How DNA helped me and what it can do for you

Age 2 with the Ochils in the background

I grew up just outside of Stirling, the longtime home of Scotland’s royal family before they shut-up-shop and took up a more lucrative gig in London. Its castle stands in the shadow of the Ochil Hills and the more distant Highland peaks. Bannockburn, Stirling Bridge, the Wallace monument and many other pivotal Scottish moments happened within earshot; even the early Scottish colony of Nova Scotia was ‘founded’ by the 1st Earl at the castle across the road from my elementary school.

Bannockburn an’ a that

My mother’s mother in the 1930s

As a child, my grandmother told me that Robert the Bruce was our ancestor- a story I utterly dismissed. It would be decades before DNA and a full check of parish records confirmed it. Unfortunately Granny Yardley died when I was 10, but I did verify the family story in time for an aunt dying of cancer. To be clear – should anyone think I have delusions of grandeur- I’m a firm believer in the thinking of Robert Burns.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,He’s but a coof for a’ that:For a’ that, an’ a’ that, His ribband, star, an’ a’ that: The man o’ independent mind, He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A Man’s a Man for A’ That Robert Burns, 1795 

There’s much controversy over whether DNA can be used against us. I decided to take the tests because I wanted to get something personally meaningful out of it before a likely future where it’s primarily a transactional security and health function of a privacy free life.

The beauty of DNA is that when it’s matched with parish records it shows how our ancestors climbed up, fell down and repeatedly crawled back onto life’s ladder. In short it’s a beautiful reminder of the human spirit; like Robert the Bruce’s spider we refuse to give up even if our individual lot in life is to suffer so our children do not. People are people and DNA proves opportunity, not birth-right, should govern us all.

In 2015, The People of the British Isles (PoBI) project from Oxford University published the world’s first subregional breakdown of ancestry based on genetic clusters of rural populations tested because all 4 of their great-grandparents were from the same area. This was followed up by the Irish DNA Atlas in 2017. The results are a snapshot of British and Irish genetics before the 19th Century and modern mass migration.

Source:  PLOS Genetics

The vast majority of people on the islands of Britain and Ireland did not move around until at least 200 years ago, therefore your localised DNA is basically a map to where your ancestors lived before then.

Anyone with deep ancestry in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales can probably learn where their ancestors lived in the ancient kingdoms that existed in the 6th century. These Kingdoms were the legacy of the collapse of the Roman Empire.

For centuries after the Roman occupation (43 to 410 AD) Hadrian’s Wall separated Britain’s indigenous tribes. After Rome’s collapse, much of what became England was invaded by Anglo Saxons, Vikings and Normans. The northern tribes in what became Scotland united sufficiently to repeat their early success against Rome to remain unconquered.

Does Locational DNA match the historical record? The answer is an emphatic yes

According to LivingDNA roughly 30% of my father’s DNA has its origins in Cornwall and 30% in Highland Scotland, outside Britain about 2% is from north Italy. Most of my mother’s DNA is from the ancient heartlands of Lowland Scotland; a little over 5% is from France.

British company LivingDNA is the first to use the new data to provide a regional breakdown of local ancestry in 21 regions of the UK. They have still to include the newer information from the Irish DNA Atlas. Experience has taught me that Ancestry and 23andMe are currently the best places for locational data in Ireland.

So let’s see how the locational data compares to the records and ancient kingdoms and regions.

X marks the spot. My mother’s lot were very much North Lanarkshire & Ayrshire Stewarts and Douglases.
DNA shows my father is 29% Highlander, less than 2% Lowlander. Records show his family came from Perthshire and Moray. Jacobites- they lost much; ending up in Northern Ireland, Glasgow & the U.S.
My mother’s DNA from England (23%) compared to the map of Mercia at the height of its influence
My father’s DNA from England & Wales (55%) compared to Wessex and its client states at the height of the Danelaw
One of my son’s inherited his mother’s overwhelmingly North Munster DNA; he got Donegal, Fermanagh, Cornwall, Devon and Lowland Scotland from me

As you can see DNA can be a game changer, particularly for people who don’t know their ancestry or can’t trace records. Our internal DNA hard-drives can carry around 120 ancestors – 60 from each parent – so with each passing generation our earliest genetically traceable ancestors fade away. As a result the generations alive today are the last who will be able to confidentially use autosomal DNA to trace relatives before the age of discovery and the huge amount of global migration that followed.

Currently DNA is useless for tracing most – but not all – individual ancestors without known family trees; for instance my 5-to-7 percent Irish DNA can’t help me trace Irish ancestors before the late 1700s because records were destroyed during the Irish civil war.

The one thing all of us can trace even without records is our ancient DNA, long before surnames were even a thing. In recent years DNA extracted from hundreds of remains- thousands to hundreds-of-thousands of years old- proved modern people still carry the signatures of our most ancient ancestors. Only recently (2018) were the bones of a first generation Neanderthal/human child found in a cave in Europe. Until the early 21st century no-one knew the two populations bred let alone that most people indigineous to Europe or Asia had the proof in their DNA. Unlike humans and almost all other Homines, Neanderthals didn’t evolve in Africa; they evolved in Europe and settled much later in the Middle East, and parts of Western Asia.

“Neanderthals are not totally extinct. In some of us they live on, a little bit.”

Svante Pääbo, Director, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Neanderthals thrived in Europe for several hundred thousand years before modern humans arrived. The evidence so far suggests a relatively small wave of early Homo sapiens arrived around 70,000 years ago. Current evidence suggests Neanderthals died out about 40 thousand years after the earliest Homo sapiens arrived. The descendants of the two groups are the Early Hunter Gatherers (formerly known as Cro-Magnon). They were followed about 9 thousands years ago by the Early Farmers from Anatolia in present-day Turkey and about 6 thousand years after that the Metal Age horsemen from the vast grasslands of the Eurasian steppes.

My results from FamilyTreeDNA’s ‘Ancient Origins’

All of the above can be achieved with a standard autosomal dna test. But if you want to get into the weeds of DNA research you’ll need to get a male in your family to have a Y-DNA test.

What can Y-DNA tell me?

I’m not going to get into the details of what a Y-DNA test is other than to say it traces back your fatherline thousands of years.

The orange dots are my confirmed ancestors in Northern Ireland. The M222 heat map from a Trinity College, Dublin project.

If you want to do serious Y-DNA research, FamilyTreeDNA is the best place for trustworthy groups based on that.

Another interesting thing that can be achieved with DNA involves something called SNPs (pronounced “snips”); we have millions of them. Occasionally they mutate creating unique genetic markers which are the biological postcode or zip code for male descendants. Thousands of males have these mutations but not everyone’s ancient ancestors have their DNA extracted by scientists!

So to the story that my family are related to The Bruce – and his early Stewart king descendants – DNA appears to confirm it via a known mutation in the Stewart Y-DNA.

The lesson from all the above is that DNA can tell you a lot even if you don’t know much. And if you do have family stories like me, then they can be confirmed by DNA. The moral of the story is do not dismiss your elders, they are living family history books. Listen and record everything they say; in our historically disconnected times they often know way more than we do. As for the Bruce and all those who seek to lead, I think the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 set the right tone.

If this prince [Robert the Bruce] shall leave those principles which he hath so nobly pursued, we will immediately endeavor to expel him as our enemy, and as the subverter of both his own and our rights, and will choose another king who will defend our liberties. 

Indeed. A man’s a man for a that. An’ a woman.