Episode 5 of the BBC Radio Scotland series ‘The Scots: A Genetic Journey’ was broadcast last week. It’s currently available via the BBC iPlayer, until Wednesday 23rd March. The series is presented by Alistair Moffat and looks at how the DNA of today’s Scots has been influenced by contact with various peoples in the past.
Some folk have a much better handle on this kind of topic than I have. I find it intriguing and fascinating, even though I’m no scientist. Michelle of Heavenfield, who certainly knows a thing or two about genetics, sometimes tries to explain particular aspects to me. Not an easy task, but she perseveres nonetheless. I like to be fed scientific information in simple bite-size chunks, which is why I don’t feel too much out of my depth when I read Michelle’s posts on plague (even the ones at her bioscience blog Contagions). She breaks the jargon down nicely so that even an ‘un-scientist’ such as myself can understand what’s going on. Historical geneticist Jim Wilson takes a similar line in ‘The Scots: A Genetic Journey’. This is the type of science I can handle, the kind that doesn’t leave me scratching my head in bewilderment or reaching for a dictionary.
In Episode 5 of the BBC series, Jim Wilson and Alistair Moffatt discuss the impact of the Vikings on Scotland’s gene pool. Jim talks about research indicating a substantial Norse component in the DNA of places such as Orkney and the Western Isles. As an Orcadian himself, he has a personal stake in the topic, and it’s interesting to hear what he says about his own family’s genetic heritage. I’m familiar with the Orcadian data from reading about it a few years ago but I didn’t know that the studies extended to rodents as well as humans. It turns out that the mice of Orkney share DNA with their Norwegian cousins, suggesting perhaps that their ancestors arrived as stowaways on Viking longships. Someone should write an adventure story about this – or even a screenplay for an animated film.
In the same episode, Alistair pays a visit to Stirling where he and local historian John Harrison talk about the Viking impact on the Picts, and about the great battle of 839 which decimated the Pictish elite. Also on the itinerary is Dumbarton Castle, built on the site of Alt Clut (‘Clyde Rock’) the ancient fortress of the Strathclyde Britons. Here, on the highest point of the castle, Alistair and Yours Truly talk about the Viking attack on the Rock in 870. This was no ordinary raid but a full-scale assault on one of the major political powers of the time. It culminated in the surrender of the Britons, and the capture of their king, after a prolonged siege. The weather was terrible (during the radio recording, not the siege) but Alistair and I somehow managed to say what we wanted to say in spite of a fierce gale billowing around the summit.
The sixth and final episode of the series is broadcast on Wednesday 23rd March at 2.05pm. The accompanying book, published by Birlinn, had its official launch in Edinburgh ten days ago. A description of it can be found on Alistair’s website.
BBC Radio Scotland – The Scots: A Genetic Journey (Episode 5)