Ten reasons why it's good to be a redhead: From Spartacus and scent to standing up for difference

And you thought that ginger hair was a burden to be endured? According to Jacky Colliss Harvey, the flame-haired author of a new history of redheads, it is a biological blessing and a passport to happiness.

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The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, is, as any redhead will tell you, the beginning of the glorious few weeks when the whole northern hemisphere coordinates with us. You can keep your English summers; our time to shine, or rather to glow in a manner both pale and interesting, is now.

It's no coincidence that all the big redhead festivals happen at this time of year. In Ireland, there's one at the end of August; in Holland – where Breda's Redhead Days are celebrating their 10th anniversary – on the first weekend in September,; and in London, the recent Redhead Days UK. What these festivals, as well as countless other events around the world, do is celebrate everything that makes being a redhead such an amazing experience. If you're wondering what exactly is so great about red-letter tresses, allow me to explain.

1. My number one reason why being redheaded is a blessing

It's actually nothing to do with the hair; it's what we in the West think of as going with it: pale, pale skin. But we are totally incorrect in doing so. There are redheads around the planet, from western China through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to Syria and the Lebanon. On the Solomon islands in the Pacific, a completely different genetic break has given cinnamon afros to a select few, with skin dark enough to withstand sun that would wither me in seconds. But for those who happen to live in western Europe, under skies, as the Roman historian Tacitus described them, "obscured by continual rain and cloud", then their pale skin gives them a superhuman ability to make Vitamin D from whatever sunlight is available. Lots of Vitamin D means a super-boosted immune system, which means in turn that, for centuries, if either of us was going to fall victim to smallpox, consumption, or plague, it would have been you, blondie, not me.

2. Being a redhead precludes you from being a slave to convention

Don't mess. We are scientifically proven to be incendiary. We of the fellowship of the MC1R – the gene that is linked most strongly to red hair – can not only make adrenalin faster than those with other hair colours, our cells can access it more speedily, too. When I was very young, with hair the colour of the label on a bottle of Lea & Perrins, the class bully at my village school in Suffolk was fool enough to pick on a friend of mine. Apparently, in front of all the mothers lined up at the school gate to collect their children, I wound up my right arm like Popeye, and decked him. And I got away with it. As my mother hustled me away, I heard one of her friends remark above my head: "Well, what did he expect? She's a redhead!" I was five years old and I had just learnt two very important lessons. One, the world has expectations of redheads; and two, those expectations give you a license not granted to other people. I was expected to lose my temper.I could be a screwball. I could be fiery.

Boudicca was a redhead. Emperor Frederick II (stupor mundi, or "the wonder of the world", according to his contemporaries) was a redhead. Henry VIII was a redhead. Elizabeth I was a redhead. Oliver Cromwell was a redhead. Garibaldi was a redhead. Wild Bill Hickock and Jesse James were redheads. Churchill was a redhead. I consider them to be rather good company.

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Boudicca, the redhead warrior queen c.61 AD (Hulton Archive)

3. Everyone loves red

We just do. It's the colour of blood, fire and passion, and in the East of good fortune. It also represents danger, sex and life itself – and unsurprisingly, we're hard-wired for it to register with us, whether we like it or not. It may have been the very first colour that humans ever learned to distinguish, when our species still lived in the trees, in order to be able to select ripe fruits from unripe. And it still speaks to something primal in the human brain today. Those who lose the ability to see colour as a result of brain damage find red is the one that comes back to them before any other.

People emulate it (more red hair dye is sold than any other hue, in a market that in the US alone is now worth $200m a year), and when people see it, they engage with it – they just can't help themselves. Apparently, its rarity sets off our reward-seeking instinct. Just last year, the media company Upstream Analysis produced the statistic that a third of all TV advertising features a redheaded character, when the actual percentage in the population worldwide hovers at a scarce (and thus noteworthy) 2-6 per cent.

If you're a redhead, it's likely that the first thing anyone will notice about you is your hair, and it will be the one thing that you can – usually – be sure they will remember. Recently, I had to arrange to meet a Dutch publisher in Breda, in the centre of the biggest gathering of redheads on the planet – thousands of us (we broke the Guinness world record). It was an avalanche of redheads. It was a human sunrise. "How will I recognise you?" my publisher asked. "Oh easy," I began, years of conditioning behind me. "I'm the redhe…"

It was a startling insight into the difficulties of life for blondes or brunettes. Horrors! Imagine not being the only one in the room.

4. The females of the species are scarlet women

If you've dated a redhead, raise your glass. If not, raise your standards. Lilith, Adam's first wife, who would not "lie beneath", is traditionally a redhead; there is lively debate as to whether Cleopatra may have been one, too. Mary Magdalene is always shown with copper hair cascading down her back; Clara Bow, the "It Girl" of Hollywood, had Titian hair, so did Rita Hayworth, who was a redheaded Gilda even in black and white. And who can forget Jessica Rabbit? Redheaded women have gained the reputation for being sex on legs, and with some good scientific reason: for females, all that Vitamin D means a strong pelvis, and once their babies are safely delivered into the world, they can withstand the rigours of breastfeeding more easily as well. All of which does rather open up the possibility that the image of the sensual, erotic, irresistible flame-haired temptress might stem from no more than the basic realisation, in pre-history, that choosing a redhead as a mate meant breeding successfully.

