Murder, Mayhem, and Mutiny Scotland

When researching a Family Story and Family Tree for clients we can sometimes find half forgotten, epic stories, that have borne their ancestors along on the tide of history.  This was one such case where we found a Durham Mining Family had roots in the North of Scotland in one of the last inter-clan invasions of Scottish territory.  In this case it also lets us pinpoint the actual moment when the surname was adopted, which is very rare in family history.

The family’s name of Larnach is extremely rare, even in Scotland. The accepted origin of the Larnach name places it in Argyll Scotland. Tradition has it that the Clan is descended from the 5th century King Loarne who gave his name to Lorne in Argyll. The generally accepted derivation of the name is from the Gaelic “Latharnach” meaning “a man from Lorne”.  Now you wouldn’t call a man from Lorne a man from Lorne if you were all living in Lorne.  So, despite what the accepted authorities say, the actual surname could never have originated in that area.  Rather, like most names with a geographical element to them, the surname must have originated when people from Lorne left Lorne and went somewhere else, so the families may have originated in Lorne, but the surname didn’t.  This is backed up by the records,  where we find that almost all the recorded instances of the surname Larnach before modern times are not in Argyll, they come from Caithness on the other side of Scotland.  In fact there are no Larnachs other than this family in Caithness and occasionally the Orkney Isles, in any records from the 18th and early 19th centuries. So Larnach was a name applied outside of Argyll to a man from Lorne in Argyll. If this is the case why did they travel so far? The intriguing answer may point to a family adventure taking in Clan battles and Jacobite uprisings.

To find out how the Larnachs travelled from Argyll to Caithness, we have to look at the turbulent 1600s, and a Highland Laird with a reputation as a rogue.

A follower of Slippery John

1680Slippery John

John Campbell was the son of Sir John Campbell of Glen Orchy in Argyll and a member of the Scottish Parliament. In1672 he was the chief creditor to George Sinclair 6th Earl of Caithness, and as surety for the debt, held claim to the Earl of Caithness’s Lands and Titles. When the Earl died without a direct male heir,and still owing the debt, John Campbell of Orchy claimed the Earldom of Caithness by default. In1678 he married the dead Earl’s widow to reinforce his claim and save himself having to pay her a £1,200 per anum annuity.

Needless to say the rest of the Sinclairs of Caithness were not happy with the family Earldom being bartered away over gambling debts, and so John Campbell’s claim to the title of Earl of Caithness was challenged by disgruntled members of the Sinclair Clan.  This move was led by George Sinclair of Keiss. Keiss waited till John Campbell travelled to Parliament in London, then seized former Sinclair properties around Weik (Wick) one of the main Caithness towns, and thereby denied John Campbell the rights to the Earldom by force majeure.

Now John Campbell was not a man to back down and also a man of action, so in 1680, he sought redress through the Government’s Privy Council, who confirmed his rights, and instructed the Chief General in the North of Scotland, Lord Dalzell, to support the Campbell claim with troops and money. Backed by Government in law, finance, and arms, and having raised a force of Highlanders from his Argyll Clan followers including an ancestor of our client.  John Campbell marched his force from Perth to Wick. Sources claim that he had between 800 and 1,400 followers. The discrepancy in numbers is interesting, and may show the difference in numbers between his Clan followers and the Government Troops who were ordered to join the expedition..

Once in Caithness, John Campbell followed the letter of the law, sending Government proclamations to be read at the larger towns, to warn of his approach and offer a bounty for any who actively turned against the Sinclairs. On the march to Thurso John Campbell managed to outflank the Sinclair forces, who moved camp to confront the Campbells. John Campbell made two attempts to parlay with the Sinclairs and give them the opportunity to disperse, but his first envoy was sent back under a torrent of abuse, and his second was captured and taken prisoner, against the accepted rules of warfare at the time. Undeterred The Campbells marched on Thurso, only to find the main approaches to the town protected by Sinclair cannons, that promptly subjected the Campbells to cannon fire. In a last-ditch attempt to gain peaceful access to Thurso, John Campbell sent a herald, but the man was forced to flee for his life from the hostile acts of the Sinclairs.

The Campbells decided to march south to Wick, the Sinclairs decided to follow. John Campbell was wily as well as brave, and decided to improve his odds of winning by a pair of ruses. He arranged for one of his agents to deliberately run a ship aground near the Sinclairs’ camp, this ship carried a cargo of Whiskey that John Campbell realised the Sinclairs would salvage and drink. He read the situation well, the Sinclairs did indeed spend the night drinking whiskey and carousing.

