Saturday, 27 June 2009

Ulster's Mitochondrial DNA

mtDNA and my Ulster heritage
by Harry D. Watson


After about 30 years of tracing my family-history by the traditional "paper-trail" method, I had just about dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's, so the new science of genetic genealogy came along at just the right time to revive my flagging interest in the subject.

I thought I knew all about my origins already, but the results of my cheek swabs held some surprises. Not so much as regards my Y DNA (father's father's line), which turned out to be R1b like the majority of West European males: with the distinction that I match the "Scots Modal R1b" which Dr. Jim Wilson of Edinburgh University has called "the genetic signature of the Picts". They were the Celtic tribe or tribes who lived north of the Forth-Clyde line in ancient times, not least in the "Kingdom" of Fife as we Fifers like to call it. There is evidence that the present county of Fife was in fact a separate entity in the past, and Dunfermline in the west of the county was a royal seat (as late as the 17th century, it was the birthplace of Charles I) while St. Andrews in the east was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, like Canterbury in England. My father's family have lived in the same village in Fife for hundreds of years, as far back as the written records stretch, so on that side of the family I suppose I was fated to be a Pict!


Harry D Watson and his wife

However, my mitochondrial DNA (mother's mother's line) was a bit more interesting. Just to give the family-history background first, my mother was also from east Fife, but her own mother came from the Scottish Borders, and further back there is a link to Northern Ireland. My mother's mother's mother's mother - my great-great-grandmother - was called Agnes Pettigrew, and she was born in or near Belfast in about 1832. Her parents were Archibald Pettigrew and Jane Murray, and Jane was the daughter of William Murray and Nancy Howat, who appear to have lived in the Ballymacarrett area of Belfast. Nancy Howat is my earliest known mitochondrial (mtDNA) ancestor. The International Genealogical Index (IGI) shows that the surname Howat is commoner in the Ballymacarrett area of Belfast than anywhere else in the island of Ireland, and in Scotland the name has always been commoner in Ayrshire than anywhere else. Ayrshire is the county, in the west of Scotland, which provided more emigrants to north-east Ulster in the 17th-century "Plantation" period than any other. So much for the paperwork.

Anyone who has kept up with research in the genetic genealogy field will know that, by common consensus, the vast majority of modern Europeans can be shown to be descended from one of seven women who lived in the distant past, many thousands of years ago. Professor Bryan Sykes of Oxford University calls them "the 7 Daughters of Eve". Six of these women were born in Europe; the seventh, mtDNA J - or "Jasmine", as Sykes has dubbed her - was allegedly from what is now Syria in the Middle East, and her descendants were Europe's first farmers, bringing agricultural know-how to the Europe of the hunter-gatherers in the Neolithic or New Stone Age period. The mtDNA I have inherited from all the "mothers" in my mitochondrial line is from this "haplogroup".

Most interestingly of all, by comparing my mtDNA results with those of other testees on the major genetic databases - FTDNA, Sorenson, Genetree and mitosearch - I have identified a small cluster of "Jasmines" in north-east Ulster and elsewhere in Ireland. Sharon Bodet, who matches my mtDNA haplotype almost exactly (6/6 on HVR1 and 9/10 on HVR2), traces her maternal line back to a Susannah Bailey in "Northern Ireland", and another Bailey descendant with the same mtDNA results is Joyce Carico of Georgia (NB there are Baileys from Newtownards, Co. Down, in my Pettigrew extended family in north-east Down).

Pam Thomson can trace her earliest mtDNA ancestor back to an Ann Ramsay in Co. Antrim, and Marilyn Marx's equivalent ancestor is a Jane Kirkpatrick born in 1795 at Ballyhalbert, Co. Down. Pam and Marilyn, like Sharon and Joyce above, are almost exact genetic matches to myself. All of us are what is now termed mtDNA J1c1, and all of us are descended from women in Northern Ireland with Scottish or at least British as distinct from Irish surnames. I also have a match in Co. Tyrone called Hutchinson, and one in Dublin called Locke. And an American called Ryrie who matches my J mtDNA has a mitochondrial ancestor called McLean in 18th-century Ayrshire itself.



Apart from my Irish matches, most of the other matches I have found for my mitochondrial genetic pattern have been Norwegians or Norwegian-Americans. So what is the connection between Norway and Northern Ireland? For an explanation of this phenomenon I am grateful to Professor Stephen Oppenheimer of Oxford University, whose book "The Origins of the British" (2006, pb.2007) has a map on page 214 (pb. edition) showing the movement of what at the time of writing was known as mtJ1b1 (now J1c1) from Norway to Scotland during the Neolithic era. Several thousand years later many Scots would emigrate across the Irish Sea to Ulster, taking with them the DNA they had inherited from those remote ancestors. And, as we all know, in the course of time a lot of Ulster Scots would re-emigrate to the land of their recent forebears. In the case of the "Jasmine" Scots-Irish, the journey had started in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East some 10,000 years before.

So much for the theory that our forebears seldom left their ancestral village until the Industrial Revolution and the growth of modern communications!

Harry D Watson
Edinburgh, 26th June 2006

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i have to correct you on one thing maternal J came to uk and ireland via spain not via norway -- the reason there are J in scandinavia is down to 2 things -- first the farmers spread through the western parts of britain and some continued via orkney shetland and into scandanivia .. more J women joined them later as wives (unwilling or not) of viking raiders . iceland has heavy female J .