So, expecting “Viking and other North European with a hint of Ancient Brit” and hoping for “something a little more exotic, I logged in to my ancestral DNA profile and hit a full scale identity crisis.

It seems that I’m overwhelmingly British, with some other North European, a touch of Irish and low confidence Scandanavian.

DNA Map Europe

How did that happen? How can I not be high confidence Scandinavian?

York – a Viking city par excellence is my spiritual home*; my surname is first recorded there. My family lived in villages and towns with Scandanavian names – in the 19th century, some of them were living in an administrative district called “The Wapentake of Goldthorpe”. They lived in towns where the street names ended in -gate. When my parents were children, they didn’t “play”, they “laiked”; they “rived” their socks; they said “ay” and “nay” and “happen”. My uncles and aunts even sounded Scandanavian.

York was also, of course, a Roman City – I was rather depending on this for a touch of exoticism – Syrian or North African, perhaps. Dream on.

But what about history? History – the history that I learnt at school – clearly tells us that

– First of all, there were Ancient Britons

– Then the Romans arrived and the ABs disappeared or became Romano-British, drank wine, munched grapes and lived in villas

– When the Romans left, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived; a few surviving ABs re-emerged, rebranded themsleves as Celts, went west and became Welsh and Cornish – everybody else was now Anglo-Saxon and drank mead and lived in huts

– The Vikings arrived in the North of England, which became Danish – the South remained Anglo-Saxon

– At some point, somebody united the country and everybody became English or was it Anglo-Saxon?

– The Normans arrived, but they weren’t good mixers and nobody liked them much, so most people were still English.

It’s rubbish of course. What the DNA shows is that people didn’t suddenly become something else – military, political, social or cultural dominance doesn’t change DNA.

Analysis of ancestral DNA is fascinating; it can be incredibly important for some people – notably people from backgrounds of enslavement who have no other history; it gives us a valuable insights into human history and pre-history, but it is not and should not be the gold standard of personal identity.

What these reflections have shown is that personal identity is more about social structures, language and values.

So I’m genetically British but linguistically and culturally English. That doesn’t mean that I can’t absorb the best bits of other cultures, like the Romano British or learn new words- and new ideas.

In my lifetime we’ve absorbed ombudsmen for Scandanavia, restorative justice from Maori culture, music from America (and, by extention, Africa), carnival from the Carribean and learnt to write dal for lentil on our shopping lists.

I still self-identify as Anglo-Scandanavian – it’s just so much more interesting than being British.


Scandanavian words
gate – street
happen – perhaps
laik – play (linked to the Danish leg, whence Lego )
rive – pull up,  tug at
wapentake – Danish equivalent of the Saxon Hundred – literally a community meeting to which you take a weapon


*New York is the other