The Thomson DNA

The Thomson DNA

The Thomson DNA

I recently took a Y-DNA test in the hope of tracing the lineage of my Thomson ancestors. Y-DNA is passed only from father to son as only biological males possess a Y chromosome. Normal or autosomal DNA is inherited fifty percent from each parent, and thus suffers from the recombination of the maternal and paternal genes with each subsequent generation. As such, it can only be used to trace ancestors reliably going back between 5 and 7 generations.


On the other hand, the DNA that is held in the Y chromosome is passed down from generation to generation unchanged, barring minor mutations. This means that Y-DNA has the advantage of being able to reach back into pre-history and beyond. It does have one major disadvantage that it can only trace the paternal line, in other words father’s father’s father etc. This means that in normal circumstances this will follow the line of the surname. This is the reason that this article is rather grandly titled “The Thomson DNA”

The path of the Y DNA, which only follows the father's father's father line.
The path of the Y DNA, which only follows the father’s father’s father line.
Commando Memorial in Glen Spean
Commando Memorial in Glen Spean

James Thomson

My father spent his retirement trying to trace the history of the Thomson family on the Isle of Lewis. He traced his most distant ancestor through the archives of his employers the SSPCK (Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge). He succeeded in tracing James Thomson’s employment in Glen Spean in the parish of Kilmonivaig, Lochaber as a schoolmaster and minister of the Kirk starting in Laggan in 1721.

He also noted that the SSPCK recorded that James had come from Banff, which he interpreted as possibly including the whole county of Banffshire. There has also been speculation that Banff, which in the past has been spelt Bamff, might actually refer to the settlement of Bamff in the parish of Alyth, near Coupar Angus in Perthshire. But without any means of corroborating any discoveries in the Parish Registers, the search was futile. His search for his most distant Thomson ancestor became known within our family as the “Hunt for Jimmy” and you can read about his research into James Thomson here.

Y-DNA Results

Sadly, he discovered that the parish register for Kilmonivaig church had been destroyed in a storm and there was no further information to be found in the SSPCK archive. He regretfully concluded that he could go no further in his research, and James Thomson who moved to the Isle of Lewis in 1736 has remained our most distant ancestor ever since.

Recent Y-DNA Matches. The white marker was the estimated location of my oldest paternal ancestor. This will need updating.
Recent Y-DNA Matches. The white marker was the estimated location of my oldest paternal ancestor. This will need updating.
Recent Y-DNA matches are green. Older matches are in blue.
Recent Y-DNA matches are green. Older matches are in blue.

Older Y-DNA Matches

That has remained the case for over thirty years until the advent of Y-DNA testing. My test results showed that I had 3 good DNA matches on my Y chromosome. Tantalisingly, two of these matches were for the surname THOM. I assumed that my surname of THOMSON might be a derivative of THOM, in other words SON of THOM, although I have since discovered that THOM and THOMSON are simply variations of the same surname. Also these surnames need to include the spelling variations of THOME, WILLE, THOMSONE, THOMPSON and THOMSONN, all of which occur in the Aberdeen and Banff records.


Intriguingly, the most distant paternal ancestor of one of my THOM matches was a John Thom, born in 1709 in the parish of Longside. The second THOM match had a most distant ancestor in Longside in 1789.  Longside is a small village on the road between Peterhead and Banff. Prior to 1620 the parish of Longside was part of the parish of Peterhead. The third of my DNA matches had the surname WILL and I have traced the Will family to various parts of the Auchtydonald estate, including Backhill of Auchtydonald which is not far from Fetterangus.  

Map of Longside 1583. Image courtesy of National Library of Scotland. High resolution images of all maps are available for download at the foot of this page.
Map by John Thomson of Aberdeen and Banff. Image courtesy of National Library of Scotland. High resolution images of all maps are available for download at the foot of this page.

James Thomson

At this point I decided to switch to trying to locate the birth of James Thomson, to see if I could find a convergence with the Thom and Will families. James Thomson started work as a schoolmaster and minister in Glen Spean in 1721, so I assumed that he would have been aged between 25 and 30 allowing for academic and theological training. So I searched the Old Parish Registers for the birth of a James Thomson. My initial search included the counties of Banff, Aberdeen and Moray with a wider date range.