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A redhead Afghan boy in Kabul, runs to a red door (AFP/Getty)

Redheads have our own particular scent, thanks to our unique, more acid skin-mantle, and according to Bruce Springsteen's "Redheaded Woman", we have our own delectable taste, too. As Tom Robbins, author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, puts it: "How are we to explain the power these daughters of ancient Henna have over us bemused sons of Eros?... that same pigmentation that on a man can resemble leaf mold or junkyard rust, a woman wears like a tiara of rubies… Redheaded women! Those blood oranges! Those cherry bombs! Those celestial shrews and queens of copper! May they never cease to stain our white-bread lives with supernatural catsup." Or indeed ketchup.

5. Our shade brings solidarity

I probably shouldn't even be telling you this, but imagine that you and your rare and beautiful hair are heading into work on the train on a rainy Wednesday morning; or waiting in the queue for the one self-service check-out machine, and suddenly you spot another of your kind. And the two of you share "the look" – a little glance, a half-smile, a lift of the eyebrow. A tiny moment of ginger solidarity: 'Hello, I see you, how's the world treating you?' Why don't blondes and brunettes have a special look? Because they're two a penny, that's why.

6. Even our stereotypes are intriguing

OK, so we're dealing in lazy assumptions here, but when you're talking about redheads, even the way that we're stereotyped is fascinating. Not only is red hair incredibly gendered, but it's one of the rare examples of a stereotype where women get the better deal. Redheaded men have been stigmatised as barbarians ever since the Greeks encountered the tribes living round the Black Sea 3,000 years ago – and promptly returned to Athens, terrified out of their wits. The Thracians were the hard men of the Classical world. Never mind their warmongering, even their war dances were violent enough to be deadly. Alexander the Great recruited them into his armies as fast as he could. Spartacus might have been a redhead, for heaven's sake; at least, he came from the right part of the ancient world for that to be a distinct possibility.

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The Wellband family of redheads attend the Irish Redhead Convention (Getty)

7. We're rare

The gene for our amazing hair first appeared 50,000 years ago, somewhere on the grasslands of Central Asia. Not Ireland, not Scotland; Asia. It can stay hidden for generations (I am the only redhead in my family in living memory, for example). But as a double-recessive mutation, any community set that little bit apart, either culturally or geographically, from those around it will give it the best chance of re-appearing. Which is why there have been so many redheads in the Jewish community, in the valleys of Austria and Switzerland (Swiss red hair was particularly prized by the wig-makers of the 18th century), in the remote republic of Udmurtia in Russia, in Scandinavia, in Scotland and Ireland. And don't forget Ygritte in Game of Thrones. We're liminal, borderland. We're homo sapiens unicornus. We're special.

8. And while we're on the subject

Let's hear it for all the other oddities that set us apart – like the fact that we need 20 per cent more anaesthetic than people with other hair colours. And we may provide an answer to what causes Parkinson's, Tourette's and endometriosis (all over-represented in the redhead community). Also, we hate the cold – we feel it much more acutely than you would do – while being rather partial to warmth. (It's said that we can fire-walk with impunity.)

9. We're adored…

…by bees and wasps, unfortunately. The little blighters love us. It seems our species is not the only one to find red hair attractive.

10. And finally, and most importantly

Being a redhead means, more often than not, standing up for difference. To celebrate the otherness of ourselves and, well, others. As different forms of prejudice and discrimination have been slowly but steadily outlawed, the fact that the rubiferous are still expected to put up with being stereotyped, teased, marginalised and picked on has become more and more visible.

But we're countering the prejudice and discrimination still expressed against our hair colour (especially towards men) in festivals that now loop around the globe, from Israel's Carrot Kibbutz to San Francisco.

We're a community. We have a magazine – MC1R : The Magazine for Redheads – and our own groups on social media and websites such as Gingerparrot.co.uk (devoted to "all things nice and gingerful"). We have ruby-locked role models on the red carpet, from Katherine Tate to Julianne Moore and more recently Isla Fisher. We have Damian Lewis – that would be Damian Lewis, possible future 007 to you – and Ed Sheeran, who credits his early success to the stand-out power of his firework hair. We have Benedict Cumberbatch, who calls himself "auburn" and currently has half London standing in line to watch him play the Dane, and Michael Fassbender, who has half of Hollywood worshipping at his feet – along with every woman I know – and blithely refers to himself as a ginger Viking. Ginger pride is taking over.

The future's bright: the future's orange.

'Red: A Natural History of the Redhead' (Allen and Unwin, £16.99) by Jacky Colliss Harvey is out now

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