Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Scottish connection: Breaking through a 1732 brick wall on my direct paternal line

Today I will be writing about my direct paternal line - father's father's father and so on. In this blog post I will show how genetic genealogy helped me break through my brick wall and trace my paternal line back to some very interesting ancestors.

I have written about my paternal line in an earlier blog post as well. I wrote about my 3rd great-grandfather Peder Pedersen Bjørnbethåggån (1836-1916), a fisherman and crofter who was born in poverty in the tiny seaside village of Geitastranda in Trøndelag, Norway, and later settled in the neighbouring village of Ingdalen. There is, however, a lot more to the story of this family, in the generations preceding Peder Pedersen.

Sunset over the Trondheim Fjord. My ancestral villages of Geitastranda and Ingdalen are located on the shores of this fjord. Photo: sondrekv (Source; public domain)

Using church records and censuses, my direct paternal line can be traced back to my 6th great-grandfather Peder Olsen (alternatively spelled Per Olsson), who was born around 1732 and died in 1801 in Geitastranda. It was Peder Olsen and his wife Randi who built the croft Bjørnbethåggån, also known as Hesthåggån, the birthplace of their great-grandson Peder Pedersen. Peder Olsen's background and ancestry, however, cannot be reliably traced using traditional sources. He is, as we say in genealogy, a brick wall.

That is, he used to be a brick wall until the advent of genetic genealogy.

The Y-chromosome is inherited more or less unchanged from father to son. However, it does mutate, and those mutations make it possible to compare Y-chromosome DNA (abbreviated "Y-DNA") between two biological males in order to figure out a genealogical relationship along the direct male line.

One fortunate thing about being a trans woman is that I have a Y chromosome which can be tested. The fact that Peder Olsen is my direct male-line ancestor means that my own Y-DNA is inherited directly from him. This means that my Y-DNA could hold vital clues to the identities of Peder's ancestors. As we shall see, not only did it hold clues, but it actually led my genealogical research in a completely different direction than what I had anticipated.

The genetic trail

The first DNA test I ever took was a Y chromosome test, the Y12, back in 2011. I tested with National Geographic's Genographic Project. The Y12 is a very simple test, and doesn't tell you much; what it gave me was my haplogroup, R1b. R1b is the most common Y-DNA haplogroup in all of western Europe, and the third most common haplogroup in Norway. In other words, this was interesting information - doubly so for me, since it was my very first encounter with the world of genetic genealogy - but it was not genealogically useful.

A year later, I decided to dig deeper, so I transferred my Y12 test to Family Tree DNA and ordered an upgrade to Y37. This would provide me with matches that might actually give me more precise hints as to where my paternal line came from.

The results came back, and I received my list of matches. It was not what I had expected. Instead of a long list of Norwegians with roots in Trøndelag, it was a long list of Scots (and Americans with Scottish roots) with surnames like McGregor, McCaslin, Buchanan and Campbell. In fact, there was only one Norwegian man on my list, and after doing some research, I found out that this man's paternal line was said to originate in Scotland.

The Scottish connection was a mystery. Of course, I assumed there must have been a Scot in our line somewhere beyond our brick wall. It might also be possible that the common ancestor was Norwegian and that my Scottish matches were descended from a Viking, but the genetic matches seemed too close for that. For quite a long time, I was convinced that my family had to be descendants of the MacGregors, due to the fact that I am a genetic match to their Clan Chief. It was not a bad theory, but it turned out to be inaccurate. We are indeed related to the Clan Gregor - i.e. we share a direct paternal ancestor with them - but as we shall see, our lines split early on, several centuries before the modern Clans were formed.

Later on, I purchased yet another upgrade, to Y67, which narrows down your match list even further in order to pinpoint more recent family relationships. My list was still a list of Scots, with the Scottish-descended Norwegian man at the very top, as my closest Y-DNA cousin. Our match is GD=1 at Y67, which is rather close.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my direct paternal line originated in Scotland at some point in time, probably not too far back. This hypothesis received additional confirmation after I tested positive for the R1b subclade L1335 (itself a subclade of the more well-known L21), which is confined almost exclusively to Scotland and pockets of Wales and probably originated among one of Scotland's Celtic-speaking ethnic groups (Picts, Gaels or Britons). It seems likely, moreover, that my Norwegian Y-DNA cousin and myself both descend from the same immigrant from Scotland to Norway.

The paper trail

Incredibly, and fortuitously, my Norwegian match has traced his line all the way back to a specific individual who is said to have been born in Scotland, more precisely in the city of Dundee, and ended his days in Norway. Logic dictates that this man is very likely to be a common ancestor of ours. The man in question was Jacob Frederik Matheson (1639-1724); his origins have been debated,* but my match's Y-DNA seems proof beyond doubt that he was Scottish. (As we shall see later, the Scottish Clan Matheson is aware of the Norwegian Mathesons, and the clan genealogist has an interesting theory about how they connect to the main stem of the family). I presume his birth name must have been James Frederick, with James later danicized to Jacob.

