My Ancient Origins Part Three

Scottish Highlanders depicted in R. R. McIan’s Clans of The Scottish Highlands (1845)

For my project to delve into the distant past of my family history, I took both autosomal DNA and Y-DNA tests. Autosomal is the DNA we inherit from both parents, which is useful in identifying relatively close relationships and in estimating our ancient genetic origin and ethnic mix. Autosomal DNA, however, is less valuable for tracing older generations. A better tool for that is Y-chromosome (Y-DNA) testing, which tests the DNA males inherit solely from their fathers. By analyzing my Y-chromosome, I am now able to investigate my father’s family line, and the ancient migration routes his paternal ancestors may have taken.

Test results show I belong to the Y-chromosome haplogroup R1b and its M269 subclade. R1b is by far the largest group of Y-chromosome markers in Western Europe: in England, 60% of men carry one of the subgroups of R1b, in Scotland, it is 72%, and in Ireland, it is 85%. The study of ancient DNA, I learned, suggests that R1b people reached mainland Europe as Bronze Age invaders (Yamnaya) from the Black Sea region and that my R-M269 ancestry originated with a man born about 10,000 years ago. Moreover, I learned that by the Bronze Age, my ancient ancestors—now carrying the R1b-L21 (R1b1a2a1a2c) marker—had reached Western Europe and the British Isles. 

By the time R1b-L21 people reached Western Europe, they had become part of the Bell Beaker culture, which arose around 2800 BC and lasted in Britain until as late as 1800 BC. Archaeologically, they are associated with bell-shaped pottery, but other items included horse riding, archery, jewelry, specific burial patterns in mounds, bronze tools and weapons. From within the R1b-L21 haplogroup, Celtic culture evolved.

The Celts were a collection of central European tribes that shared a similar language, religious beliefs, traditions and culture. Some scholars believe the Urnfield culture of Western Middle Europe represents the origin of the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European family. This culture was preeminent in central Europe during the late Bronze Age, from about 1200 BC until 700 BC and led directly to the development of the Hallstatt culture (c. 700 to 500 BC). Proto-Celtic is thought by some scholars to have been spoken during the late Urnfield or early Hallstatt cultures, in the early part of the 1st millennium BC, with the spread of the Celtic languages to Iberia, Ireland and Britain occurring during that time. Other scholars see Celtic languages spreading across Britain and Ireland, and parts of the Continent long before any evidence of “Celtic” culture is found in archaeology.

My Y-DNA results show I am descended from the Scottish Gaels. Up to 40% of Scottish males appear to be of Gaelic paternal lineage, which is frequently found through most of Western Scotland. Until recently, however, the origin of the Gaels has been a mystery. Traditionally it was believed they descended from a “tribe” from Ireland who invaded Scotland. Y-DNA testing, though, has revealed that the Scots Gaels are relatively recent arrivals in Britain, having followed in the footsteps of earlier R1b-L21 people and crossed from their central European homeland about 2,000 years ago.

The Gaels emerged from among Celts who settled in Bohemia, in the western borderlands of the modern Czech Republic. In around 800BC, the “Keltoi” people of Bohemia began crossing the Erzegebirge Mountains into modern Southern Germany, where they followed the River Main towards the Rhine. The Celts would use the Rhine to spread throughout Central Europe. Those that migrated north would give rise to the Celtic tribes that would come to dominate the modern area of Belgium and the Netherlands, before making the crossing into Britain and becoming “Britons,” including the Picts of Northeast Scotland and the Ancient Britons of Strathclyde.

The ancestors of the Gaels, the Proto-Gaels, were part of the Celts who headed south, where they colonized the upper reaches of the Rhine, spreading towards modern Switzerland and even crossing the Alps into what is now Northern Italy. Then, approximately 2,000 years ago, the Roman conquest of Gaul began. They defeated those Proto-Gaels who inhabited the lands between the Rhine and Moselle. The latter—under continuous pressure from the Romans—chose to follow the Rhine north all the way to the coast and finally into Britain. There the Proto-Gaels exiled themselves among their distant Celtic cousins, by then known as Britons. 

By the time of their arrival in Britain, the exiled Proto-Gaels were distinct from their distant Briton cousins. The Britons who had arrived much earlier on the island spoke what would become the Welsh language, while the Proto-Gaels spoke a language that would evolve into Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

They had not seen the last of the Romans, however. The Roman invasion of Britain starting in 55 and 54BC forced the Proto-Gaels ever northward, just managing to keep one step ahead of conquering Roman armies. Eventually, they crossed the Clyde and the Firth of Forth to settle in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Some crossed the sea into what the Romans named “Hibernia” (land of winter). There, relatively free from Roman persecution, the descendants of the Proto-Gael refugees would evolve into the Scots and Irish Gaels that would shape the modern identities of both Scotland and Ireland.

One of the largest DNA subclades among the R-L21 people of Scotland is known as R-L1335, and from within this lineage, about 2000 years ago, was born a man with the R-L1065 DNA marker, making him the father of what we know today as the Scots Modal or Cluster. It is from within this group that my Campbell family evolved.

A final word about the Gaels of Scotland. While I’ve seen several explanations of how and when the Gaels arrived in Scotland, the one I used above is based primarily on DNA research that was done by Dr. Tyrone Bowes, of Scottish Origenes.