For $81.45 I sent a vial of my saliva off to a lab and they broke it down into defining DNA. I had always identified myself into neat quarters of ethnicity: ¾ English and ¼ Scottish. When ancestry.com emailed the results to me I clicked open the link with curiosity. My figures were actually a bit off. Go figure! There was more of a mix than I imagined. England has a firm grasp on me: I’m 87% English! I joked with the good people at Cloverfield Church (where I preached in Thetford, England) that my sisters (three of whom were with me on the trip) and I were a bit put off that we hadn’t been invited to The Wedding. We had even bought fascinators to impress but to no avail. Scottish dibs on my genes was less than I assumed: 5%. Bummer. I like my Highlander roots! There’s a nebulous mix of ethnicities that comprise 3% of my physical being. But the figure that surprised me most was the remaining 5%: Scandinavian. I attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota—did that make the difference? Did my alumnus status graduate me with more than just a diploma and some good memories?
As I headed off to Europe to trace my roots the mystery of that 5% stayed with me. Just eight days into our grand European adventure I ran into the first hints of my Norse ancestry. My husband, daughter and I met up with the parents of our French foreign exchange student “daughter.” They live in Villerville in Normandy, France. I was a French major in college and speak pretty fluent French (albeit with a 39-year hiatus from the time I lived there!) so I relished reclaiming the language. One street sign pointed toward “Cricqueboeuf.” I know that “boeuf” means “beef” in French and wondered why that would be part of the name of a French town? So I asked our hosts. Louis responded that the translation was not French but traveled back to the Viking presence in this part of Northern France.
Vikings! Apart from chanting “Um yah yah” at the St. Olaf athletic events in college, I have never felt any connection to the Vikings. They seem only to factor in dusty history accounts that I don’t read and that certainly don’t impact me. But I was in Viking territory! More specifically, I was vacationing on a northern coastal area of France that was invaded by Norsemen in the early 9th century. They liked it. They stayed. Called “Normans”, meaning “north men”, they battled and charmed their way into political positions for hundreds of years to come.
When traveling through Europe I recognize how young our history is as European transplants in America. The Reformation, which impacts who I am as an American Protestant in a seemingly distant way, has visible impact all over Europe. The French Revolution left its mark on the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Soldiers knocked down all the statues of the saints carved above one of the doorways except for the statuette of Mary. When we toured the cathedral on a Sunday afternoon in June, a bird’s nest sat smugly atop her crown! The Holy Mother, who survived the siege more than 200 years ago, protects fragile life still today from her doorway perch! World War II connects to the present on a very personal level in many of the cities we visited. Reminders of the Nazi presence were unfortunately easy to find. Vikings showed up at the history potluck as well! They sailed with ease across the ocean in their long boats, aiming for monasteries and churches. They knew that they would find precious metals, gems and costly fabrics in those holy places. Many cathedrals housed the bones of revered saints which commanded a good price in the secular world. For example, St. Therese’s kneecap is encased in glass in St. Catherine’s Church in Honfleur, France (near Villerville). To build your sanctuary on the strength of the saints was highly valued spiritually and could command a good price!
The Vikings hunted those treasures down, taking slaves and killing anyone brave/foolish enough to stand in their way. Some Scottish nuns went to great extremes to prevent capture by the Norsemen. Around 870 AD, as Viking raiders crashed through the gates of their convent at Coldingham, the Sisters cut off their own lips and noses to dissuade the men from taking them captive! Take that, you brutish marauders! Everywhere we wandered in Europe, the three of us TenHave-Chapmans walked blithely into living history. Slowly my Scandinavian ancestry began to make sense.
But it took the trip to Scotland to finally understand that mysterious 5% of my DNA. My husband and daughter had returned to the States to resume their professional lives and three of my sisters had joined me for our ancestral trek through England and Scotland. Our destination in Scotland was Oban, home territory for the MacDougall clan. (I wrote about them earlier.) My paternal grandmother was a proud MacDougall! We toured the Donollie and Dunstaffnage Castles in Oban that were built by our Scottish kin to house their growing numbers in the 13th century. We learned about our history. We trace back to King Somerled who claimed dominion over the wilds of western Scotland. Somerled was a warlord of Norse-Gaelic descent who set his sights on the Kingdom of the Isles that was controlled by his brother-in-law, Godred Olafsson. The faltering leadership of this Nordic in-law didn’t bring words of comforting advice over cheesy potatoes at a family reunion. Instead Simon the Somerled waged a violent coup and seized half of Godred’s kingdom in 1156. But that wasn’t enough! Two years later, he completely defeated him and ruled the entire kingdom until his (Simon’s) death in 1164. I can imagine the in-law jokes told over a pint of stout for generations to come!
So Simon died in the Battle of Renfrew but his sons maintained control over some of the territories he had conquered. Two of his sons were named Dougall and Donald. Since “Mac” or “Mc” means “son of”, you have the beginnings of two Scottish clans who proudly point back to Simon as their forebear. My Scottish roots are actually a rich porridge of northern European warriors who intermarried Norman conquerors who decided that Scotland was the tropics compared to their rough winters. Dougall (meaning “black stranger”?!) continued the greedy streak of his father and established a family-the MacDougalls-that built castles on promontories to protect and defend their fair damsels. The Gaelic language is still in evidence with names of places that make no sense to me as a native English-speaker! Customs, language, objects and DNA were dragged south and added to the cultural soup, leaving an imprint on people who are now scattered across the globe! I have such proud Viking tales to share now with my children!
But the stories weren’t all bad. In fact, once the Vikings axed out populations to claim land for themselves, the testosterone levels stabilized and the men settled down into tranquil family life. DNA studies estimate that one quarter of today’s Scottish men have Viking ancestry. In my earlier blog about My Clan I described positive attributes of MacDougalls, including a desire for peace and progressive attitudes toward women! I also encountered my Viking kin when I closed out my European pilgrimage on the Isle of Iona. Right next to the Abbey is St. Oran’s Chapel which dates back to the middle of the 12th century. It is believed that Somerled or his family members built this and were buried there. Somerled’s daughter, Bethoc, established a nunnery on the island which thrived until the Reformation. At that time Roman Catholic institutions in Scotland were shut down and cloistered servants scattered for survival.
So a very unexpected part of my “Nourishing Roots” sabbatical was my foray into a Viking identity. I remind you that it’s only 5% of my corporal constitution so don’t hold it against me too much! As for my St. Olaf classmates who share these roots in much higher percentages, it turns out I’m one of you! I may lack the Norwegian sweater with the silver buttons and the yen for lutefisk. I may not know the Lutheran liturgy by heart or boast of a double “aa” in my name. But I’m in the club, it turns out! Viking Proud! Um yah yah!