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scottishnotscottish

as scottish as mjölnir
probably the first thing i ever learned about my ancestry was that i am scottish. the scottish part of my family are way proud of their scotch-ness. they know their particular tartan. they have their family crest displayed in their homes. they've been to the town from which the family first sprouted. they like their bagpipes and burns and gaelic. and indeed, the clan lines in scotland go far back.  [not as far back as the irish strain of the family they won't admit exists, but that's another story.]

but in my continuing genealogy project, wherein i am endeavouring to trace my lineage all the way back to its pre-human form, i've come across a little "hitch": my scottish family, at least the part of them that gave us our clan name and identity, isn't scottish. well, they are. but they're also not. in fact, they were enemies of the scots, even though they were, in a way, scots themselves and related to the scottish royal family. of course, that didn't stop them from pretty much declaring war on the scottish royal family, since, in olden times, being family didn't imply loyalty so much as the right to take all your stuff.

here's how this works:

my family, the macdonalds of keppoch, part of the larger "clan donald" were actually descended from the "lords of the isles". these were the people who lived, as the name might imply, in the islands on the west side of scotland "proper": the hebrides, mull, islay, arran and generally every place where scotch is made. the kingdom of the isles even stretched as far south as the isle of man. although it wasn't always a well-defined entity, the kingdom was distinguished by the fact that it had a turbulent relationship with the scottish crown since the scottish were always a little concerned about have people basically sitting on their shoulder and occasionally trying to murder them.

so what? i hear you say. they were all "scottish" anyway. well, yes and no. the rulers of "the isles" were actually norse-gaels, which is a term that means exactly what it sounds like: a mix of norwegian and scottish gaelic blood. the norse-gaels were partly scottish, but they were mostly just nose-gaelic, and considered themselves their own sweet entity, equally norwegian and scottish, but not either.

the norse-gaels reached the zenith of their power under a figure called somerled, "lord of the isles", in the twelfth century [yes, i know i'm going pretty far back there, but it still counts]. he's revered as a highland hero in scotland, because he supposedly drove the vikings out of the country. however, the truth is that he came from a prominent family of norse-gaels, which meant that he was part viking himself. furthermore, in order to curry favour for his plan of world domination [well, at least scottish domination], he married a daughter of the jarl [earl] of orkney. the orkneys at that time were a colony of norway, and hence closely tied to the royal family of that country [although the orkneys had, over centuries, also evolved into their own separate thing, which would persist for centuries]. and the vikings that somerled expelled from scotland were actually just one ruler, whom he deposed from the throne of the isles in man, and who happened to be his brother in law. so to recap: somerled was a half-norwegian, who married a norwegian, who deposed another half-norwegian from the isle of man and is now credited with saving scotland from the vikings. wish i knew the name of his publicist.

what's more shocking, at least if you're scottish, is that the lords of the isles were closer to the english and irish royal families, or at least more inclined to make alliances with them, than they were with the scottish royal family. [although they weren't above marrying into the scottish royal family, as somerled's sister was married off to the scottish king malcolm.]

so where does that leave me, almost a millennium later?

well, the clan donald is descended from one of somerled's two sons. so all the macdonalds [as well as several other clans] trace their heritage to him. and that's not just a legend. genetic testing done on members of the clans who claim him as a progenitor found that a huge percentage of them have dna markers indicative of a single common ancestor. it's entirely possible that somerled's extended family numbers in excess of half a million people, which is impressive, but kind of sucks if you're looking for any inheritance you might be due.

that means that the oh-so-scottish macdonalds, the most scottish of all the scottish clans, are just as much norwegian as they are scottish. many common scottish names, both surnames and forenames, are actually english corruptions of gaelic corruptions of norse names like rōgnvald [gaelic ragnhall, english ronald or roland] or Þormóð [gaelic tormod, english norman]. and while we can brag about how our heritage goes back to times bc/ bce, that's really only true of the norwegian [or, alternately, the irish] parts of the family, because the actual scottish parts get pretty foggy, which is par for the course in scotland.

so, in celebration of my scottish family, i would like to wish a very hearty, although slightly belated, national day to my norwegian progenitors. someday i hope to visit your exquisite fjords and experience the true nature of my scottishness.

p.s. :: i would love to close with a salutation in norwegian, but it's not one of the languages i've started learning and i don't want to do the obnoxious thing and say something in swedish under the assumption that all you scandinavians speak the same language, even though, from what i understand, your languages are at least close enough that you'd probably understand me. i'll speak proper norwegian someday.]

p.p.s. :: the photo at the top of the post is taken from this post on the history of the vikings on the isle of man. 

Comments

resident witch said…
Per mare per terras! I am also a MacDonald, rumored by genealogical research of varying trustworthiness to hail from Skye. But we're talking many hundreds of years ago at this point, even two centuries in the past we were long since settled in the states. My dad is the family history buff, and we've always assumed, what with the island residence, unsubtle motto, and familial proliferation of blonde hair and blue eyes, the Norse folk weren't just neighbors.
Kate MacDonald said…
Hail, cousin! This origin story is indeed a long way back, but hey, nothing in human history is that old compared to the age of the planet, right? :-P

However reliable your sources, Skye is a very likely point of origin for anyone with the name MacDonald and that would fall within the "Kingdom of the Isles", so, yes, chances are there are a number of Norwegian Vikings in your past as well.

as long as you're here, why not read more?

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