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How I discovered I wasn't genetically Scottish

21 March 2011
By Alistair Moffat
Director of the Lennoxlove and Borders Book Festivals, and author of The Scots: A Genetic Journey
Appeared in BioNews 600
When Dr Jim Wilson of Edinburgh University emailed with the results of his analysis of my DNA, I was fascinated. And my faith in the accuracy of the techniques used was redoubled. But Jim told me that my DNA did not match with any other men named Moffat on his database. Perhaps there had been a mix-up at the lab, perhaps all was not what it seemed? We could have the DNA retested.

Jim's polite hesitations and awkward enquiries were resolved when I told him that my father, Jack Moffat, had been an illegitimate child and he had taken his mother's name. What Jim did not know was I was the first legitimate child in my paternal family for three generations. Bina, my granny, was the only child of Annie Moffat, born in 1890 at Cliftonhill, a farm near Kelso in the Scottish Borders. In 1916, she gave birth to my dad. Her lover was a soldier home on leave, Robert Charters.

My Y chromosome marker turns out to be S142, Scandinavian and very common in Denmark in about 13 percent of all men. The Angles who landed and settled on the North Sea coasts of Britain came from southern Denmark and northern Germany, and the derivation of the surname Charters is Anglo-Saxon. It comes from Ceatta, a personal name, and it is recorded on the Lincolnshire coast. In the 7th century, the Borders was overrun by Anglian warbands and the likelihood is the descendants of Ceatta were among the warriors or those who followed them. It seems I am an Angle, a Bernician, or put another way, an Englishman.

As a Scotsman who had written more than a dozen books on the story of my own country, I thought I'd need counselling. Had I been living - and writing - a lie? Then it occurred to me that, with Scotland's dismal run of form in the Six Nations Rugby, my dual nationality gave me options. Come on England! Could I remember the words of 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot'? What a relief not to have to sing that dirge 'Flower of Scotland'. But old cultural habits die very hard and what mattered to me was that I was a Borderer, someone who belonged first to where I was born and where my family had lived for a time. So when my son texted me to complain I had announced on network radio that we were English, I could reassure him that his Borders genes were what mattered.

If my Y chromosome lineage has been in the Scottish Borders for more than a millennium, my mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has probably also been in this place for a very long time. Ellen Irvine, my mother, was born in Hawick and, with her parents and seven siblings, she lived in a tiny flat in the centre of the town. I have many Hawick cousins and more second cousins than I can count.

My mum passed on Irvine mtDNA to me and the surname again turns out to have English origins, meaning something like swineherd. The distribution is mainly English and it may be that - as an occupational name - it was attached where Anglo-Saxon communities settled and farmed. My mtDNA also remembers the long walk of the pioneers out of Africa after 70,000BC. It is a rare lineage and it arose in South Asia before making the journey westwards.

What Jim's findings mean to me is simple and unarguable. I am a Borderer in my blood and bone and my family has worked on the land for many centuries, more than a millennium. 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 lay close to where he worked at Cliftonhill Farm. His daughters were all bondagers, female fieldworkers 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 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 River Eden'.

Alistair Moffat is coauthor (with James Wilson) of The Scots: A Genetic Journey (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA), and author of The Faded Map: The Story of the Lost Kingdoms of Scotland (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).

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