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Unravelling the genetic ancestry of the Scots

7 March 2011
Appeared in BioNews 598


Research conducted at the University of Edinburgh means Scots can find out more about their ancestry through a DNA test. Dr Jim Wilson, a research fellow at Edinburgh, gathered and studied genetic samples from across Scotland, and has now founded a company which enables people to buy insights into their heritage.

EthnoAncestry accepts saliva samples, from which they examine mitochondrial DNA - passed from a mother to her children, and Y chromosome DNA - passed from father to son. It scans these for genetic markers, variations which have arisen through mutations or alterations, which can be traced back to earlier generations and populations.

Dr Wilson has collaborated on a book with historian Alistair Moffat, to explain the history each marker relates to. Speaking of the attraction of genetic history, Moffat said: 'It's not, in terms of Scottish history, the procession of the usual suspects across the landscape, like Bonny Prince Charlie or Mary Queen of Scots or William Wallace. This is a kind of people's history and that's why it's very attractive to me'.

EthnoAncestry claims they are able to spot if someone is descended from the vikings, through the M17 marker. Research suggests that this genetic marker is particularly prevalent in people from Orkney, in 20 percent of the population, and those from the Western Isles of Scotland. 'Despite the trail of savagery and gore, or perhaps because of it, most Scottish men asked about their DNA before being tested appear to want it to show descent from the terrifying Vikings', wrote Moffat in The Scotsman.

Another example is the M284 Y chromosome marker, which more than 150,000 Scottish men, around 6 percent, now carry. They are believed to be related to one of the founding lineages of the country, to men who first travelled north into Scotland from refuges after the end of the ice age.

As well as populations, the researchers believe that their work also allows markers to be related to ancient individuals who widely propagated their genes. One of these is the fifth century Irish king Niall Noigiallach, with 20 percent of Irishmen and six percent of Scots thought to carry his M222 marker. 'According to later accounts in the 11th century, Niall beat his brothers to the crown in feats of endurance, intelligence and romance', said Moffat.

However, Moffat said that the test could be a 'dangerous business': 'I got a tremendous surprise because it turns out my DNA is not Scottish and I'm actually an Englishman'.

Wilson and Moffat's book, The Scots: A Genetic Journey, is published by Birlinn Limited.

Irish and Scottish linked by High King Niall of the nine hostages
Irish Central |  03/11
James Naughtie's Scottish DNA
BBC Today Program - Radio 4 |  2 March 2011
Scotland's DNA: Who do you think you are - Part One
The Scotsman |  2 March 2011
The Scots: A Genetic Journey
BBC Radio Scotland |  2 March 2011
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