The Celtic Heritage in Iceland

It is an old dogma that Iceland became fully settled by Nordic people mostly from areas that later became Norway. The language and culture, all bore witness to that heritage. Icelanders were romanticized as the isolated guardians of Nordic heritage and culture, true full-blooded Vikings. Iceland was the Saga Island, where the legends and stories of ancient Nordic kings and their history had been preserved. The Nordic countries owed Icelanders for saving their historic language that had remained pure and isolated for centuries on this strange island of fire and ice in the North Atlantic Ocean. Icelanders were the keepers of old traditions that had remained relatively unchanged for one thousand years, while Nordic languages had been influenced by German, French and English. But was this nationalistic myth really true?

A Viking ship in Iceland. An example of a prestige group whose ancestry is hampered while the more powerless, the Celts, remained hidden from view. The new fledgling independent state of Iceland after 1944, unsure of itself after centuries of oppression (mostly done by local elites) and backwardness, was seeking an image of strength and confidence. Being the whole truth and nothing but was irrelevant at this point. Being seemingly strong and militant was hampered while being cultured and peaceful was not.

When Icelanders were swept up in the nationalism that had raged in Europe since the beginning of the 19th century and gained full independence in 1944 after a peaceful campaign, their leaders emphasized the Nordic heritage and downplayed any notion of a Celtic one. At this time the Nordic countries were becoming more nationalistic. Norway had become independent in 1905 after a peaceful separation from Sweden and the Vikings were now portrayed in a nationalistic and romantic light. What a glorious past indeed! Raiders and warriors feared throughout Europe for centuries. Vikings! The word alone drove people to cover for fear. A splendid image for Icelandic nationalists at this time of militant nationalism.

On the other hand, things were not so glorious in the British Isles where the Celts mostly lived. Germanic Anglo-Saxons and later Normans partly descended from the Nordic countries, had in the past conquered Britain and either exterminated the Celts or assimilated them. Scotland was no longer an independent kingdom but an integral part of Great Britain. Ireland was a starved, poor and powerless outpost of the British Empire, dominated not only by English landlords and ladies, their traditional Irish culture and language was under siege. Celtic culture and language was being oppressed and exterminated in both countries by the ruling Anglo-Saxon-Norman elite. Although Ireland gained virtual independence in 1922 after a long and bloody campaign brilliantly led in the end by Michael Collins, Ireland was largely shunned by Icelandic intellectuals even to this day. Who in Iceland wanted at this fragile time of nation building to warm up to a Celtic heritage so weak and oppressed?

Language distribution in Scotland in the Middle Ages. Blue is Gaelic spoken in Ireland and Scotland. Yellow is Scots-English, a dialect of standard English, previously this area had been Brythonic-Celtic speaking. Orange is Norn, a mix of Nordic and Celtic languages where the Nordic is the prestige language but Gaelic spoken by the peasantry, just like the situation was in many places in Iceland.

What memories were there of Celtic culture and settlement in Iceland? In the written Icelandic Sagas, especially the Book of Settlements, named Celtic settlement was mainly said to have been around present-day Akranes and Hvalfjörður, in the western part of Iceland. Other settlements were only single monks here and there around the country, that sailed away in disgust when pagan Nordic settlers suddenly became their neighbours. Other settlers of Celtic origin were among those Nordic people that settled in Iceland after they had previously ruled over parts of Scotland and Ireland. These unnamed people were the servants and slaves, powerless participants as the Book of Settlements only named the chiefs and possibly also their lineage. Almost all of the chiefs were of Nordic origin although some coming from the former domain of the Scandinavians in the British Isles had Celtic blood in their veins to a varying degree. For the majority of the named settlers but without any lineage or description, one can only speculate. Were they all of Nordic origin? Or is it possible that they were just unknown settlers perhaps of Celtic origin that the author of the Book of Settlements gave Nordic names and nicknames just out of the blue or based on some vague memory? Had these Celts really lived in Iceland for centuries as Árni Óla claims? Did they really fill the country with boundless herds of sheep, cattle and pigs?