For a Norwegian, having a Scottish ancestor in the 1600s is not that strange; many Scots settled in Norway in this period, and indeed, in some areas, it has been called Skottetida, "the Age of the Scots". I myself have several other Scottish ancestors who came over at that time.

As I have already mentioned, my known paternal line dead-ends with my 6th great-grandfather Peder Olsen, who was born around 1732 and lived in Geitastranda. This village is located in what is now Orkdal municipality, Trøndelag county. It seems likely that he would have been born in or near that area. Based on Peder's year of birth, there could be two, three or four generations between him and Jacob Frederik Matheson. "Olsen" is a patronymic, meaning "son of Ole". Based on the fact that Jacob Frederik did not have any known male-line descendants named Ole who lived in the early 1700s, it seems like there must be an NPE - a non-paternity event - somewhere in the generations before Peder. In other words, someone must have had an illegitimate child.

Let's begin in the obvious place: Which one(s) of Jacob Frederik's male-line descendants lived near Geitastranda around the year 1730 (i.e. around the time when Peder Olsen was born)? In fact, only one. Jacob Frederik had a son, born in 1682 or 1683, who was also called Jacob. He moved to Trøndelag around 1730, and lived permanently in Melhus from 1733 onwards. Melhus municipality borders Orkdal municipality. Jacob junior was the only one of his siblings who is known to have lived in that area at that particular time. This makes Jacob junior an extremely likely candidate to be the illegitimate father of Peder Olsen who was born around 1732 (meaning anywhere between c. 1730 and c. 1735). The connection is so likely that it seems more or less certain. Most importantly, it would give me and my Norwegian Y-DNA cousin a relationship that fits with our genetic match.

In other words, my paternal line back to Scotland and the Matheson family is well established based on the combination of genetic and paper-trail evidence.


Using Y-DNA matching, we have uncovered two more generations of my direct paternal line, and traced the family back to Scotland and the city of Dundee. We have even found a connection to a specific surname; as an Anglophone genealogist might put it, although our surname is Pedersen, we are really Mathesons. Is it possible to trace the Matheson line even further back, within Scotland?

It seems to be. In fact, the clan genealogist of Clan Matheson, Alice Fairhurst, has been in touch with my Norwegian Y-DNA cousin, and if I read her work correctly, it seems that she has hypothesized that the Norwegian Mathesons might be descendants (click here for source - Fairhurst 2010) of a certain Iain Dubh Matheson (Iain the Black, also known as John in English), Chief of Clan Matheson, who lived in the early 1500s in Lochalsh on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. Upon marrying the widow of Sir Dugald Mackenzie (the wife's name, unfortunately, has been forgotten), Iain Dubh was appointed to the position of Constable of Eilean Donan Castle, a Mackenzie stronghold. Iain was killed by an arrow in 1539 while defending his castle against the forces of Donald Gorm MacDonald of Sleat.

The Lochalsh area was the ancestral homeland of the Mathesons. They are a Gaelic clan, and the surname Matheson is in fact an anglicization of a Gaelic name, either MacMhathain "son of the heroes" or MacMhatghamhuin "son of the Bear" - probably the latter. The Bear is an actual historical person (cf. below). However, since MacMhathain seems to be the official Gaelic spelling of the clan surname today, this is the form I choose to use.

Moving back in time from Iain Dubh, the MacMhathain line can be traced (according to Fairhurst) back to a man named Gilleòin na h-Airde (Gilleòin of the Aird) who lived in the late eleventh or early twelfth century, and who is also an ancestor of the Mackenzies. Although our descent from Iain Dubh is very uncertain, we can be a bit more confident in claiming descent from Gilleòin, because of Y-DNA evidence gathered by the Clan Matheson (cf. Fairhurst 2010).

The line can be traced even further back, beyond Gilleòin. Fairhurst, with whom I have corresponded, believes it is likely that I belong to a specific subclade of L1335 called S744. Of this subclade, she says the following:

This group of Mathesons and the MacGregors both share snp S744 which is thought to have belonged to Prince Gregor or Giric. S744 is below snp L1335 which is mainly a Scottish SNP. So the chiefly line of MacGregors and this group of Mathesons share a common ancestry. Prince Gregor lived in the early 800's and some think he was the third son of King Alpin and a brother of Kenneth MacAlpin. Others think he married into that line. Still others have him associated with the House of Lorne. (Alice Fairhurst, personal communication, 22 May 2016)

This explains my Y-DNA match to the Chief of Clan Gregor. Our common ancestor was not the Gregor of the Golden Bridles (fl. 1300s) who is regarded as the founder of that clan, but the much earlier Gregor or Giric who lived in the early 800s.

According to Fairhurst, this Gregor was not a Gael, but a Pict. The Picts were a pre-Gaelic ethnic group living in Scotland and first recorded by the Romans in the first centuries AD. It has been claimed that their language was non-Indo-European, but this has been shown to be false; they seem to have spoken a Celtic language closely related to Brittonic languages (i.e. Welsh, Breton, etc.). It is unknown when our family line shifted from speaking Pictish to speaking Gaelic, but it must have happened sometime during the Middle Ages.

