Genetic Genealogy

Genetic Genealogy


There has been a massive interest in Genetics over the past few years driven by advances in research and improved techniques to decode our Genetic makeup. Most people know about the use of DNA to track down criminals, sometimes decades after the crime was committed, and the political hot potato of a proposed DNA database holding the details of every individual in the country to help prevent crime and terrorism, you may be less aware that it has thrown up some interesting applications when applied to Family History, sometimes throwing up anomalies in family lines, but more often linking people to geographic areas way back before written records were kept, and thereby extending albeit sometimes tentatively, the reach of the Genealogist.

Let me give three examples of what can be achieved using the latest research.


The first is my own Tree for the last 140 years we have gone by the name of “McNeil” and from then till the present generation the family lived in Peckham in South London. Straight forward Genealogy, using Birth, Marriage, and Death Records (BMD) showed the ebb and flow of my direct ancestors over that time, and Parish Registers filled in some of the blanks concerning brothers and sisters of the direct ancestors, added to this were War Service Records, and Census returns which showed a slightly wider picture of family and neighbours, from tall of this a picture of the impoverished family performing constant “Moonlight Flits” one step ahead of the rent man in the back streets of Southwark. But having gone back four generations the records seemed to stop. Eventually the course of the gap was tracked down to the Family changing their name between Neal, Neill, O’Neal, O’Neil, McNeill, and McNeil, which in turn with earlier census records and a lucky break with a marriage in the Catholic Sardinian Chapel in London, showed that the family had come over from Kerry in Ireland. The upshot of all this detective work was a fascinating family tree going back to 1801, but again a gap was found in that generation as records in Ireland are sparse to say the least, most Census records having been destroyed during the Civil War in the 1920s, and most of the remaining being pulped for newspapers between the wars, Catholic Parish records being hard to get hold of made the matter worse. So it looked as though the trail would stop there, until the option of Genetic testing came up.

Surnames are passed down through the male line, and in the same way, the Y chromosome is passed down from father to son generally unchanged through many generations before the odd benign mutation crops up to differentiate branches of a family from the rest of that family with a similar Y chromosome. Using these near identical Y chromosomes a family tree can be built up over thousands and tens of thousands of years, with specific mutations showing a timeline and, because of genetic research, geographic locations for the family line over the years.

So off went the swab of cells gently rubbed from the inside of my cheek, and back came a series of numbers showing specific mutations of my particular Y Chromosome, which fitted in to the latest genetic research showing the modern distribution of the Chromosome, and the journey it would have taken over time. The upshot of the results were that my particular Y Chromosome was of a type found in relatively low levels in the British Isles, and even rarer in Ireland other than in very specific areas/families, but very common in Norway, technically it is classed as I1a.

The reason for this “Norwegian” Gene in County Kerry in Ireland, is because there were very specific enclaves in Ireland, the Vikings having founded various ports in the West of Ireland in Kerry and Cork during the 9th to 11th centuries. That would also help to explain the family’s blonde hair as children, turning much darker with age, and the blue and grey eyes, there were Norse recessive showing up through the dark Irish genes through the generations.

Going back further, this particular I1a Chromosome traces itself back from Kerry to the coast from Bergen/Oslo in Norway through the Iron (500 B.C.) Bronze (1800 B.C.) and late Neolithic (3800 B.C.) periods. In the hundred years before this their Neolithic Culture and genes, perhaps driven by internecine warfare, had pushed across the Mesolithic indigenous tribes in the Baltic marshes and islands of Northern Germany and Denmark. In the 1,100 years before (5000 B.C. to 3900 B.C.) they had multiplied with a sedentary farming way of life in North central Europe, especially Germany, clearing forests, building long houses, raising cattle and crops, as well as the proto-German branch of the Indo-European language tree, and their decorated Linear Band Ceramic (LBK) pots from which their culture took its name. They had pushed up the rivers and river valleys through central and northern Europe along the Danube, Rhine, and Elbe in the 500 years from 5500 B.C. to 5000B.C. driving their cattle and carrying their seed wheat and barley in ceramic pots.

Prior to learning agriculture from their south eastern Balkan neighbours and making their long trek up the Rivers of Europe to the North and West, they hunted deer and boar in the woods and fished along the coastline of Slovenia during the Mesolithic Age for perhaps 6000 years, and the roots of the founding father of the Group lived in the Ice Age Balkan Refuge around 11000 B.C. where he and his family hunted horse and reindeer across the tundra and plains, painted cave walls and carved animal bones into voluptuous platted haired Earth Goddess figurines, before the glaciers receded and allowed them to spread North and West giving us one of the main Germanic/Nordic Gene Pools.

