Saxons, Vikings and Celts

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

I just received a review copy of Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. I won’t be talking about it until January as I’ve agreed to hold it until it starts being marketed after it’s published here in the states. But, I do think it is kosher if I report the data which Bryan Sykes repeats from the 19th century work The Races of Britain.

1) Blonde hair is most common in East Anglia and Lincolnshire, with high values in Yorkshire, Cumbria, the north of Scotland and the Hebrides. It is least common in Ireland and Cornwall. Intermediate values can be found in most of England and Wales.

2) When it comes to eye color the cline is different. Brown eyes are common in the south and the east, where they exceed 40% in East Anglia and Cornwall. In Ireland, Yorkshire and Cumbria the frequency of blue or grey eyes rises to 75%.

If you want a genetic moral from all this it is that eye color and hair color are not closely linked. There does seem to be some correlation between areas with a high frequency of red hair and light eyes (e.g., Scotland), but that is likely because the former trait is derived from a serial loss off function for melanin production on several loci, and light eyes are a natural byproduct of this genetic architecture. There are implied modal combinations, such as many dark eyed blondes in East Anglia, and the dominance of dark haired but blue eyed folk in Ireland, and the dark eyed and dark haired Cornish. Since I have British readers I will leave it to them to judge the accuracy of these ascertainments, though keep in mind that the data was collected in the late 1800s, so population movement might have homogenized the distribution of traits a bit.


  1. Hard to tell since so many women dye their hair now and I only bother to look at women ;) I’ll keep my eyes open though.

  2. I would agree with the observations on Ireland for the most part. However the most common hair color in Ireland is probably “dirty blond”, where a persons hair develops blonde streaks or becomes much lighter when exposed to sunlight for a few weeks. So under cloudy skies the hair appears light brown, but in Southern California, Australia or some such place, it appears blonde. 
    The only criticism I would have it that the observations seem to apply to Ireland as a whole, rather than to individual areas, which show much variance.

  3. Of course, as I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t like the usage of the term “Celt”, as too often it confuses linguistic and ethnic categories. 
    Parts of Ireland and Britain are Celtic speaking, but there is very little evidence of significant Celtic (Central European) migration to either place. What evidence there is, is mostly for Southern England – so by that measure England is more Celtic than the rest of Britain or Ireland?

  4. pconroy– 
    If not predominantly Celtic genetically, what is the predominant genetic ethnicity in Ireland?

  5. What evidence there is, is mostly for Southern England – so by that measure England is more Celtic than the rest of Britain or Ireland? 
    the signal for ‘central european continental’ alleles before the anglo-saxon period seems very weak indeed, even in england. 
    If not predominantly Celtic genetically, what is the predominant genetic ethnicity in Ireland?
    most irish seem to be cluster with other peoples of the atlantic fringe. a majority of the english too, but there is a large minority presence of lineages derived from germany and scandinavia a well there

  6. I note the comment about the homogenisation of traits due to population movement. But it’s interesting how relatively limited inter-regional mobility has been, despite the changes caused by the industrial revolution, urbanisation, the creation of New Towns etc. For example, many surnames still show distinct regional concentration –

  7. dougjinn, 
    Predominantly Atlantic Coastal, then Iberian and some East Mediterranean originally. Celts, Vikings and Normans left there legacy in places. Northern Ireland is approx 50% Scottish Lowlands – Angles mostly. Parts of Eastern Ireland have a lot of English ancestry, of varying kinds.

  8. I know from my own (limited) research that here was significant migration from Ireland to London during the 19th Century eg to work in the Docks. Irish labourers (“navvies”) were also important in building canals, roads, and railways throughout the country. Rural populations were generally much more stable than cities. So a lot depends on where the data was collected from. 
    My maternal ancestry has a large Irish component (eg Brosnan, Leahy, Mahoney). The Catholic faith placed a severe constraint on inter-marrying, even fairly well into the 20th Century. This must have some implications for gene flow. 
    In contrast my paternal ancestry comes from Leicestershire in central England. Census and civil registration data show limited geographical movement over a period of 200+ years. 
    World War II was a significant dispersal event, with people moving from the cities out into the countryside to avoid the bombing. A lot has happened since the war to mix things up further. However if one was looking for typically “English” people to sample from then rural communities would still seem to be the best bet. 
    A footnote. There has been significant recent immigration from Poland (Polish seems to be the second most common language amongst bus drivers in our area!). Mostly fair-haired, they look more “English” than most English people do. 

  9. PaulRC, 
    The same would be true for places like Dublin in Ireland, which has received people from all over Ireland in the last 100 years or so. In general though Eastern Ireland has absorbed more immigrant groups than elsewhere in the island. But this is to be expected, as it has the best and most fertile land, with an absence of mountains for the most part. 
    Most low-lying, fertile areas the world over are the most diverse genetically – while mountainous, difficult terrain often harbors the more indigenous remnants…

  10. I read the articles awhile back but haven’t seen the book. However, this discussion really needs a new terminology and a well-articulated timeline. We’re talking about a number of migrations snf cultural-political changes spread over about 10-20,000 years, only about 2-3000 years of which are recorded in history. If events two people are thinking about are 1000+ years apart, their discussions will likely be fruitless. 
    Terminologically, distinguishing geographical, linguistic, racial, and historical identifications of peoples is necessary. “Celts” seems to mean “every people who has ever spoken a Celtic language from 2000 BC to the present, together with their probable ancestors as attested by archaeology.” The term is too broad to be usable.

