Authors: Bryan Sykes
Across the sea from Kintyre, in County Antrim, close to the Giant’s Causeway, the Irish kings of Dál Riata began to look for new conquests, and the lands visible across the
sea were the natural target. In the first centuries of the first millennium
, the Dál Riata founded three colonies – on the islands of Islay and Mull and on the Kintyre peninsula. They called their possessions
– hence Argyll.
The Picts briefly regained Argyll in the sixth century. When Columba arrived we know that it was a Pictish king who gave him the land on Iona in 563. Shortly afterwards, the Dál Riata got a new king, Aidan, who set out to reestablish the colonies in Argyll. If this wasn’t enough to upset the Picts, he made matters worse by attacking their possessions on Orkney and on the Isle of Man. He also annoyed the Ui Neill High King of Ireland by these unauthorized adventures. Matters came to a head in 575 when Columba, himself a member of the Ui Neill clan, arbitrated the treaty by which Aidan agreed to pay the High King a military tribute while keeping his maritime revenue for himself. To make the most of this outcome, Aidan built up a strong navy, which is just as well, because he lost most of his land battles. The treaty of 575 kept the peace in Ireland for fifty years, but the Dál Riata never fully recovered their Irish possessions. Their centre of power switched to Argyll and their territorial ambitions were directed north and east towards the lands of the Picts.
For the next two centuries the balance of advantage seesawed between the Gaels of Dalriada (just another spelling of Dál Riata) and the Picts, with each side alternately gaining ground only to lose it again. Eventually the Gaels gained the upper hand and in 843 the Gaelic king Kenneth MacAlpin was crowned the first king of Alba, a unified country covering both the land of the Picts and Dalriada.
Kenneth MacAlpin’s claim to the throne was a combination of the Gaelic patrilineal succession of Dalriada and the matrilineal inheritance system of the Picts. These rules did not mean that women became rulers themselves, but that a man would be able to claim the throne through his mother’s genealogy rather than his father’s. The land came to be called Scotland because
was the label the Romans gave to all Irish immigrants into Britannia. As we have already seen, that name has its own, deeper origins in the mythology of Scota, wife of Mil.
The unification of Scotland under a single king came shortly after the Vikings began their attacks on the coast and is widely seen as a response to this external threat, when unity against a common enemy was more prudent than being weakened by continued feuding, a solution that eluded the Irish. Kenneth MacAlpin moved his centre of operations from Dalriada to the Pictish capital near Perth on the eastern side of Scotland. To emphasize that he was there to stay, he brought the ancient ‘Stone of Destiny’ from the west and installed it at Scone, near Perth, for his coronation. These decisions, no doubt diplomatically and politically sound at the time, did mean that the centre of power shifted away from the Gaelic west. In later centuries Argyll and the Hebrides consistently refused to be governed by the kings of Scotland, and even now still see themselves as different.
Kenneth was the first of a dynasty of Scottish kings that ruled in patrilineal succession until 1286. Towards the end, Robert the Bruce emerged victorious from a confusion of claimants. His grandson Robert II, the son of Walter, the
High Steward of Scotland, and Bruce’s daughter, began the Stuart dynasty, which ruled in Scotland until 1603. This was when James VI, on the death of the childless Elizabeth I, also became King of England, and, though it is often forgotten, King of Ireland as well.
The Stuarts were not Scottish in origin at all, but Anglo-Normans. Just as territorial ambition had spurred Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, to invade Ireland in 1166, so other Anglo-Norman lords had their eyes on Scotland. However, unlike Ireland, where the chaos of rival kings made it easy for de Clare to divide and conquer, the relative stability of the unified Scottish royal house required more subtle tactics. Anglo-Norman barons sided with the Scottish kings against the unruly Gaels of the west and it was the contingent of armoured Norman knights on horseback that defeated the Celtic chieftain Somerled’s attempted invasion of Scotland at the battle of Renfrew in 1164. Walter the Steward, whose son was to become, as Robert II, the first of the Stuart dynasty, was himself a member of the Norman Dapifer family from near Oswestry in Shropshire, where they had been granted land by Henry I. This is relev-ant in the genetic context because, although there was no invasion as there had been in Ireland, the Anglo-Norman presence in Scotland was very influential. It may have affected the nature of the Y-chromosome pattern that we find in much the same way that Gaelic and Anglo-Norman Y-chromosomes are distinctly different in Ireland.
