Population amd Disease Genetics Group Centre for Population Health Sciences
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Genetic History

The Y chromosome is a long segment of DNA with many variants inherited together as one block from father to son through the generations. It thus allows reconstruction of uniquely detailed genealogies or trees linking groups of related lineages, which are very non-randomly distributed and has been a workhorse of genetic history. My particular interests are in the population history of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales and their NW European context.

In 1999 I discovered the first genetic evidence for Norse Viking ancestry in the British Isles, in Orkney. The M17 marker which was rare in other parts of the British Isles, but common in Norway was found at intermediate frequency in Orkney, consistent with considerable Norse ancestry there. The higher concentration among men carrying indigenous surnames such as Flett, Rendall, Clouston or Isbister confirmed that the blood of the Vikings still flowed in the veins of Orkneymen.

The BBC commissioned us to survey 25 populations across the British Isles for the BBC2 series, Blood of the Vikings. Shetland joined Orkney in having by far the most Norse blood in the Isles, with the Western Isles and the Isle of Man showing a weaker signal of Scandinavian ancestry. Indigenous British or Irish ancestry accounted for the majority of lineages in all places, but the East of England stood out from the other populations sampled, being closer to Danish and German samples, probably due to Anglo-Saxon and Danish input, as well as earlier arrivals.

As more markers have been discovered and characterised we have been able to extend this work, in many cases through research carried out at my genetic ancestry testing company EthnoAncestry. We characterised S21 and S28, two markers of Continental ancestry in the British Isles both concentrated in the east of Scotland and England. We characterised M222 as a marker for the common North Irish lineage, inferred to include the Ui Niall, descendants of the fifth century Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages. We also showed that about 7% of Scots carry this marker – the signature of a significant Irish admixture in Scotland. We inferred the Pictish origin of a particular genetic signature essentially found only in Scotland. We have been instrumental in the identification or development of a plethora of other markers including further Norse, Irish, Pictish and British markers.

A summary of the genetic history of Scotland is presented in Jim Wilson and Alistair Moffat's book and accompanying BBC Radio Scotland series, The Scots: A Genetic Journey.

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