In a programme of pioneering research at Edinburgh University, Dr Jim Wilson has been gathering samples of DNA from Scots across the country and this week,
• Somerled, the first Lord of the Isles
in a new book by Alistair Moffat, and in a series of
features in The Scotsman, we discover what his innovative work has revealed – and where the Scots came from. DNA – deoxyribonucleic
acid – is the basis of life. Its molecular structure was discovered in 1953, revealing how it carries all the genetic information needed for organisms to live and reproduce. Scientists describe it in sequences of letters, and humans inherit three billion from each
of their parents. As generations move from place to place, distinctive DNA markers are carried by each and every one of us. Day 2 of
our series looks at the men who have literally left their mark on history
MORE than 16 million men, 0.5 per cent of all men on Earth, are the direct lineal descendants of one man. When a survey of the genealogy of 2,000 men was completed, researchers were astonished to find a large proportion were very closely related. They shared the same DNA marker.
This is the term attached to the very slight differences in our DNA, and people with the same marker are related. In a survey on this scale occasional clusters of relatives are sometimes found, but what surprised researchers was the huge number of near-identical markers. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.
More than 8 per cent of the entire sample, taken across 16 populations in a huge geographical area from central Asia to the Pacific coasts, carried the same marker. It was possible to date its origin to about 1,000 years ago. The second highest frequency of the marker and the place where its internal diversity was greatest turned out to be Mongolia, clearly the place it originated. The lineage is unique and it is unquestionably the case that 8 per cent of all men from Uzbekistan to Manchuria are descended from one individual. And outside this area, there are no men carrying this marker. Something remarkable has happened in the past. Who was this extraordinary Adam-figure, the father of several nations?
Over only 34 generations, this pattern of reproduction is beyond anything seen in nature amongst animals as a result of natural selection. Statistical calculations rule out chance as an explanation.
It must be the case that not only has a dramatically sustained streak of the reproductive fitness of men with this marker been observed, there must have been large-scale elimination of other Y chromosome lineages going on at the same time. There can be only one candidate for the progenitor of 16 million men in central Asia, 0.5 per cent of all men on the planet: the great warlord, Genghis Khan.
He lived between c1162 and 1227 and he and his sons and grandsons created the largest land empire in history, often slaughtering the conquered populations as his horse-riding hordes thundered across the plains and attacked cities and other tribes. The boundary of the Mongol Empire at its fullest extent is almost exactly matched by the frequency of his marker.
Much closer to Scotland was a man who died when the great Khan was born. His exertions bore a good deal less fruit, but then he operated in a much smaller area on the edges of Europe. More than 20,000 Scottish men, most of them with the surname MacDonald or its variants, are the direct descendants of Somerled. The first Lord of the Isles and founder of Clan Donald, he ruled the Hebrides and was King of the Isle of Man. When he clashed with Malcolm IV of Scotland at Renfrew, Somerled was killed in 1164 – but his genes lived on.
The alleged medieval tradition of droit de seigneur– the right of a local lord to have sex with any new bride in the community he controlled – was also known as the ius primae noctis, or the right of the first night. The idea that a lord might be powerful enough to insist that he should deflower a bride before her husband has long been hypothesised. But DNA studies suggest it did go on. While it is unlikely that seigneurs exercised their droit in quite that way, with each new bride, it is certain that they had productive sex with many women. This phenomenon could have attracted a racy label, but scientists simply and soberly call it social selection. And in Britain and Ireland it had profound effects still observable today.
An old lineage dating from AD400 to AD500 has been recently identified in Ireland. Known as M222, it is astonishingly common. No less than 20 per cent of all Irish men carry it. Its distribution is heavily weighted to the north, with 40 per cent in Ulster, 30 per cent in Connaught and 10-15 per cent in Munster and Leinster.
No less than a fifth of all Irish men are directly descended from one man who lived around 1,500 years ago. Given the distribution of the marker and its bias to Ulster and especially to men with the O'Neill and O'Donnell surnames, there exists a clear candidate. The Ui Neill kindred dominated Irish history from the 5th to the 10th centuries and their founder was the High King known as Niall Noigiallach. His political reach is reflected in his second name for Niogiallach means "of the Nine Hostages". These were the sons of lesser kings who owed Niall obedience and they were kept in his retinue as a guarantee of continued compliance.
