The Celtic Origins Of The 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: commons.wikipedia.org

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:


4 Responses to The Celtic Origins Of The 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.

  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!

  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

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