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Monday, 19th December 2005

Scotland - Edinburgh

The Scotsman Wed 25 Aug 2004

Reivers roots may not be Scottish at all


NO-ONE did more to blacken Scotland’s name than the 70 lawless clans of Borders "mafia" who specialised in murder, kidnapping and cattle-rustling for more than three centuries.

Bloodshed and blackmail, the hallmarks of the Border Reivers, have always been blamed on their Celtic or Pictish ancestry, adding to the reputation of the Scots as a violent and intolerant race.

But that reputation could yet be scuppered by modern science, which is already indicating that Armstrongs, Douglases, Elliots, Grahams, Rutherfords and other families who rendered the Borders ungovernable up to the end of the 16th century, were not necessarily descended from Scotland’s earliest settlers.

The first results from the Border Reiver DNA Project, set up by a computer software consultant from Boston, Massachusetts, shows the gangsters who perfected protection rackets long before Chicago was built may well have had their roots in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe or even North Africa.

James Elliott, the project administrator, has spent the last few months analysing the results of 600 DNA profiles taken from males with Reiver surnames, including a direct descendent of Johnnie Armstrong, the most notorious bandit of them all.

It all started when Mr Elliott, the grandson of Scots-Irish emigrants from Ulster, set out to solve the mystery of his own tribal identity.

He explained: "Boston is one of the most Irish cities in America, yet I never felt Irish because I was neither Gaelic nor Catholic. And I couldn’t identify with the colonial founders of Boston, who were mostly English and had been there for centuries."

His own DNA test placed him in the same general group as the Celts, along with 70 per cent of men in Europe. But his closest "relatives" seemed to come from very different places.

Mr Elliott’s nearest matches in a leading DNA database consisted of five Siberians, a Hungarian and an Icelander.

Close matches in a German databank with 25,000 worldwide profiles were from Turkey, Syria, Ukraine and several other European locations. Then a further test indicated he was 11 per cent East Asian genetically.

"I started the Border Reiver project with the Elliotts and expanded it steadily from there", he said. "I soon realised many of these families had a history of chaos and dislocation similar to my own.

"They had been pushed back and forth between Scotland and England, then ejected to Ireland to serve as a buffer between the Irish and their English landlords, and finally to America.

"Here, too, they became people of the borderland between European and native American, between patriot and loyalist and between Union and Confederate."

The 600 profiles assembled by Mr Elliott and his colleague David Strong currently represents 75 different families.

But Mr Elliott says a few are Borders families who co-existed with the Reivers and had observed them, policed them, or had been their victims.

"There has been strong interest in the project both from the United States and also from people in the British Isles", he said.

The analysis of the genetic composition of individual families, and of the Border Reivers as a whole, has followed similar methodology to the recent BBC programme The Blood of the Vikings.

According to Mr Elliott: "So far we have discovered that, although a moderate majority of the Reivers’ descendents most likely have British Celtic ancestors, their ancestry as a whole is quite diverse. Many are clearly of Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian origin. Others exhibit DNA profiles that may once have been North African or Middle Eastern or, like my own profile, bear an uncanny affinity with the people of eastern Europe or with the steppes of central Asia."

The study also suggests that the large number of Roman troops stationed along Hadrian’s Wall may have left a strong impact on the genetic heritage of the people of the Borders.

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Last updated: 24-Aug-04 23:07 GMT

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