Jane Bradley: Take it as red: let’s do it the Icelandic way

SCOTS can be fired up by innovative Iceland says Jane Bradley
Edinburgh host to a demonstration against ''gingerism'' last year. Picture: PAEdinburgh host to a demonstration against ''gingerism'' last year. Picture: PA
Edinburgh host to a demonstration against ''gingerism'' last year. Picture: PA

In the town of Akranes, in the west of Iceland, there is an annual competition to find the most redheaded person in the country. Up to ten flame-haired competitors line up and have their locks inspected by a discerning team of experts, who decide which of them is most ginger.

My friend Una, a journalist for the Reykjavik equivalent of The Scotsman, the Morgun­bladid, does not qualify for the contest. She looks exactly how you would expect a Nordic woman to look: tall, blonde and tanned. Her younger sister, however, has striking, bright red hair, which, were she to enter the competition, would surely make her a contender for the title. Her niece is also a redhead, as is her grandmother and some cousins.

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Chances are that, despite living a very Nordic life in very Nordic buildings in the middle of the Norwegian Sea, all of these women have their Scottish ancestors to thank for their flame-coloured locks – and much more. Genetic research has revealed that around two-thirds of women of the settler-age period in the country were Celtic.

What happened, historians believe, was that Norse invaders headed west from Norway, stopping in Scotland – mainly the Western Isles – where they “married” (or perhaps, as is more commonly believed, “dragged by the hair”) local girls and took them with them on their travels. Those couples then settled in uninhabited Iceland in the ninth century and formed the beginnings of the existing country.

On a recent Icelandic holiday, I found traces of Scotland were everywhere I looked. The traditional turf-roofed houses lived in by families just a couple of generations ago are similar to crofts, while the Icelandic form of haggis, “slátur”, is a close relative of Scotland’s national dish but with the added delicacy of a boiled sheep’s head.

More recently, Scotland and Iceland had similar problems with over-stretched banks in the 2008 recession, while Harpa – the new concert hall in Reykjavik – resembled the Scottish Parliament in both the spiralling cost of its construction and the love-hate reaction to its eye-catching architecture.

We often talk about what Scotland can learn from the Scandinavian and Nordic countries. There has long been discussion of a special relationship with Norway in particular, and comparisons are often drawn in terms of schooling, energy generation and the fishing industry. But it is perhaps time to remember what Scots have already done for the Nordic nations.

These feisty, tenacious Scotswomen snatched from their island homes survived the gruelling trip across the sea and managed to get by on foraged foods to build a society in a country that was previously uninhabited and which boasts a dramatic landscape peppered with volcanoes and earthquake faultlines.

It is Scots who have helped to create the forward-thinking country of modern Iceland – or who, at least, helped to create the descendants who eventually created the forward-thinking country of modern Iceland.

And forward-thinking it is. Iceland was the world’s first country to have an openly gay prime minister – Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir – who was in power from 2009 to 2013, finding time to ban strip clubs in a move unprecedented in western countries – despite presiding over a nation that had fallen into financial crisis.

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She also managed the financial crisis in a way that was far removed from that of any of her counterparts in Europe or North America: instead of bailing out her failing banks, she paid off loans for consumers and threw in prison bankers who committed serious financial crimes that contributed to the collapse.

The policy was “let the banks fail”, not the “too big to fail” that was the mantra of Britain’s financial crisis: a gamble which, in Iceland’s case, paid off. Of course, its innovation is not all political. Some of its quirkier laws include not allowing students to graduate from school until they have passed a swimming exam.

Iceland is not afraid to do things differently – to use its unique situation and resources to its full advantage. Perhaps we could take a leaf out of the book of the first Icelandic settlers. We owe it to our ancestors.