Scotland’s DNA: Land of the Britons

Stone of the Britons

Clach nam Breatainn, the Stone of the Britons (Photo © B Keeling)


Here’s a link to an article that appeared a couple of days ago at the website of the Scotsman newspaper. It’s written by Alistair Moffat (co-author of The Scots: A Genetic Journey) and deals with a number of DNA-related topics. Alistair begins by looking at the Strathclyde Britons, a group whose history is of particular interest to me. He mentions two iconic sites associated with this people: Clach nam Breatainn, the ‘Stone of the Britons’ in Glen Falloch beyond the northern tip of Loch Lomond; and the ancient stronghold of Dumbarton (Dun Breatainn, ‘Fortress of the Britons’) on the north bank of the Clyde. He also mentions the Galbraiths, a leading family of the area around the loch, whose surname means something like ‘Stranger Briton’. Other families referred to in the article include the MacFarlanes of Arrochar, the MacDonalds and MacLeods of the Isles, the Kennedys of Galloway and the royal Stewarts whose forefather was Walter FitzAlan, High Steward of Scotland. Alistair even brings in a bit of his own history by recalling the days when he played rugby in the Scottish Borders against tough opponents called Beattie – a surname whose genetic origins go back to the Irish kings of Leinster. As an extra bonus, the article is headed by an excellent photograph of the Falls of Falloch in full spate.

Scotland’s DNA: Land of the Britons by Alistair Moffat

[I am grateful to Phil Ramsay for bringing this article to my attention]

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13 comments on “Scotland’s DNA: Land of the Britons

  1. I read the full article and very much enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I also read the comments, several of which are moronic. It reaffirmed my decision not to venture onto history forums!

  2. badonicus says:

    Thanks for posting that Tim, very interesting.

    (I only wish Mr Moffat wouldn’t state as _fact_ that Cunedda (Cunedag) traveled from Manau Gododdin to Wales. He may indeed have done, but there’s no archaeological evidence for it, the only poetry about him doesn’t mention it and some think it merely a Gwynedd origin myth).

    • Tim says:

      I definitely go with the ‘Gwynedd origin myth’ on this one, Mak.

      • Just to revert for a moment to anachronistic terminology, pitfalls and drawbacks of: it is surely misleading to talk of someone going from (say) Alt Clud to ‘Wales’. Is there not a need for a new convention on this? Alistair Moffat’s work is only the most egregious, peppered with references (eg) to ‘Scotland’ long before any such political entity existed.

        • Tim says:

          I think the convention is already there, but choosing the right terminology depends on the context of what is being said. ‘Alt Clud to Wales’ looks historically incorrect if we’re talking about a journey between kingdoms, but perhaps it’s ok if we’re talking about geographical entities rather than political ones. It seems acceptable, for instance, to talk of the Roman invasion of ‘Wales’ without sounding anachronistic, but probably unacceptable to add that ‘the Welsh’ resisted Rome. Fast forward 900 years and the anachronism seems to be less of an issue. A historian can happily refer to Athelstan’s dealings with ‘Welsh kings’ in the 10th century because Wales was already recognisable (to the Anglo-Saxons) as the land of the wealas.

          When writing about early medieval things I try to restrict my use of the term ‘Scotland’ to geographical contexts (e.g. ‘the 8th century landscape of eastern Scotland’) until I get to the 11th century when it becomes a tangible political concept.

  3. I find the terminology in this articles and many others confusing because it mixes modern and ancient country, tribal and language names eg ‘Old Welsh’ which is another, and, in this context less useful way of denoting Q (Brittonic) ‘Gaelic’ – the common language of the Britons who once occupied most of England and south Scotland I believe. A small group has recently been formed in Crawford, south Lanarkshire, to apply to the Clyde Windfarm Community Benefit fund for an information centre at the head of the Clyde, which was once part of the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde. Among other aims, we wish to extend the archaeological investigation of our area – which of course could include DNA testing. Please let me know if you would support such a move, and be willing to suggest lines of inquiry.

