How DNA can be the missing link to records & family stories
The tree has my mother’s name blacked out for privacy reasons. Henry Connolly (left) is on my father’s side- from an ancient Irish family that married into the Scottish plantation and converted to protestantism to keep their land.
Stirling, ancient Royal Capital
I grew up a mile outside of Stirling, the old royal capital of Scotland. 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 in time for an aunt dying of cancer.
What does DNA add to my family history?
The lesson from 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. 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; experience has taught me that records and DNA more often than not back up their stories.
I know that my modern Irish DNA is only a few generations deep and linked to the plantations; my Scots ancestors married into ancient Irish families before their descendants took the return boat to Scotland a century or two later. I also know based on DNA that my mother’s DNA is over 50% southwest Scotland. That information compliments Scotland’s excellent parish records back to the early 16th century. My mother’s side can be genetically traced back to their tribal origin and were prominent until the mid 1600s. My father is genetically one third Pict, a highlander whose family lost it all after the Jacobite rebellion. Where defeat in war took my father’s ancestral lands, fascinatingly, sexism robbed my mother’s female ancestors!
In 1513, Scotland invaded England under the terms of its centuries old military alliance with France. Henry VIII and his main army had crossed the Channel and the Scots were asked to create a second front. The Battle of Flodden Field was rather like Bannockburn in reverse- the Scots had the bigger army and better equipment, but their haste to support the French meant their troops weren’t prepared enough; the battle went England’s way. One of Scotland’s best kings, James the IV, died on the field surrounded by most of Scotland’s nobility and many a regular soldier. An estimated 10,000 men – including two bishops, two abbots, twelve earls, thirteen lords, five eldest sons of lords, and about 300 of Scotland’s most influential men – were killed. It was Scotland’s worst death toll until World War I.
The outcome of Flodden brought my direct ancestors crashing to Earth; descended as I am from the granddaughters and great granddaughters of at least nine grandfathers killed in their failed attempts to protect the King. Despite the defeat, the expected knock out blow never arrived as the English focused on their invasion of France. The Renaissance followed, but most women in this time of artistic distraction amid tragedy and fear, didn’t inherit castles and the field of eligible bachelors had been cut thin. Their descendants never forgot however. Even in the early 1800s my fifth and forth great grandmothers were descended from Robert the Bruce and his close friend and commander at Bannockburn, the ‘Good Sir James’ (Douglas).
The 1600s was a period of stern Calvinist government. The Scots took to the Protestant Reformation with relish, tearing down almost all of their ancient Abbeys and Cathedrals. The people of Glasgow surrounded their cathedral; as a result it is one of the few to survive. The catholic French were also expelled and the protestant English looked at in a more pragmatic light. Those who couldn’t stomach the new reality headed to colonial America where their descendants would fight another war of independence, undoubtably with cousins on the opposite side of their musket shots. For those left behind standards of living slipped. But my family’s long history in southwest Scotland meant something. When the Scottish king- literally a distant cousin with a new Crown in London- tried to replace the bottom-up democracy of Scottish Church congregations with English hierarchy, they took up arms. The resulting war tore Scotland, England and Ireland apart but eventually led to the creation of the United Kingdom a century later.
The Covenanters finally lost at the Battle of Boswell Bridge on June 22nd, 1679. The consequences were great and most left for America. A generation on, my 5th Great Grandmother, Ann Weir, – descended from Stuarts, the Good Sir James (Douglas) and The Bruce married an Englishman, David Yeardly.
David Yeardly and Ann Weir’s first son, James married Janet Hunter, great-granddaughter of a covenanter at Boswell Bridge. Her records show she was born within a mile of the battle site. The majority of those who still remained defiant lost their lands and status and were exiled to the Plantations in Ireland or America directly, where they became some of the earliest colonial settlers. A few were executed. Those who signed the Kings Peace became as loyal to the new Kings as they had once been to their Stewart kin. They fought in every war for the British State after 1707. Their Calvinist and Covenanter past led to early adoption and involvement in the successor breakaway Free Church of Scotland.
This continued in my direct maternal line until my grandmother married the son of an Irish Catholic on the eve of World War II. I was told my grandmother’s decision split the family and that was why my grandmother’s Yardleys were never in my life. Until a few years ago I thought that was all there was to it. Then a dying family member told my mother that the Quartermaster General of the IRA has been at my Great Grandfather Francis Mohan’s funeral in the 1950s. I laughed at that. But I made some enquiries with the authorities in Ireland and, oh boy, this is what they gave me.