The other interesting research shows that the first individual to have blue eyes in the world (due to the OCA2 mutation) from whom over 99% of all blue eyed people are descended on either their male or female lines was born to this or a related group at the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, and the Blonde Hair mutation (MC1R) appeared perhaps just before this around 11,000 B.C. in roughly the same area of the Balkans refuge. Pale skin probably originated (to a great extent via the SLC24A5 mutation) around the time of the earlier ancestral migrants of this and other groups reaching Eurasia in the period 20,000 – 50,000 years ago.

The line goes all the way back from here through various measurable Y Chromosome mutations in a direct line to Genetic “Adam” who lived in North East Africa about 80,000 years ago, and is the genetic Daddy of us all, who would have had black skin, hair, and eyes.

Quite a journey for the lineage of a working class boy from Peckham! This gives the broad picture of what can be discovered by combining genetics with family history, but how can it help in pining down other family research?


Let’s look at a Scottish example I recently traced. The Genealogical research started fairly conventionally with the family in Yorkshire working in engineering in the second half of the 20th century, and farming during WW2, prior to this the family lived in Sunderland, working in the ship yards, the generations living in late Victorian times were still in Sunderland but working as Gardeners in the Parks and Cemeteries of the town. Then I got back to a major leap for the family their Great Grandfather had been the Captain of a small vessel running wine beer and spirits up from the importers and distillers in Northern England to Leith in Scotland, which having gained its political and economic independence from Edinburgh by act of parliament acted as the Port for Edinburgh, and was a boom town in the mid-1800s. His parents and siblings had lived in Dundee and worked in the first Jute and Flax Mills in the city in the Georgian Period.

So far, so good, but then I hit a block, as is often the case, once you get back beyond Census returns and Government Birth, Marriage, and Death registrations, you are back into Parish Records which can be a bit hit and miss in their contents, and for which it can be difficult to find corroborating evidence, albeit that the Scottish Records are somewhat better indexed than their English equivalents. The question was where had the family originated? Were they natives of Dundee, or were they incomers with the flood of people who poured into the city to seek employment in the new Flax and Jute Mills?

Using traditional methods of Census returns, BMD Registers etc, I had narrowed the family origins down to two families, both with the surname Stewart, and the same Mother, father, and child’s name, these were the only two families in Scotland at the time that fitted the bill for my client’s ancestors, sifted through what little supporting evidence I could find it was fifty fifty which of them it would be, and at this point I applied the genetic information we had gathered from a test of my client’s Y Chromosome which swung the balance.

The two candidates for the family were one Family from Dundee, and another from the other side of Scotland in a small Peninsula in Argyll. At first glance the Dundee family looked the obvious candidates because of their Geographic location in Dundee, but there were some very small discrepancies which made me cautious. Applying the Genetic evidence showed that the Y chromosome of my client was of a type loosely referred to as “Celtic” i.e. the genetic “Haplogroup” R1b, the commonest male genetic group in Scotland, on the face of it not a great help, until you start to look more closely at the detail. There is in fact a genetic gradient between Dundee and Argyll, i.e. from West to East for R1b, it being relatively more common in the West (Argyll) than in the East (Dundee), and also my client was from a sub-group commonly referred to as the descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages, “Niall Noigiallach”.

Niall of the Nine Hostages, the High King of Ireland in the second half of the 4th Century AD, the same Irish King who kidnapped Succat a Romano-British youth who escaped back to Britain and took Holy orders, returning to Ireland where he would become known as St Patrick! Niall is believed to be responsible for fathering the ancestors of a disproportionately large number of Irish descended men, up to 25% of the male population in some areas, which goes a way to showing how he left his mark on the tribes he defeated, and the likely size of his own personal “harem”. Niall defeated the Dal Riada (Scots) in battle when they originally lived in the North of Ireland, and forced them to migrate to Argyll and the surrounding area in what was Pictland, but was later to become known as Scotland. Interestingly some of these Scots warriors joined the Roman army as auxiliaries and are mentioned by at least one Roman writer as cannibalistic savages due to their habit of ritually eating the odd captive. As well as forcing the Scots to migrate from Ireland to Pictland, Niall also had his own colonies in Argyll and retained a loose overlordship of the Dal Riada (Scots). Genetically this “legend” is backed up by the replacement of “Pictish” genes and language with Scots Gaelic genes and language in Argyll during the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. It was from this movement of people that my client’s Stewart genes were descended, either from one of Niall’s own colonies in Argyll, or from a subject Dal Riaddic settlement on which he had donated his genetic line to a member of their female aristocracy. Eventually all of these Irish settlers became known collectively as Scots.