  11. The term is too broad to be usable. 

  12. I don’t know Ireland well, but I noticed plenty of blond(e)s when I visited Cork (on the south coast). 
    If the data in this book are from Beddoe’s ‘Races of Britain’, I wouldn’t put must trust in them. Beddoe was a very decent scholar for his time, but it is scandalous if anyone is still using the results of amateur ‘eyeballing’ surveys from the 1880s or earlier!

  13. Just look at the British Isles sequence since 100 BC. (“Celtic” means “native speakers of Celtic languages”): 
    1. Roman control; some settlement, often of exotic soldiers such as Alans; Romanization (ca. 100 BC — 300 AD). 
    2. Loss of Roman control; political uncertainty; increasing Anglo-Saxon-Jute influence and settlement over a couple of centuries, at the expense of Celto-Romans and Celts; some Celtic-speakers to Brittany (from ca. 300 AD).  
    3. Norse invasions and settlement, mostly in the North and West. Norse control; some assimilation of locals to Norse ways.(ca. 800–1100) 
    4. Norman French domination; French as language of rule; assimilation of Normans. (1066 — 1300?) 
    5. English expansion into Celtic speaking areas: probably continuous from 300-1800 AD. Political control, settlement, assimilation. Heavy settlement in N. Ireland. Subjugation of Catholic Irish; assimilation to English language. Destruction of the highland Scots political units. (But the English are being transformed too.) 
    6. Irish migrations into Scotland. I don’t know the dates, but Gaelic is more like Irish than like Welsh. 
    This covers less than 2000 years. People tend to assume that the previous 10,000 years was less messy, but that wasn’t necessarily so. It’s just that our data is so thin that our reconstructions must be simple. 
    And likewise, on the continent the Germanic / Celtic / Roman story is messy too. We’re not always sure whether a given people is Celtic, Germanic, or mixed.

  14. The Irish movement into Scotland was 3rd-6th centuries AD. The Welsh and Bretons felt no friendship to the Irish/Scots.

  15. John, 
    The Irish were one of the barbarian peoples who participated not so much in the fall of the Western Roman empire, but in the land grab that followed. The Roman had 2 legions in Britain, and after they were withdrawn in  
    402 and 407 AD, thereafter the Irish (aka Scotti, Scots), Picts and Saxons launched devastating attacks against an undefended Britain. The Scotti established colonies in Western Caledonia (aka Scotland thereafter), but also in North Wales – and it is this latter invasion and colonization that may have pushed some of the Britons into Armorica(aka Brittany), not the putative Saxons, “Driving them to the sea”…

  16. In fact we even know the leader of some of these raids, none other than Niall of the Nine Hostages, the famous high King of the Irish. His nine hostages were one from the then 5 provinces of Ireland, and one each from the Picts, Saxons, Britons and French. It is said that he had established small colonies among the latter 4 peoples – today we know of his colonies only among the Picts and Britons, but do not know where those among the Saxons and French were…

  17. Is Njal an Irish name, or is Niall a Norse name? 
    This particular area of history, after the Romans left, is really small differences. The history of the Caucasus or Turkey would be much more interesting, and there should be larger genetic contrasts (Turkish, Greek, Syrian, Armenian, Persian, plus smaller peoples.)

  18. Is Njal an Irish name, or is Niall a Norse name? 
    i think it is from ireland in the other direction.

  19. John, 
    Niall is a Gaelic name, I once read somewhere a guy trying to make the case for the Danish name Nielsen (Nielson, Nilsson) being derived from this, but I have never seen this corroborated – though it could be. 
    As far as being small differences, you may be correct genetically, but not politically – do remember that the English have spent 1,500 year denying the seminal influence of the Irish on their culture – out of possible embarrassment?? 
    It’s no coincidence that Ireland’s GDP per capita being 4th in the world, has made many people reevaluate their Irish genetic heritage – that’s why you get books like Sykes today – and 100 years ago were getting treatises on how the Irish were simian in appearance and manner. The last of these holdouts is probably Richard Lynn, who in the early 1990′s was assigning the Irish an IQ of 78, and comparing that to unfavorable to sub-Saharan’s…

  20. Also, full disclosure, my Y-DNA shows that I am haplotype R1b1c7 or SNP M222+, which is the one that defines the Ui Niall (O’Neill) dynasty… so I have some personal interest in all this… 
    And yes, I know that this theoretically means that I have a vanishingly small putative genetic legacy from Niall… but it’s fun to think about?!

  21. How do the Irish manage to be so productive when they’re drunk and Catholic all the time?

  22. John, 
    Good point, when the Irish are unsuccessful it is because they are religion-bound, drunk and slothful… 
    When they are successful, it is purely because of LUCK??!! 
    Thomas Sowell mentions that the Irish have been the more successful in politics than any other ethnic group anywhere in the world. At one time during the Reagan years, the premiers of the US, Canada, Chile and Australia were all of Irish descent – and they have been past premiers of the UK, France, Russia, Mexico and New Zealand… I guess it must be luck!

  23. I met a Brit once who said that the Irish were successful everywhere but in Ireland. This was 25 years ago and it was probably already not true, but stereotypes linger. 
    I’m reading right now about the drunken Czech author Hasek (Good Soldier Schweik). Czechia was like the Austrian Ireland, or one of them, and at home he was a drunken hooligan. In WWI he deserted, joined the Russians, quit drinking, and became a very effective political worker (ultimately a Communist, though it was a very fluid time and he switched once or twice). Then he returned to Czechia and started drinking again. The country was independent by then, but somehow the old ways died hard. 
    In short, though, I believe that political subjugation breeds a kind of self-destructive apathy. Not the only possible outcome, but one of them. (Contrast the Scots.)

  24. Does anyone know if anybody has ever done genetic tests on British scientists, like Isaac Newton, to see if they were germanic or celtic.