History and evolution of MacLeod and MacLeod Septs Y-DNA Studies

DNA Migration journey

By James Blount MacLeod

Former Clan MacLeod Y-DNA Project Administrator 2004-2022

1. Dr. Alexander C. McLeod and the Origin of MacLeod Y-DNA Studies

I first got to know Dr. Alexander C. McLeod in the early 1990s when he was Chairman of the Dunvegan Foundation, the charitable arm of the Clan MacLeod Society, USA. Initially I was asked by Dr. Alex to help with the Foundation’s annual giving campaign and later became treasurer. In 1998 Dr. Alex became president of the Associated Clan MacLeod Societies (ACMS). One of his goals as president was to conduct some type of genetic study to see if traditions about the origins of the Clan were in fact accurate. This led to a Y-DNA study conducted by University College London (UCL). I participated in the study along with other MacLeod surnamed individuals who contributed samples in the second half of 2002. The study tested only six Y-DNA markers, and results were communicated to participants in January 2004, followed by an article in the Clan MacLeod Magazine in April 2004 by UCL’s Julia Abernethy.

2. The Early Family Tree Y-DNA Projects

The UCL study had been a one-time event, with no provision for later additions to the group of participants. Dr. Alex wanted to add to the UCL results, and began to look for a commercial testing service that would allow the creation of an ongoing project. After reviewing the available options, he chose Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and set up an Internet-based Y-DNA surname project using their service in the fall of 2004. He had hoped to transfer the UCL results to this project, but UCL privacy restrictions would not allow that to be done so it was basically a case of starting over again. The UCL study had tested only six Y-DNA markers whereas FTDNA offered testing for 12, 25, or 37 markers. Dr. Alex asked me if I would participate and order the 37-marker test so he would be sure of having someone in the new project from the “founding lineage” of the UCL study with the maximum available number of markers tested. The project initially included individuals with both MacLeod surnames and MacLeod Sept surnames, and early subdivision was based on the major haplogroups (R1a, R1b, I, etc.) used by FTDNA to categorize individuals.

The word haplogroup is used to define the different branches of the genetic tree of mankind; haplogroups are given letters from A to Z. This analysis places the tested individual in a haplogroup according to the particular migration path that the individual’s ancestors followed out of the cradle of mankind in central Africa around 200,000 years ago. Most MacLeods are within subdivisions of the R haplogroup though the I haplogroup also makes up around 15% of those tested

As the number of participants grew, Dr. Alex decided to split the study into two separate studies, one for MacLeod surnames and one for MacLeod Sept surnames. In conjunction with this division, he asked me to serve as a co-administrator for the projects to learn the FTDNA system so I eventually could take over as administrator of the MacLeod Septs group. The separation into two studies took place in January 2006.

Over the next few years, the projects continued to grow under this same basic organization. The administrator’s work consisted primarily of answering questions from participants and prospective participants, and moving participants into the proper subgroup once their testing results were available. Dr. Alex and I both attended several of the international genetic genealogy conferences in Houston, Texas, sponsored by FTDNA in order to remain up to date on genetic issues, to become aware of changes in the FTDNA systems, and to see what other project administrators were doing with their projects. Dr. Alex researched and wrote several articles, and he and I co-wrote one article, on MacLeod genetic subjects that were published in Clan MacLeod Magazine.

3. Transition to the Present FTDNA Projects

As Dr. Alex began to think about retirement, we changed positions so he became co-administrator and I became administrator of both projects in October 2008 and Dr. Alex scaled back his involvement with the projects. Our attempts to add additional administrators had been either unsuccessful or short-lived, so when Dr. Alex had to retire completely in January 2015, I was left as the sole administrator for both projects. I was knowledgeable enough about the administrative side of running the projects but I missed being able to rely on Dr. Alex’s grasp of the genetics. This quandary was resolved by the addition of Timothy W. McLeod as a co-administrator in January 2017. Tim was an experienced administrator, having worked with the L165 project, another FTDNA project to which a number of MacLeods belonged, and he also was very knowledgeable about the genetic issues involved.

FTDNA was constantly expanding their test offerings, eventually adding 67 marker and 111 marker tests, more extensive SNP tests, and eventually Big Y-700. FTDNA originally identified an individuals’ haplogroup by alternating letters and numbers identifying the branching of the phylogenetic tree that led to their location, and as new discoveries added more branches, these haplogroups could become quite lengthy. As more SNPs were identified and as more participants took advantage of SNP testing, FTDNA began to identify an individual’s haplogroup based on his terminal SNP rather than the old system of alternating letters and numbers. For example, using the old alternating letters and numbers would produce a haplogroup of R1b1a2a1a1b5b for a person whose haplogroup under the new system would be R-L165. The MacLeod and MacLeod Septs projects subgroup designations were increasingly outdated and needed to be revised based on current FTDNA practice. Tim accepted the challenge of this massive undertaking and reorganized the projects to give them their current appearance, and completed the changes in February 2017 in what would have to be called record time.

Tim was added to the project management with the idea that he would take over as administrator when I stepped down. With this in mind, Tim and I switched roles in March 2021; I became co-administrator and Tim became administrator for both projects. Like Dr. Alex in the similar situation just before his retirement, I became more of an administrator emeritus, being available to offer advice but gradually taking a less active role in the day-to-day work of the projects. Tim had been more successful in adding additional administrators than we had been previously. He recruited Roderick A. F. MacLeod in April 2020 and Mark K. MacLeod in February 2022. Rod and Mark were able to benefit from valuable learning time before Tim’s unexpected death in September 2022 and my retirement in October 2022 left the future of the projects in their hands.

The FTDNA MacLeod and MacLeod Sept Y-DNA projects continue to serve the purposes imagined by Dr. Alex when he started them back in 2004. A recent check of the number of participants listed on the websites for the two projects showed 566 MacLeod participants and 170 MacLeod Sept participants. Numbers like these indicate that we are still providing something of value that our fellow clansmen want.

James Blount MacLeod

February 2023