By James V. Elliott
Elliott (and Border Reivers) DNA Project
It is difficult to discuss with certainty the main Y chromosome groupings – or haplogroups – found in the British Isles, and in western Europe in general, because genetic genealogy is a very young science, and assumptions about the origins of these groupings made just ten years ago have been modified and discarded and sometimes even completely reversed by genetic theorists multiple times since then. To complicate matters, geneticists continually reorganize the various haplogroups, sometimes even changing their names. Let it suffice to say that the genetic inheritance of Elliott men with roots in the British Isles is diverse. So far, about 76 percent belong to the western European haplogroup R1b (more about this below), about 15 percent belong to various northern European sub-groups of haplogroup I, about 2 percent belong to the northeastern European haplogroup R1a, about 3.5 percent appear to be Mediterranean or Middle Eastern in origin, and another 4 percent suggest origins even farther afield in central Asia.
The main line of the Scottish Elliotts is a lineage derived from the haplogroup R1b, specifically identified as the Western Atlantic Modal Haplotype, the most common Y chromosome signature in western Europe. This lineage – and R1b in general – was once considered to be inherited from the original occupants of western Europe, the Paleolithic hunter gatherers, but later research suggested that the lineage came to Europe with the agricultural pioneers of the Neolithic, and even more recently population geneticists have theorized that R1b, like the related haplogroup R1a, common among those of Scandinavian descent, actually came to western Europe with the equestrian nomads of Eurasia who introduced the Indo-European languages to the continent. Regardless where this lineage ultimately came from, it is extremely common in the so-called Celtic fringe and prevails among the Scottish, Irish and Northern English Elliots, including those who claim descent from Robert Elliot of Hermitage Castle, and other legendary Elliots such as “Jock” Elliot.
Nonetheless, there are other Elliott lineages in the mix. Included among the more genetically exotic are one group of Elliotts, apparently descended from Irish Quakers, that bear the Y chromosome haplogroup C, which is unequivocally of Asiatic origin and could have come to Britain with either the Vikings or Roman troops recruited from the Middle East or what is now Eastern Europe. There are other Elliott lineages, found predominantly among Americans of Scots-Irish (or Ulster Scottish) descent, that feature Y chromosome haplogroups (e.g., R1a and variants of the I haplogroup) typically of Viking origin. However, we have not found members of these particular lineages still resident in the British Isles and cannot be sure they originated among Elliott clan members during the time of the Border Reivers.
One group of Elliotts claims descent from an individual named Daniel Elliot who settled in Massachusetts during the 17th century. I have been in correspondence with members of this lineage off and on for some time, and several of these members believe that Daniel Elliot was a Scot or Ulster Scot captured by Cromwell after the Scottish campaigns conducted during the English Civil War, and were transported to New England as indentured servants. On the other hand, other members of this lineage contend that it originated in southern England and does not necessarily have any connection to the Scottish Elliotts. Most individuals claiming this lineage belong to the genetic grouping R1b, like the Scottish Elliotts, but display a DNA signature that is slightly (but distinctly) different from that of the main branch of the clan.
Other groups of Elliotts found almost exclusively among descendants of Ulster Scots also belong to the genetic grouping R1b, but do not appear closely related to the main branch of the Scottish Elliotts. One group, which is genetically old enough to have originated in Scotland, occurs mostly among individuals with roots in Fermanagh and Donegal. (Please note that the age of a lineage may be determined by the genetic distance among individuals within that lineage.) Another group, occurring among individuals with similar roots in Ulster, appears closely related to the main branch of the Irving or Irvine clan, which also has many representatives in that part of Ireland.
There is another Elliott lineage from Ulster belonging to a variant of the I haplogroup, common to those of Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon descent, that appears closely related to individuals with the surname Fairbairn, which is a family associated with the Armstrongs. Other Elliotts belonging to additional I haplogroup lineages have claimed descent from Elliotts residing in such locales as Newcastleton and Jedburgh, so it is likely that the Elliotts living in the heart of the Borders have belonged to different lineages for centuries. Elliotts belonging to R1b lineages that differ from the main branch of the Elliotts have also claimed descent from Borders Elliotts, including one Elliott from Berwickshire who may have been descended from the Arkleton Elliotts.
Finally, there are some lineages of Elliotts that may or may not have a connection to the Borders Elliotts, but suggest highly exotic geographical origins nonetheless. One lineage, or group of lineages,with members claiming roots in places as distinct as Ireland and Sussex, belongs to the J2 haplogroup, which is most commonly found in the Middle East and Mediterranean basin. Another lineage belongs to the L haplogroup, which is far more typical of central and southern Asia than of western Europe.
In conclusion, let me reiterate that at least three quarters of the nearly 300 Elliott DNA results we have analyzed belong to the western European genetic grouping R1b, suggesting a local origin in nothern Britain, and among those a significant percentage belong to the main branch of the Scottish Elliotts. Other lineages could easily have a Borders origin as well, as descendants of “broken men” – i.e., clanless or outcast individuals incorporated into the Elliott clan, of adoptees, or of the offspring of “handfasting”, a custom that allowed couples to cohabit, but without necessarily marrying, sometimes with the result that the mother raised the children under her father’s surname.