The other interesting fact apparent from this is that the Picts were not “Celts”, they had a separate language unintelligible to Gaelic and English speakers, a different genetic mix, pointing to a Scandinavian origin, and rode ponies that can also be traced back genetically to Scandinavia in pre-Viking times; Roman writers compared the Picts to Belgic, Germanic, and Scandinavian tribes in appearance, large limbed and with many red heads, unlike the dark haired dark eyed Gaelic speakers of the western extremes of Britain and Ireland. So counter intuitively, the next time you see a burly red or blonde headed Scot, draped in tartan and balling his Celticness at a Football or Rugby match, you can rest assured that there was probably nothing Celtic about his ancestry till well into the Middle Ages.

Using this genetic information I tied the family into the historical records, tracing them to Morvern in Argyll, and the picture became clearer. A small independent Sept of the clan Stewart held the lands of Morvern in Argyll, in the early 1700s they probably numbered about 1,500 of whom about 300 were men of fighting age. When Charles Edward Stewart landed in Scotland to raise the Scots in war against the house of Hannover in 1745 the 300 Stewart men of Morvern rallied to the Brattach Bhan, the White Banner, under Stewart of Ardshiel culminating in their presence at the Battle of Culloden, where the Highland Scots faced an army of Lowland Scots (there being very few Englishmen present at the battle) at the first sign of a retreat by part of his army of Highlanders “Bonnie” Prince Charlie ran away with his entourage despite being begged to re-enter the fight by the Clan Chief Clunie MacPherson who had arrived with reinforcements.

Despite this and the fact that Appin the wily Clan Chief of the Stewarts had not gone to the battle, Stewart of Ardshiel fought bravely with his men, attacking the Lowland Fusiliers and Cannon that faced him. These tore great gaps in the Highland ranks, and broke their charge. The Brattach Bhan, the White Banner which was the Royal Standard went down with the Standard bearer, and would have fallen to the Lowlanders, had not one of the Morvern Stewart Clan, a man called Mac an t-ledh, snatched it up, tore it from its staff, and wrapped it around his body to prevent it falling into the hands of the Lowlanders as Ardshiel and the bloodied remains of his brave clan including the Morvern Stewarts were forced to make their escape.

After the defeat Bonnie Prince Charlie took ship to France and lived the rest of his days travelling Europe living off the hospitality of whichever sovereign wanted to use him as a political pawn against the British Crown. The Clans were disillusioned by their leadership, and broken as a political force, with the lowlanders imposing harassment and armies of occupation in Highland areas. The Stewarts of Morvern were forced to give up their language, their plaid, and their religion (to a great extent), and settled down to work their crofts and looms for the Clan landlords who had refused to take the field in the rebellion (most Clan Chiefs had one senior member who followed the rebellion, and one that stayed at home and could therefore claim to be blameless if it failed).

In the intervening generations between Culloden where my client’s five times Great Grandfather fought alongside Ardshiel and Mac an t-ledh, and the birth of his three times Great Grandfather, the relationship between Clan Chief and Clansman was slowly eroded by the realisation of the Chiefs that they could become wealthy by turning their lands over to sheep and more intensive farming methods, these would produce more capital and higher rents than they could get from their subsistence farming clansmen growing Potatoes and a little Flax on their smallholdings. The situation was made worse by many of the chiefs preferring to live in Edinburgh or London rather than on their lands, and thereby loosing the connection with their tenants. The clansmen were slowly squeezed off their land by the avarice of their Chiefs, and were forced to embrace the future as best they could. In the case of Morvern the forests were cut down and the timber sold off for ship building and paper making, the tenants were removed from their ancestral homes in the interior and relocated to loch side and coastal settlements where they were instructed to supplement their reduced land holding with kelp collecting and fishing or small scale weaving.

