Secret Santa: Tracing a genetic link to Lapland is one of the many gifts in the search for ancestors

Traditional representations of Santa Claus draw on Saami/Laplander costume. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Traditional representations of Santa Claus draw on Saami/Laplander costume. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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HE IS unique, the only man in Scotland so far tested who carries a remarkable type of DNA.

Perhaps wisely, he has chosen to remain anonymous. Otherwise in precisely two weeks’ time he would certainly find himself adored, beseeched and extremely busy. Because he has Santa Claus’s DNA.

In a fascinating find, Edinburgh University’s Jim Wilson has discovered a carrier of NM46 in Scotland, a DNA marker, or identifier, that has, over millennia, journeyed across the frozen wastes of the Arctic. It arose in Eastern Siberia as the ice age retreated 11,000 years ago and peoples trekked northwards to settle in the empty vastness of the tundra. As the weather warmed and seasonal migrations brought huge herds of grazing animals (think Rudolf the reindeer) to eat the sweet summer grass, the marker rapidly multiplied.

The great trek of the Siberians from Northern China must have taken place after another epoch-making migration, the journey of the first pioneers from Asia to America. Immediately after the end of the last ice age, the Bering Straits was a land-bridge – but no people with the NM46 marker have ever been found in the Americas. By the time the Siberians pitched their tents on the endless plains of the tundra, the land-bridge had been inundated.

Instead they turned eastwards. The greatest concentration of NM46 is along the frozen rim of the Arctic Circle. More than 60 per cent of all male Eastern Siberians living now carry the marker, but to the west, the incidence is even higher. More than 90 per cent of the Tundra Nentsis have it. Reindeer herders, they are nomads who follow the migrations and live in encampments all year, braving the ceaseless winter winds and the plummeting temperatures.

The marker moved to the Volga River Basin but its most spectacular colonisation was Finland. Around 70 per cent of all Finnish men have NM46 and it spread from the north. Carried by the Saami people of Lapland – Santa Claus’s spiritual home – it stabilised, settled and did not move further westwards.

Except once a year. Someone carrying it arrives in Scotland, but perhaps for too short a visit, making it difficult for him to stop the bells jingling, spit into a test tube and confirm what we all know. Not only are Jim Wilson and his scientists certain that Santa exists, they also know exactly where his reindeer and his little helpers come from. And they know the name of a man – but will never reveal it – who on Christmas Eve can sit by the fire and expect a relative to come down the chimney and drink a quiet toast to his adopted home.

Seasonal cheer – and frivolities – aside, the single incidence of NM46 is tantalising. There must be others who carry it in Scotland. Perhaps it was a Viking import that crossed the North Sea in a longship sometime between 800 and 1,000AD, the period of raiding and settlement. Only more tests will tell. But one thing is certain for now, NM46 has travelled an immense distance from Lapland and its original Siberian homelands.

Other glimpses of the complexity and richness of our national genome reinforce the sense of an unmade jigsaw. The missing pieces are out there and once found will fit together into a glorious picture of who we are and where we all came from.

Noel Curry is a fascinating man. Not only do his nearest and dearest think so, the geneticists on the ScotlandsDNA project agree. From East Lothian, Noel has an extremely rare marker. M78-V13 is the whisper of a forgotten journey. Some time after 70,000BC a small band of pioneers walked out of Africa, crossed the Red Sea at Djibouti and their descendants populated the rest of the world.

Noel Curry’s ancestors left their African homelands much later, around 15,000BC, and they walked north, probably crossing the Sinai Peninsula and rounding the Mediterranean shores of what are now Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Evidence for this second exodus from Africa is only just coming to light. The marker has a presence around the Eastern Mediterranean but it becomes rarer and rarer as it moves westwards across Europe to Scotland.

What Noel’s story shows is the half-lit edge of something unknown, something that potentially will say a great deal about all of our DNA. There must be more men with this rare marker in the West and if their journeys across continents can be tracked and understood, they add another layer of meaning to our sense of ourselves.

A Dundee man who opted for anonymity shows how Scotland’s DNA came from more than one direction. He carries M222+, a sub-set of the famous M222 marker of the Irish high king, Niall Noígíallach. This part-mythic, part-historical figure reigned in Ulster in the 5th century and was the founder of the great Ui Neill dynasty. Through a process coyly known as social selection (when powerful men had sex with many women and, in a manner of speaking, passed on their DNA many times), Niall became the ancestor of hundreds of thousands of men. Around 20 per cent of all Irishmen carry his marker and are his direct descendants. And when Jim Wilson tested the Donegal Gaelic Football team, half of them carried M222.

Some of Niall’s offspring came to Scotland and around 100,000 Scottish men can claim to be the direct descendants of ancient Irish royalty. The M222+ found in Dundee offers more detail, a greater degree of magnification. The surname of our anonymous Dundonian has a clear religious link, one that in other cases has been shown to be ancient. There is more than an echo of mission, of the movement of the word of God, of Irish priests making their way eastwards across Scotland after the later 6th century, of Columba and the founding of Iona. More testing might well reveal more of a presence of M222+ and more than hints of a historical story might be revealed.