The evidence is certainy compelling and Francis Mohan certainly had good reason in the context of where his family came from. As for my grandmother’s decision, perhaps like her ancestor, Ann Weir, she was just sick of the patriotic death march. War, ideology and power struggles had taken family members since the beginning of time; her own father passed the day after Christmas when she was just five years old from an infection linked to his trench war wounds.
As for my father’s side there is an equally interesting story. Before I go back to earlier events I’ll start where we ended above, with the First World War and a remarkable Northern Irishman called Robert Connolly. Like William Yardley, he’s my great grandfather. He survived the war – but kept his dramatic story to himself; all we know is based on records and DNA.
Robert Connolly was born in 1883 at Drumdallagh, Loughguile, Antrim, in Ulster. His father James and mother Catherine Campbell were farmers and merchants.
In May 1905 Robert arrives in America. He’ll work for a couple of years for The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). The old family story is that he drove trains through the Wild West. That’s not impossible as PRR were expanding lines in the early 1900s into what we would call the Wild West; maybe this is where he learned how to handle a weapon (something which served him well in WWI).
In 1909 Robert marries an American woman called Susan Kelly who dies later that year from influenza. He returned home shortly after, just before the Great War. He settles in Scotland where he joins the Highland Light Infantry.
Robert arrives in France in spring 1915 and is quickly assigned to The Kings Own Scottish Borderers and the Machine Gun Corp, an early form of special forces also known as the ‘suicide squad’; always first in and last out. Gassed in 1917, he was injured in hand to hand combat on the first day of the German Spring Offensive of 1918, he returned from France with a 1/2 inch scar in his cheek bone and a skull and crossbones tattoo on his upper left arm – the insignia of the Machine Gun Corp.
There’s no evidence of Robert ever returning to his native Ulster. His death certificate lists his wife as Susan Kelly – we have the marriage and death documents from America – but his military file lists him as a ‘widower’ with an unmarried wife called Christina Gow. Hamilton Connolly, one of their two children listed by the military, is my grandfather.
Christina Gow’s background proved to be very important in explaining why my father gets DNA matches on prominent Stewart and Douglas families in Perthshire (off shoots of my mother’s main branch in Lanarkshire). Records show Robert Connolly already has Scottish connections through his mother and his father’s mother Nancy Kirkpatrick, so I assumed it was that- until that is, I discovered a two hundred year old family tree that includes Christina Gow’s known ancestors.
Robertson’s of Inches
Despite modern technology of DNA evidence and digitized parish records, it’s a document written almost two centuries ago that provides proof. My father’s Highlanders were Jacobites. They were part of the Forfeited Estate after the rebellion failed; indeed the ancient lands of the Stuarts of Balquhidder- among my father’s closest genetic kin – are now submerged deep under a man made dam at Glen Fergus. Most of the clan headed to Northern Ireland before heading en mass to America. There’s no definitive proof in Northern Ireland records (most of Ireland’s records before 1780 were destroyed during the Irish Civil War after independence) – but I’ll let you be the judge based on comparison’s between my father and two Balquhidder American descendants.
My personal story
As I said at the top of this ‘about me’ story, I grow up in the region at the heart of Scottish history. The volcanic rock in Stirling’s centre has had a castle probably as long as people have lived in the country. Until the 18th century – and the draining of impassable land – every army from the Romans to the Normans and English came through here. Over many thousands of years, geography played a key role in preventing would-be conquerors from gaining power for long. When the Scottish King was offered the throne of England, he moved to London and created Great Britain; Stirling lost its ancient importance. I grew up there in the early 1980s, a time of geopolitical tensions and economic change that transformed Scotland. In an effort to understand the outside influences shaping the country I ended up in journalism. After a decade in the BBC mainly in London and overseas I settled in Canada.
A job came up in NASA’s Haughton Mars Project in the High Arctic- an opportunity simply too good to miss. I’ve been spending my time between the new and old world ever since. I met my Irish wife in Canada; we hope our children will be enriched by their experiences on both sides of the pond. After helping many friends and colleagues with their family history I finally caved into their calls for me to go into business. Myorigins.co.uk is the result. I take great pleasure in helping Canadians, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders – and all others- reconnect to their roots. I’ll use all the skills from a lifetime of truth seeking and adventure to bring your professionally researched family story alive.