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Issue 51 - Seven degrees

Scotland Magazine Issue 51
June 2010


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Seven degrees

One unexpected consequence of my having written a history of my ancestors in East Lothian, the rich coastal pastureland of south-east Scotland, is that I have recently been approached to provide my DNA.

Not, I should emphasise, because any of my ancestors are known criminals, but there is a company called in West Lothian which is currently tracing the origins of all of us in the United Kingdom.

With at least five generations of my family all living in one place it seems that I am considered an ideal guinea pig.

It surely is a funny old world. As multiculturalism sweeps across continents, more and more of us are becoming obsessed with where we all come from.

To qualify as a Briton, apparently, you have to be genetically linked through your paternal line to one or more of eleven haplogroups (ancestral lineages) – Pictish, Caledonian, Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Niall-Noigiallach, Kungan, Paleolithic, Norse Viking, Northman, Scandinavian and Germanic.

Yours truly, I have discovered, belongs to the latter grouping.

Of course, scientific language is designed to baffle, if only to allow mistakes to be made without anyone being any the wiser.

With images of Visigoths and France and teutonic knights and Prussian crusaders racing through my head, I immediately googled “Germanic” to find out quit what this revelation might signify exactly.

Happily, and much to my relief I discovered that it in no way compromised what I already knew.

All human lineages seemingly originated in Africa over 100,000 years ago, and these Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers lived off the land around them and were responsible for the Aurignacian material culture of tool making as well as the cave art of Lascoux, France, and Altamira in Spain, sitting out the last great ice age of 18,000 years ago in Iberia.

After that, they took off in a variety of directions. Remember that the earliest examples of tartan cloth were unearthed in the three tombs at Quizilchoqa, a city that existed two millennia ago in the Taklimakan Desert, near Hami in North West China.

And recent DNA studies on Orkney and Shetland show definitive links to people in both Siberia and Pakistan.

However, Y chromosomes in the Germanic subgroup that I belong to, are only to be found in the North European plain, emerging in the Bronze Age and reaching a peak in the Rhineland and Low Countries with tentacles only thereafter being scattered as far afield as the Alps and northern Italy.

It was largely the Anglo-Saxons, Danes and, to a lesser degree, the Normans who brought the gene to the British Isles, and today it remains predominant on the east Coast of England and in southern Scotland.

So here am I wondering how my ancestors got here and fantasising about Norman knights arriving in Scotland in the early twelfth century have their way with the local girls.

Well, if the truth be known, that is probably exactly what happened.

Now I am also aware of the claim made by Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at Oxford University, that all of us in Western Europe are descended from only seven women known as the “Clan Mothers”. Drawing from their various Gaelic, Scandinavian and Persian origins, he has even given them names – Ursula, Xenia, Tara, Helena, Katrine, Velda and Jasmine.

Since the oldest genetic line goes back 45,000 years, and the most recent, 10,000, they must have been a septet of pretty formidable matriarchs.

However, I am not entirely sure how I feel about being descended from a woman called Ursula, nor a lassie by the name of Katrine, although that is not to say that they were not both excellent mothers. Tara and Jasmine sound much more fun, but that is one of the things you learn about tracing your ancestry.

You never know who or what you are going to come up with, and sadly none of us can pick and choose our relatives.

At this juncture, I am reminded of Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else in Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operetta The Mikado, who haughtily announces that he can trace his ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule.

“Consequently my family pride is inconceivable,” he continues.

“I can’t help it. I was born sneering.”

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