DNA and Clan MacLeod

When the paper trail of recorded family history hits a brick wall, DNA testing can provide clues as to where to look to find further leads. For most MacLeods, that paper trail starts to fade in the late 1700s or early 1800s when we find that old parish records are missing or incomplete and other evidence of our ancestors’ lives becomes difficult to ascertain with any certainty. This period before census records began was also a time of huge social upheaval in Scotland when the battles surrounding the Jacobite uprisings and the Highland Clearances had already started to scatter the clan, and the earliest known ancestor of many MacLeod families had already left the traditional MacLeod territories for new lives in the Americas, Australasia, and other parts of the globe.


Where DNA testing might help is in making connections with individuals around the world who are genetically related to us and who are often engaged in their own research into Scottish family history and DNA ancestry. Sometimes this connection becomes a shared endeavour with resources exchanged and a sense of wider family established. It may or may not solve the challenges of fading paper trails and brick walls but when it does, it makes everything worthwhile.


Clan MacLeod’s interest in DNA and how it relates to our heritage began in earnest in the early 2000s through the efforts of Dr Alex McLeod, then President of the Associated Clan MacLeod Societies (ACMS), which sponsored a world-wide genetics study in conjunction with researchers at University College London (UCL).

The Abernathy Study

During the second half of 2002 over 550 individuals named MacLeod (with its variant spellings) participated in the Y-DNA study which sought to identify whether they could be traced to a common ancestor who lived about the time of Leòd. The study also sought to ascertain whether the tradition of a Viking origin of Clan MacLeod was correct. The results of this study were published by Julia Abernethy in 2004 and revealed that while there is good evidence for the Clan predominantly sharing the same common ancestor around 1000 years ago, MacLeods do not all share the same high-level genetic group and common ancestor. Nevertheless, Abernethy identified one predominant and genetically related group of MacLeods from her early test results which made up about 32% of the sample. She concluded that this sample represents the clan MacLeod founding lineage, created by the original progenitor of the clan and subsequently inherited by a fair proportion of future generations. And whilst the study did not exclude the chance that the clan progenitor was of Norse descent, the science available at that time could not support this conclusively.

From 6 marker tests to Big-Y 700

In those days genealogical DNA testing of the (male) Y-DNA chromosome was in its infancy. The UCL study was limited to a basic 6 marker level though a 12 marker test soon superseded that. Family Tree DNA, a pioneering commercial genetic testing company based in Houston, Texas, which now hosts many collaborative surname projects, was at the forefront of these developments. Today FTDNA and other companies test and analyse Y-DNA at more than 700 markers, and the science has grown out of all recognition since those early days.

Clan MacLeod Surname and Septs Projects

Following the conclusion of the 2004 UCL study, and to build on these early DNA findings, a new Clan MacLeod genetics project started at FTDNA. This eventually split into two Y-DNA projects: the Clan MacLeod Surname Project for male MacLeods and the MacLeod Septs Project for males with any of the Sept surnames, other family names recognised as being associated with MacLeods. Both of these Y-DNA studies are ongoing, and new participants encouraged and welcomed! And, for many years, volunteer administrators of these MacLeod projects have encouraged MacLeods, whatever their connection, to get tested through the projects and through organisation and interpretation have supported members’ understanding of their results.

In addition to information about these projects, both these Y-DNA project websites display current test results to the level permitted by individual participants and have links that will facilitate Clan MacLeod Society members joining the study and ordering tests.

Mitochondrial (mt)DNA

MacLeods of both sexes can also test their maternal lineage through FTDNA with a mitochondrial (mt)DNA test, whilst women may access the MacLeod Y-DNA Surname project through testing completed by a close male relative. Like Y-DNA used for unravelling patrilineal inheritance, DNA present in mitochondria (the tiny power plants that produce energy for cells!) passed on from mothers to both their male and female children can be used to reveal our maternal ancestors. Although the Y-DNA database is currently more extensive, mitochondrial DNA analysis may reveal hitherto unknown MacLeod ancestors on the maternal side. To date 156 MacLeod project members have submitted samples for mtDNA testing and the results are being analysed.

Ancestral migration pathways to Scotland

The science of DNA testing and analysis has developed exponentially since the days of the 2004 UCL study. The Big Y-700 DNA test provides data that reveals a genetic tree of humankind, which currently has over 60,000 branches. MacLeods are represented on at least five of these branches, with one considered a prime candidate leading back to our clan founder Leòd. Each of these five branches has its own unique ancestral migration pathway to Scotland. The branches represent related population groups (known as haplogroups) that formed thousands of years ago as homo sapiens began its migration journey out of its earliest known origins in Central Africa and started to spread across the planet.

Autosomal DNA testing

Though the MacLeod DNA projects focus on paternal ancestry (male testing through Y-DNA) and to a lesser degree maternal ancestry through mitochondrial DNA, a third type, called autosomal DNA testing, is inexpensive and popular and covers the entire genome apart from Y-DNA and mtDNA. FTDNA, like other DNA firms (Ancestry, MyHeritage etc.) enables MacLeod DNA project members taking an autosomal DNA test with other companies to upload their results for side-by-side comparison. Both men and women can take autosomal DNA tests and the results naturally reflect all ancestors on both the maternal and paternal sides of the family. Together with Y-DNA test results, MacLeod project administrators can also assist with interpreting autosomal results, which typically benefit genealogical research within the last 5-6 generations.

More DNA testing MacLeods needed!

The MacLeod Y-DNA project now has 564 members, of whom 171 have been analysed at the Big Y level. We would encourage all MacLeod males wishing to improve our understanding of our genetic make-up and history to take the Big Y-700 DNA test and join the MacLeod Surname and Septs projects or, if they tested some years back, to consider upgrading to the Big Y-700 DNA level.

If you’d like to find out more about the History and Evolution of Clan MacLeod’s DNA journey please see here

If you’d like to find out more about joining our DNA projects, please contact our Project Administrators through these sites:

We’d be delighted to hear from you!