I first came across the name of Alistair Moffat when I read his book Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, in which he suggests that his native Kelso may be the capital of the obscure Hen Ogledd kingdom of Calchfynydd, and there is much to recommend it. There is even a Chalkheugh Terrace. More intriguing is the mound and few remaining ruins of Roxburgh castle (which first appears in the written record in 1107 as ‘Marchidun’, which could be Old Welsh for something like ‘cavalry fort’), a natural defensive position close to the confluence of the rivers Tweed and Teviot, just outside the modern town.
Amazingly, no archaeological work has ever been undertaken on this site of national importance due to the fact that the Duke of Roxburghe, on whose estate the ruins lie, forbids digging. He may even set the dogs on anyone looking remotely like an archaeologist. The Duke’s palatial castle of Floors can be seen in the photograph across the Tweed from the old castle and burgh of Roxburgh / Marchidun, which often served early medieval Scotland as an informal ‘capital’. (Click to enlarge.) If I was that Nicola Sturgeon I’d be on the old dog and bone in no time, ‘Oi, Dukey, I’m sending some boys down to do a bit of digging – don’t get in the way!’ But perhaps that’s not her style.
About six or seven years ago the wife and I were on holiday in the Borders (I often take her with me) and we visited Floors Castle. A party of us was shown around by what I took to be a faithful family retainer, who gave us the rehearsed spiel, and eventually came to the bit about the then Earl of Roxburghe being elevated in 1707 to Duke of Roxburghe. I was too polite, and hungover, to start singing Parcel of Rogues but the significance of the date was not lost on me. Yet his descendant denies access to an important centre of post-Roman Britain; one that might even be connected to Arthur. Why would he do that?
I have digressed too long with Alistair Moffat’s book, with which I broadly agree, despite its flaws. If ‘Arthur’ existed, then I believe he would have come from the Roman-trained military elite of the land between Hadrian’s wall and the territory of the Picts, the frontier zone and ‘trip-wire’ to any incursion from the north. Regrettably, Alistair Moffat’s latest venture into the Welsh past is less commendable.
I’m referring now to Cymru DNA Wales, a series to be broadcast on S4C with its ‘findings’ already being reported in what passes for our national print media (Trinity Mirror). As the website puts it: “This is a project with an epic ambition – nothing less than the discovery of the ancestral genome of a nation.” So which respected scientific institution is carrying out this research? Well, actually, it’s The Moffat Partnership Ltd, set up in 1999 by the eponymous Alistair Moffat, whose background is in journalism and television. His company has already ‘investigated’ Scotland’s DNA, and Ireland’s DNA, even Yorkshire’s DNA! and now it’s our turn to get
For this is a crude, money-making exercise dressed up as ‘science’, using Welsh celebrities in order to get Dai and Delyth Public to part with £250 each (£200 using the vouncher off the website!) in the hope of discovering that they are descended from Owain Glyndŵr or Nest. The whole thing is, as we respectable geneticists are wont to say, a load of old bollocks, that abuses advances in understanding human makeup while also capitalising on the current fad for tracing one’s roots. But don’t believe me, read what Private Eye has to say in the panel on the right (click to enlarge).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking DNA research and what it can achieve. If it helps solve crime, then fine; if it can be used in anthropology and other fields, then all well and good; if it can unravel the reasons for certain medical conditions then, with reservations, I’ll support that too, but I draw the line at it being used as a high tech (and expensive) parlour game for the twenty-first century.
We have already been told that Gwaun Cae Gurwen’s own Gareth Edwards has DNA from central Europe and the Volga region; Dafydd Iwan is linked to Romano-Welsh aristocracy; Siân Lloyd is related to Tsar Nicholas II; while Bryn Terfel – who is, we are told, comfortable singing in German – has Rhineland roots. It’s only a matter of time before it is exclusively revealed that Jason Mohammad is descended from Penclawdd cockle-pickers. That’s what it’s all about; use celebs, and make sure that the ‘findings’ elicit the ‘Well fancy that!’ response that might persuade Dai and Delyth to
cough up £500 become involved with this ground-breaking research..
As someone quoted in the Private Eye piece says, “There is no genetic marker for nationality”. Which is true. If we look at central Europe, where populations have swirled and been displaced for centuries, we can find Magyars with the same genetic markers as Czechs; while the Prussians, those hate figures from an earlier era, held up as the embodiment of the Germans’ aggressive tendencies, were in reality Germanised Balts.
Another example, one I have used in the past, is that of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. They speak the same language and at one time were a single people, but over the centuries the adoption of different religions led to a widening gulf between them, to the point where they can quite happily butcher others sharing the same DNA. Or maybe this earlier, apparently homogenous and undivided group, didn’t share the same DNA.
So while it’s possible to identity the gene that gives red hair, going beyond that to say, ‘You are Welsh because of this gene’ is nonsense. Which is why it’s sad to see S4C mixed up in this, with so many vultures circling. As for the others, well, celeb trivia like this – when not attacking innocent bloggers (sob!) – is now the staple at Llais y Sais because it’s easier than having to deal with real news, or focus on anything happening outside of Cardiff.
Anyway, DNA testing is soooo yesterday. The coming thing is phrenology. So send me £5,000 and I will dispatch a team of my highly-trained technicians to take lots of measurements of your head and tell you everything about yourself. You want to be descended from Julius Caesar? We can arrange that! You want to be the rightful heir to the throne of the pharaohs? Leave it to us – we’ll even provide the paperwork in hieroglyphics! Of course, we’ll resist the temptation to tell you the most important thing about yourself – that you’re very, very gullible.
UPDATE 10:45: I am indebted to Terry Breverton for this link, proving that I am not the only one with serious reservations about this whole project.
UPDATE 12.06.2015: This piece appeared in Private Eye No 1394 June 12
UPDATE 27.11.2015: In the first update I supplied a link to the Cruwys News blog, based in Devon, and written by Debbie Kennett. I can now link to another post by Ms Kennett following the transmission on S4C last Sunday of the latest ‘findings’. It’s worth reading because where my forte lies in sniffing out shysters, charlatans and scammers, Ms Kennett really does know about DNA.