Alasdair Macdonald: Test heritage or family secrets

DNA analysis could open a window onto family history, or a can of genealogical worms, writes Alasdair Macdonald

A DNA biochip would help clarify long-forgotten family relationships. But caution is needed when approaching long-lost relatives. Picture: Contributed
A DNA biochip would help clarify long-forgotten family relationships. But caution is needed when approaching long-lost relatives. Picture: Contributed

Many thousands of our citizens are embarking on a journey of self-discovery by taking direct to consumer (DTC) genetic tests. These genealogy tests are now so powerful and the resolution focused enough that very close familial connections can be revealed, including parental, sibling and close cousin relationships.

There are several types of DNA test available for genealogy and being used to great effect by individuals who are adopted or illegitimate or whose parents or grandparent were adopted or illegitimate. Adoption in a genealogical context can be informal as well as formal. Second and even third marriages were not uncommon in the 19th and early 20th centuries due to high mortality of mothers in childbirth or the death a husband, often the main breadwinner for the family.

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The legacy of detachment from family origin and identity questions for orphans in assisted passage schemes overseas in previous generations can now be overcome by their descendants by genetic tests as they share some of their ancestors’ DNA which connects them back to their ancestors and their homeland.

An example is that of Peter who was born in the US does not know anything about his father’s background as he was donor-conceived. He has taken several genealogy DNA tests to identify his original surname and ancestral heritage. His matching within one genealogy DNA database has identified his father’s surname and the ancestral location of his family in the Highlands of Scotland.

Another is Albert whose mother was living in digs in Glasgow with a Mr White when he was conceived according to an electoral roll. His mother and Mr White are now deceased. John believes that this man was his father. Having had no response to contact with the deceased man’s family he is waiting for the results of a genetic genealogy test which he hopes will confirm that his father was indeed Scottish and carried the White surname.

However without the help of mediation services such as that offered by Birthlink an unwelcome or rash approach may be rebuffed and complicate what could otherwise have been a successful breakthrough.

In 2000 Margo contacted Birthlink from Australia to identify her half brother who shared the same father but a different mother. Margo’s mother Jeanette had been deserted by her partner Alex and due to circumstances was unable to care for Margo. In desperation she went to Alex’s sister Ellen and her husband George. They agreed to informally adopt Margo who was taken to Australia in 1952 where she grew up with three elder brothers. Although in later years she discovered that she was adopted, the circumstances of her real parents were never revealed to her by her adoptive family and her father Alex was always just referred to as “uncle Alex”.

It was not until Ellen was on her death bed that she revealed to Margo that she was actually her blood aunt and her adoptive brothers were in fact her half cousins. And that Uncle Alex was her father and whose son Alex junior living in Scotland was in fact her half brother. Although Margo considered that her Aunt Ellen and the “brothers” she grew up with were real kin, she continued to harbour some questions about her origins so she approached us.

We succeeded in tracking down her half brother Alex junior. Unfortunately Alex had died six month earlier so no formal reconciliation was possible. Any connection with his children was thought to be so tenuous and difficult to prove and things were left there. Step forward a few years to 2013 and the availability of DNA testing for genealogy. Margo decided to once and for all clarify her family relationships. With the help of a professional genealogist in Scotland she took a DNA test and the son of her half brother Alex junior, that is her nephew, was also asked (and agreed) to participate by taking a test.

The inheritance of DNA segments by individuals who share great grandparents must fall within a known range. When the results came through Margo and her half nephew shared the exact level of DNA segments as expected for a half aunt-nephew relationship. DNA testing had confirmed her family relationship. Birthlink recommend seeking professional guidance when seeking contact with birth families. It is wise to pursue available documentary research and make use of the Adoption Contact Register for Scotland (ACR) before or in parallel with utilising genealogy DNA tests.

• Alasdair Macdonald is a university tutor in genealogical studies and a consultant with Birthlink.