The Castle of Eilean Donan, home of my likely ancestor Coinneach MacMhathain in the 1200s and my possible ancestor Iain Dubh in the 1500s. Photo: Syxaxis Photography (Source; license: Creative Commons 4.0)

Map of the Scottish Clans (Highland and Lowland). Source (public domain). The homeland of Clan Matheson is highlighted; the map is otherwise unmodified from the original.

Connecting back to Jacob Frederik

There are several - perhaps four - missing generations between Iain Dubh and Jacob Frederik Matheson. We simply do not know the history of the family during the century between Iain's death in 1539 and Jacob Frederik's birth in 1639. If it is true that Jacob Frederik was born in Dundee, one of his Matheson ancestors must at some point have moved to that city from the west coast of Scotland. The followers of Iain Dubh were chased out of Lochalsh after the death of their chief, and it is not hard to imagine that some of them would have ended up in a place like Dundee. Cities, with their opportunities for money-making and social mobility, have tended to draw migrants even across long distances.

By the year 1500, Dundee and its uplands were firmly Scots-speaking, so it is likely that our family would have lost their Gaelic quite soon after moving there, by the mid-1600s at the very latest. It is conceivable that Jacob Frederik Matheson could have grown up speaking at least some Gaelic, especially if it was his father who was born on the west coast (and not a more distant ancestor).

Our Scottish-Norwegian family line summed up

Gregor (Giric), a Pictish prince, fl. late 800s. (Connection based on Y-DNA, info from Fairhurst)
(A number of missing generations between Gregor and Gilleòin)
Gilleòin na h-Airde, fl. late 1000s / early 1100s. (Connection based on Y-DNA and clan tradition)
Gilleòin Òg
Cristin or Gille Chrìosd (Christian or Christopher)
Aonghasa (Angus)
Cainnigh (Kenneth)
Mathghamhna (Bear)
Coinneach MacMhathain (Kenneth, Son of the Bear), Chief of Clan Matheson, Constable of Eilean Donan Castle in 1263. Known in Norse as Kjarnak, son of Makamal. Died 1304.
Murchaidh MhicMhathan (Murdoch), Chief of Clan Matheson, married to Isobel MacAulay.
Donnachadh (Duncan)
Murchadh (Murdoch)
Donnachadh (Duncan)
Murchadh (Murdoch)
Alasdair, Chief of Clan Matheson, fought at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411 with Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. Died 1438.
Iain Dubh (senior), fl. 1492. Adhered to Mackenzie chiefs and fought MacLeods.
Iain Dubh Matheson (MacMhathain), born 1492, died 1539 at Eilean Donan, Scotland. (Possible but very uncertain connection, cf. Fairhurst 2010)
(Some missing generations - possibly 4 - between Iain and Jacob Frederik)
Jacob Frederik Matheson, born 1639 Dundee, Scotland. Died 1724 in Vinger, Hedmark, Norway.
Jacob Jacobsen Matheson, born 1682/83 in Norway. Died 1749 in Melhus, Trøndelag, Norway.
Peder Olsen, born c. 1732. Died 1801 in Geitastranda, Trøndelag, Norway.

Source for the early Matheson generations (pre Iain Dubh): Clan Matheson USA. The names are spelled as on the Clan Matheson USA website (except where I know their spelling is incorrect) and I apologize for any misspellings or inappropriate grammatical forms.

A note on the ancestry of Gilleòin na h-Airde: A Pictish origin through Gregor/Giric precludes the Dalriadic (Irish Gaelic) origin postulated in Fairhurst 2010, at least in the direct paternal line. However, it was Fairhurst herself who told me of the Gregor/Giric descent, so I assume she must have changed her mind between 2010 and 2016. I will go with the more recent information.

According to Fairhurst, Gregor/Giric does seem to have been affiliated with Dalriada, either as a (female-line) descendant of the Dalriadic royal family, or by marrying into it. There are several competing hypotheses, but I will not delve into them in this blog post.


* There is a theory that Jacob Frederik's father was part of the Scottish mercenary army who lost the Battle of Kringen in Norway in 1612. One of Norway's top genealogists, the late Tore Vigerust, believed this story to be rubbish. However, even though the tale might well be untrue (and I believe it probably is), it has no bearing on the question of whether Jacob Frederik was Scottish or not. Neither does the fact that Jacob Frederik himself seems to have come to Norway from Sweden in 1677 (contrary to what this Geni tree owner seems to believe). In 1677, he would have been almost 40 years old, which means that he would have had ample time to move from Scotland to Sweden earlier on. According to genealogist Per Nermo, Jacob Frederik is supposed to have lived in Denmark and Hamburg in the 1660s, so it does seem like his stay in Sweden was relatively temporary, probably less than ten years.


  1. Great Story, wonderful you found your ancestory.

  2. Very interesting story and work.

  3. This gives me hope that I'll break through some of my own brick walls! Your dedication is impressive.

  4. Awesome, I'd love to do the same with my dad's paternal line dome day! Love DNa!!!

  5. Thank you for the kind comments! I wish you all good luck on your genealogy/DNA journeys :)