So far, we have four possible influences on the genetic structure of the people of Scotland: firstly the Picts; then the
Gaels of Ireland, synonymous with the Celts; the Vikings; and, in the south of Scotland particularly, the Anglo-Normans. As we shall see later, the south of Scotland was originally the British Celtic kingdom of Strathclyde. It is known that from the fifth century
onwards this came under pressure from Anglo-Saxons, but we will leave that to a later chapter. With the Picts, Celts, Vikings and Anglo-Normans to sort out, there is already more than enough to keep us occupied.
‘We have just had a message,’ the pilot’s voice came over the intercom, ‘that Sumburgh is fogbound.’
It looked as though our trip to the Shetland Isles was going to be cancelled. ‘But we’ll carry on and see if we can find a gap in the clouds.’
This was not the sort of thing that I, not at my very best in the air, really wanted to hear. We were heading north from Edinburgh airport over the thick layer of sea mist that was covering Scotland for as far as the eye could see. The plane was not a regular jet, but a twin-engine propeller plane, small, cramped and very noisy. Strangely, though, because the plane was small and was driven by propellers, it felt as though all of us, passengers and crew, were part of an adventure. Sure enough, when we reached the Shetlands, after a couple of circuits, the pilot did find a gap in the clouds and he dived through it to make a perfect landing. The team for Shetland was made up of Jayne Nicholson and Sara Goodacre from my research group, my
son Richard, then aged eight, whose half-term it was, and me.
For the week we were in Shetland it never really got dark at all. The sun rose at 3.30 in the morning and set at 10.30 at night. But even for the five hours that the sun dipped below the horizon, everything was illuminated by the ethereal northern twilight. It is easily light enough to walk around, and even to read a newspaper, right through the night. And everywhere the air was full of the sound of birds, the raucous clatter of terns and kittiwakes on the coasts and the sweet bubbling of curlews across the moorland away from the sea.
Shetland is nowhere near as fertile as Orkney, but both places – to an outsider – are very different from anywhere else in the Isles. There is a tangible air of Scandinavia about both archipelagos, stronger in Shetland than in Orkney, but unmistakable in both. And it isn’t just obvious things like the ‘Viking Coach Station’ in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, or signs in shop windows saying ‘Norwegian spoken’. It is there in the domestic architecture – the wooden A-frame houses painted with the same rust-red shade that is everywhere in Scandinavia. It is in the undemonstrative, no-nonsense feeling of the place. Although, even recently, anthropologists have written that in Lerwick, and in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, practically everyone they saw was blond, I have to say that was not my experience of either place. I could not see an overwhelming presence of the blond Scandinavian archetype which is such a feature of John Beddoe’s descriptions, but then I haven’t seen it in my visits to Norway and Sweden
either. However, the reason we had come to Shetland was not primarily to gaze at the exterior features of the islands’ inhabitants but to look for evidence of history hidden from view, hidden in the DNA.
Unlike the rest of Scotland, where most of our DNA samples came from blood-transfusion donor sessions, there are none of these in Orkney or Shetland so we had to arrange other methods of getting our samples. Jayne Nicholson discovered that the Shetland Science Festival was being held in May, so she arranged for us to have a stand at the Festival and also organized a series of visits to schools for the same week. This worked extremely well: while two people manned the booth at the Festival, the others went to schools around the islands. The Festival itself was held in a smart new sports hall on the outskirts of Lerwick, one of many around the islands. The same is true of schools, all of which have brand-new buildings. Shetland Council spends a lot of the revenue it gets from the Sullom Voe oil terminal on upgrading the island infrastructure. The roads are excellent, the inter-island ferries are well equipped and run on schedule. I saw neither poverty nor extravagant wealth on Shetland.
