Meet the Pillage People

Article excerpt


Blood Of The Vikings (BBC2); Linda Green (BBC1) THE longwinded but intermittently interesting Blood Of The Vikings series finally came to an end last night, employing its last episode to steer us safely through one of the trickiest exercises imaginable in modern Britain.

The programme commissioned a genetic survey to discover how widely the population of the British Isles possesses Norwegian and Danish Viking blood.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think - until you consider the implications.

Choosing the Vikings, who according to folklore raped and pillaged their way from the Shetland Islands to the South of England, taking in Ireland en route, automatically means excluding many later arrivals to our shores.

And 'exclusion' is a no-no word in our politically correct times.

University College, London, and a team of scientists led by Professor Edward Goldstein - an American by the sound of it, and therefore neutral - were in charge of perhaps the largest genetic-testing programme ever undertaken in Britain. It involved collecting DNA samples from 2,000 men - genetic continuity being best studied in males, whose Y chromosomes change very little over the generations.

Teasers accompanied previous programmes in the series over what this genetic testing might turn up, but in the end it failed to show that all Yorkshiremen would look their natural selves wearing horned helmets, or that Dubliners, whose city was apparently founded by Norwegian Vikings, are partial to pillage.

In fact, with a little more forethought, the outcome of the process could have been guessed at before it began.

Using a series of maps of the sea lanes most used by the Vikings, and assessing the huge amount of Viking artefacts and burial sites found in these places, the Shetlands and Orkney showed the most widespread Viking heritage among the male population - 30 per cent of those tested.

When combined with a statistical analysis of the overall population, this figure went up to 60 per cent, showing that a clear majority of the people up there are of ancient Norwegian ancestry.

In the Hebrides - the next stop, as it were, for the Viking rovers - the percentage was 30 per cent, once tests had been conducted on men who could trace their male line back for at least two generations.

ON THE Isle of Man it dropped to 15 per cent, and Ireland failed to come up with any Norwegian blood - perhaps because, as elsewhere, the Norsemen were a ruling elite rather than a large settled population.

Incidentally, Dublin appears to have been the centre of a large Viking slave trade.

In England, only in Penrith is there still any substantial sign of Viking blood remaining (and Viking words are still in use), while in the Wirral researchers were delighted to discover Bill Houseley, whose blood contains markers from parallel DNA tests in Scandinavia which make him a pure Viking from a line continuing for 1,000 years. …