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New Forbes DNA Study Details the Origins of the Clan and Chief


Genealogy and biology have combined to provide more details about the origin of Clan Forbes and the connections between many of our current members and Clan Chief Malcolm, Lord Forbes.

Many people use genetic analysis to break through barriers in their genealogical search for their ancestors. Every cell of your body normally contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46. Parents each pass on to their children half of a pair of chromosomes that carry deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA.) These recombine to create a unique individual. Sections of the recombined DNA are called genes that determine physical characteristics, passed on by each parent.

The most popular genetic tests purchased by consumers is an autosomal DNA tests (atDNA.) These tests can determine how closely related you are to someone else. The atDNA test can also provide an estimate of your ethnicity, or the regions of the world where your ancestors lived within the past few hundred years, or even a thousand or more, since people used to move a lot less often. However, these tests are only useful for the past six to eight generations due to the process of DNA recombination.

On the other hand, testing for “yDNA” can provide genetic information stretching back thousands of generations. One of the 26 pairs of chromosomes determine the biological gender of the child. The two types of these paired chromosomes are referred to as “X” and “Y.” Typically, human females have two X chromosomes while males possess an XY pairing. Since the female can only pass on a X chromosome, the type of chromosome the male passes on determines the gender. This means that the same Y chromosome has been passed down for millennia, changing only through natural mutation. The testing for this yDNA helps determine the origins of an individual if compared with samples found in specific areas of the world.

Just such a study has been conducted recently by Philip Stead in his dissertation as part of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Science (MSc) in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. The Clan Forbes Society has received an advance of his report, title “Clan Forbes Family History Project: What Can yDNA and Autosomal DNA Analysis Conclude on the Degree of Relatedness among Clan Members and the Ancient Origins of the Chiefly Lineage?”

Since 2020, Mr. Stead has administered the Forbes Surname yDNA Project based at FamilyTreeDNA, one of the largest DNA testing services. He used the test results of the original 210 member of the group, plus another 46 that were recruited since his research was announced a year ago. He used the 256 members as the basis for his study, combining both DNA analysis and genealogical information. Each of the participants have been assigned designations to ensure anonymity.

Origins of the Scots

Mr. Stead provided context for his study by summarizing the history of the people who inhabited what is now called Scotland. Archaeological evidence indicates that the area was inhabited by humans as early as 11,000 B.C., in the Paleolithic era. Some artifacts indicate “hunter-gatherer” people living throughout the Mesolithic period, from about 10,800 B.C. to 4,100 B.C.

Between 4000 B.C. and 2500 B.C., people migrated from western Europe. Based on extensive DNA research, we now know that about 90% of this Neolithic population of Britain was replaced by the “Bell Beaker” (BB) people who migrated westwards from Eastern Europe during the Bronze Age. They received their name after the inverted-bell beaker drinking vessel discovered at many archeological sites. Human remains from the Neolithic period tested positive for a specific kind of yDNA, identified the haplogroup I2-M438. The BB remains were significantly reported as being R1b-L21 haplogroup.

Mr. Stead recounts other incursions:

The Romans invaded Britain in 43 A. D., with the Germanic invasion of mainly England and Southern Scotland by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes during the 4th – 7th centuries. Scotland seen a significant invasion from Ireland with the Scots in the 6th century and a significant Norse invasions and settlements during the Viking Age.

Based on archaeological evidence and Roman written descriptions, the people known as the Picts lived in Scotland from about roughly 300 A.D. to 900 A.D. However, Mr. Stead reports that “the only confirmed Pictish DNA that has been sequenced to date is sample KD001 from Rosemarkie Cave, Black Isle in northern Scotland, dating to 430 to 630 A.D. with a confirmed yDNA haplogroup of R1b > M269 > L151.” He concludes that “Although the sample size of Pictish remains are limited, the DNA evidence suggests that the Picts were descended from the Bronze Age BB people.”

Origins of Clan Forbes

Mr. Stead discovered a significant Y-DNA haplogroup diversity among the Forbes project participants:

The current data allowed the researcher to conclude that those project participants with a subclade of the haplogroup R-U152 also have Bell Beaker origins from the Bronze Age; however, this haplogroup likely entered the British Isles during the Iron Age with the Romans. Those participants that belong to subclades of R-Z8, R1a and I1a are likely descended from Germanic populations. Haplogroup R-Z8 has possible origins deriving from Anglo-Saxon, Norse-Viking, or Norman populations. Participants with the haplogroups R1a and I1a are very likely to derive from Norse-Viking populations; however, Norman of Scandinavian descent is also a possibility.

Although the results show that 83% of the Forbes project participants belong to a subclade of R1b > M269, it is very important to indicate that all the subclade of R1b > M269 observed among the participants (BY61239, BY3146, BY119927, L48, FGC71316, S756 & FT377244) are very distantly related in terms of direct paternal ancestry.

