THEY are a fiery minority who for years have been forced to endure disparaging remarks, but new research suggests those who deliver cruel barbs at Scotland’s redheads may be taking aim at one of their own.
Researchers at a landmark genetics project believe that up to half of the nation’s population may be hidden carriers of the so-called red hair gene, which can be passed on to their children or grandchildren. The team at ScotlandsDNA are analysing the genetic make-up of thousands of Scots as part of their attempts to solve the age-old mystery of why the country has such a large population of redheads.
Alistair Moffat, managing director of ScotlandsDNA, said that if the study’s conclusions follow a similar path then redheads such Karen Gillan and Gordon Strachan should no longer be looked upon as a minority.
“There should be no more ginger jokes, because as much as half of Scotland might carry these variants,” he said. “It’s thought that around 650,000 people have red hair, but we think around 1.6 million people may carry these variants. We’re still analysing data, but it’s statistically robust. As many as four times the number of people who have red hair could be carriers, which is a huge number.”
Scientists have long debated why so many Scots have red hair, with some arguing that the trend has its roots in Neanderthal skeletons discovered across Europe and the near east which, following DNA tests, were found to have red hair, albeit of a different variant to that seen in modern man.
Another theory, Mr Moffat explained, focuses on the amount of cloud cover in the British climate. “Where there are most redheads, according to present statistics in Scotland and the north of England, there is much more cloud each year than sunshine,” he said. “In Sweden, for example, the average daily number of sunshine hours is 5.4, while in Scotland it is 3.1.
“It’s conjecture at the moment, but the cause of it could be an evolutionary process – we live in a cloudy country with an Atlantic climate. We don’t get enough sun and vitamin D, and it’s important we have light skin, red hair, and freckles to get that.”
Mr Moffat said the study was, in part, inspired by his own family. While neither he nor his wife are redheads, they have two children with red hair, both different tints of the colour.
The team at ScotlandsDNA, which includes chief scientific officer Dr Jim Wilson, a leading geneticist at the University of Edinburgh, is examining test results taken from more than 4,000 individuals who previously had their ancestry analysed.
They plan to publish their findings early next year, producing a map of Britain showing the highest populations of people with one of the three redhead variants – Cysteine-red, or R151C; Tryptophan-red, or R160W; and Histidine-red, or D294H.
• Learn more about Scotland’s genetic heritage at www.scotlandsdna.com