And so it was that when Iceland became fully independent in 1944, the national school curriculum and Icelandic scholars proudly emphasized the myth of pure Nordic/Viking blood in Icelanders veins. This myth was largely taken as the gospels by scholars and laymen alike until about 20-30 years ago that cracks appeared in the ‘truth’. Questions had been raised about the origin of many words in the Icelandic vocabulary, archaeologists had sometimes reluctantly presented results that contradicted the established ‘truth’, physical anthropological research had shown results that did further damage to the myth. All this had been brushed aside but the pressure was mounting.

Younger generation of scholars born after Iceland had become independent, especially historians, now questioned the traditional dogma. Their articles and books asked and sometimes answered questions about the true origin of Icelanders. DNA research also showed results that were in line with this new way of seeking unfiltered knowledge free of the shackles of nationalistic fervour. The older generation soon lost control of this revolutionary trend. What emerged was very exciting indeed.

Linguistics: Celtic languages in the British Isles can be roughly divided into two parts. One is called P-Celtic that extended from the Scottish lowlands south to include Wales and Bretagne-peninsula in France. Those people were generally called Brittani, Pretani, Brythons or Brits. The other is called Q-Celtic or Gaelic and included Ireland and the west and north of Scotland, including the Hebrides Isles. Those Celts that came to Iceland were mostly Gaelic-speakers.

Many words in Icelandic were of Gaelic origin, especially those relating to finer arts like literature, personal names, animal names, agriculture and fishing. Numerous toponyms were originally Celtic words corrupted into their present form by later generations as the Nordic language became the prestige language of the emerging Icelandic society. Mountains, peninsulas, fields, fjords, bays, farmsteads, many important places in the Icelandic landscape. Words and phrases that could possibly be originally from Gaelic:

