The Quintessentially Scottish Island of Islay: Or Is It?

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The Quintessentially Scottish Island of Islay: Or Is It?

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The Scottish island of Islay is the southernmost island in the Inner Hebrides. It is most famous for its nine whisky distilleries: iconic names such as Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Bowmore. The main activities here are farming and fishing. It is home to thousands of birds; red deer roam the hills and the moors; tiny churches dot the landscape. The islanders are fiercely proud of their long heritage and deep roots. If your family has been here for only a hundred years or so you are referred to as an ‘incomer.’

Gaelic is widely spoken here, visitors are either bird-watchers or whisky connoisseurs. It is the quintessential Scottish island.

In times past, Islay was part of a kingdom called Dal Riata. Then, in the 9th century, the Vikings arrived. They came, they saw, they slaughtered and Islay was absorbed into the
Norse Kingdom of the Isles.

Received wisdom says that the Vikings killed the inhabitants: the farmers and the fishermen took what they could and left. Years later the Scottish regained the island and have been here ever since. However new evidence points to a rather different story. When one of the islanders sent off her son’s DNA for testing she was astonished to find
that 66% of that DNA was in fact Norwegian. Further tests on the older long-established inhabitants of the island confirmed the same.

Then a linguistics expert began to look at names and found that some were clearly Norse in origin. Glenegedale Farm takes its name from ‘Eikadar’ the Norse name for an oak tree. Cornabus Farm means ‘The King’s Farm’ in Norse, from the Norse word Konungsby meaning ‘King’.

Historians are now beginning to think that rather than looting and leaving the Vikings actually set up settlements here and settled into the islanders’ way of life. Years later when
the Scots arrived they assimilated into the Scottish ways and customs and Gaelic replaced Norse as the main language.

So Islay may in fact be more Norse than Scottish. And the next time you sip your peaty Lagavulin it may not be Scotch you are drinking but Viking.

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