The genetic legacy of Britain

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In 2015, Oxford University researchers investigated and uncovered distinct geographical groupings of genetically similar individuals across the UK.  

The study, published in the journal Nature, found that:

  • There was no single Celtic genetic group. In fact the Celtic parts of the UK (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Cornwall) are distinct from each other genetically. For example, the Cornish are much more similar genetically to other English groups than they are to the Welsh or the Scots. 

  • There are separate genetic groupings in Cornwall and Devon, with the division almost exactly along the modern county boundary.

  • The majority of people in eastern, central and southern England are a single, homogeneous genetic group with a significant DNA contribution from Anglo-Saxon settlers (10-40% of total ancestry). This finding settles an historical controversy in showing that the Anglo-Saxons intermarried with, rather than replaced, existing populations in these areas.

  • The population of Orkney is the most genetically distinct British population group, with 25% of DNA of Orcadians coming from Norwegian ancestors.

  • The Welsh are more like the earliest post-Ice Age settlers of Britain than are other people in the UK.

The genetic legacy of Scotland

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Following on from this earlier study, Edinburgh University researchers have now undertaken an in depth genetic study of the Scots people. Their study examined the genetic make-up of people whose ancestors had lived in specific geographic locations in Scotland for at least four generations.

The results appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in September 2019.

This Scottish genetic study reveals that:

  • Scotland’s genetic landscape is remarkably similar to Dark Age populations, reflecting the country’s ancient kingdoms. For example, the genetic cluster in the southwest of Scotland mirrors the sixth-ninth century Dark Age kingdoms of Strathclyde and Dal Riata (modern Argyle)
  • There are six clusters of genetically-similar people in the Borders, the south west, the north east of Scotland, in the Hebrides, and Orkney and in Shetland.
  • These clusters are distinct from each other and this differentiation is due to the majority of people in each location marrying locally and preserving their genetic identity.

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In southern Scotland, the Borders region forms the boundary between Scotland and England. People from the Borders have a distinct genetic signature, with a majority of Scottish people in the Borders area sharing genes with people of English ancestry. This distinguishes the Border folk in the lowlands from Scots from other geographic locations. This Borders genetic cluster mirrors the ancient Brythonic kingdoms of the Gododdin and Rheged (modern Cumbria)

The Highlands in the north of Scotland are sparsely populated and an isolated mountainous region. This isolation is shown in the genetic features of Scots living in this region, whose genes differ from the genes of Scots elsewhere in Scotland. The Edinburgh University researchers have concluded that these differences in the Highland folk are the genetic legacy of their ancient Pictish ancestors, whose kingdoms were historically located in Scotland’s Highlands.

The study also confirms that the people of the Hebrides are genetically distinct from the rest of mainland Scotland, forming a discrete genetic “island”. This is attributable to Irish genetic admixture and generations of relative isolation for the small, ancestral island population.

Orkney and Shetland also form their own isolated “islands” with distinctive genetic features. These differences are attributable to both Norwegian ancestry and the isolation of these northern isles. The study’s clustering analysis also shows a significant degree of differentiation within each island group, with genetic differences evident in individual isles.

The genetic features in the study’s clusters in the south east and north-west of Scotland indicate an affinity with people of Welsh ancestry, reflecting a common Celtic ancestry across Scotland and Ireland.

The eastern Scottish clusters in Aberdeenshire and Tayside-Fife indicate English-like ancestry. The Isle of Man similarly shows relatively high (42%) English ancestry.

This in depth study of the genetic inheritance of the Scots confirms Scotland’s genetic continuity across the centuries.

This genetic legacy is the real treasure of Scotland.

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