Refining the Search

I eventually refined the search criteria to any James Thomson born between 1692 and 1697 anywhere in Banffshire or Aberdeenshire. I then had a list of five people, three in Banffshire and two in Aberdeenshire. Normally, family history historians use birth, marriage and death records as a way of establishing kinship. With the benefit of the Y-DNA matches the opposite is the case. The bond of kinship which I share with my three DNA matches is an established fact and that only leaves me to deduce which of the five candidates on my “James Thomson shortlist” is most likely to be my ancestor. 


I traced James Thomson’s birth in the Longside Parish Register to 7 October 1694. The register records that he was the son of James Thomson of Auchtydonald, which at that time was a manor house about a mile west of Longside. The Y-DNA matches provide some corroboration that James Thomson from Auchtydonald was my ancestor. Nevertheless, the conclusive proof will have to wait until I have been able to rule out the other members of my shortlist.


This document transcribes as follows:


James Thomson in Auchtidonald had a son baptised called James. Witnesses Andrew Chalmers in Auchtidonald & John Rainey in Longsyd.

James Thomson born 7 October 1694 in Auchtydonald
OS Map of Longside, showing key locations in red


It did not take long searching the Old Parish Registers in the National Records of Scotland to discover that there were a large number of baptisms registered for people with the surname Thom between the years 1553 and 1710 in the parish of Longside, 58 baptisms to be precise. The majority of these seemed to come from the village of Rora, about a mile north west of Longside, but there were also a number of baptisms for members of the Thom family and the Will family from the Manor of Auchtydonald.


But before I could accept that James Thomson of Auchtydonald was indeed my ancestor, I had to address the uncomfortable fact that James Thomson had declared to his employers, the SSPCK, that he was from Banffshire, when Auchtydonald is located in Aberdeenshire. I felt that this fact could not just be dismissed as inconvenient, and an explanation would need to be found.

Fetterangus, Banffshire

In the book “Buchan” by Rev John Pratt, first published in 1859, the author notes (page 216) that;


The parish of St Fergus, though locally situated in the county of Aberdeen, was, by a feudal peculiarity, reckoned, along with Fetterangus and a portion of Castle Street of Aberdeen, to be in Banffshire, until formally transferred to Aberdeenshire in 1890 by the Boundary Commissioners appointed under the Scotch Local Government (or County Councils) Act of 1889. It was originally the property of the Cheynes, who, being the hereditary Sheriffs of Banff, were naturally desirous to have their family domains within their own jurisdiction, and were able to secure its annexation to Banffshire. The lands of St. Fergus, embracing the whole parish, passed, by marriage, about 1358, to the De Keths, of the Marischal family, with whom they remained till the forfeiture in 1715. [presumably as a result of their part in the Jacobite Rising (my note)].


This explains why the northern part of the parish of Old Deer, which included Fetterangus and the Hythie Estate, was part of Banffshire.

1861 Ordnance Survey Map of Fetterangus, Banffshire
Auchtydonald today
Auchtydonald today

The Estate of Auchtydonald

The same author describes the estate of Auchtidonald on page 213;


Between Longside and Mintlaw is the estate of Auchtydonald, now part of the Pitfour estates. In 1329, King Robert the Bruce granted a charter of it to Robert de Keith, Marischal of Scotland. By a charter recorded in the “Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis,” and “dated at his manor of the Forest of Kyntore, “October 8, 1378, “William of Keith, Marischal of Scotland, gave six merks yearly, from the lands of Auchtidonald, to endow a chaplainry (called the chaplainry of Auchtidonald), in the choir of the Cathedral of S. Machar at Aberdeen, ‘for the soul’s health of his well beloved Clerk, Sir William of Calabre, Prebendary of Ellon and Canon of Aberdeen.’ This grant of six merks was confirmed by Pope Clement VII in 1380, and by King Robert II in 1385. By consent of Sir William of Calabre, the chantry was suppressed in 1392, and the six merks were bestowed on the Staller or Vicar Choral of the Prebendary of Ellon. From a decree of the Lords of Council, in 1493, directing Thomas Davidson in Auchtidonald, and Andrew Keith in Aden, to pay to Arthur Forbes of Keres, the price of certain corn and oxen, taken from the land of Terwechty, it may be inferred that, at that date, Auchtidonald was occupied by Davidson. According to Mr Alexander Hepburn’s description of Longside in 1721, William Scott was the name of the then Laird of Auchtidonald, and his manor house was of feal. [I’m not sure what feal is but I have established that the manor house was not built of stone]


