Faroes: finding a partner
This is one of the display boards at the excellent national museum in Torshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands. What it appears to suggest is quite remarkable - that the men who initially settled the islands were Norse, but the women were overwhelmingly Celtic.
This is how the Wikipedia entry on the Faroe islanders puts it: 'Recent DNA analyses have revealed that Y chromosomes, tracing male descent, are 87% Scandinavian. The studies show that mitochondrial DNA, tracing female descent, is 84% Celtic.'
The same is broadly true, though less emphatically so, for the early settlers of Iceland.
So, to put it bluntly, the Vikings who initially settled the Faroes picked up their wives on the way - perhaps they stopped over at Viking settlements on the Scottish and Irish coasts and met women there; perhaps these wives were slaves - some research suggests that up to a quarter of the population of Scandinavia during the late Viking period were in servitude; perhaps they were abducted.
What is inherently likely is that many of the first generation of women settlers on the Faroes (and in Iceland) were there against their will, in a marriage which was based in part on coercion.
During my recent trip to the Faroes, I saw more recent evidence of marriages which crossed borders - not in any way based on coercion, but which caught my attention.
In the western island of Vagar, there's a small but informative war museum - and close to it a plot of Commonwealth War Graves. While Denmark was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War, British troops managed to take over the Faroes. Several hundred were stationed on the islands. They suffered only light casualties - though Faroese seafarers endured a much higher number of fatalities. Indeed, the museum says that the Faroes suffered the loss of a higher proportion of their adult men than any other country except Russia.)
Among the many photos of the British troops displayed in the museum, a striking number display weddings: British servicemen with Faroese brides. The photo above is one of these - taken from the museum's website. The museum also has a display recreating such a wedding, along with the garments worn.
Skip forward to the current day: the Faroes have been one of the most ethnically homogeneous communities in the world. That's starting to change: a result in part of adoption (the country has a higher than normal adoption rate), but also of wives coming from abroad.
The BBC posted a story last year about the women coming to the Faroes because of gender imbalance. More Faroese women than men move away from the islands. The prime minister said the islands had a 'gender deficit' of about 2,000 women - and that in a population totalling just 50,000. The article said more than 300 foreign brides - many from Thailand and the Philippines - had married Faroese men and made their homes on these prosperous but remote and windblown islands in the North Atlantic
Travelling round the islands, there was a conspicuous number of non-white residents, not all women but largely so. In the hotel we stayed at in Torshavn, most of the serving staff in the restaurant were non-European. We spoke to one: she was Latin American, her husband was Faroese, and she had recently started working at the hotel - and earning good money - so the family would be able to make a visit to her home country, which she hadn't seen for two years.
What do I take from all this? Nothing - beyond three snapshots of how those in the Faroes have found their life partners.
I came across this truly remarkable Viking sculpture this week at an excellent 'Vikings' exhibition at the University of Nottingham. It's ninth century and depicts a Viking warrior (in kilt-like dress) with a fairly formidable sword in one hand and a woman he has abducted in the other. The display is labelled as below - and there's a little more detail here.
Was this the work of a Viking sculptor celebrating the warrior, or of an English sculptor recording Viking depredations? I'm not entirely clear. It's reasonable to assume that this warrior - whether converted to Christianity or not - was being depicted as valorous rather than criminal. And that there was among Vikings no social sanction against abducting foreign women. It's of course difficult to know if this woman was destined to be sold as a slave, or to become a domestic slave, or to be forced into marriage either with her abductor or with someone else.
It brought to mind the large-scale abduction of women which accompanied Partition and the independence of India and Pakistan.
I also thought back to a visit to Iceland a few years ago during which a tour guide casually mentioned that research into the DNA of the first generations of Icelanders suggested that while the bulk of the men were from Scandinavia, most of the women were from the British Isles. I checked - that's true. What we can't know for sure is whether these were women the Nordic setters had married while stopping at Scandinavian settlements in Scotland and Ireland on their way to Iceland - or whether these were women they abducted on their way. I imagine that many of these initial women settlers in Iceland were unwilling migrants.
Iceland is regarded as one of the most feminist-minded nations in the world - but it's likely that its national origins lie with the mass abduction of women. A startling irony.
Similar work on the DNA of the Faroese - residents of that small Danish-ruled island group between Shetland and Iceland - shows an even more stark and remarkable finding: 'Recent DNA analyses' - it's reported - 'have revealed that Y chromosomes tracing male descent are 87% Scandinavian. The studies show that mitochondrial DNA tracing female descent is 84% Celtic.' This has to suggest that the early Scandinavian settlers of the Faroe Islands picked up - that is, abducted - women from Scotland and Ireland while on their way to their new home. What an astonishing and unsettling revelation!
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