    • Tim says:

      The terminology of the Brittonic languages does seem to cause a lot of confusion. These days I prefer ‘Cumbric’ for the language of the Strathclyde Britons, ‘Pictish-British’ for the Pictish language and Welsh for the language of Wales, although I haven’t quite settled into consistency of usage as yet.

      I hope the application goes well. An information centre for the Crawford area would be a good thing. With Hart Fell only ten miles away I’d expect an application for heritage funding from the commercial sector to focus strongly on Merlin but there’s plenty of other stuff to attract visitors, e.g. Crawford Castle besieged by Wallace, links with several Lowland clans (Crawford, Carmichael, Lindsay, Douglas) and a Roman presence too. The area is ideally situated for such a centre, with the motorway junction (plus Abington services) providing a funnel for the A702 tourist route to Edinburgh. And I’d obviously like to see the kingdom of Strathclyde get a bit of exposure, even if merely as an appendage to Merlin’s story. Visitors might be surprised and intrigued to learn that a language similar to Welsh was spoken in Clydesdale until c.1100.

      • I think Crawford was also a stopping-off point for pilgrims (including famously James IV) heading to Whithorn. There are ruins of a small church which may have been dedicated to St Thomas Becket. When you say you prefer ‘Cumbric’ for the languge spoken by the Strathclyde Britons, do you mean that this was a distinct language (as opposed to dialect) of Q Brittonic? If not, it seems to me to merely confuse things further. There are clearly contemporary political implications for all this, as I think Alistair Moffat is aware. In the Times yesterday, the columnist David Aaronson said he spent Christmas reading Norman Davies’s ‘Vanished Kingdoms’. ..

        • Tim says:

          My understanding of the Brittonic/Brythonic languages is that they belong to the ‘P Celtic’ group, as distinct from ‘Q Celtic’ which represents the Goedelic/Gaelic languages. What we now think of as separate P Celtic languages (Welsh, Cornish, Breton) seem to have been dialects of a single Brittonic language in early mediaval times. Cumbric is an accepted term for the speech of the North Britons in this period and can be used in reference to the region south of the Forth/Clyde and north of the Humber/Mersey. Because it died out in the 12th century Cumbric wasn’t around long enough to become a separate language, hence it is not (as far as I can tell) too anachronistic to call it ‘Old Welsh’ or simply ‘Welsh’. An expert in these matters could no doubt explain all this a lot better than I can.

          • Tim says:

            Liz, I intended to pick up on your other point about contemporary political implications of linguistic and ‘ethnic’ terminology. These days there does seem to be a certain sharpening of attitudes and perceptions around the issue of Scottish identity. Even a non-Scot such as myself can feel it. I imagine the topic will attract even more attention as we move towards the Bannockburn anniversary in 2014 which seems likely to coincide with the referendum campaign. Hopefully this will all help to generate more interest in early medieval history, and not only in Scotland. In the meantime, it’s probably worthwhile to put certain terms under the microscope to see what they really mean.

            • Along with George Orwell, I believe that clarity is important in small – or apparently small- things if big mistakes are to be avoided. My point about language and the names we give them eg ‘welsh’ may inadvertently support modern political aims. If there was effectively one common language in these islands – P Bryttonic – then why make the artificial distinctions according to modern geopitical boundaries?

  4. Tim says:

    The distinctions between the Brittonic dialects of early medieval times do seem to be useful in fields such as place-name studies where regional variation is often significant in establishing date and meaning. To me, the linguistic boundaries defined by modern scholars appear to be ancient rather than modern, e.g. medieval Wales, Dumnonia (Devon/Cornwall), 10th-century Cumbria/Strathclyde. But you’re right about our needing to be careful about the contexts in which we use ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’, etc (to which I would add ‘Cumbrian’ – another possible anachronism lurking in the wings).

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