♪♪ There are seven billion more people on planet Earth than in the age of the Vikings.

♪♪ ♪♪ But despite that, the humpback whales, the vast seabird colonies, and herds of reindeer are still with us, and it will be our legacy as to whether they remain.

♪♪ We'll never see the wilderness of the north as the Vikings did in those ancient days, but we can still value each animal and its place in the world.

We can watch them... ♪♪ ...live alongside them... ...protect them... ...and above all be inspired by them... and their wild ways.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ MAN: This is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

MAN: More people have been into space than visited this insanely magical place.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