The simple reality is that Niall fathered many sons by many women, and those sons, themselves growing up to be powerful men, followed the same pattern. The first High King's reign and his exploits are shrouded in mist and mystery, but in the historic period one of his ancestors showed how it was done, so to speak. Lord Turlough O'Donnell, who died in 1423, carried on the family tradition with gusto. He had 14 sons and 59 male grandchildren. From this example alone it is easy to see how a marker multiplied very quickly. If the same level of enthusiasm and fertility was sustained, Lord Turlough would have had 248 great grandsons and 1,040 great, great grandsons. Within only four generations, and without taking any account of bastards, he could have bred an army. These examples and a growing body of evidence for social selection tend to lend weight to some of the more extravagant claims of the genealogy industry. Every second person who has their DNA analysed seems to be convinced that they descend from royalty or the more glamorous aristocracy. Perhaps this is not misplaced after all.
More generally, the incidence of M222, the marker of Niall Noigiallach, in Scotland is very interesting. Generations of historians have been unable to agree about the earliest history of the kingdom of the Scots. It sprang from Dalriada, the Argyll kingdom ruled by Gaelic speakers and which originally had territories on both shores of the North Channel. But historians have been recently disposed to believe that the spread of its power and the Gaelic language were a process and not the consequence of an event, like an invasion. M222 suggests otherwise. The marker is very widespread in Scotland with 6 per cent of all Scottish men carrying it, around 150,000. It seems that around AD500 many Irish men crossed the North Channel and did not return. Perhaps not a D-Day style invasion, but certainly a very significant influx and a takeover.
The traditional claims of several of the older clans of Argyll and the south-western highlands and islands may have more substance than mere myth or wish-history. Clan Campbell also call themselves Siol Diarmaid, the Seed of Diarmaid and Irish origins are also included in the uncertain, early histories of Clans Lamont, MacInnes and MacDowall and others. More than affinity or geography is at work here.
The workings of social selection and what it says about the status of women in history may seem more than faintly shocking. Gender equality may remain an unwon cause in the 21st century but the advances made in the last few generations have been immense. For much of recorded western European history, from the Romans to the Victorians, women have had the status of children, or worse. The biographer of St Columba, St Adomnan, promulgated what became known as the Law of the Innocents (to protect women, children and the church from the effects of warfare) and in his writings he talked of women as "little slaves".
DNA studies may appear to reinforce this picture of gender inequality. Much of the most striking material in The Scots: A Genetic Journey is derived from studies of Y chromosome DNA, and it is an unhappy imbalance. But there are good scientific reasons for it. Throughout history men tended to stay where they were born and raised, while women tended to move, probably not willingly. Property passed down the male line and that anchored men in a particular locality, and gave their lineage a history there. The workings of social selection also encouraged men not to move. In an age when numbers mattered, a property owner (even a modest one) who had many sons and grandsons was a more powerful man. The fecundity and energy of Lord Turlough O'Donnell in the turmoil of late 14th and early 15th century Ireland was not only a matter of macho pleasure and pride, it also made military sense. What these historical factors mean is that Y chromosome DNA is often traceable to a particular place, somewhere that can be identified as the origin of a marker.
Women, by contrast, were probably moved on as marriage partners, and over generations, many will have been further and further removed from their mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers and so on. Women were also undoubtedly traded as human commodities and as outright slaves. This has meant that mitochondrial DNA, what mothers pass on through their daughters, has become very dispersed and difficult to track in detail.
Nevertheless, DNA studies strongly suggest a pivotal role for women in the greatest revolution in world history. Farming began in the Fertile Crescent, the lands between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, around 9,000BC. In addition to gathering a wild harvest of fruits, roots, nuts and berries, people began to domesticate wild grasses, slowly turning them into cereal crops.
Docile, sociable, manageable and meaty animals were also domesticated and as farming techniques and ideas spread, populations began to mushroom and people and ideas began moving. By 5,500BC there were farms in the Danube Valley and the revolution soon penetrated the heart of Europe and the plains to the north. Having cleared woodland and scrub, communities sometimes built a particular style of longhouse, and to store and cook what they grew, the new farmers made a new pottery. Known in German as Linearbandkeramik, or LBK, it was decorated by lines incised into the clay before firing.