Those who tried to grow Potatoes in the traditional manner were hit with an outbreak of Potato blight; it seemed as if even nature was conspiring against them. Their former farms were given over to sheep rearing by the Duke of Argyll. Betrayed once more by their countrymen, it was ironically English capital and an English industrial revolution that would save my client’s family. In 1829 it was to Dundee that the Stewart Family trekked and it was the English Industrialists in Dundee who welcomed in the starving Stewarts to work in their Flax and Jute Mills, pleased to find dispossessed skilled weavers used to handling flax were abundant and cheap it was a capitalist dream come true.

So the mystery of my client’s ancestry was solved by eliminating an obvious candidate for what was at first site a less obvious candidate via the genetic information which placed the Family’s origin amongst the descendants of a ferociously over-sexed Irish Warlord.


Here we have an example of evidence for a family staying put over a long period rather than throwing light on their travels.

Having traced the family through farming communities in Skipton in Yorkshire, where they had lived since the turn of the 20th century, it turned out that they had originated in Lancashire, over a period of hundreds of years, I followed members of the family from farm to farm, some never rising above labouring status, but the core line tenanting farms of their own paying rent to the local lord, and getting by through thick and thin, back to a single farmhouse out in the bleak marshes of the land between the Lune and Cocker estuaries on the Lancashire coast, where they slowly reclaimed rich farmland from wild marsh during the Georgian period. Generation after generation had been born, farmed and died in that place, side branches of the family never moving than a few miles from the family in the marshes.

This begged the question of how long they had actually been in that area? Civil records will take you back through the 19th century, Parish records, if you are lucky will add maybe a hundred to three hundred years on top of that if they still exist for the Parish, and you can find them, and they are legible, much further than this and you are in the lap of the gods for families that don’t own land or find themselves on the wrong side of the law. But genetics can throw a light further back than this if the circumstances are right.

In this case it was obvious that until the beginning of the 20th century the family had stayed in the same area of the same county, and for a great number of generations before that they had not even left one single isolated farm in the marshes. Given that the great upheavals of the passing of the Stewart, Georgian and Regency Kings and coming of Victoria had barely affected them, let alone the Corn Laws, Cholera Epidemics, Agricultural unrest, Industrial Revolution, The Napoleonic Wars, and Jacobite Rebellions, had not left their mark on them or their life styles, how long had they been there for?

My client carried out a genetic test on the male members of the family’s Y chromosome and came back with some interesting results. These showed that they had the “Celtic” R1b Y chromosome, which in this case pointed to the more or less original “indigenous” population of the West of the British Isles (as well as Ireland), they could have had other “intrusive” chromosomes from other “tribes” of the British Isles, for example the areas to the north in Cumbria, and to the south in the Wirral and Cheshire had strong intrusions of Viking settlers who show up with a different genetic makeup in modern British populations, or specific “indigenous” Eastern British chromosomes from the near continent, not just late Roman and Dark Age “English” markers from Frisia and Denmark, but ancient and related groups from early Neolithic farmers, and invading Belgic tribes. But none of these showed; the line was Celtic, and not obviously associated with sub-groups of the R1b type indicating Scots or Irish descent, it was most likely a native i.e. Mesolithic gene marker, probably in Britain from the repopulation of the land by Iberian hunter gatherers after the last Ice Age.

This gene marker had survived a second wave of immigrants and ideas from Iberia bringing Agriculture, polished stone axes and megalithic worship to North Wales, and ultimately to the indigenous tribes of the surrounding counties including Lancashire, this happened about 6,000 years ago. A third influx brought traders, miners and metal workers from Iberia to the Copper deposits of North Wales, and their trading and culture would have heavily influenced Lancashire leading to the Bronze age Culture between about 2,000 and 750 B.C., they would also have brought their “Lingua Franca” the Celtic language, which appears to have developed as a trading language for the Atlantic seaboard of Europe (rather than a movement of people) from the South of Spain to the North of Scotland.

The next major cultural innovation came with the Iron Age, with it came Belgic tribes (who the latest research would tend to show were not “Celtic” more likely “Germanic” in speech and culture from the North of France and The Low Countries) to the East of England from around 800 B.C. This ushered in an era of slightly colder and wetter weather and a push west against the Celtic speakers in the West by the Belgic speakers in the East. The Celtic speaking tribes with this family’s R1b gene in Lancashire adopted Iron tools and weapons and coalesced as a confederation called the Sistuntes (Sistuntii in Latin) in the coastal areas where their maritime trading and fishing skills helped them survive the climate down turn and warlike raids by the Brigantes from the East in Yorkshire. This places the Sistuntes bang in the middle of the area where the family were from both geographically and genetically.

