Clan Chief Y-DNA Origins and Variations

Updated: Apr 5

DNA testing has become a popular strategy for researching genealogy.

During the last virtual Clan Forbes Gathering in March 2021, Clan Forbes FamilyTreeDNA administrator Philip Stead reviewed the origins and variations Y-DNA Haplogroup M-269 of the Forbes chiefly line. Philip is a postgraduate student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, in the MSc Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies Programme.

Background: DNA Testing

Twenty-three pairs of thread-like chromosomes are located in the nucleus of each human cell. Half of the chromosomes are provided by each parent. Each chromosome contains a single molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid or “DNA.” This DNA contains the genetic blueprint for their child. The 23rd pair is the chromosome that determines the biological gender of the child. You can take any of three types of DNA testing for genealogical research. Autosomal DNA testing looks at your entire chromosome history and can connect you with ancestors up to 200 to 300 years in the past. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down through women. DNA testing of the Y chromosome can only be conducted for males, which have the Y DNA in the 23rd pair, as noted. Specific Y-DNA indicators are the short tandem repeats (STR) marker which are useful to find genealogical matches within the past 500 years or so, depending on mutations. The more precise indicators are called single-nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs, which may reach much further back in time. Rob Spencer, though his Scaled Innovations website, has created a “SNP Tracker” which indicates the migration paths of the people carrying specific SNPs. This is located at The chielfy line is the broad haplogroup R1b and, more specifically, R-M269.

Background: Migration into Scotland

Human migration into the British Isles began after the sheets of ice from the Ice Age started to recede. The first immigrants were likely the “Bell Beaker” people, named from the shape of their pottery jars. Starting in about 2,500 B.C., they migrated over the land mass known as Doggerland that connected what is now the British Isles to the rest of the Europe land mass. Most likely, the Bell Beaker people moved into northern Scotland and were the origins of the Caledonii, called the “Picts” by the Romans. Later migration of Gaelic-speakers from Ireland created the kingdom of Dal Riada in the western islands and highlands. They intermarried with the Picts. Later invasions from the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons pushed into England.

Background: Scottish Surnames

The use of surnames in Britain did not occur until after the French-Norman invasion of 1066 and were not prevalent in Scotland until after 1200. Before that time, people used place names (such as “Duncan de Forbes” for Duncan who owned the barony of Forbes) or patronymics (such as Kenneth Mac Alpin for Kenneth, son of Alpin.) David I, King of Scots (c. 1084 – 1153), was a dependent at the court of King Henry I of England and was influenced by the Anglo-French culture of the court. He likely introduced the use of surnames when he became king in 1124.

Background: FamilyTreeDNA Forbes Surname Project

FamilyTreeDNA is one of the first and largest DNA testing services. The organization offers the opportunity to share Y-DNA test results through various Surname Projects. Kenneth L. Forbes started the Forbes surname group in 2004. After he passed away in 2014, the project languished until Clan Forbes Society president Bart Forbes stepped in as project administrator in September 2019. Since then, the group has increased from 170 to 209 members. Based on broad haplogroup analysis, about two-thirds of the group’s members are generally M-269. Another 7% is I-M253 and 5% is I-M223. The Clan Forbes Chief has tested as part of the R-M269 haplogroup. This is what we call the “chiefly line.”

Presentation by Philip Stead, FamilyTreeDNA Administrator, Y-DNA Forbes Group

The early origins of the haplogroup of R1b were from people who lived on the Russian steppes who later moved west. These were the Bell Beaker people who migrated throughout Europe, especially in the west. We can trace these people through genetic markers called “SNPs,” which are passed on by each male to the next generation. Every hundred to two hundred and fifty years or so, there is a new SNP that mutates and it gets passed on to the male offspring. So we can create a family tree just using genetics and Y-DNA mutations.

The main haplotype or haplogroup R1b developed in Europe not long after the Neolithic Age, about 8,000 years ago. The next mutation is L-23 and then P-312, which may also be called S-116 by some testing services. Several big branches come off P-312, indicating that was carried by high-status individuals who had many offspring. Further down is L-21, which is a common SNP that came to Britain during the Bronze Age (between about 3100 BC and 300 BC) with the Bell Beaker people. These people invaded these areas and replaced about ninety percent of the Neolithic population. These Bell Beaker people came with the new technology of bronze weapons and domesticated horses.

The marker DF-13 is the next mutation which is associated with Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. This is found less within England due to the later Germanic invasions of southern Britain by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Norse.

All these mutations are the reason why it's really important to test for more detailed SNPs rather than the general STR markers. SNPs are the most reliable because mutations, once it happens, it gets passed on to the next generation. STR markers are unreliable because they can randomly mutate both backwards and forwards.

The chief haplotype group for Clan Forbes is most probably DF27, from a mutation about 4,200 years ago. This probably branched off to L617.The more data we get, the more we can confirm that. The SNP tracker indicates that L617 is about 1,750 years old.

If you don’t test positive for DF27 or any of the associated SNPs that follow on from the chiefly line, that doesn't mean you're not a member of Clan Forbes. What that means is that you're just not descended from the direct paternal line and there's lots of different reasons why that can happen. A lot of the time, it could be that your ancestor was part of Clan Forbes, gave his allegiance to the Forbes chief at the time. They often took on the surname of the chief. This could also mean that an ancestor might descended from a female of the chiefly line and then took Forbes as the surname.

Surnames in Britain only started to be introduced after 1066 and mainly between 1200 and 1400. The introduction of surnames was part of the way of keeping track of people so that they can tax them. Many people just took on a surname because of their occupation, for example “Smith” or “Archer.”

We really need to advance the DNA research through FamilyTreeDNA. You can test for individual SNPs for $40 each or you can save a lot of money in the long run by upgrading to the Big-Y 700. This is far more reliable and this will sequence all the readable regions of the Y chromosome for the SNPs. As I explained earlier, STR markers are very prone to mutating and so are very unstable. You can start at the entry level with the Y-37 test and then just upgrade as time goes on. You can always wait for the sales and upgrade as you go. As I’ve said, it's an investment for the future.

If you want to contact Philip, please see his contact information in the Members Section of the website at

To learn more, please visit the Clan Forbes Channel on YouTube at

You can watch the ClanForbes Gathering 2021 March Part 2 (Highlights) here:

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