The Gaelic Origins Of The Modern-Day Icelanders

While most of the people with a certain knowledge regarding Iceland would consider that the Icelanders are solely descended from the Norse colonists who settled there during the 9th and 10th centuries, it must be mentioned that their genetic structure is not entirely Scandinavian in origin.

The contemporary Icelanders are as such descended from both the Norse colonists who settled there during the Viking Age (that spanned from the 8th to the 11th century) as well as from various Celtic-speaking populations that were brought by the Norsemen from their raids in Ireland and Scotland (and possibly even the Hebrides, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, and Isle of Man).

Most people think that Iceland was uninhabited prior to the Norsemen’s arrival, but sparse archaeological findings as well as various written accounts suggest that there might have been an Irish/Scottish presence in Iceland before the Norse settlement which commenced in the 9th century. This presence, however, was represented only by Irish and Scottish hermit monks (known as ‘Papar‘ in medieval texts) who were most likely part of a mission sent to the isles of the North Atlantic Ocean in order to spread Christianity.

Iceland on Olaus Magnus’ 1539 ‘Carta Marina’. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, in Iceland there are several place names of Gaeilge origins such as Bekansstaðir (i.e. ‘Beecan’s place’), Njálsstaðir (i.e. ‘Nial’s place’) and Írafell (i.e. ‘Mount Irish’). Furthermore, genetic studies reveal the fact that the Icelanders are of both Norse and Irish descent.

A genetic research project conducted by deCODE in association with Oxford University published the results of the mtDNA (the mitochondrial DNA representing the female genetic lineage) which showed the fact that 63% of Icelandic women are of Irish/Scottish origin, with their lineage being connected to the British archipelago.

The remainder of 37% of the female settlers in Iceland were shown to be of Norse origin, stemming from Norway. On the other hand, concerning the male population, the study revealed a greater Norse genetic influence among men than in women. As such, 80% of the Icelandic men are Norse and only 20% Irish/Scottish.

Below is a short funny and interesting Icelandic TV report on the mixed genetic legacy of the Icelanders:

Documentation sources and external links:

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16 Responses to The Gaelic Origins Of The Modern-Day Icelanders

  1. Jelpe Jølpe says:

    It’s a myth that the Norse brought Celts to Iceland as slaves. The pagan Celts from south of Ireland had to flee from Christianity. They ended up in Norway around 500 BC and integrated with the Norse society. That is how the Norse learned to build drakkars that was built in Ireland for as long as 2500 BC. The Irish pagans brought this pirate culture to the south west of Norway and returned to Ireland to revenge their betrayal. The presence of R1b genes is still a majority in south west of Norway and the largest genetic group of Norway today.

    • sindre myr says:

      do you have sources for this ?

    • Johan van der Walt says:

      So let me make sure I understand this correctly – they fled Christianity and ended up in Norway in 500BC… 500 years before Christianity even existed? Makes no sense

    • Victor Rouă says:

      You are very correct with respect to the Celtic/Gaelic genetic admixture in south-western Norway, but, with all due respect, isn’t this a bit too far fetched? All the best, thank you for your readership and time on The Dockyards!

  2. Adrian Martyn says:

    Hi there. Germanic and Celtic are best understood now as linguistic groups, not ethnicities. There were no Celtic populations in ‘the British Isles’ in the time concerned as ‘Celt(s)’/’Celtic’ were not terms used by any people in medieval Ireland or Britain. ‘The British Isles’ is a political nickname for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801-1922) so using it in this context is woefully anachronistic. Likewise “Hiberno-Scottish Catholic mission”; the missionaries concerned were almost entriely Irish not Scottish – the confusion arises because the Irish then used the Latin term, Scotti, for themselves. Even “place names of Celtic origins” is incorrect; Celtic is a group term, so the word that should be used for the actual language concerned should be Gaeilge or Irish. “mixed Celtic-Norse origin”; should read “Norse-Irish”, as Celtic is a modern linguistic term with no ethnic application whatsoever. The Celts most certainly did exist, but in Iron Age and Roman Gaul, not Britain and Ireland, let alone Iceland. Cheers!

    • Josie says:

      Yes they did exist in Ireland! They are documented. I was just in aireland and saw mant Celtic sites. Sow your sources thatnthey spdisn’t exist.

      • No, they did not, as any Irish archaeologists or historians here in Ireland will tell you. The 18th century English were the first people to call the Irish ‘Celts’, and as most people get their Irish ‘history’ from English sources rather than Irish ones, that persists. At best, ‘Celt’ is used instead of Gaeil, but even using it instead of ‘Celt’ is also wrong. If you want to learn more, I can list a few good history books. By the way, its Ireland, not ‘aireland’. Cheers.

  3. Martin Aherne says:

    Ioften heard that vikings were expelled from dublin in 903 ,making another comeback later,those that lekt with their native irish women sailed away to Iceland ,these were known in the Irish language as Gallgael ,the foreign Irish,as in the modern scotland Galloway

  4. Reading this article one may be excused to understand that 63 % of modern Icelandic women are of Irish – Scottish stock and 20% of the males. Of course this is total nonsense. All native Icelanders are related beyond approximately 1500, i.e. all native Icelanders have common ancestry from the gen-pool brought to the island by the settlers. The representation of Irish and Scottish women in settlement Iceland was 63 to 68 % and males 20 to 28 %. —– A huge number of names, both place names and person-names derive from the Irish-Scottish settlers, as well as words in the Icelandic language. Unfortunately, to my knowledge a study of the Gaelic influence on the Norse language spoken in Iceland has never been conducted and the number of loan-words is therefore not known, but common words like “Strakur” for boy = (“Strak” = bull calf in Scottish Gaelic). It may have been an endearment by Gaelic speaking mothers. Similarly the words “Stelpa” and “Stulka” for girl, are not found in other germanic languages.

  5. Séamas ó Ceileachair says:

    If it’s 500 BCE {Before Christ Existed) then there was no Christianity anywhere at that time!

    • Mark says:

      Yeah this story makes no sense, I’m pretty sure Norse vessels go back to the Bronze Age as well, in a more primitive way. .. THe story would make sense if it were Irish Bronze Age settlers escaping the Celt’s invasion from Europe.

    • Andrew Young says:

      BCE in academic writing means ‘Before the Common Era’, CE (Common Era) is used instead of AD.

  6. Willie says:

    The Irish are not Celts. They belong to a separate gene pool –
    ‘Celt’ was a label given them by English historians eager to falsify Irish history.
    My understanding is that the earliest Irish connection with Iceland was in the 6th & 7th century when Irish monks migrated there to find their ‘desert’ hideaway. It became known as ‘Little Ireland’ – even though Iceland is a bigger land mass than Ireland. They were subsequently chased away by the Norse in the 8th and 9th centuries.

  7. Nana says:

    Now children, we are who we are; a plethora, salad, of ethnicities. Right index finger, Norsk, left index finger, right and left bunions, norsk samisk? Wide feet walk on snow like reindeer. Capece. Viva la difference.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      That was such a beautiful comment and I wholeheartedly agree with it! There is much beauty in diversity! Besides, southern Norway has its share of Gaelic/Celtic DNA as well which, in my humble opinion I might add, is absolutely marvellous. All the best! Beste ønsker!

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