Fetterangus in Banffshire

The lands of Fetterangus, Banffshire formed part of the Auchtydonald estate when James Thomson was born as the note below shows that they were sold to Alexander Gordon in 1706. John Henderson in his book “Aberdeenshire Epitaphs and Inscriptions” notes on Page 234 that;


The above Alexander Gordon …. who acquired the lands of Fetterangus from James Scott of Auchtydonald, who had secured sasine on them on 28th January, 1706, for an annual rent of £65 15s 2d Scots.

Aerial photo of Fetterangus. The graveyard is marked with a red arrow.
Aerial photo of Fetterangus. The graveyard is marked with a red arrow.
Fetterangus Churchyard
Fetterangus Churchyard

Fetterangus Graveyard

In the same book, John Henderson refers to the church at Fetterangus and notes on page 233 that;


The Presbytery records show that in the sixteenth century many of the laity were buried within the church, for which privilege a small fee was exacted. In 1604, a family of the name of Thomson, resident in Pitfour, gave much trouble by withholding payment of the charge. They were summoned before the Church Courts for “burying their parents in the Kirk of Fetterangus without satisfaction of the penalty ordered in such cases.

Bonnie Prince Charlie

I can’t specifically locate a residence for James Thomson that proves beyond doubt that he lived in the part of the Auchtydonald estate that was within the borders of the geographically detached part of Banffshire, within the parish of Old Deer. I am, however, satisfied that whether by geographic location or by cultural affiliation and allegiance, James Thomson regarded himself as a Banff man.


While creating my shortlist for consideration, I discovered a James Thomson, born on 11 November 1684 in Buthlaw, which I believe to be part of the adjacent Feichfield estate about one mile east of Longside. I decided he was probably too old to have started work for the SSPCK in 1721. Also I noted in “The Muster Roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Army 1745-46 (ISBN: 978-1-903238-02-8) that James Thomson of Feichfield had been a Captain in Lord Pitsligo’s cavalry regiment, so was clearly not my ancestor. By a remarkable stroke of luck I also noticed that William Scott, late of Auchtydonald was also a captain the same regiment. He was referred to as “late of Auchtydonald” as he was attainted for his part in the 1715 uprising and lost the estate of Auchtydonald as a result.

Pitsligos Horse

Click on image to read the book online

An Account of the Ancient and Noble Family of Keith

The Noble Family of Keith

When my father was researching the history of James Thomson in Lochaber I recall noticing in his notes that James Thomson had been dismissed from his post of schoolmaster owing to his part in the “papist conspiracy”, in other words the Jacobite Rebellion. 


Many of the leaders of the uprising were protestant, including James Keith of Inverugie Castle born 6 June 1696 who was attainted in 1746 and escaped to France after Culloden and established himself as an accomplished military leader becoming a Field Marshal in the Prussian Army. 

If you want to read about the history of the Keith family and their part in the 45 rebellion I can recommend “An Account of the Ancient and Noble Family of Keith” by P Buchan.

Ongoing Research

I am sure that my ancestor, James Thomson, was unlikely to have been involved directly in the uprising, but I can see that he could easily have been tainted by association, particularly if he offered William Scott the Laird of Auchtydonald as a reference when he joined the SSPCK. I feel that there is scope for much more research on this topic.


This story is only just beginning, but the early discoveries have provided me with fertile ground for further research. The Parish Registers for Longside go back to 1621 when the parish was first created and are in a clear and legible hand. Also there is wealth of additional material to work through. 


My Y-DNA is undergoing further and much more detailed analysis which I hope will provide more information. This article is very much an interim report on my discoveries, and will be continued in future articles.

Map of The District of Buchan 1636. Image courtesy of National Library of Scotland. High resolution images of all maps are available for download at the foot of this page.