Apavatn (Gaelic: Abhainn, English: River, river meeting, a place name),
Arnarbæli (Gaelic: Ard‐na‐bhaile, English: A trading place, ard means a hill or heath, bhail means a village or a hamlet; a place name),
bagall (Gaelic: Bachall, English: A bishop’s staff or crosier),
Beinageitarfjall (Gaelic: Bheinn-na-geit, English: Bheinn means a mountain while geit means a door, thus ‘A mountain with a door’; a place name),
Bleikdalur (Gaelic: Bleagh, English: Milk, valley where cowes were milked),
Bolungarvik (Gaelic: , English: Traced to a lake a place name),
brekán (Gaelic: Breacan, English: A tartan cloth, a patterned cloth),
Brjánn (Gaelic: ?, English: A man’s name),
des (Gaelic: ?, English: A stack of hey),
Dímon (Gaelic: Di Muin, English: Di means two and muin means back or neck, thus ‘The Two-Tipped Mountain‘; a place name),
Dufgus (Gaelic: Dubhgus, English: A man’s name),
Dufþakur, Dufþaksskor, Dufþaksholt (Gaelic: Dubhtach, English: A man’s name, also abrevated into a place name),
Eðna (Gaelic: ?, English: A woman’s name),
Faxi like in Faxaflói (Gaelic: Fairsing, English: Wide)
Fáskrúðsfjörður (Gaelic: Fa-sruth, English: fa means inside of and struth mans a strong current; a place name),
fjalaköttur (Gaelic: ?, English: A mousetrap),
Flatatunga (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Flókadalur (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Frón (alternative name for Iceland),
geirfugl (Gaelic: Geir, English: Tallow, an extinct species of a flightless bird),
gemlingur and Gemlufallsheiði (Gaelic: Gem, English: Winter, used for lambs born in winter time),
gjalt (Gaelic: Geilt, English: Cover in fear, being conquered),
glíma (Gaelic: , English: Means to fight, a form of wrestling in Iceland),
Gnúpur (Galic: Gnob, English: Knob a place name),
Góa (ancient name of a month),
Grindaskörð og Grindavík (Gaelic: Grind, English: Bright, beautiful, a place name),
Grýla (Gaelic: , English: The dirty one, one of the female mythical trolls in Icelandic folklore, mother of the 13 yule lads),
Gufuskálar and Gufunes (Gaelic: Gobha; English: Carpenter, a place name),
Hekla (Gaelic: Ecla, English: The Terrible, a fitting name for this highly active volcano, a place name),
jaðraka (Gaelic: Adharcan, English: Black-Tailed Godwit, species of bird, Latin: Limosa limosa),
Kaðlín (Gaelic: ?, English: A woman’s name),
Kalman, Kalmansstaðir (Gaelic: ?, English: A man’s name, later a place name),
kapall (Gaelic: Capall, English: A kind of horse),
Katanes (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Katla (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Kjaransstaðir (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Keilir (Gaelic: Ceil),
Kjaran (Gaelic: Ciarán, English: A man’s name),
Kjartan (Gaelic: Chertach, English: A man’s name),
kláfur (Gaelic: ?, English: Creel, crib, box of laths, peat-box; hrip, heymeis)
Kleif and Kleifarvatn (Gaelic: Cleit, English: Bar, ridge),
Kofrafjall (Gaelic: Kofer, English: Box, chest, trunk),
Kollafjörður (Gaelic: Coill, English: Forest),
Kóreksstaðir (Gaelic: Corcaighe, English: A moor),
Kormákur (Gaelic: Cormac, English: A man’s name),
Krafla (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Krýsuvík (Gaelic: Crios, English: Belt, buckle),
Lómagnúpur (Gaelic: Glomhas, English: Cleft),
Lýtingsstaðahreppur (Gaelic: ?, English: A name of a community),
Lögurinn (Gaelic: Lough, English: Lake),
Mel (Gaelic: Mael, English: Bald, barren land),
Melkorka (Gaelic: Mael Curcaig, English: A woman’s name),
Mýrkjartan (Gaelic: Muirchertach, English: A man’s name),
Mörsugur (ancient name of a month),
Njáll (Gaelic: Niall, English: A man’s name),
Ok (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Papey and Papós (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Rangárvallasýsla (Gaelic: ?, English: A name of a county),
Saur like in Saurbær (Gaelic: ?, English: Great),
-síða like in Ægissíða (Gealic: ?, English: Hill),
Skarðsheiði (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Skatastaðir (Gaelic: Scáthach, English: Shadow),
Skeið and Skeiðará (Gaelic: Sgeidh, English: Moorish land),
Skilmannahreppur (Gaelic: ?, English: A name of a community),
Skorradalur (Gaelic: Sgorr, English: A mountain peak; a place name),
skyr (Gaelic: ?, English: A kind of cheese),
Sælingsdalur (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Súðavík (Gaelic: Suth, English: Generous; a place name),
Súgandafjörður (Gaelic: Sug, English: A wave),
Súlur (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Svarfaðardalur (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
tarfur (Gaelic: Tarbh, English: A bull),
Tjörnes (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
tros (Gaelic: ?, English: ?),
Trostan (Gaelic: Trostán, English: A man’s name),
Tyrfingsstaðir (Gaelic: ?, English: A place name),
Vestmannaeyjar (Gaelic: ?, English: Man of the West, the Irish; Vestmaður was the word used in Iceland for people of Celtic origin; a place name),
Ýlir (ancient name of a month),
Þorri (ancient name of a month),
æska (Gaelic: ?, English: Youth),
að fá sér eina kríu (English: Take a nab),
að sjá ekki glóru (English: Can’t see a thing),
að koma einhverjum fyrir kattarnef (English: Kill someone),

It seems that shortly after Nordic settlement was complete, the Celtic language was forgotten. What remained were the Celtic words that had become loanwords in the emerging Icelandic language of the Germanic languages group.

An highly unscientific research of the frequency of possible Celtic toponyms in Iceland. Each green dot represents a confirmed or possible Celtic toponym. The concentration of Celtic toponyms is mostly in the western and southwestern part, as well as in the eastern fjords. This supports historic tales and anthropological research of where the Celtic settlements were mostly concentrated.

