According to a leading academic the Norse invaders depicted in film and history books as rugged blonds were in fact ginger.
The contentious theory could explain the auburn enigma that has long baffled scientists – why do so many Scots have red hair?
Professor Donna Heddle, director of the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for Nordic Studies, believes the answer lies in a genetic gift from our Viking ancestors. She argues that the Norse were much more likely to have been red-headed than blond and that they were responsible for transforming Scotland into the world’s ginger capital.
“The perception that the Norse were blond is nothing more than a prevalent myth,” she said. “Genetically speaking, the chances of them having blond hair weren’t that likely. The chances are that they would have had red hair. Interestingly, if you look at where red hair occurs in the world you can almost map it to Viking trading routes.”
While only about 0.6 per cent of the world’s population has red hair, around 13 per cent of Scots have rust-coloured locks, with an estimated further 40 per cent carrying the recessive redhead gene.
Famous flame-haired Scots include actors Ewan McGregor and Karen Gillan, singer Shirley Manson, Mary Queen of Scots, Scottish national football coach Gordon Strachan, and of course Willie, the cantankerous school janitor from The Simpsons.
“I’ve looked into the preponderance of the red-haired gene and my supposition is that it is a Norse gene, probably from Germanic and early Celtic roots,” said Heddle.
“The only other density of red hair which compares to Scotland and Ireland is in Scandinavia. It becomes a cultural marker of the Norse and of the Vikings.
“If you look at where the red haired patterning is in Ireland, in particular, it is very much around the areas where Vikings settled.”
Heddle believes a full scale study investigating the potential links between Nordic and Celtic hair colouring now needs to be carried out.
She said: “At the moment this is purely a theory, but there does appear to be some corroborating evidence.
“If you look at the dispersal patterns there would appear to be a clear connection between a dark red spot on Scotland and a dark red sport on the north of Scandinavia compared to the rest of Europe.
“Research has shown that 60 per cent of the DNA of modern males on the Orkney Islands, where there is a particularly high proportion of redheads, is Norwegian. That evidence backs up the idea of the clear genetic influence.”
The Orkney-based academic is also keen to dispel perceptions that Vikings were little more than murderous barbarians.
She said: “Rather than being some kind of band of cutthroat, lawless pirates, hepped up to the back teeth on magic mushrooms, they were, in fact, a very organised and orderly society.
“They did have what can only be described as a hawk-like foreign policy, but when they arrived at a place they ruled it with the utmost legality. They were settlers and traders who left their imprint on our legal system, boat building techniques, literature, languages and place names, not to mention our appearance. The Norse are woven right through the tapestry of Scottish history and it is time that was recognised.”
However, not everyone agrees. Dr Jim Wilson, an expert in genetic ancestry research, remains unconvinced by the idea that Norse raiders are at the root of Scotland’s abundance of red hair.
The senior lecturer at Edinburgh University said: “There are redheads in Scandinavia and there doubtless were redheaded Vikings. Redheadedness is a north and western European trait, but the pattern of redheads in the British Isles is more consistent with the ancient indigenous Celtic inhabitants who were here before the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons. The Vikings maybe brought a few red-hair genetic variants over with them, but the majority of redheads were already here.”
Previously it has been argued that Scotland’s poor climate was responsible for the high frequency of the ginger mutation. Emily Pritchard, a PhD genetics student at Edinburgh University, made global headlines when she published a paper postulating that in areas where summer temperatures were cooler, and winter days were shorter, people with ginger hair were more likely to survive and evolve. She argued that redhead’s pale skin provided an evolutionary advantage as it allowed the body to produce large quantities of Vitamin D.
Last year deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman was forced to apologise to Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat cabinet minister and Inverness MP, after she branded him a “ginger rodent” in a conference speech.
In August the UK’s first ginger pride march took place in the centre of Edinburgh with the goal of celebrating red hair and combating prejudice.