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Scottish Historical Connections
60% of Icelandic Women are of Scots descent


From an article by Iain Fleming in The Mail on Sunday, March 4, 2001

TWO of Iceland’s most famous personalities, rock singer Bjork and TV presenter Magnus Magnusson, may be Scottish, research has found. Advances in DNA testing have shown the majority of Icelandic women are of Scottish descent, rather than Scandinavian, which could explain why the Icelandic ‘pop pixie’ has felt drawn to the Highlands and Islands, where she’s shown interest in buying land. Research among 1,600 people in the Western and Northern Isles, as well as in Scandinavia and Iceland, by Oxford University academics has shown that nearly two thirds of the women who originally settled in Iceland came from Scotland.

It had been thought the majority of settlers in Iceland, where the world’s first republic was established in the ninth century, were Vikings. But the Oxford findings point to them being Vikings who had previously settled in Scotland before moving on, or Icelandic Vikings who raided Scotland and took women back.

Headed by Professor Brian Sykes, the researchers studied a genetic code passed from mothers to their children and were able to put together ancient family trees. And their detective work, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, found that Viking women made up 35 per cent of the female ancestors of the inhabitants of Orkney and 12 per cent of those living on the Western Isles and on Skye. But it was in Iceland where the surprisingly high figure of more than 60 per cent of Scottish origin came from. Bjork, the diminutive singer, has made no secret of her passion for the majestic solitude of the Highlands and Islands and three years ago tried to buy her own island near the village of Ardfern in Argyll.

Last year, she visited Fingal’s Cave on the uninhabited Hebridean isle of Staffa, a natural haven for wildlife and birds. including the puffins favoured as a dinner delicacy by her and many of her fellow Icelanders.

Magnus Magnusson, the son of an Icelandic consul-general in Edinburgh, was born in Iceland but has lived in Scotland since he was nine.

The former Mastermind presenter welcomed the findings.

He said: ‘It has altered quite substantially the perception that Icelanders have about their ethnic background.

‘The old idea was that they were all wonderful, pure-bred, nobly-born Norwegians fleeing from injustice and oppression who went to Iceland to set up the first republic in the world. ‘What is clear that there were two ways of immigration. The first one seems to have been direct from Norway to Iceland, but the second wave was 30 years later and came from a group of Norsemen who had settled in Scotland and Ireland and intermarried with Gaelic-speaking people.

‘What this excellent research from Oxford is suggesting is that a very large percentage of the original settlement stock was of women from Celtic stock. I am delighted because I have being banging on about the shared heritage for long enough.’

Mr Magnusson, a broadcaster, historian and author, as well as a former chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage, said all Icelanders are obsessed with genealogy and most can trace their family back to at least the sixteenth century. He added: ‘I have been able to trace mine family back to 874AD.’