A very interesting question, and given the present global political mood regarding nationality, migration, ethnicity the closing of borders and the building of physical barriers, a very topical one too.
The origins of ‘identity’ in relation to a sense of belonging, particularly to a certain place, tribe or family, are rooted deep in history. In the Medieval period in England at least, the notion of belonging to a certain geographical ‘place’ formed the basis of an administrative system, determining who would look after the poor, infirm and destitute in times of need. In simple terms who would ‘cough up’ to pay for your basic needs when you could not!
This was known as your place of ‘Settlement’. This was broken down by ‘Parish’ and the rules and laws governing the particular parish you belonged to, changed and adapted over time. It often reflected a recognised economic requirement to move, primarily for reasons of employment. This system was not adopted because the parish necessarily wanted to claim you as their own, and therefore help in times of distress, but rather the complete opposite was true. If they could possibly avoid the financial responsibility they would, with the individual or family in question often being physically removed to their legal place of settlement. Any early form of deportation if you like. It is these parish records that form the mainstay of all family history research, particularly in the pre-statutory registration and census period.
Recently I was contacted by the company ‘Living DNA’, asking me if I would like to review their service and I jumped at the chance. For me, in addition to the global mapping, it was the ability to analyse my British DNA across 21 regions which I found most interesting.
However, the reality of the case with DNA is that there is no rule governing which genes we have inherited and from which parent and thus from which ancestor. For this reason my DNA signature may differ significantly to that of my brother. Given that all the families mentioned earlier come from one single branch of a tree that entered my genetic pool through my 2 x great grandfather’s wife Hannah Aynsley, the number of inherited genes from these specific families may be very small indeed.
My father’s direct paternal line, I think has to be one of the boring and predictable, on paper at least. However, being a female of the species I do not possess the necessary ‘y’ chromosome to be able to map my father’s direct ancestry or ‘fatherline group’ genetically. For that I will need to employ the services of my brother.
In a nutshell, this direct paternal paper line does not deviate or stray from Northumberland since circa 1650. Before 1864 they were all born in Norham, the earliest at neighbouring Cornhill and the furthest south they ventured was all of 50 miles south to West Chevington. This was obviously too far for comfort and the stay was therefore short lived, moving to Longhoughton in the mid 1870’s where they settled, and where I myself entered the world in 1967.
Norham is within touching distance of Scotland, sitting as it does on the banks of the River Tweed, so it is possible that their forebears perhaps waded across the river at some point from the opposite bank. Of course it is also necessary to factor their wives into the genetic mix, and two are no more than one generation removed away from Scottish born parentage. One from the Borders and Lothians the other from Angus and Fife.
My Father’s maternal, paternal line is Davison, fairly long-time residents of Northumberland, but with other names such as Ross and Ogilvy in the equation their more distant Scottish origins are certainly inferred. His maternal, maternal line is not long on British shores before it hops over the North Sea to Groningen in Holland where they can be traced for many generations. The British element is Dixon from Sunderland, and then back over the border once again to the east coast of Scotland to a family by the name of Greig.
When it comes to my mother’s family this might add a bit of colour to the map for sure. Here I would be expecting to see a dollop of Yorkshire, through the Naylor line and an even larger dose Warwickshire through Burgess and Hodgetts. However, we have the Hewitt family which once again trotted south across the Scottish Border to Tyneside. Her maternal family is a bit of an enigma to say the least, with the unusual surname of Capill crossed with a very ‘Scottish’ Watson.
I will be most interested indeed to see if I have inherited any of the Capill ‘DNA’. This is a line that is shrouded in myth and legend but somewhat lacking in evidence. Very little is known much before a birth in London in 1820. Suffice it to say I anticipate the colour it will add to my regional map will take me a long way from Northumberland!
I suppose the burning question here is, will my results when they come through make me not only think differently about myself, but how I view others? The whole ethos behind Living DNA is that ‘We are all made up of all us’ which is a powerful message with a profound resonance. Of course our DNA is unique to all of us, but we share many of its component parts with many others of different social, economic, regional and ethnic groups. Should therefore, our sense of ‘identity’ and belonging not extend beyond the parameters of our place of birth, over which, let’s face it, we had no control, and beyond the cultural and religious groups to which we have become aligned.
How much can we honestly say we know about our history and heritage? By this I mean, beyond what we have been taught through education or read in books. Someone has written these books, and the Department for Education determines what makes the English school curriculum and what crucially does not. The history we are taught, and that is being taught to our children is therefore predetermined, and highly selective. (The current curriculum can be found on the Government website at https:/www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study/)
This is not a new phenomenon nor is it the only means by which our sense of who we are is manipulated or defined. Nostalgia for the past is a tool that is too often overplayed, remembering the past in an over-sentimentalised cloud of romantic ephemera may be entertaining to watch or read, but it is often a one-sided view of the time, lives and event they depict. Of course cultural heritage, tangible or otherwise, such as language and tradition is important to preserve. But over-identification of a cultural memory which is factually incorrect can be as destructive as it is positive. This is particularly true when it comes to ‘Nationalism’ as an identity.
Margaret Macmillan in her book ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ has much to say on the subject. ‘The shared celebration of the nation’s great achievements – and the shared sorrow at its defeats sustain and foster it’. But for every victory there is a vanquished, and when accompanied with passion of hatred it can lead to social intolerance, racial tension, victimisation and bloodshed. I wonder therefore, whether more emphasis should be placed in our classrooms on our ‘commonality’ with others, both at home and around the globe, than our differences. Differences are what separate us, what we share in common brings us together and unites us, and this can be found in our genes. David Nicholson, MD at Living DNA reiterates similar sentiments:
It only takes a short read of the daily newspaper to see the amount of conflict that goes on across the world. A large amount of this comes down to political, religious or racial animosity. Yet within our DNA is the fact we are all connected, we are all in essence, one big family. The more people get to appreciate the fact we are one, the less wars and conflicts may possibly occur. Even the way we feel about another person we pass on the street or read about can change, as we start to see everyone as equal and not different. Having seen the change in the children that have taken part in our anti-racism educations programs, it's clear that understanding your own DNA breakdown really does support a change in perception, and helps breakdown the illusion of race.
Therefore, the answer to the question I set myself earlier is a resounding ‘yes’ and in a very positive way.
The family ancestry results can show a breakdown of your recent ancestry going back approximately 5-6 generations, however, we are not able to tell you if these results came from your mother's or father's side, nor can we tell from which generation you inherited certain percentages
The DNA analysis won’t be able to attribute regions I match with, to particular lines or individuals in my tree. It will however, illustrate the areas in which I share common ancestry, both within the British Isles, and further back in time from a global perspective.
If this voyage into my genetic heritage has grabbed your interest, Living DNA have offered one lucky individual the chance to win exactly the same test absolutely free of charge. All you have to do is have a guess at what percentage of my total DNA result falls within Living DNA’s geographical definition of ‘Northumbria’.
No-one can help on this I am afraid – as yet no-one knows the answer, not even Living DNA let alone myself. The competition closes on 31st March 2017. I shall receive my results and the winner will be announced during the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ Live event at the NEC in Birmingham which runs from the 6-8th April.