Sunday, 29 April 2012

Book Launch in Wick, Caithness

Last Tuesday, April 24th, was launch day for the paperback version of  The Stuart Agenda. The event was held in the marvellous new Pulteneytown Peoples Centre, an ambitious multi-objective project aimed at the mitigation of long term poverty in an area blighted by deprivation for too long.
     The venue was highly appropriate for another reason-it is sited just two hundred yards from my birthplace. That's the house in Barrogill Street with the yellow door( see the poem of that title in an earlier blog).
     After a glass of wine all round, I was interviewed by local writer and historian, Tom Allan in front of a full house in the upstairs conference room. Local writers Katherine Byrne, George Gunn and Clio Gray were present. We covered the genesis of the book, especially the final trigger provided by the appearance in Edinburgh of the self-styled Prince of Albany, who claimed to be an airbrushed out legitimate descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie. His claim was found to be bogus by some detailed genealogical research and the impostor was revealed as a Belgian waiter, Michel Lafosse. Despite the falsehood, the affair did plant the what if ? question which eventually flowered into the novel.
     There was a lot of discussion about Scottish Independence. The Stuart Agenda is clearly a romantic work in the widest sense, reflecting my position as an emotional nationalist. However, many current policies of the SNP were framed outside the constraint of actually having to impliment them, rather like the Lib Dem stance on tuition fees. Until they can guarantee to keep the lights burning in Scotland with a sane energy policy, most thinking Scots will be sceptical of their competence to govern. While the Stuart Agenda was more about the rival Royal families than the issue of nationalism, I did highlight the excessive focus on renewables as something that needed to be changed.
     The most basic point made by the book is that the Scots should be able to choose which constitutional model they would like, exposing the Monarchy to the will of the people. Don't forget that when Norway split from Sweden in 1906, they kicked out the Swedish monarchy and invited a Danish Prince to be their Sovereign.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. E-Book at and Paperback at and 9781468055900)

Monday, 23 April 2012

Who Are we? What can DNA tell us?

Last week I gave a talk to the Caithness Family History Society entitled Who are we? What can DNA tell us?, based on my own experience of having my DNA analysed and reading around the subject, mainly in the writings of Professor Bryan Sykes of Oxford University. The above question is often asked as the ancestral trail goes cold into the period before records were kept at least on ordinary folk. In my case the Scottish Old Parish Church records get me back to the early/mid 1700's on my Calder line but before that, history is silent.
     I began my talk by taking people back to prehistory to the time when the British Isles were repopulated after the last ice age receeded, about 12,000 years ago. However British Isles isn't quite correct. Because so much water was locked up in ice, sea levels were much lower and there was continuous land over much of the North Sea connecting us to the European land mass to the east and to Ireland in the west enabling the earliest settlers to walk in (Eurosceptics please note). DNA analysis of the European population has clarified that most of the pre-empire citizens of the British Isles are descendants of those hunter/gatherers who walked in over the land bridge or arrived by sea a bit later. To them we can add Danes/Saxons who came in the middle of the first millenium and settled especially in East Anglia. After that the only major addition is the Vikings who settled particularly in Shetland, Orkney and Northern Scotland. DNA analysis of both males and females in the north confirms that there are about equal numbers in the population suggesting that the Vikings took their womenfolk with them and that their reputation for rape and pillage does not reflect the full picture of how they operated.
     At the level of the science, the main two things we need to understand is that all males have a Y-Chromosome which is transmitted unchanged from father to son down the ages and is therefore an excellent tracer of male lines. Similarly, mitochondrial DNA is passed unchanged from mothers to daughters and sons unchanged and hence is an excellent tracer of female lines.
    Professor Sykes has done a good job of de-mystifying the dry science by giving names to the major clans of male and female lines that have similar DNA and therefore share a common ancestor in the past. My male line is Oisin (pronounced O'Sheen), the most common in Scotland covering  73% of the male population. At the level at which my DNA has been studied, I can look up lists of males who share the same Y-chromosome DNA. These are males with whom I share a common ancestor who lived about 1500 years ago, long before surnames were used. Many of them are British, or Americans who emigrated from Britain. However there are a few South American males with Spanish or Portuguese names, a relic of British sailors, soldiers and traders cohabiting with indigenous females. This is apparently a worldwide phenomenon. Eg 20% of Maori males have European Y-Chromosomes.
     DNA analysis has also put facts behind many historic myths. It is estimated that 16 million Asian males share a single Y-Chromosome. This is thought to be the ultimate footprint of Genkhis Khan's Mongol empire and reflects the brutality of his conquest, eliminating local males and taking their women.
     On the West Coast of Scotland, the clans MacDonald, Mc Dougall and Macalister all claim descent from the Celtic hero, Somerled, who is credited with driving the Vikings out of Argyll and the Hebrides. Y-Chromosome DNA analysis has proven the link in that many men sharing these surnames and all the current clan chiefs share a single rare chromosome. However the chromosome is a Viking type so Somerled's paternity must have included Vikings at some point.
     Professor Sykes did a major study on men with his own surname and came to the conclusion that 50% of males with that surname have the same Y-Chromosome and are descended from one Mr Sykes, who took the name in the 1100's when surnames became obligatory (for taxation!). His study highlights another interesting facet of the human condition. The other 50% of the Sykes males who don't share the same chromosome result from what he euphemistically calls non patrimonial events where the link between surname and DNA gets broken.I'll leave you to work that out for youtrself.
     On the female side I'm a Helena, descended from hunter/gatherers who left the Languedoc in France to make their way north after the Ice Age.
     Finally, It is tempting to imagine that all the Caithness Calders are descended from one individual. In the early records they are concentrated in two areas of the county. We need a county wide DNA study of Calder males to find out. 

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder. E-book and paperback at E-book at

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Aboyne Spring and Anglesey

The  Deeside town of Aboyne set a new Scottish record March temperature of 23.6C during the recent fine weather, only to be covered in snow a week later. So, is The Aboyne Spring, another metaphor for false hopes, like the over-hyped Arab Spring which has flowered more poppies than bluebells so far? No. Spring and summer will come to Aboyne as usual, but the citizens of Egypt and Libya probably face winters of discontent as they struggle to replace their deposed tyrants with something better. The trouble is they can't agree on what that should be. For democracy to flower, voters have to trust that whoever gets into power will eschew self-enrichment and rule on behalf of all the people, not just the tribe who voted them in. That trust isn't there and for good reason. Expect more tyrants and console yourself that people get the governments they deserve.

As the sun shone on Aboyne, we visited an equally sun-kissed Anglesey for the first time, taking a large holiday house for the weekend. The Menai Strait was a mild disappointment, I had expected something much wider. Not far to the east of the bridge lies Beaumaris, the former county town of the Island. It's famous for its castle, built by Edward the First from 1295 but never fully completed. It has an historic inn, Ye Olde Bull's Head, dating from the fifteenth century and counting Charles Dickens and Dr Samuel Johnson among its famous guests. We can attest to the quality of the brasserie food and intend to return.

The interior of Anglesey is dedicated sheep country, bounded by a magical coastline. We covered the coast from Dulas Bay with its wooden hulks to Red Wharf Bay, site of the historic Ship Inn; great beer and excellent fish and chips. The wildest experience by far was the visit to South Stack on the Holyhead peninsula. From the high cliffs the guillemots can be seen booking their barren rocky nesting places for later under the watchful eye of the RSPB.
We'll definitely return but will probably never be so lucky with the weather, especially in March.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. E-book at, and Barnes and Noble. Paperback at