Scotland’s DNA: Land of the Britons

In our continuing series on Scotland’s genetic history, Alistair Moffat delves into surnames, which help to reveal a surprising Celtic Briton enclave that thrived around the Bonnie Banks

In our continuing series on Scotland’s genetic history, Alistair Moffat delves into surnames, which help to reveal a surprising Celtic Briton enclave that thrived around the Bonnie Banks

WE ALL have one, some people more than one and women often change them. Surnames are so much part of our lives and our sense of ourselves that we forget that they used to mean something, literally. And when combined with what DNA can tell us much about our ancestry, they can often help us work out who we were and are, and where we come from.

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Surnames tell stories. When they began to be generally adopted around the 16th century, they could be unhelpfully simple. Scotland’s second most common surname is Brown (behind Smith) and it is nothing more than a nickname, probably relating to colouring. Reid is 12th in the Scottish Top 20 and it is even more straightforward, meaning red. Since 13 per cent of all Scots have a variant of red hair, its popularity should surprise no-one. Little, Young, White, Black and many other nickname surnames occur all over Scotland but their application to individuals is, sadly, random.

More unusual Scottish names can be tantalising; Galbraiths, for example, are especially so. Behind its meaning lies a half-forgotten struggle in Scotland’s early history. Galbraith derives from “Gall Bretnach” and it means Stranger Briton.

The ancient kingdom of Strathclyde survived into the early middle ages and its capital stronghold, Dumbarton Rock, echoes that surname. It means the Fortress of the Britons, or the Brets. They spoke dialects of Old Welsh, not Gaelic or early English, and recent scholarship has traced the frontiers of this vanished state.

At the head of Loch Lomond in Glen Falloch stands a great boulder, a landmark left as the glaciers rumbled down Ben Lomond at the end of the last ice age. It is called the Clach nam Breatainn, the Stone of the Britons, and it marked the northern marches of the kingdom of Strathclyde. Eventually, Gaelic-speaking surnames such as the MacFarlanes, Campbells, MacGregors and Colquhouns gradually gained territory around the great loch, perhaps around the year 1,000AD. The Galbraiths, the Stranger Britons – surely a name conferred by Gaels, appear to have resisted. Their ancestral stronghold was on an island, Inchgalbraith, off the western shores of Loch Lomond. “Strangers” were probably people who did not speak Gaelic and the Galbraiths may have continued to speak Old Welsh as a sea of Gaelic lapped around their island.

This cultural and linguistic clash along one of Scotland’s lost frontiers is only dimly remembered and hedged around by the subjunctive. But DNA testing would shed a bright light. Do Galbraiths carry a different, perhaps older marker than, say, the Colquhouns or the MacFarlanes? Or did populations mix? Or were the incoming Gaelic speakers a small military elite who decapitated a native aristocracy? In any event, Galbraiths have not strayed far. Over 5 per cent of all those with this very old name live in North Lanarkshire.

When Gael and Briton contended along the shores of Loch Lomond in the early middle ages, Scotland spoke many languages and each is remembered by surnames. Opposing the lords of Inchgalbraith were men who knew each other by patronyms, calling themselves by their fathers’ names. Holding land around Arrochar, the MacFarlanes took their name from a semi-mythic figure called Parlan. In common with Gaelic usage, the first letter of his name is aspirated to form a ph or f sound. The sons of Parlan fought at Flodden in 1513 and as part of a Highland division, they knocked down and scattered an English battalion in the first phase of that fateful battle. Very little MacFarlane DNA has been tested and the origins of the unusually named Parlan may not necessarily be Celtic.

MacDonalds have a great deal more certainty. Believing that they are descended from Somerled, the first Lord of the Isles, many carry the S200 DNA marker. All of their current chiefs have it, as well as 24 per cent of all men called MacDonald. But more DNA testing may well place this rare marker in Norway – if only the data were available. And there is a whisper that S200 may be very ancient indeed.

The Norse Clan MacLeod may seem a fairly common surname, but their marker is also rare. Tradition holds that they are the descendants of their name-father, Leod or Ljot, Almost half of all MacLeod men carry unusual DNA. S68+ links to Orkney and from there to Norway where only 1 per cent of men have it. But what is striking is the long-lasting fidelity of MacLeod wives. The 47 per cent of men who carry the S68+ marker descend from a single individual, possibly Leod himself. That means that the 10,000 Scotsmen who carry it are very closely related. Of the remaining 53 per cent there are only nine other lineages present – which means that MacLeod men almost always married women who were unwaveringly faithful to them!

