Pictish ancestors

Pictish warriors
‘Ten percent of Scottish men are directly descended from the Picts’

So says a recent article on the website of The Scotsman newspaper.

The figure comes from research undertaken by Dr Jim Wilson, a geneticist at the University of Edinburgh and chief scientist at the ancestry testing company ScotlandsDNA. Genetic testing of 1000 Scottish men by Jim and his team revealed that ten percent carry a DNA marker that seems to be concentrated in the Pictish heartlands north of the Firth of Forth. The logical conclusion is that these men are descendants of the Picts.

As I’ve said before whenever this topic has cropped up, I’m no scientist so I don’t feel qualified to comment on genetic data, but Jim’s findings do sound quite interesting. Read the article and see what you think. For me, the only real eye-opener is that the writer seems slightly surprised that ‘a large number of descendants of these northern tribes, known as “Picti” by the Romans meaning “Painted Ones”, are living in Scotland.’

The Scotsman online: One in ten Scots men descended from Picts

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Because the article deals with matters of ‘ethnicity’ and identity it has attracted many comments, one of which begins with a rather pertinent question: ‘When there are no Picts alive today, how can anyone say, at all, that any percentage of Scots men are descended from Picts, a linguistic and cultural label, not a genetic one?

Some of you will already be aware of a book by Jim Wilson and Alistair Moffat on DNA and Scottish ancestry. It’s called The Scots: A Genetic Journey and is published by Birlinn of Edinburgh (who also publish my books).

A couple of years ago, BBC Radio Scotland ran a series in which Alistair and Jim spoke about the topics covered in their book. I turned up in a couple of episodes, chatting with Alistair about the Strathclyde Britons as we strolled around the summit of Dumbarton Rock. The scientific stuff was way over my head, of course, but I enjoyed listening to the series because it was something I knew absolutely nothing about.

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This entry was posted in Picts and tagged .

9 comments on “Pictish ancestors

  1. ritaroberts says:

    I enjoy reading your interesting posts. I love Scotland and the Scottish people and most of all their history. The ten percent of Scots who are direct descendants of the Picts’ seems quite feasible to me.

  2. kevin halloran says:

    Fascinating stuff and like you, Tim, I find the science rather baffling. However, I’ve read the question you describe as “pertinent” about ten times and still find it nonsensical. I don’t see how Picts can be defined as linguistic and cultural but not genetically distinct. My initial response to the research findings was “only ten percent!?”

    • Tim says:

      I too would have expected a much higher figure than ten percent. The Picts weren’t culled, and must have remained the majority population in Northeast Scotland after their supposed ‘disappearance’ c.900. Some sort of explanation is required from the scientists, I think.

      I flagged the comment as pertinent because many people (myself included) don’t see the Picts as a distinct group in any significant ‘ethnic’ sense. To me, they were defined not by genetics but by certain customs and cultural traits that were not replicated (or presented in the same way) by other North British groups such as the Scots and Britons. It would be interesting to compare DNA markers from Skye (which was in some sense ‘Pictish’) with those from nearby ‘non-Pictish’ areas such as Lorn, and then with those from the traditional Pictish heartlands of the Northeast. But I don’t know enough about the science to say how practical or meaningful such comparisons would be.

      • Chris Pickles says:

        What I read from this is that while this genetic marker is associated with the Pictish homelands, not all of the population had that marker.

        In other words, if you have the marker you are a descendant of the Picts, but if you don’t then you might or might not still be a descendant of the Picts.

        Ten percent seems a very small number to me too.

        • Tim says:

          I think your reading of the article is correct, Chris. The implication is that other ‘Pictish’ markers may exist, in which case the ten percent ought to increase.

      • The further point from this is presumably that we’d all be happier if the article had said “ancient inhabitants of north-East Scotland” rather than “Picts”… You will know, Tim, that for some areas of Scotland (specifically Orkney) extermination of the (politically-)Pictish population by the Vikings has been seriously proposed, but I would have thought that what’s really bringing down the count is what also affected Blood of the Vikings, which is, massive population movement during the Industrial revolution, and, to be fair, ever after as well. I don’t know what the effects of the Clearances or the Scots military diaspora during the Victorian era might be but they’ve all got to come in here. This is one of the troubles with historic analysis of modern DNA, the subsequent accretion of populations over the period one would want to get at. It’s like trying to see the bottom of a kaleidoscope….

        • Tim says:

          Good point, Jonathan. Population movement is likely to have a significant impact on these DNA-based theories. I’m not sure how far the Clearances and other periods of upheaval are taken into account.

  3. dearieme says:

    “Picts, a linguistic and cultural label, not a genetic one”: it’s tautological that ‘Picts’ was not originally a genetic label, the Romans being insufferably backwards at DNA testing. But it’s a legit question whether a linguistic/cultural group also had some genetic distinctiveness. They had or they hadn’t. Modern testing may or may not show evidence either way.

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