Their haggis is our slátur: The Gael-Nordic Ancestors of Icelanders

Description of Icelanders, their heritage and origin, emphasizes the Nordic biological and cultural elements, while few hardly ever mention the Gaelic contribution. In the middle of the 20th century, Iceland was a newly independent nation struggling to come up with an identity as a distinctive ethnic group. Just about hundred years prior, Icelanders were not really thinking about themselves as a distinctive ethnic group, just folks trying to eke out a living in a harsh island of ever-changing and unpredictable weather in the North Atlantic Ocean. Romantic notions of ethnicity and independence were alien to most.

Jörgen Jörgensen.

Even when the Danish adventurer and hopeless romantic, Jörgen Jörgensen, became a steward for Iceland in 1809, and nullified all foreign debt of common folks with liberty and justice for all in an independent country, most Icelanders just shrugged their shoulders and continued their miserable existence as semi-slaves to local landlords. These embarrassing events came to be when an English merchant, Samuel Phelps, became unhappy with a trading embargo on everything English during the Napoleonic era. Seeing no defense of the island from the Danish authorities, he ordered his men ashore to seize control from the local magistrate and installed his Danish interpreter and bored POW, Jörgen Jörgensen, as governor. Jörgensen was under the influence of nationalism and liberty, and wished for his new subjects to enjoy the freedom all oppressed people deserved. It may be that Icelanders deserved freedom and liberty with justice for all, but these concepts were alien to most. The life they knew was harsh and unforgiven but familiar. And with familiarity came a sense of security of a life that was the present and the past. It was something that people knew.

Jörgensen’s ideas were strange and unfamiliar to almost all. His concepts were incomprehensible, something that people didn’t even dream about. How to get food to put on the table occupied most peoples minds. After only one month a passing British warship captained by an arrogant noble man disgusted with a fact of a common man imprisoning an upper class Icelandic magistrate without Royal permission from London, promptly re-arrested Jörgensen and gave the island back to Danish royal control. So ended Iceland’s short lived independence.

Looking back at these events decades later, it became clear that a marketing strategy was needed to sell the notion of nationalism and freedom. To unify the people living on this island, something glorious had to be dragged out that could serve as a rallying call for this long oppressed people. Gaelic or Celtic heroes or examples were hard to come by. Scotland was part of the union of Britain, while Ireland, although troublesome, was controlled in a brutal manner by the English. The Nordic countries however had something that marketing people of nationalism could sell. The Viking heritage that relatively newly independent Norway was feeding to their countrymen, emphasized strong warrior culture. Now that was something salable!

And into this brewing pot Icelandic romantic authors and nationalists drank from and spread their message to Iceland. All nationalistic nations need a unifying idea of a common enemy. This fact was not lost on Bismarck when he chose France to be the newly unified Germany most hated enemy. In Iceland, the local landlords and ruling class, the true enemies of common folks, were not suited for this purpose as they were too close to the reality of most people in Iceland. Besides most if not all the leaders in Iceland’s independence endeavor were from this class as they were the only ones financially able to send their offspring to Copenhagen for a higher education. The far-away Danish authorities in Copenhagen were good targets however. Danes thus became the evil villains that had oppressed and starved Icelanders, despite the common Viking heritage.

The interpretation of the history of Iceland went through this nationalistic filter. The Gealic heritage was downplayed and ridiculed to a few slaves and Irish hermits that fled back to Ireland with the coming of the first brave Nordic settlers. A part of the Icelandic sagas is a story of the settlement of Iceland. There we have mysterious tales of Nordic settlers coming in a single ship and becoming rich chiefs with thousands of sheep. But the book is silent on where these thousands of sheep came from. On the ship they sailed on were mostly a dozen or so at most. For sheep to multiply to such an extant, you would need hundreds of years with someone to tend to them during the long winter months. In other words, you would need a settlement big enough to sustain such numbers far earlier than the book of settlements says. A population of an origin not suited to the taste of the king of Norway that became Iceland’s ruler in 1262-4.

In the kingdom of Norway, Gaels were enemies and within the realm had the status of slaves. The pope in Rome was trying to eradicate the Irish version of Christianity, which added to the antagonism. To dispel any hint of Gaelic ancestry the Icelandic sagas were written to whitewash the history of the island and thus presented to the king of Norway for his approval.

The archaeologist Þorvaldur Friðriksson in his book, Keltar: Áhrif á íslenska tungu og menningu, has demonstrated the tremendous amount of obvious Gaelic cultural influences in Iceland. From topography to farming and subsistence culture, to the language and pronunciation practices. Unlike the Nordic countries, the emphasis in Icelandic is on the first part of words, just like in Gaelic. Although the structure and the majority of the vocabulary is Germanic, Icelandic seems to be like a prestige language, taking over from an earlier suppressed one that is Gaelic. So the original language of the people calling themselves Icelanders, is Gaelic.

What in reality happened during the civil war in Iceland from 1117 to 1264? Was it simply a power struggle between ruling families or clans as the Icelandic sagas want us to believe, or a war between Gaelic and Nordic influences with the latter coming on top? The losers in the struggle, the once all powerful Sturlungar, ruled one half of Iceland at the time, a part with the most obvious Gaelic topographic and cultural influences, the same part that had the literary heritage like in Ireland but unlike the Nordic countries at the time. Their seat of power was based in Dalirnir and Borgarfjörður, the part of Iceland the Icelandic anthropologist Jens Pálsson, found the most obvious evidence of Gaelic physical types of any area in Iceland. Besides, one also starts to speculate on the naming of Dalirnir. The word itself reminds one of the territory in Scotland and Ireland that belonged to the kingdom of Dál Riata that existed between 498-850, itself eerily similar in it’s geography with it’s shallow bays and narrow fjords with multiple islands and winding coastline. Usually the name has been explained away as reference to valleys in that area, which could be right, but there are more spectacular valleys elsewhere in Iceland that would be more fitting to the name. Why this area? Could it be that the Gaelic inhabitants wanted to recreate their lost kingdom in an area that was so similar to Ireland and Scotland?

The kingdom of Dál Riata.

One other fact that Þorvaldur Friðriksson does not mention much, is the mythology of Icelanders, particularly the realm of the elves. Often described as a parallel world of everlasting beauty, youth and bountiful life. This elusive world can only be entered by chance or by invitation. The entrance is well hidden from human eyes, usually in mounds, hills or cliffs. This is very similar to the Celtic Otherworld, the realm of the deities, the ancient gods of old.

The fact that evidence and hints can be added to the wealth of information in the well-detailed book of Þorvaldur Friðriksson, bears evidence to the fact that the history of Iceland is a whitewash. It is a history of fabrication and misguided nationalistic rumblings that has existed since the islanders wanted their status acknowledged on equal footing to the inhabitants of the kingdom of Norway in 1264. The younger generation of archaeologists and historians view the evidence of the Gaelic ancestry with more open eyes than their predecessors. It is time to review the evidence and reveal the real history of the people in this island. On a side note, it is worth mentioning the feeling many Icelanders get when in Scotland or Ireland, this strange and unexplainable feeling of belonging, of being home. The culinary legacy of Scotland for instance is so similar to Iceland’s in so many ways. Their haggis is our slátur.

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