The Isle of Man is only small in physical size (221 square miles) and its population relative to its neighbours has always been small also. Until the 19th century the majority of the population worked on the land or sea and lived in, or close to, the countryside.
Any movement of the population was largely limited to farmers seeking new farmland to rent or people marrying someone from another parish. In this rural community it was common for marriages to take place between neighbouring families and, over the centuries, many of them ended up related to each other in some way or another, within a parish or surrounds. The result of this is that the community of the Isle of Man has always been closely-knit and everyone tended to know or know of their near family relatives. Anyone researching their own Manx family history today will find that fact out quickly and see the same range of other Manx surnames marrying into their own ancestral family.
Those people living on the Isle of Man, whose families have lived there since the last 500-1000 years or so, are identified by their range of unique family names. In early times individuals were originally only known by their single or personal names. Such personal names were often nicknames or descriptive (e.g. Duggan = “little dark man”) but around 1000 years ago the Celtic patronymic system of names started to be adopted.
The patronymic system meant that individuals could be identified by using the name of their father as well as their personal name e.g. Cormac MacNeill (or Cormac son of Neill). Other family names might be also adopted which perhaps described some other attribute of the individual, their appearance, their trade for example or the name of the place they lived, but the Celtic patronymic surname based on Mac = “the son of” was the most common. Over a period of time these family names, most of them unique to the island and formed there, started to be adopted permanently and passed down from father to son unchanged. This occurred from around 1100AD onwards.
Today there are about 125 hereditary surnames still surviving in use on the island that are the present day forms of the original Gaelic names originally used 8-900 years ago.
Originally, the early range of different Manx family names must have amounted to more than twice that number, but a large proportion of those names have not survived over time to the present day, as the male line has “daughtered out” and the surname has no longer been passed down to the succeeding generations. We can see from the records that a number of these early unique Manx surnames are no longer carried and have fallen out of use.
The Manx Y-DNA study (www.manxdna.co.uk) however is now shedding new light on the early history of the Manx people through the DNA testing of the indigenous Manx families. This study has been in progress since 2010 and over 200 men possessing some 80 Manx family names have been tested so far.
For these 80 surnames, testing has identified and classified the ancestral male Y-DNA signature for each family. Evidence from the study indicates that the majority of the indigenous Manx families represented are all each descended each from one single male patriarch for that family. Thus they can be described as possessing a single genetic origin and this is the picture that would be expected to be seen for such small families possessing surnames which occur with a low frequency overall. Testing and analysis has indicated that there are just a small handful of families who show multiple genetic origins at the moment.
So, for 80 individual families with different surnames we would normally expect to have a broadly equal number of different male Y-DNA genetic signatures, representing 80 patriarchs. Surprisingly this has not turned out to be totally true!
For 350 years the Isle of Man was under the rule of a number of Scandinavian or Norse-Gael invaders and the study reveals that approximately 25% of men of Manx origin today are descended from these Scandinavian visitors. What is being learned for the first time, unexpectedly, is that a smaller number of Scandinavian male genetic lines have persisted to the present-day than might otherwise have been predicted.
We are seeing that groups of apparently different Manx families are actually all descended from one individual Scandinavian male settler. What must have happened is that individual Viking men, usually with local Manx wives, had sons, who survived and who themselves reproduced to create separate lines of new generations of male descendants. These family lines lived separately from each other, but at the period of time when family names started to become hereditary, each family adopted a different name from each other, depending on where they lived, the occupation or appearance of the father etc. So genetically all the men were related, but they adopted different family names.
We can now say that:-
- The Keigs and Oates families of the Isle of Man, together with some Cains living on the south of the island, are all descended from one Scandinavian man who lived there around 1000 AD
- The Kneales, the Leeces and probably the Karran/Carrans also appear to have one common Scandinavian male ancestor
- The Cretney, Cormode and possibly Curphey families all share a common ancestor and are possibly also connected to the Keigs and Oates Scandinavian family.
So here we can see 9 Manx families who are descended from just three (possibly two) Scandinavian settlers.
A similar, but more diffuse, picture is seen in those early settlers of Celtic origin who arrived on the isle from both Ireland and Scotland.
- The Cain family who are found living on the north of the island share a common ancestor with the Clucases and possibly the Quines, probably from Scotland.
- The Quirks, Kennaughs and Faraghers share a common ancestry in a man who lived around 850AD, probably also in Scotland
- The Wattersons and the Killeys share a common Celtic ancestor.
- The Morrisons and the Kewleys are connected
- The Christians, Cowells and the Moores are all related.
- The Kinleys and Corkill families similarly are also descended from another early arrival on the Island.
- and so on!
So again we can see that certain families are descended from a much smaller group of male patriarchs who arrived on the Island in early times, than might be expected. This means that many of the present-day descendants of the families, bearing our unique Manx names, are in fact even more closely related to each other than they knew!
More research and analysis is still needed to complete the picture and confirm all of these findings, but it is clear that the new data from the Manx Y-DNA study is shedding totally new and unexpected light on the early origins of the indigenous people of the Isle of Man.
Another two years of work are still required to complete the study and more men of Manx origin are still required to take part. The project has no funding of its own and donations are solicited from anyone with an interest in furthering this fundamental research, either by sponsoring testing on a Manx name that is meaningful to them or just by a general contribution to indicate support for the work that is being done.