Archaeology: Results by C-14 carbon dating showed settlement in Iceland far older than previously thought, or from 600-810 AD. It also showed that around Iceland fishing and hunting stations were present during the summer long before Nordic settlement was said to have begun. In Vestmannaeyjar, named after the Irish, Icelandic archaeologist found remains of a house dated from around 800. Another one found man made caves in the southern part of Iceland dating from this same period. Remains of human settlement dating before 872 has been found in Reykjavík, Vestmannaeyjar (by dr. Margrét Hermanns Auðardóttir), caves in Suðurland and at Stöð in Stöðvarfjörður (by dr. Bjarni F. Einarsson). These remains show age well before the accepted date of 870 for the beginning of settlement in Iceland. Other research on human bones found in Iceland suggest that although the majority of them are of a Nordic type, a substantial portion is of Celtic and a few even perhaps Saami in origin.

DNA: Genealogical research has shown that yDNA haplogroup R1b, the far most common on the British Isles, is the majority haplogroup in Iceland. Other haplogroups are I1 that is the majority group in Scandinavia and R1a that is in majority in Eastern Europe among Slavic-speakers. It is also common in Trondheim in Norway where many of the Nordic settlers came from. In all the frequencies in Iceland for R1b, I1 and R1a is 44-33-22, respectively. According to a study from 2000 led by Agnar Helgason from deCODE Genetics, the Icelandic female DNA was 37% from the Nordic countries while 62% were from the British Isles. The results were different regarding the male settlers of Iceland. About 80% of them came from the Nordic countries while only 19% were from the British Isles.

Physical Anthropology: Measurements showed a more mixed population than previously thought. In some areas Celtic physical types far outnumbered Nordic ones. The Icelandic physical anthropologist Jens O.P. Pálsson measured Icelanders and found that in some parts of Iceland, like the western part, people tended to have a Celtic outlook rather than what was thought to be Nordic types. But in his view the Nordic type was in majority and thus Icelanders looked more like people from Norway than people in Ireland and Scotland.

Culture: Many important aspects of Icelandic culture were Celtic in origin. Probably one of the most important is literature. Iceland is the only Nordic country to have such a rich literature and book traditions. So much so that Icelanders proudly declare themselves as the nation of books, although nowadays books are among the most expensive things to buy in Iceland because of taxation on the written word. Icelanders used their knowledge of writing to write down the history of their chiefs, their civil war and the mythical history of Scandinavian kings. They also wrote down tales from the old pagan religion but it seems heavily influenced and mixed so it is difficult to see where the true faith of the old Norse gods comes through borrowed themes from Greek mythology and ideas. But, one wonders, what happened to the books that the Celts must have written previous to the coming of the Nordics?

Other aspects is the stubborn belief in trolls and elves unknown in Scandinavia but an important part in Irish mythology. Icelandic folk belief is in many ways Celtic in origin. Tales of rebirth, human relations with elves, child rearing of human babies among elves and vice versa. Many tales in Snorra-Edda like the tale of the death and rebirth of Baldur is similar to tales of Fergus in Irish folktales. A special kind of poetry called ‘dróttkvæði’ in Icelandic originated in the western part of the country where Celtic settlement was the strongest. ‘Dróttkvæði’ is dissimilar to traditions in Scandinavia but very similar to Gaelic poetry and traditions.

But, what does all this mean for the present day? It seems that Celtic settlement was much more widespread than previously thought. Toponyms bear witness to that. Mountains, fields, lakes, bays, farmsteads small and large. These farms may originally have been settled by Celtic people who gave names to the geographical features around them and who were later absorbed or driven off by later Nordic settlers. These geographical features could also have been named by Celtic-speaking servants and slaves of the Nordic chiefs as the land was explored on their behalf.