The Science Festival was a jolly affair. Groups from all over Scotland, including a strong contingent from the University of Aberdeen, put on displays of such varied nature as an artificial tornado generator, a giant bubble machine and a practical course in making plaster casts of fossils. Although the Festival was aimed primarily at schoolchildren, there was a healthy flow of adults coming to our stand and we had no difficulty enrolling volunteers
in the Genetic Atlas Project. We were not taking blood, only cheek swabs, and I am sure that helped. For this we use a small brush like a miniature bottle-brush, 1 inch long at the end of a 5-inch plastic handle. The bristles on the brush collect cells from the inner cheek as they are rubbed gently over the surface. There is plenty of DNA in these cells and the brushes can be stored for weeks, or posted, without the DNA suffering. It is one of those seemingly unimportant practical changes that actually make all the difference. Now, instead of collecting blood samples, we can send brushes to anywhere in the world and receive DNA back through the post. These brushes can hold DNA safely under even the most extreme conditions. I have equipped a number of university expeditions with DNA brushes and nearly all of them are returned with the DNA intact, even when they have been carried for weeks in a rucksack through deserts and across mountains.
When we began to use the brushes to collect DNA, we would often help the volunteers by doing it for them. However, we have now had to stop this, and volunteers must do it themselves. This is not for fear of breaking new Health and Safety regulations but for a far more delicate reason. False teeth. It was at the Shetland Science Festival that I learned this painful lesson. An elderly lady, eager to join in the project, opened her mouth to allow me to rub the inside of her cheek with the brush. No sooner had I begun to guide the brush across her cheek than it suddenly stopped moving. I let go. I looked at her. She blushed and turned away. After regaining her composure, she returned with the brush and the explanation. I had inadvertently
dislodged the top set of her dentures, which had dropped down and clamped the handle of the brush to the lower set. After this, we let people do their own brushing.
The Science Festival was also the scene of another humiliation. One of my obligations in exchange for the display space was to give a public lecture during the Festival, to which I was happy to agree. As usual I spent the previous evening preparing my talk and organizing my slides. With five minutes to go before my talk, I went over to the screened-off section of the hall that had been set aside for public lectures. There was no one there. I checked the time on the Festival programme. This was definitely the right time, and the right place. I waited, but still nobody came, so I thought there must have been some sort of rescheduling that I had not got to hear about. As I was unloading my slides, a lady came in and sat down. I asked if she had come to hear my lecture. She had. Having no audience is bad enough. Having an audience of one is far worse. Unable to slink quietly away, I was honour-bound to give the lecture, all forty-five minutes of it, slides and all. The sole member of the audience sat there quietly, paying attention and, when I had finished, she picked up her handbag and, without a word, left the area. Field work is full of surprises.
One last reflection of Shetland came from talking to men and women at the Festival. I wanted to know whether they felt closer to Scandinavia or to Scotland. On this question, the answer was clear-cut. It was Scandinavia without a doubt. Very few felt any connection with Scotland, let alone with the new Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. It was as if they even preferred to have their affairs governed from
Westminster than from Edinburgh. This allergy to Scotland extends to their own individual desires for a Viking ancestry, especially among the men. Where there was any uncertainty, and most people did not know where their ancestors had come from, they wanted to be Vikings. Scots came a very poor second and, to my surprise, an Irish ancestry was even worse.
I know hardly anybody from among my friends and colleagues who has been to Shetland. Only one, who is on the maintenance staff at the Institute where I work, visits regularly. He goes there to witness the festival of Up Helly Aa. This annual event is held on the last Tuesday in January, in the depths of winter darkness, and is a very real reminder of Shetland’s Viking affiliations. The day begins with the year’s elected Jarl, or leader, and his fifty-seven-strong retinue of
marching through the streets of Lerwick dressed in scarlet velvet, wearing winged helmets and carrying elaborate shields and heavy war axes. Becoming the Jarl of Up Helly Aa is a great honour for a Shetlander. It is the culmination of an induction and selection process that can last twenty years and that begins as a teenager with a minor role in the pageant. The Jarl assumes the name Sigurd Hlodvisson for the day and receives the freedom of Lerwick for the duration of his twenty-four-hour reign. The culmination of Up Helly Aa is the ceremonial torching of Sigurd’s galley
, specially made for the occasion. The real Sigurd Hlodvisson, also known as Sigurd the Stout, lived from 980 to 1014. Sigurd was the Norse Earl of Orkney and divided his time between visiting his overseas dominions, in Ireland
and the Isle of Man, and summers spent raiding the Hebrides and the Scottish mainland. His reign as Earl of Orkney came to a sudden end when he was killed at the battle of Clontarf when, as you may recall from the last chapter, Brian Boru finally forced the Vikings out of Ireland. Maybe that is why the last thing a Shetland man wants to be thought of is Irish.