LONG after they became extinct, Scotland’s ancient race of Picts have been discovered alive and well, and living near Hawick.
This is just one of the startling discoveries made by Scotland’s DNA project, set up by Borders historian and broadcaster Alistair Moffat, and Dr Jim Wilson of Edinburgh University.
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 now have their DNA – the deoxyribonucleic acid which provides the genetic building blocks for all life – tested and find out who they truly are.
Run from a small office in Melrose, the venture was expanded earlier this week to include Britain and Ireland’s DNA projects. And while there has to be a commercial element to keep funding the work and reinvesting in technology, Mr Moffat stresses the main reason is to run a major scientific research project which will result in a book on the genetic make-up of the people of Britain.
And he is excited by the potential of the venture 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,” he told TheSouthern.
Scotland’s DNA came about after Mr Moffat and Dr Wilson met during the 2008 filming of a television series in the Hebrides – a collaboration that also resulted in a book, “The Scots: A Genetic Journey”.
Mr Moffat says it was during this period he learned that growing numbers of people were asking how they could get their DNA tested. The result was a decision by him and his partners to invest substantial sums of money in the technology needed to make it affordable for ordinary individuals.
The equipment was purchased from a leading IT firm in California, including state-of-the-art microchips needed to read the more than one million DNA markers for each human being.
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 Scotland’s DNA computer system, producing the necessary genetic information.
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 ninth century.
Of the 1,000 people tested so far, around 50 have been Borderers. But even though just a small number, it’s 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 8,000-10,000 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. 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.”
As for Mr Moffat himself, a staunch Scot fiercely proud of his Borders roots, he admits to being taken aback when he found out his main DNA marker was English – or Anglian to be more precise.
“We’ve got four men with same marker out of about 30 men tested so far in the Borders. 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 we are Borderers, in the truest sense of the word, in our blood and bone.”
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