In 1976 in Aberdeenshire, a prehistoric longhouse dating to 3,900BC was found. Then three others came to light. Across the River Dee from the first discovery at Balbridie, another longhouse was identified, then another at Claish Farm on the River Teith in Perthshire, and another near Kelso on the Tweed. Farming had crossed the North Sea and arrived in Scotland.
Geneticists have detected a movement of women, of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) markers, in the same period. Studies of mtDNA have tracked markers such as mtDNAJ2al and J1b1 arriving in the 5th and 4th millennia BC by two routes, the Atlantic littoral and along Europe's great river valleys. And there are indications that a third and fourth, T1a and K2a, came to Scotland at around the same time.
Together these four lineages account for about 10 per cent of the modern female population of Scotland. Research carried out on female skeletons found at the sites of LBK communities of farmers in Germany and Hungary has identified another marker, N1a, which is now very rare, present in only 0.2 per cent of all European women. It is found in Scotland, and there is an extremely close match with a lady from East Lothian farming stock. She is probably a direct descendant of one of the LBK skeletons and the latest in a very long line of farmers.
Until the advent of mechanisation in the 20th century, the more menial, day-in-day-out jobs on farms were done by women. Hoeing, milking and anything not associated with horses, carting or ploughing was the province of many generations of female farm workers.
It may well be that prehistoric farming skills travelled across Europe in the movement of women, whether traded or as marriage partners. A woman able to manage the milking of ewes, goats or cows would have added value, and it may well be that the diversity of mtDNA and the diffusion of farming across Europe are linked.
As Scotland's history emerged from the mists of prehistory and was first recorded, almost always by outsiders, evidence of warfare, conquest and population movement can be found. Running alongside DNA research, written and archaeological sources for our national story often combine to make a more complete picture. And sometimes mysteries are solved. For example, what happened to the exotic, enigmatic culture of the Picts? DNA supplies some answers.
• The Scots: A Genetic Journey by Alistair Moffat and Dr Jim Wilson is published on Saturday. Readers of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday can buy copies of the book at the special price of 12.75 (p&p free in the UK) by calling 0845 370 0067 and quoting reference SMAN211
• In a programme of pioneering research at Edinburgh University, Dr Jim Wilson has been gathering samples of DNA from Scots across the country and this week, in a new book by Alistair Moffat, and in a series of features in The Scotsman, we discover what his innovative work has revealed – and where the Scots came from. DNA – deoxyribonucleic acid – is the basis of life. Its molecular structure was discovered in 1953, revealing how it carries all the genetic information needed for organisms to live and reproduce. Scientists describe it in sequences of letters, and humans inherit three billion from each of their parents. As generations move from place to place, distinctive DNA markers are carried by each and every one of us. Day 2 of our series looks at the men who have literally left their mark on history
A Stuart with connections to an Irish crown
• DESPITE bearing two quintessentially Highland names, retired fisherman Lachlan Stuart is descended from Niall Noigiallach, the great and fecund High King of Ireland. Stuart, 59, carries Noigiallach's marker, M222 and he is not alone, sharing it with 150,000 Scotsmen and more than half a million Irishmen.
• The Stuart family has moved away from the traditional territories of Dalriada in the west and south-west Highlands and Islands and Lachlan's more recent ancestors hail from Grantown-on-Spey while he himself has moved further east to Keig in Aberdeenshire.
• "It's really something special, isn't it?" was Lachlan's delighted reaction to his DNA results – even though they overturned his preconceptions and family stories.
• "I always thought I would have been descended from the Picts. And we can trace our family back to Stuart of Duffus, near Elgin, in the 1750s and I'd been told by my grandparents that we were of the Stewart of Appin line.
• "One the earliest of my ancestors to be mentioned was at Culloden, and he was a smallholder, Stuart of Croftmore, a mile from Duffus. I had also wondered if we were descended from the Wolf of Badenoch (the lawless warlord who burned Elgin Cathedral) given that he came from nearby and his family had many Alexanders and Lachlans over the last 250 years."
• Alexander Stewart was the Wolf of Badenoch's name and he was the brother of James III, King of Scotland. Lachlan Stuart's instincts about his royal connections were correct – he just had the wrong royal family.