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In addition to Old Welsh, Gaelic and Norse surnames, there are several related to Latin, the language of the church. Gilchrist comes from the Gaelic for “Servant of Christ” and originally meant a man in holy orders (before the age of clerical celibacy). Malcolm is related but more descriptive. Maol is the Gaelic word for bald, or a bald man, and it was used to describe a tonsured monk. Colm is a squeezed version of the Latinised Columba. And so Malcolm means Servant of Columba. Clearly a historical story can be attached to this as the word of God spread out over Scotland from Iona and elsewhere. But DNA testing will add a great deal. Were the early servants of God Irish or native preachers? Does the plotting of the names in early censuses (before mass travel and population movement) suggest a settlement pattern from west to east? We need Gilchrists and Malcolms to come forward to be tested and tell us.

The story of one name in Scotland is very clear and very well documented – but DNA can take it much further. Walter fitzAlan came to Scotland around 1136. His ancestors hailed from Brittany and when William the Conqueror mustered his invading army in 1066, they joined it. Walter fitzAlan came north and his family became Stewards of Scotland in the 12th century. Their royal role eventually became their surname, and it in turn became royal. Around 16 per cent of all Scottish men with the surname Stewart carry S310, the same marker as direct and undoubted descendants of James V and James VI and I. It is a sub-type of the widespread Celtic marker labelled S145.

Now comes a fascinating twist in a familiar story. In Brittany, the land of Walter the Steward’s ancestors, there exists a very high proportion of men with the S145 marker, as many as in south-west England, Celtic Cornwall and Devon and far more than in the rest of western Europe. There is a historical reason for this quirk. Brittany literally means Little Britain, a name acquired between 400AD and 600AD, the period when Saxons raiders became invaders and settlers. As the Roman Empire in Britain and Western Europe collapsed, they drove out large numbers of native British and they crossed the English Channel to escape and found communities in Brittany. Several place-names such as Bretteville recall the refugees. It may well be, on the evidence of DNA, that the Stewart dynasty of Scotland and of Great Britain and Ireland actually originated in the south or south-west of England and not on the western edges of Normandy. One scion of a famous Scottish aristocratic family who is definitely descended in the Stewart line has had his DNA tested recently and more may well be revealed.

Research attached to this possibility complicates a highly topical trope. After the recent European summit, the English and the French appear to be going though one of their periodic spats. History is inevitably dragged in, as Allan Massie so eloquently showed last week, and often it is bad history. One traditional difficulty for the English was the Battle of Hastings. But any attempt to portray it as a victory for the French could be sidestepped by insisting that 1066 was really a delayed Viking invasion led by Normans, Norsemen from Normandy, and not Frenchmen at all. But an analysis of DNA tests from several so-called Norman surnames in Scotland suggests otherwise. The markers of the likes of Sinclairs, Bruces, Frasers, Menzies, Corbetts, Colvilles, Kinnears and others show that their ancestors were not in fact Norsemen but native Frenchmen. Oh dear.

Other results simply surprise, and on a personal level. For someone who played rugby for Kelso in the Border League, fixtures against Langholm were not to be taken lightly. Tough and uncompromising, their forwards hunted in a pack and often ground out a good result. In my playing days half the Langholm pack seemed to be called Beattie – an apposite surname, and I always assumed that it must be native to the Borders, or Dumfriesshire at a stretch. In fact the story starts in Ireland, in Leinster in the south-east. The major descent group of the Beatties carry the marker S169. Known as the Irish Sea Type, it traces descent from the Kings of Leinster who were originally the chiefs of the Lagin Clans. Such high-born beginnings do not dull the memories of bruises at the hands and feet of Langholm Beatties. But the presence of these uncompromising men might be a memory of a migration from Ireland. Only more testing will tell.

What this brief tour of some of Scotland’s surnames means is that they can sometimes supply addresses, often far from where they reside now, and that when DNA tests have names and documentary history to go with them, a tremendous richness can result. Men keep their names and pass them and their DNA on to their sons and when they are traced backwards, much that is unexpected comes to light. As test results from the ScotlandsDNA project will show in the new year, Scots carry many untold stories inside them.

• RORY Bremner is gradually making his way home, via Scotland. Having moved from Oxfordshire to the Borders, he has only another 200 miles or so to go where his surname probably made landfall. Bremners concentrate in the north east of Scotland (particularly in Wick) and the derivation of the name offer a reason. Bremner is from Brabanter, someone from the Low Countries, and what brought them to Scotland was the fishing industry. As Britain’s best political satirist, Rory now fishes for flaws in public figures - and catches plenty. But is he from Brabant? DNA will tell.

• CASTLE Kennedy near Stranraer is seen as the headquarters of this famous Galloway clan, a family with a royal past.

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• At the beginning of the 11th century, Suibne macCinaeda was asserting himself as King of Galloway. Despite the mac prefix, the name has an Old Welsh derivation.

• It comes from Cunedda, simply meaning Good Leader. A half-forgotten cavalry general called Cunedda led an expedition out of the mists of the 5th century from the kingdom of Manau in central Scotland down to post-Roman Wales.

• They attacked and expelled Irish invaders from the Lleyn Peninsula. In addition to the prowess of the Galloway Kennedys, the Christian name of Kenneth is the only historical echo of this great soldier.