SCOTS are the descendants of lost tribes who fought the Romans, tribesmen from the Sahara and the diminutive conqueror of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte.
ScotlandsDNA, the groundbreaking research project that probes far beyond the ink stains of family trees by analysing the genetic make-up of Scottish men and women, has unveiled its interim results, which show that 1 per cent of all Scots are descended from the Berber and Tuareg tribesmen of the Sahara.
In a radical re-drawing of the genetic map of Scotland, the project has revealed that the ancient lineage of Scots is far more colourful and complicated than ever imagined. After testing DNA samples from almost 1,000 Scots, the project, led by geneticist Dr Jim Wilson at Edinburgh University, found that 15 per cent of men with the surname Stewart are descendents of the Royal Stewart line.
And in a surprising twist, the team discovered that a tiny fraction of Scots can trace their ancestry back to the tribesmen of the Sahara. Among the most startling revelations was that the actor Tom Conti, who took part in the project, has a family link to Napoleon Bonaparte, the French dictator. It was discovered that the actor’s DNA marker is Saracen in origin and that his ancestors settled in Italy around the 10th century before one of them, Giovanni Buonaparte, settled in Corsica and founded the family line that sired Napoleon.
“Some friends said they weren’t surprised to find out Napoleon and I were related, but it came as quite a shock to me,” the actor said. “In fact, I didn’t believe it at first.”
ScotlandsDNA was set up last year by Dr Wilson and Alastair Moffat, the historian and current rector of St Andrews University, with a view to using the latest genetic discoveries to paint a more detailed picture of where the ancestors of Scotland’s current population came from.
While in the past people traced their origins using birth records and built up a detailed family tree, science now allows us to select a piece of DNA and use it as a telescope to look back in time at where our maternal and paternal ancestors once lived.
In order to do this, two sources of information are used which are markers on mitochondrial DNA, passed exclusively through the female line, from mother to daughter, and markers on the Y-chromosome, which is passed from father to son. Over the past four months, almost 1,000 people have paid to have their DNA analysed by the project.
Dr Wilson, who is a senior lecturer in population and disease genetics at Edinburgh University, said he was delighted with the results, although he had to check them twice when some participants were found to have hailed from the Sahara.
“I didn’t believe it at first and checked it twice. But more than one, in fact quite a few of our participants had this marker that is only found in and around the Sahara and among the blue men of the Tuareg.
“So what on earth is it doing in Scotland? I didn’t know. It took me a little while to work it out but what I learned was that it was spread to Spain by the Moorish conquest of Spain, and then it came up the Atlantic margins, along the coast and up to France and then up to Scotland.”
Today the first 500 people who took part in the project will attend a presentation at the Royal Society of Edinburgh where they will be presented with their results. Among them will be people whose ancestors were the Maeatae, a lost tribe whose historic homelands were around Stirling and who fought Roman legions in 208 AD. The tribe was mentioned in historical sources until the 8th century, after which it vanished into the mists of time.
For Mr Moffat, the author of The Scots: A Genetic Journey, the results have been fascinating. He said: “When the great Roman emperor Septimius Severus invaded Scotland with the largest army ever seen north of the Tweed, 40,000 legionaries and auxiliaries and a supporting fleet, he fought the Maeatae. They were mentioned by Roman historians as a fierce people and much later, noted by Adomnan, the biographer of St Columba.
“And then they disappeared from history,” Mr Moffat said. “Now they are found. DNA has uncovered a high concentration of a distinctive marker clustered around Stirling and the foothills of the Ochils – the homeland of the fierce Maeatae. These are stories only DNA can tell.”
Among those who have had their family history turned on its head is the comedian and radio presenter Fred Macaulay, as it was thought that he would have been of Viking descent as his surname meant Mac-Olaf. However, the DNA tests showed that his ancestors were not Hebridean Vikings but Irish and were probably captured and sold as slaves at the large slave market at Dublin some time in the 9th century. From there it is most likely that the comedian’s ancestor was taken by ship to the Hebrides and, at some point, had sex with his owner’s wife and, in the process, intruded his DNA into the Macaulay line. Six other men who took part share Macaulay’s DNA and the same story.
The DNA of the Duke of Buccleuch was found to be an exact match of a descendant of Charles Stewart of Ardshiel, who fought at Culloden, both men descended from Alan, the Seneschal of Dol, a Breton aristocrat. His family came to Britain in 1066 with William the Conqueror and then made its way to Scotland to found the Stewart line.
Yesterday Dr Wilson promised new discoveries to come. “We are sequencing the whole genome of seven Scots whose DNA is central to our history and we are looking at the role of Neanderthal DNA in Scotland.”