Closer to my beloved Border country another conundrum gallops across the landscape. Along with the Armstrongs, the Johnstones and the Maxwells, the Elliots were one of the great reiving families of the 15th and 16th centuries. So troublesome and thrawn (“My name is Little Jock Elliot, What daur meddle wi’ me” boasted one scion – with some justification) that some were exported by exasperated governments to Ireland. The name remains one of the most common in County Fermanagh. But the origins of some of the Elliots are much more mysterious.

A small group of men carry a marker unique in Britain. M130 is, in fact, common in Mongolia but there are no records of any sort of migration from there to Scotland or Britain. An added problem is that the marker has been difficult to date. Through a device known as the molecular clock, geneticists can usually work out when a marker arose but, in the case of the Elliot M130, this has been problematic – and, therefore, not helpful to a historian.

Two explanations make an uneasy fit in this intriguing part of the giant jigsaw of Scotland. When the armies of the successors of Genghis Khan reached the borders of Hungary in the first half of the 13th century and their cavalry generals planned the conquest of the green plains and rich cities of the east, perhaps 200,000 Mongols strung their bows and sharpened their swords. But when the great Ogedai Khan, Genghis’s son, died, the Mongols retreated eastwards to settle the succession. Or did they? After the defeat of King Bela IV of Hungary, the rudiments of colonial administration were briefly set up. Did some of the Mongol captains stay behind in Europe? Did they move westwards? Maybe. There is another possibility, a much earlier incident. In AD175 the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, defeated the Sarmatians, a people from the Steppes, a vast territory around the Caspian Sea once known as Scythia. To reduce the threat of recurring rebellion, the emperor forced the recruitment and posting to Britain of 5,500 Sarmatian cavalrymen. Squadrons were based at the fort at Ribchester in Lancashire and it is thought Sarmatians patrolled Hadrian’s Wall, Rome’s greatest frontier.

Does the Elliot marker of M130 come from this quirk of Roman policy? Possibly. The heartland of Elliot power in the 15th and 16th centuries was Liddesdale, a few miles north of Hadrian’s Wall and even closer to the outpost fort at Bewcastle where cavalry was usually based. And this was no brief episode. Hadrian’s Wall existed as a manned frontier for three centuries and those units that arrived late, like the Sarmatians, tended to stay on and were not replaced.

These links seem a stretch, almost impossible, but what unites all three groups is fundamental, and also intriguing, and that is horsemanship and the skills of the cavalryman. Only more DNA testing will solve these questions – or find another solution to the conundrum of the Elliots.

Very slowly parts of a picture of Scotland’s history – or at least a people’s history of Scotland – are coming into focus, and a story is forming. After the first full week of our new project, the response has been tremendous. It seems that Jock Tamson’s bairns are very curious indeed about their history. “Wha’s like us?” runs the boastful toast. We aim to find out.

A vital piece of the mosaic

A MUCH more recent immigration to Scotland showed an ancient example of sustained lineage at work … and continuing.

By 1950 the Jewish population of Scotland had reached a high of 80,000, and most were the recent descendants of people who had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe.

An attractive footnote to this part of Scotland’s story is the tale of the sons of Aaron. Some Scottish-Jewish men carry what is known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype. This is a YDNA marker in the P38 group, highly enriched amongst the Cohanim, the Jewish High Priests. It was discovered by a Canadian scientist, Dr Karl Skorecki, right. He tested a group of 107 men with the surname of Cohen and found that 97 shared the same marker. This group were clearly descended from a single individual who lived more than 2,000 years ago and are now known as the Sons of Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first High Priest.

This maintenance of a single line of descent over such a long period is, among other things, a tribute to the fidelity of Cohen wives.

Michelle McManus and Stephen Jardine: Arabian princess & Norseman by blood

TELEVISION presenters who co-host a show over time usually gel well and Stephen Jardine and Michelle McManus’s hosting of STV’s The Hour was a good example of two who complemented each other. But their DNA could not be more different.

These two results are among the first in the ScotlandsDNA project and they show tremendous diversity.

Michelle’s marker is J1 and it is a powerful memory of the great migrations of women across the world. J1 probably arrived in Britain as part of the introduction of farming, sometime around 3,000BC.

Women carried the skills of growing crops and looking after stock and their movement across Europe mirrors the spread of the greatest revolution in world history. Michelle should be proud! And also intrigued by the fact that the greatest concentration of her marker is in Southern Arabia. Perhaps the legacy of an exotic past.

Stephen Jardine, who writes a regular food column for The Scotsman on Saturdays, is a Dumfriesshire Viking. His marker is Scandinavian and almost certainly arrived some time between 800 and 1,000AD. Most common in Sweden and Norway, it is also found elsewhere in Britain.

But the Solway was for two centuries a Viking lake. The name is from Sulvath, a reference to an ancient ford across the firth that ended at the Lochmabenstane on the northern shore. Sul is Norse for a stone and vath (like wade) for a ford.

Around the Solway, Stephen’s ancestors named the hills they used as navigational aids, such as Snaefell and Scafell. Closest to Dumfries is Criffel, Krakafjall, the Raven Fell. It is a rich legacy remembered by the land as well as its people, and fitting for a food-industry ambassador.