Scotland's DNA: Tartan export

In the final part of our series, we look at how Scots' DNA has made its mark on the world over the last 300 years

ONCE a year my mother took a glass or two of whisky and lemonade. After the bells of the year's midnight had chimed and the new year was moments old, she would propose a toast: "Here's tae us! Whae's like us? Demned few and they're aa deid." In the midst of rousing replies, the sweet fire of the drams, the warmth, and the enveloping sense that ordinary people could be special, they were sentiments that made everyone smile.

Forty years later, having written The Scots: A Genetic Journey, a book predicated precisely on the question in my mother's toast, I have finally summoned up the nerve to contradict her – and what's even worse, publicly challenge her assertion that there's naebody like us. But far from being black-affronted, Ellen Moffat would have raised an eyebrow and relished the argument.

DNA studies and a cursory glance at the history of Scotland over the last 200 years would rephrase the toast: Whae's like us? Well, plenty, but they dinnae live here ony mair. When the great emigrations began after the Lowland and Highland Clearances of the 19th century, many millions of Scots left to make new lives in the New World. And they took their DNA with them. The small mutations in DNA which distinguish groups from one another are known as markers, and those characteristic of Scotland are flourishing all over the world, and particularly in North America.

Between 1815 and 1914 more than 13 million Scots arrived in the USA (4m went to Canada and 1.5m to Australia) and these settlers were very influential. The census of 1790 showed that 12 per cent of the new nation was of Scots or Scotch-Irish descent. The latter were also known as Ulster Scots and were the descendants of communities planted in Northern Ireland, many from the Scottish Borders and the Lowlands. The fifth American president, James Monroe, was the direct descendant of a minor clan chief and the seventh, Andrew Jackson, hailed from Scotch-Irish stock. In all, 23 of the USA's presidents, more than half, have had Scots or Scotch-Irish lineages in their family tree.

This statistic is all the more remarkable against the background of mass emigration. As a result of the arrival of many more ethnic groups and the effects of slavery, the proportion of people claiming Scots descent in the USA has declined to 1.7 per cent. The very definition of a genetic melting pot, the dynamism of American demographics inevitably meant a dilution and mixture of the DNA of early incoming peoples. For example, 30 per cent of the Y chromosomes of African-Americans are European, reflecting the legacy of the slave generations. A considerable proportion of these are likely to have been Scots in origin. And amongst the Cree Indians of Canada there are Orcadian surnames such as Linklater, Flett and Foubister – many men from Orkney worked for the Hudson's Bay Company. Despite the complex genetic mixture in all of these former British colonies, there can be no doubt that Scottish lineages now extinct at home, carry on in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Surname evidence alone shows that to be the case. Whatever may happen in Scotland, Scottish DNA will remain on its journey into the future.In Scotland it is changing, our collective DNA has been enriched and somewhat altered in the recent past by a series of immigrations of significant scale and character. After centuries of population loss, the trend has reversed and since the late 1980s there has been a net migration gain. The Scottish population has risen from an estimated 5,083,000 in 1991 to an estimated 5,194,000 in 2009. The census asks respondents to define their own ethnicity and the overwhelming mass reckon themselves White Europeans at 98.19 per cent, and of these, 88.09 per cent see themselves as Scots. Other White British, mostly English immigrants, account for 7.38 per cent, and Other Whites and Irish people make up the balance at 2.71 per cent. But inside these blunt numbers are some fascinating stories.

The 19th century saw an acceleration of Irish immigration into Scotland. As industrialisation gathered pace, Irishmen crossed the North Channel to find work in the growing heavy industry of Clydeside and the Lanarkshire coalfield. The creation of new infrastructure like canals, railways and roads depended on the sweat and muscle of navvies (short for "navigators", the men who dug the first canals) in an age of picks, shovels and barrows. Numbers were high, with 126,321 Irish-born people living in Scotland at the census of 1841, around 5 per cent of the total population. But there appears to have been little resentment or bigotry.

When two former navvies who had worked on the Union Canal were hanged in 1829 for the murder of 17 people in Edinburgh, there were no anti-Irish disturbances. William Burke and William Hare were reviled for their crimes and their ethnicity seemed incidental. It was only in the Great Depressions of the 1920s and 30s and their background of high unemployment that anti-Irish sentiment began to simmer. Bigotry had deep and durable roots. As late as 1923 the Church of Scotland published a pamphlet anxious about "the menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality". And in the late 1920s the Great Depression began to bite hard, causing widespread unemployment and two anti-Irish organisations sprang up: the Scottish Protestant League in Glasgow and Protestant Action in Edinburgh. Under the leadership of John Cormack, the latter incited a mob of more than 10,000 to attack participants in the Catholic Eucharistic Conference which was held in the city in 1935. Buses carrying children were stoned and Catholics organised all-night vigils to protect their churches from vandalism. The Second World War largely put an end to these ugly incidents.

Jewish immigration to Scotland was minimal until the late 19th century. Bouts of anti-Semitic rioting and violence known as pogroms began in earnest in 1881 in Eastern Europe. Many people were killed. The pogroms sparked immediate emigration. Because their nearest points of embarkation were often the Baltic ports, families and individuals found themselves landing at Scottish and eastern English quaysides. Most sought sanctuary in the US, and Scotland was only a staging post. But some got no further and a sizeable Jewish community grew up, especially in Glasgow. Unlike the much earlier immigrant-conquerors who crossed the North Sea and the North Channel many centuries before, the Jews (and the recently arrived Irish) found themselves at the very bottom of the social scale. Many Jews settled in the Gorbals, a district of high-density population on the banks of the Clyde, where tenements were packed with families living in slum conditions. But no-one persecuted the new arrivals, and while there was some prejudice, mobs were not about to attack and burn the Gorbals to the ground.

