Well, You Just Never Know: DNA Rewrites MacNeil History

The winner in the 2014 Never Say Never contest must definitely be Clan MacNeil of Barra, a fine group of skillful seagoing warriors who understood themselves to be descendants of the great Irish legend Niall of the Nine Hostages through an 11th Century Irish invading prince.  Wrong.

A few years ago Clan MacNeil undertook a clan genealogy and DNA project.  MacNeil clansfolk from right across the globe were swabbed for DNA – enough for serious scientists to begin to draw conclusions.  One conclusion was fairly stark:  not a single hit for the Emerald Isle.  No wild irishmen in the bunch.

“We can say we can re-write the history of the Clan MacNeil,” said genealogist Vincent MacNeil, from Nova Scotia, Canada in an interview for DeadlineNews.

Well, that pretty much takes care of Niall of the Nine Hostages for MacNeils of Barra, 1000 of whom still reside on the isle.  But if not Irish, what?

Vikings of course.  Duh.  What do we know MacNeils for?  Stealthy coastal seamanship in veryDNA_CLAN_SHOCK_DN01-web2 norse – like Birlinn vessels.  The Clan MacNeil motto is “Conquer or Die”.  They effectively raided the seas around Scotland for centuries from their base at Kisimul Castle.  At least norse ancestry shouldn’t be that much of a surprise for MacNeils and it should be a good fit.

The impact of this development is likely to ripple through the rest of the Scottish clan and family community.  Some histories will be confirmed by DNA study.  Some, clearly, will be rewritten.  We never stop learning and everything can change.  Some folks find that satisfying.  Others perhaps find it a bit terrifying.  What are your thoughts on DNA projects and their tremendous impact on a clan or families history?

5 responses to “Well, You Just Never Know: DNA Rewrites MacNeil History”

  1. DNA analysis of Celtic populations is one of the most exciting fields of research currently expanding the limits of our knowledge about our heritage. The work of Bryan Sykes, for example, has even shaken the roots of our understanding of Celtic migrations; the current hypothesis that is gaining acceptance from respected experts is that the Celts of the British Isles including Ireland did not migrate as ancient tribes from the Lowlands and Spain. DNA testing of the major areas within the British Isles resulted in a DNA data base that was then compared with those of Europe. No match! The Celts of the islands emerged from indigenous tribes (sometimes called proto-Celtic) going back 10,000 years. I recommend the book “Saxons, Vikings and Celts” by Sykes for those interested in learning more.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Robert. Some of us have SO much to learn! And we will. Isn’t it comforting to know that we are still unlocking wonderful new frontiers in our chase after greater knowledge of our past. It is a reminder that anything is possible. I think Scots tend to lean into the wind and enjoy such an adventurous ride!

  2. Colette MacNeil says:

    I think you’re jumping the gun here – big time!
    Please reference the plethora of available research data online that clearly demonstrates the several critical inefficiencies of DNA data being used for geneological purposes.
    Yes, several companies like Ancestry Dot Com and their ilk – with widely varying data bases – are making a fortune off of gullible folks with this trendy ‘parlour level’ entertainment, not serious scientific level studies. Note, in particular, the research efforts that sent the same DNA samples to several of these similar companies – all yielding widely dissimilar geneological conclusions. Good for paternity issues only.

  3. Colette MacNeil says:

    Per lack of reliability of DNA data being erroneously used for genealogy purposes:
    See more authoritative conclusions:

  4. John Martin says:

    I read with great interest and amusement a few years ago when the MacNeil clan found they wwere Scandanavian. I am a McRillis and a sept of the clan MacNeil. Everyone wants to be descended from royalty and of course we all can not. Given that historians refer to the MacNeils as the last Viking raiders it is only fitting that they are in fact Vikings! I personally think it is great but the uproar among the MacNeils was fun to read.

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