Alistair Moffat: Long-lasting genetic divide in Scotland

In the third installment of a five-part series, author and historian Alistair Moffat examines Scottish DNA and finds a long-lasting genetic divide in different parts of Scotland.

Iona. The St John's Cross at the Abbey. Picture: Robert Perry

Made from cow hides caulked with fat or resin and lashed onto a frame of whippy, green rods stiffened by thwarts used as benches, sea-going curraghs were so light that they sat on the wave-crests like seagulls.

Ancient craft noted in a 7th century Scottish muster roll known as the Senchus Fer na h’Alban, they could be large, ‘seven benchers’ rowed by crews of fourteen men. On the southern coast of Iona a place-name remembers curraghs making landfall, pulled up onto the beach above the high tidemark. More than time-worn tradition,

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Port a’ Curraich may indeed be the place where Columba first splashed ashore on the island that would become a memorial to his saintly, exemplary life.

Iona. Picture Robert Perry

The first Abbot of Iona may have been the most famous and most influential, but he was one of many thousands who left Ireland to cross the North Channel in their sea-going curraghs in the centuries after


It is possible to be sure that thousands came after that date because of research carried out by ScotlandsDNA over the past four years. Our geneticists have discovered a Y chromosome marker that remembers those voyages through the powerful riptides between the Irish coast and the Galloway shore.

Labelled, R1b-S661, it arose in Ireland and was almost certainly the marker of the powerful Ui Neill, the kindred who claimed descent from the first High King of Ireland, Niall Noigiallach. It is found in very large numbers of Irishmen: 35 per cent of all those in Connaught, 31 per cent in Leinster and 29 per cent in Ulster. It is believed that Niall ruled some time around the beginning of the 5th century.

Alistair Moffat - ScotlandsDNA

Hidden inside these statistics is evidence of a real and long-lasting genetic divide in Scotland. Because the steersmen of curraghs and the craft that came after them could see the hills of the Scottish coast from the Antrim shore, at least on a fine day, most of the descendants of Niall Noigiallach settled in the west of Scotland.

In Glasgow, Strathclyde and Dumfries and Galloway, the evidence for migration now walks the streets as 10 per cent of all men, about 150,000, have royal Irish blood running in their veins. By contrast in Fife, Perthshire and Tayside, only five per cent can claim descent from the High King and in the north and west, the frequency declines to 3.7 per cent. These numbers trace an ancient pattern of Irish

settlement in Scotland.

The oarsmen in the curraghs brought their language to Scotland in the 5th and 6th centuries. Scots Gaelic is a dialect of Irish Gaelic and as the power of the western kings extended over the Pictish speaking peoples, the language of power gained more and more currency.

Ancestral DNA and the population movements it charts are sometimes mirrored in the nature of language. When our species, Homo sapiens, began to move out of Africa and pioneers trekked and sailed eastwards, a clear pattern of what is known as phonemic diversity developed.

This measures the number of distinct units of sound (as opposed to written letters) in a language, the consonants, vowels and tones. And the modern pattern of phonemic diversity appears to march in the steps of these ancient migrations.

The contrasts are striking. Just as our ancestral DNA has existed in Africa much longer than in, for example, Europe, so African languages are far more complex and varied. The Taa language of Botswana and Namibia is dying, now spoken by fewer than 6,000 people, but it has 141 phonemes, comprising 58 consonants, 31 vowels and 4 tones. These include between 20 and 43 click consonants. It is an astonishing richness developed over many millennia.

By comparison, English has 36 phonemes and Scots Gaelic 44.

Despite a dramatic increase in social mobility in modern times, the map of Scotland still shows the clear watermark of the movement of people in the mists of prehistory and the ancient political divides they created. Scandinavian and Germanic haplogroups are often markedly more common amongst men who live along the eastern, North Sea coasts.

Perhaps that is to be expected, but one fatherline, labeled I-S142, appears to remember the shadow of a Dark Ages kingdom, the frontiers of the realm of Northumbria. Men in this haplogroup make up 9% of the male population of the North of England, six per cent of Yorkshire – and, strikingly, more than 4 per cent in the South East of Scotland with a distinct bias to the Tweed Basin.

This fertile and valuable region of modern Scotland formed part of the kingdom of Northumbria until the pivotal Battle of Carham in 1018. Until then the Tweed was a conduit, not a frontier.

Throughout our history, aggressive immigration has generally been the preserve of men, small groups in small boats who made landfall on Scottish shores or travelled north overland. If they were successful in establishing themselves, many took native women as their partners and

Scottish mitochondrial DNA tends to look to earlier origins, the haplogroups of the Ice Age Refuges. Almost half of our mtDNA came from Southwestern France and Iberia over a long span of time.

At Dunnichen, probably near Forfar, an ambitious king of Northumbria was killed as he tried to extend his reach north of the Tay. Ecgfrith’s defeat and his nemesis were triumphantly carved on the famous stone in Aberlemno kirkyard in Angus, between Forfar and Brechin. Bridei, king of the Picts, rides across the face of the stone with his soldiers and in the last sequence, Ecgfrith is shown unhorsed and his corpse pecked at by a raven.

Dunnichen was fought in 685 and Pictland survived and flourished for another 150 years – until it suddenly appeared to disappear. All that seemed to remain of this powerful Scottish polity was a scatter of place-names and enigmatic symbol-stones across Fife, Perthshire, Tayside,

Aberdeenshire and the Moray coastlands. The Pictish language fell entirely out of use and their kings and noble families seemed to fail.

But DNA did not forget the Picts. In 2013 ScotlandsDNA rediscovered a Pictish Y chromosome haplogroup, R1b S749. It is old, about 1,000 to 2,000 years old, and it shows that the Pictish kingdoms and their strange symbols were not the creation of recent immigrants. R1b S749 is very Scottish with 10 per cent of men carrying it compared with only 0.8 per cent in England.

In addition its frequency inside Scotland overlays the faded map of ancient Pictland with 17 per cent of all men in Central Scotland carrying it, and 14 per cent in North East Scotland, with a decline towards Northern and Western Scotland at eight per cent and South East and South West Scotland at six per cent.

These differences are very statistically significant and they show that far from disappearing, the Picts have not wandered far.

Ancestral DNA has discovered something else of significance. Scotland is fissured with invisible frontiers, hidden in our genes. It is an unwritten history of our people carried inside each and every one us.

Alistair Moffat is founder of Scotland’s DNA

For more information, email [email protected] or call 0345 4502483.