The results show that 10% of the participants belong to haplogroup I1a > DF29; however, there are two very distantly related genetic groups: I-FGC24758 and I-FT239294 which share a MRCA around 4500 ypb.

The largest genetic group within the Forbes FTDNA project belong to the haplogroup R - BY61239 (plus equivalent SNPs) that makes up 28% of the project participants. The individuals belonging to this haplogroup are the direct paternal descendants of a clan Forbes Chieftain.

Origins of the Clan Chief

In order to determine the ancient origins of the Forbes Chieftain lineage, Mr. Stead compared specific yDNA sequences of the current Clan Chief, Malcolm, Lord Forbes, to samples that were dated from early Bronze Age to early Iron Age. This type of DNA sequence variation is called a “single nucleotide polymorphism” or SNP. The most recent SNP called L617 which was formed around 2400 B.C. and has been found in ancient remains of Middle Bronze Age England (1518–1425 B.C.) and Iron Age France (300–200 B.C.)

Mr. Stead reports that “the earliest period that the Forbes Chieftain lineage could have entered the British Isle was during the Early Bronze Age with the Bell Beaker people that likely migrated from France.” While the most accepted belief is that chiefs were descended from the Picts, Mr. Stead notes that “The lack of ancient Pictish DNA makes it difficult to confirm or disregard the Pictish origin myth.”

Clan Chief Paternal Descent

Clan Chief Descendants

The most significant aspect of the study was determining that 28% of the Forbes project participants were descended from one of the Forbes Clan Chiefs. This indicated by the study of both yDNA and atDNA testing. The ancestors identified included:

  • Alexander, 1st Lord Forbes (1380 – 1448)

  • James, 2nd Lord Forbes (1424 – 1462).

  • William, 3rd Lord Forbes (1442 – 1483)

  • Patrick Forbes of Corse (1446 – 1483) who was the younger brother of the 3rd Lord Forbes and is the progenitor of the cadet branches of Corse and Craigievar.

  • Sir William Forbes, 1st of Kinaldie & Pitsligo, d. 1445

  • Sir Alexander Forbes, 2nd of Pitsligo, d. 1477

  • Charlotte Elizabeth Forbes, (1801 – 1883), daughter of Gen James Ochoncar 17th Lord Forbes, (1756 – 1843)

  • Forbes of Newe lineage which descend from William Forbes of Daach, (d. 1500) who is the progenitor of the Forbes of Newe

Block tree of the Clan Forbes Chief lineage

The Mystery of Norse Origins

While the largest number of project participants appear to be related to the Forbes clan chiefs, a significant number seem to be descended from Norsemen with the broad haplogroup I1a.

Some of these test for the more specific group FGC24758. They all share the SNP Z60 and SNP Z141 with a Viking Age remains called “vik_urm045” and “VK357” from Sweden, with the estimating time to the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) of between 2100 B.C. and 2000 B.C. Mr. Stead observes that “all those that test positive for the SNP FGC24758 are from Scotland and share a common ancestor estimated at 1400 A.D., and the current date suggests that these individuals are descended from Norsemen.”

The second I1a haplogroup belong to another group called FT239294. Mr. Stead notes that this branch “cannot be reliably isolated to a specific location in Europe using aDNA.” They share the SNP S2293, which was found in an Iron Age remain (350 B.C.) called “Gox 287” found in southern France, once home of the ancient Gauls. This SNP has been found in modern-day samples from people living in France, U.K., Denmark, Germany, Portugal, Luxemburg, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Ireland, Belgium, Russia, and Norway. Since these countries are where Norsemen historically raided, traded, or settled, Mr. Stead concludes that “Therefore, the origin of the FT239294 project members’ ancestry before Scotland will likely be Scandinavia; however, it is a possibility that their ancestry originated in Gaul and migrated to Scotland during the Iron Age.”

Publication of the Study and Further Research

Mr. Stead plans to publish his study in September 2022 and the Clan Forbes Society will make this available to all current Active Members at that time. He is also writing a summary of the main findings for an article which will be published in September issue of History Scotland magazine.

Mr. Stead intends to continue his research and encourages all Society members to test for both atDNA and yDNA, preferably with the FamilyTreeDNA “Big-Y 700” test. He is most hopeful that he can include the DNA from direct descendants of the Forbes of Corse. He will continue to monitor field research in the area of Pictish DNA and to pursue the Norse connection with Clan Forbes.

More developments will be reported in the free monthly Clan Forbes Society newsletter. If you have not done so, you can sign up as an “Affiliate Member” here:

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Excellent article Bart! Your summarization was a great help to interpreting the results of the study for those of us layman who aren't up to speed on the level of DNA research expertise as Philip. I truly appreciate your time and efforts, as well as Philip's, in helping us understand the origins of our ancestry.

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