The Sistuntes would have lived tolerably well in their little corner of Britain during the Iron Age, the climate improved again slightly from the turn of the Millennium from BC to AD, managing to just survive the Brigantian incursions, then came the Romans. In 79 A.D. the Roman Governor of Belgic Britain, the future Emperor Agricola, march to Mona (Anglesey) with a massive force of Legionaries, sweeping the North Welsh tribes aside, he crossed from the mainland to Mona, slaughtered the entire Druidic population there, and cut down their sacred Oak Groves. A Roman hob-nailed marching boot had been stamped down on the throat of Celtic resistance in the north west of Britain.

Agricola then marched north through Cheshire, to Yorkshire where the Brigantes were brought to heel, and into Lancashire where the Sistuntes were encountered. Being more interested in trade, and having seen what had happened to those who resisted, the Sistuntes sensibly acquiesced to Roman domination, and were rewarded with eight fortified military camps, connected by roads, which although built to protect Roman communications in the North of Britain actually protected the Sistuntes from the Brigantes, and enabled the Sistuntes to sell supplies to the garrisons thereby opening up trade and wealth for them. Out of the amalgamation of these Military camps, native civilian shanty towns, and agricultural villages, the Romans built Towns which would become Manchester, Warrington, Lancaster, Overborough, Freckleton, Blackrode, Ribchester, and Colne. The Roman occupation from the Sistuntes viewpoint was almost completely benign and indeed a great leap forward culturally, they could worship and live how they liked as long as they paid their taxes and kept the peace.

400 years of benign Roman rule collapsed over a period of about 100 years between about 400 A.D. and 500 A.D. What was left of the Garrisons in the cities held out under local Romano-British gentry. This was thrown into turmoil when the descendants of the Brigantes now with a veneer of Scandinavian pagan incomers from Angeln in Denmark, decided to push West again in what became known as part of the Anglo-Saxon invasions. In fact this was just a continuation of the Brigantian encroachments that had been going on since the start of the Iron Age 1,200 years previously, and carries up till this day with the rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire in Cricket; the names and weapons changed, but the genetic makeup of the players has remained more or less the same for the last 3,000 years.

The outcome of all this was that after initial setbacks when the invaders took some of the old Roman cities, the Celtic British managed to hold out, retake them, and formed the British Christian Kingdom of Rheged (sometimes two Kingdoms North and South) which at various times spread from North Wales and Cheshire to the Scots Border, the Anglo-Brigantes set up the rival “English” Kingdom of Bernicia facing them to the East, initially Pagan, eventually becoming Christian.

Politics being what it is, in 730 A.D. a dynastic marriage and a settling of disputes between the Celtic speakers of Rheged and the English speakers of Bernicia led to an amalgamation to form the Kingdom of Northumbria, giving them a fighting chance against the Picts, Scots, and Irish, who now menaced their coasts and borders. This was short lived as within 150 years Northumbria was effectively overrun by Norwegian Vikings in the West and Danish Vikings in the East.

Despite all of this turmoil the family’s ancestors survived to pass down their “Celtic” Y chromosome; a British “aboriginal” male line, that had survived Brigantes, Romans, Angles, and Vikings to come down intact to the present day. Interestingly names like “Roskell” appear in the early female lines of the tree and are derived from Old Norse, so although the male line went straight beck to Mesolithic times it intertwined over the centuries with genes through the female line from the Viking invaders and no doubt others. The point about the Y Chromosome is that is doesn’t get genetically shuffled every generation they way most genes do, so retains it “character” over millennia bar the occasional mutation which form the “branches” of its tree. Thereby giving us a glimpse of the amazing geographic stability of the families who farmed the marshes.


So as a tool for Genealogical research, genetics provides some certainties, a host of clues from which inferences can be made, but can be a blunt instrument in terms of throwing light on the specifics of a tree, other than proving a negative. As an example, genetics tells us some interesting facts, like if you have blue eyes you have a n ancestor who lived in the Balkans at the end of the last Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago, it can give you clues to an ethnic identity linked to a Celtic tribe allied to the Romans 2,000 years ago, a Viking colony in Ireland 1,200 years ago, and differentiate between two families in Scotland 200 years ago. Using it sensibly adds a new dimension to genealogical research, and paints in broad brush strokes the missing centuries in a family tree.

My Services

If you would like to have your Family’s genetic Origins traced please contact Paul McNeil on the following email address:

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