But as Arni Ola has pointed out, sheep seems to have been more than plentiful as Nordic chiefs arrived here with their people but largely without domesticated animals. So where did they get sheep? If they bought them in Iceland then Celtic settlement was centuries older than the Nordic one to have bred such numbers of sheep. The economic activity was also dominated by Celtic vocabulary either because they were originally established by them or because Nordic chiefs had become masters of a Celtic-speaking working class. A similar situation had developed on the west coast of the British Isles were the Nordic chiefs established themselves as masters through the use of violence. There the Nordic chiefs took over and benefited from an already long established local economic activity. When the Nordic chiefs were driven out they took their servants and slaves with them to establish their fiefdom in Iceland. The origin of the sheep and most other domesticated animals is from Norway however.

A Celtic currach (kúði in Icelandic). A replica of the one the missionary and explorer Brendan used. Most likely of a similar type that brought Gaelic-speaking settlers to Iceland.

What seems to be the case in many areas in Iceland is that the peasants seem to have been of Gaelic origin, mostly from Ireland and the Gaelic-speaking part of Scotland, while the chiefs and larger farm owners of Nordic origin. Celtic settlement was especially strong in the western part of Iceland, in present-day Dala County (Dalasýsla), around Hvalfjörður and in Borgarfjörður, south of Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the whole of Reykjanes Peninsula. The same can be said of Rangárvalla County (Rangárvallasýsla) in the southern part of Iceland, where Celtic settlement was concentrated around present-day Hella. According to toponyms Celtic settlement seems to have been considerable in the eastern part of Iceland too. Some of the Celtic farms were larg and could possibly have included Celtic chieftains. Place names like Saurbær that means ‘great place’ in Gaelic could imply that Celtic chiefs lived here or some well-to-do farmer. Whether these chiefs were assimilated into the Nordic society or driven off is unknown.

What is the conclusion then? It is possible that Celtic settlers were in majority in the beginning as Árni Óla thinks, or two thirds of the whole population of 55.000 in the year 1000 AD. These could have suffered more deaths demographically from all the calamities that have threatened human existence in Iceland since c. 800 AD. The elite, mostly of Nordic origin, have more means to survive calamities than poor have.

The Celtic settlements were mainly in the west and south of Iceland as well as along the eastern fjords. Interspersed among these Nordics and Celts were a few Saami people who most probably came with Nordic settlers that came directly from the northern part of Norway. But why are so few references to Celts and the Saami in the Icelandic Sagas? One of the reasons could be that the Nordics and their culture were a prestige people because of them becoming the rulers of Iceland. Another explanation could be that when the books were written, Catholicism had taken root in Iceland and the independent Irish church was then being overtaken by the pope in Rome. A power struggle was ongoing that was also played out in Iceland in a way that the Celtic heritage was silenced in all documents despite the fact that the tradition of writing books was indeed a Celtic cultural tradition but not a Nordic one.

So, let’s add this up:
Physical types and bones say that most of the bones of our ancestors along with measurements of relatively modern Icelanders suggest a strong Nordic type although in many areas people tend to have a Celtic outlook rather than Nordic.
DNA says Nordic males 80% and females 37%. Celtic males 19% and females 62%. Nordic DNA is then on average 58,5% and the Celtic one at 40,5%.
Haplogroups yDNA (inherited only in the male line, grandfather-father-son, etc.) say R1b (most common among former Celtic-speakers in western Europe) is 44%, I1 (most common among Nordic peoples) is 33% and R1a (most common among Slavic-speakers and in Trondheim in Norway) is 22%. The Celtic haplogroup R1b is the most common in Iceland but only by 11%.
Culture says that most of Icelandic culture is from Norway. There are however strong elements that are Celtic in origin. Literature achievement, myths and tales, economic activity (farming and fishing) and food.
Archaeology says that human settlement began much earlier than Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders) or Landnáma (Book of Settlement) say. Oldest settlement points to 600 AD. Who they were is harder to tell.
Domesticated animals say that they are mostly from Norway. What remains of any Irish stock are multicoloured and hornless sheep that is very rare to see. Most could have been eaten in starvation periods in Iceland as Arni Ola points out. Then repopulated later by stock from Norway.

What emerged from this amalgam of Nordic, Celtic and possibly Saami peoples are Icelanders in their present form. A mixed people of mostly Celtic and Nordic origin.


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