The following day the Sinclairs woke up nursing hangovers, and marched out of Wick to confront the Campbells who had marched towards the town. The Campbells halted their march and made much of performing a hasty retreat, and upon seeing this the Sinclairs  enthusiastically pursued them.  But John Campbell had planned this event, and the retreat was merely a ruse to draw the Campbells pell-mell to Altimarlach where a group of his troops had hidden in a gulley.

The Campbells drew up past the hidden gully to their forward flanks, and looked to makle a stand with their inferior numbers. of men.  To the Sinclairs the Campbells looked like so many bare arsed savages, bare footed and trouserless.  This was a clash of two separate ethnicities; the Campbells were descended from the savage Scots who had invaded Scotland from Ireland (mainly Ulster) in the 5th century and given Scotland their name.  The  Brythonic speakers they replaced called them “Gaels” which meant “Savages” a name still proudly bourn by Scots and Irish to this day.  By contrast the men of Caithness, were descended from the Norse who had invaded from Scandinavia as Vikings, mixed with the ancient Picts (non-Gaelic speakers)  who were indigenous to Northern Scotland before the Scots got there.  The men of Caithness with their Pictish/Norse ancestry wore trousers and shoes, preferred to live in larger coastal towns and generally saw their western Scots neighbours as savages, with good reason.

Despite their hangovers from the drinking the night before, the Norse-Pictish Sinclairs attacked the Scots Campbell line. The Campbell’s held, and cat-called the Sinclairs, for being soft for wearing breeks (trousers) and shoes, whilst the Campbells were barefoot and in plaid (a type of kilt). The Campbells fired off a volley and with John Campbell in the fore, drew their Claymore swords, hefted their shields, and charged barefoot at the Sinclairs, at which point the surprise attack from the men hidden in the gulley was launched. This combination attack broke the Sinclair line and forced them to flee. The Campbells pursued the Sinclairs slaughtering them in the pursuit, and chasing the remnants into the River Wick where they drowned. So many Sinclairs were killed that the Campbells were able to pursue across the river dry-shod over their bodies.

After the battle the Clan Campbell Piper Finlay ban McIver, would compose the tune “The Campbells are coming” with the line “…the carls wi’ the breeks are running before us…” referring to the Sinclairs in their breeches. It is as part of this army of “bare-arsed savages” that the Larnachs, coming to Caithness from Lorne with Slippery John Campbell originated, running with their swords across the River Wick over the dead bodies of the slaughtered Sinclairs.  It is very rare in a Family History, that a surname’s origin can be pinpointed so precisely to an historical event.

John Campbell, his victory complete, kept the title of Earl of Caithness for about 6 years, giving land and farms to his followers, and employing them as tax collectors and in other overseer roles. John Campbell was later dispossessed of his claim by the Scottish Parliament, who ruled that a Title to an Earldom is not one man’s possession to be sold for a debt.  None the less Slippery John Campbell reaped the reward of receiving other titles in exchange for his lost title, and became Earl of Breadalbane and Holland (a district in Scotland), Viscount of Tay and Paintland (ancient “Pictland”) and Lord Glenorchy, Benederloch, Ormelie and Wick, thereby keeping a hold on lands in Caithness, especially around Wick. He was described by a British Government Spy, John Mackay as:

“Grave as a Spaniard, wise as a serpent, cunning as a fox, and slippery as an eel.”

Given the Larnach name derived from “a man from Lorne” in Argyll, it verifies that the ancestors of my client were among the hundreds of men of Argyll who invaded Caithness with John Campbell. It would explain the family living in the area near Wick where John Campbell had his power base, and where his followers held lands and property. This would have made the Lanarchs unpopular in the area as their sponsor Slippery John Campbell, was viewed as a military dictator by the locals who he ruled with an iron hand, enforced by his local followers including the Larnachs.

First Records Late 1600s – Early 1700s

The written records throw up a few Larnach entries for Caithness at Watten (on the road from Wick to Thurso) during the very early part of the 1700s, given the rarity of the name these were undoubtedly relatives of this line, and I managed to piece together a rough tree of these early generations which was presented to the client.  Some of the entries were necessarily speculative due to the sparsity of records, but given that there appears to be only one recorded Larnach Family in Caithness Scotland by the 1700s, i.e. this client’s  Larnach line, the tree fitted the timings of various births and marriages etc.

Foul Mouthed Larnachs

One interesting entry in the court sessions for 1701 directs the town of Wick to:

“…put up ane cock-stool.”

Followed by

“Alexander Larnock and his wife are appointed to stand publicly, and to pay 20 shillings Scots for the crime of cursing.”