In a pleasing irony, the only political institution then committed to a policy of anti-Semitism, the British Union of Fascists, were not welcomed in Scotland – but for all the wrong reasons. When the BUF leader, Oswald Mosley, swaggered into Edinburgh in 1934, he and his followers were attacked on Princes Street by the Protestant Action group. Cormack believed that the fascists were Italians and dangerous Roman Catholics. By 1914 there were 4,500 Italian-born immigrants in Scotland, many of them working in the food industry. Ice cream and fish and chips were the staples created and marketed by enterprising families. Italians also began to establish cafs, and since these stayed open into the evenings, as they did in Italy, and much longer than other similar establishments, they quickly became busy. Italian involvement in the food industry meant that the community had to disperse. Unlike other groups of immigrants who tended to concentrate in particular places, the Italians were forced to settle all over Scotland to found their businesses and not compete with each other. This meant a widespread familiarity with Italian-Scots and they were popular, at least at first.

Mussolini's government made a point of reaching out to the Italian diaspora. The first fascist club in Scotland was founded in Glasgow in 1922 and several others quickly followed in Scotland's other cities. Many Italian-Scots, perhaps 50 per cent, were members of the Fascist Party, although their affinity appears to have been more patriotic than political. But when Mussolini declared war on Britain in 1940, there was an immediate backlash. Rioting crowds attacked and damaged Italian shops and businesses and all Italian men between the ages of 17 and 60 were arrested and interned. Many were transported to Canada, Australia and elsewhere. In 1940 the Arandora Star was carrying internees to Canada when she was sunk by a German U-boat. The loss of life was severe and 450 Italian internees drowned. For some time after the war, there was bitterness on both sides. However, in small towns where Italian families were part of the social fabric, many Scots were unhappy at their friends and neighbours being locked up. And it seems that the dismal experiences of the Second World War encouraged assimilation.

After the war many Polish soldiers settled in Scotland and married local women. The community had largely stabilised by the end of the 20th century. In 2004 the European Union expanded and the United Kingdom granted free movement to workers from the new member states, including Poland. Possibly in part stimulated by a pre-existing series of personal and cultural links, many came to work in Britain and the size of the Polish community has grown steeply.

DNA links the Poles closely to another visible new group in Scotland. Surprisingly, both Poland and Pakistan share a very high frequency of the M17 marker with Norway. These links were made in the deep past, but they are nevertheless there, producing one more quirky connection. A Viking descendant in Orkney, Shetland, Caithness or the Western Isles who carries the M17 marker is likely to be more closely related to a Pakistani or a Pole than he is to other Scots in the male line. In Scotland's small South Asian community of 55,000, Pakistanis dominate with 31,793, with Indians at 15,037. In all, South Asians make up 1 per cent of the Scottish population, but their presence on the high streets and in the catering industry belie small numbers.

The largest immigrant group in Scotland in modern times is also the hardest to detect. The number of English-born people living in Scotland has risen markedly since 1841 when it stood at 1.5 per cent. According to the estimates of the General Register Office of Scotland, in 2006 there were 373,685 English men and women resident, 7.38 per cent of the population. This group turned out to contain one surprising and surprised member. My own Y chromosome marker is S142, Scandinavian and very common in Denmark at 13 per cent of all men. The Angles who landed and settled on the North Sea coasts of Britain came from southern Denmark and northern Germany. In the 7th century the Borders was overrun by Anglian warbands and the likelihood is that they brought my DNA marker to what is now Scotland. It seems that I am an Angle, a Bernician, or put another way, an Englishman. Which is a source of immense pride.

What these findings mean to me is something simple and unarguable. I am a Borderer in my blood and bone and my family has worked on the land for a thousand years and more. When I was doing research for a memoir published in 2003, I found the gravestone of my great, great grandfather, William Moffat. He had been a ploughman and the churchyard in the village of Ednam, near Kelso, lay close to where he worked at Cliftonhill Farm. His daughters were all bondagers, female field-workers who did most of the back-breaking, day-in, day-out labour on a farm. Towards the end of the memoir, having found William's grave and that of his wife and two of his daughters, I tried to work out what I felt about my ancestors, my people:

The gravestone faces east, towards the morning sun, the rigs up at Cliftonhill Farm and stretching beyond it to the distant sea, the rich, red earth of Berwickshire where many, many generations of my family had walked their lives. And for a fleeting instant I heard them, my old aunts, heard the clatter of their boots come down the hill, on the metalled road by the old smiddy, heard their quiet morning chatter as they shouldered their hoes and pushed open the gate to the turnips in the bottom field by the Eden Water.

• The Scots: A Genetic Journey by Alistair Moffat and Dr Jim Wilson is available now. 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.

Case study

The owner of an uncommonly rich and characterful singing voice, Donnie Munro, lead vocalist of Runrig, carries the most common Y chromosome DNA marker in Scotland. It is S145, the quintessential Celtic marker and it is shared with hundreds of thousands of Irishmen, Welshmen and Englishmen. S145 originated in prehistoric times and may have been present and multiplying in Scotland for 5,000 years. It is a reminder that before waves of invasions by Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Normans, the British were a Celtic people who spoke dialects of Celtic languages. Given his fluency in Gaelic and his political sympathies, it may well be a matter of pride for Donnie Munro to belong to a large group who could fairly call themselves the Common Celtic Man.