DNA project proves we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns afterall

DNA. ''Dr Jim F. Wilson
DNA. ''Dr Jim F. Wilson

THE questions of who we are and where we come from has been asked by every single human being since the beginning of time.

Now, thanks to a project part founded by local historian, author and broadcaster, Alistair Moffat, Borderers can now finally find the real answer to those questions.

DNA. ''Dr Jim F. Wilson

DNA. ''Dr Jim F. Wilson

Earlier this year, Mr Moffat joined forces with Dr Jim Wilson of Edinburgh University to set up the Scotland’s DNA project.

Using cutting-edge technology, Dr Wilson has discovered an extraordinary and unexpected diversity in the national DNA of almost 1,000 Scots.

Now open to the public for a fee of £170, it means anyone can have their DNA (the deoxyribonucleic acid which contains all the genetic codes for every living thing) tested and find out who they truly are.

Run from a small office in Melrose, the venture was expanded this week to include Britain’s DNA and Ireland’s DNA projects. While there has to be a commercial element to the project to continue funding the work and reinvesting in technology, Mr Moffat stresses the main reason for the initiative is as a major research project which will result in a book on the genetic makeup of the people of Britain.

Alistair Moffat.

Alistair Moffat.

And he is excited by the potential of the project to really get to the bottom of many unanswered historical questions :“This is a people’s history of Scotland - it’s not the usual suspects, like William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots.”

Scotland’s DNA came about after Mr Moffat and Dr Wilson met during the 2008 filming of a television series in the Hebrides. “Jim Wilson is a brilliant young man, a cutting edge scientist who is a world authority on historical DNA,” Mr Moffat told The Southern this week.

“We got talking and I thought this another way of telling a story and in some ways a better way. So we started working on a book, which became The Scots: A Genetic Journey.

“But I began hearing people ask more and more where they could get their DNA tested and the answer was that, in Britain, it was very difficult. You could do it in the United States because DNA testing is quite an accepted thing in America because of health insurance.

“So, I thought OK, we’ll have a go at this.”

That decision saw a substantial amount of money invested in the technology needed to make it affordable for individuals to have their DNA tested - the cost is pegged at just £170 per person.

The equipment was purchased from a leading IT firm in California, including the state-of-the-art microchips needed to read the more than one million DNA markers for each person.

“As well as having Jim Wilson on board, I’m really lucky to have Alan Mathieson, an IT genius from Melrose, who runs that side of things and designed the IT needed to ultimately do all this automatically,” Mr Moffat explained.

Once registered, a person is sent a ‘spit kit’, into which they spit some saliva and then return the sample to the University Of London. The results are interfaced with the Scotland’s DNA computer system and outcomes the necessary genetic information.

“It doesn’t involve anyone holding a test tube up to the light or any of that stuff!” laughed Mr Moffat.

“We were taking a massive risk with the amount of money that needed to be initially invested, but when, after the first two weeks of the project’s launch, we already had enough subscribers, it gave us real confidence.”

There’s already been some high profile results, such as actor Tom Conti discovering he shared the same DNA as French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte , while broadcaster and comedian Fred Macaulay found out his ancestors were Irish and probably captured as slaves in the 9th century.

Of the 1,000 people tested so far, around 50 have been Borderers. But even though just a small number, its already thrown up some fascinating results.

“The results have been amazing,” said Mr Moffat. “Things I’d never have guessed in terms of the Borders. The first thing is, most Borderers are ancient. Folk have been here for a very, very long time. It is extraordinary, that in the Borders there is a layer of a population that has been here for 8 - 10,000 years.

“Another startling discovery was made through mitochondrial DNA which you inherit from your mother. In the Teviot Valley, there is a cluster of Pictish women way south of what was traditionally regarded as Pictland.

“I can’t explain it. Something was going on here - some ancient migration. Does this result make them Picts? Absolutely.”

Mr Moffat explained that the DNA people inherit from their father’s line is Y-chromosome DNA and changes very little through the generations. “That means you can say with a great deal of confidence, that I am descended from whoever. On the female side, DNA is more mixed up because women moved about a great deal and men stayed mainly in one place.

“And you can also say with real confidence that these people come from this part of the of the world. Because where a marker is most populous as a proportion of population is where it originated. The second test is where the marker has had most mutations - that’s the longest time its been anywhere.

“Your own marker is a mutation for a marker back in history, but there will be a clear line of descent. You get different markers within populations but not within individuals in terms of heredity, which is constant.

“There will be one main dominant marker for every single person. We can then inform people what markers are related to them in terms of ethnic groups, but we don’t divulge other people’s results.”

As for Mr Moffat, he admits while being Scottish to his core and with family links to the Borders stretching back centuries, he was taken aback when he initially found out his main DNA marker was English - or Anglian to be more precise.

“It was a bit of a shock at first! The marker originates in southern Denmark and my ancestors must have come across with the Anglo Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries.

“We’ve only tested about 50 Borderers so far, but we have got four men with same marker out of about 30 men. People forget the Tweed Valley was part of Northumbria for 400 years.

“I suspect we will eventually find a whole cohort of Anglian markers that shows, absolutely, we are Borderers, in the truest sense of the word, in our blood and bone.”

On testing his mother’s DNA, Mr Moffat found the main marker came from southern India about 30,000 years ago.

He is not alone in being a Scotsman with unusual DNA - a number of others sampled have main markers showing them to be descended from the Berber and Tuareg tribes of the Sahara.

And Mr Moffat added: “Could this turn a lot of Scottish, and British, accepted history on its head? Absolutely. We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns right enough it would seem.”