So one of the earliest generations of Larnachs in Caithness were a hard swearing couple in Wick, for whom a stool was erected for their public shaming. No doubt being followers of Slippery John Campbell didn’t endear them to the locals.


After the English Civil War, the restoration of Charles II, and the ousting of James II due to his Catholic loyalties, Slippery John took the oath of allegiance to William III (William of Orange, the new Dutch Protestant King of Great Britain) in 1689. John Campbell was seen as a useful agent in the highlands, and in 1691 was paid a large sum of money by the Government in London to payoff Jacobite Highlanders and gain a truce in hostilities. He did manage to arrange a truce, but did so whilst keeping the whole of the money for himself. When called before Parliament in London to account for what had happened to the money he famously said:

“The money is spent, the Highlands are quiet, and this is the only way of accounting between friends.”

William III’s reign was violent in the highlands, with Clans using the excuse of wearing a Red Coat and a King’s Commission to settle scores with rivals, as well as pitching Highlanders against Lowlanders. So bad was Slippery John Campbell’s reputation amongst many Scots that he was blamed for many acts of betrayal, many years later Sir Walter Scott even implicated him as the chief planner of the Glencoe Massacre of 1692, where the MacDonalds were slaughtered by the Campbells who were guests in their homes, but there was no evidence to support that claim. Although this massacre is sometimes blamed on the English, the men in Redcoats who did the killing were almost entirely Scots, and many Argyll Campbells.

In 1707 both the Scottish and English Parliaments voted to be united in a single political realm of “Great Britain”. Many people in Scotland were against the Union. Some Scottish Protestants were afraid that the rigorously democratic makeup of the Scottish Kirk would become Anglicised, to be given over to rule by Bishops, rather than the congregations. Most Scottish Catholics were against a Protestant Hanoverian King ruling Scotland, and wanted a return of the exiled Stuart line of Kings. Using a network of spies, including the author of Treasure Island Daniel Defoe, the English Government judged the mood of the Scottish people as heavily against Union, with DeFoe stating that there were

“99 Scots against Union for every 1 Scot for it.”

A significant, dangerous, and profitable part was played in these troubles, by the man who had brought the Larnachs to Caithness, their aristocratic sponsor “Slippery” John Campbell of Glen Orchy and Breadalbane. His actions would have direct consequences for the lives of the Larnachs as his sworn men.

Many Highland Scottish Lairds like Slippery John, were afraid that the rule of English Law in Scotland would replace their far reaching ancient rights and take away their power. So to counter this popular opposition, the English Government bought the votes of Scottish Parliamentarians with bribery, prompting Robbie Burns to compose a couplet on the matter:

“We’re bought and sold for English Gold,
Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.”

Slippery John voted against the Union, gave some support to a proposed French intervention, but did not put his name to anything in writing. It is highly likely that the Larnachs would have opposed Union at this time as political opinion was set by the local Laird.

Discontent blew up in 1715 with a Stuart Jacobite uprising, Slippery John pleaded old age and infirmity to avoid travelling to Edinburgh to pledge allegiance to the crown, instead he travelled to the Jacobite camps, as one of the local Caithness Sinclairs put it:

“…to trick others, not to be tricked, and to obtain a share of the French subsidies.”

sherriffmuirHe received a large amount of French money in return for pledging 1,200 men for the Jacobite cause. In fact he only sent a small force of 300 men, and withdrew them after the first inconclusive battle with the forces of the crown at Sheriffmuir, where the Jacobites were stopped in their march on Perth, by another a relation of Slippery John, another John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll (pictured below), and incidentally “Lord Lorne”.  Slippery John died two years later in 1717, and so avoided being tried for supporting the uprising.

Slippery John’s half-hearted support for the rising and his early withdrawal of his men back to their homes, may have saved the Larnachs from either perishing in battle at Sherriffmuir, or from the crown’s legal retributions against known rebels in the years following.otherjohncampbell

Given that the leader of the Government forces at Sherriffmuir was the hereditary Lord of Lorne, the former Argyll home of the Larnachs, it is not surprising that they took no part in the uprising and I could find no Larnach names mentioned in documents accusing people in Caithness of rebellion, so they survived without any recriminations, unlike some of their neighbours.

Their descendants gave rise to my client’s family who ended up penniless in the Durham Coal Mines, right through to modern times, and ironically also one of the richest families in Australia and New Zealand.  Neither side of the family was aware of the other.

But that is another story.


If you would like your Famiy Tree researched and your Family Story researched and written up as a true personalised Historical Narrative, the size of a Novella, then contact Time Detectives on

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.

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

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 7:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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