DNA tests prove Scots clan are Viking not Irish


DNA tests on a Scottish clan have destroyed their claim to royal Irish ancestry – and proved they are Vikings.

For centuries the MacNeil clan based on the Hebridean island of Barra have claimed to be descendants of a Ireland’s “greatest” King, Niall of the Nine Hostages.

But hundreds of cheek swabs taken from Barra MacNeils as far away as Canada and Australia have proved that the blood of fierce Norse raiders runs through their veins.

The finding comes from the MacNeil Surname Y-DNA project run by genealogists Vincent McNeil and Alex Buchanan.


Kisimul Castle in Birlinn
MacNeils raided the seas from their base at Kisimul Castle in Birlinn vessels – boats similar to the Viking longships. © Crown (Reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland. www.historicscotlandimages.gov.uk)



Clansmen from all over the world including Scotland, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have provided DNA samples.

MacNeil remains the main surname on Barra on the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides with a population of just 1,000.

For centuries the MacNeils have believed they descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages through an 11th century Irish prince who emigrated to Scotland.

But the DNA project has not found a single match to Ireland.

“We can say we can re-write the history of the Clan MacNeil,” said genealogist Vincent MacNeil, from Nova Scotia, Canada.

“We don’t have one participant from Barra that matches the O’Neills of Ireland.

“If you look at the history of the Clan MacNeils we are probably of Norse descent.”

He added: “We have legends and myths that have been passed through generations.

“But mother nature knows who we are. Oral history is wonderful and often there is truth in to. But everybody’s family history is in their DNA.”

The clan was infamous throughout Scotland and beyond for its Viking-style pirating and great seamanship.

MacNeils raided the seas from their base at Kisimul Castle in Birlinn vessels – boats similar to the Viking longships.

Western Isles MP, Angus MacNeil, who also lives on Barra, said: “The MacNeils were a notoriously pirating clan. It’s no surprise we have Norse DNA.

“Maybe we are the last vikings.”

The MP joked: “‘Conquer or die’ is the clan motto. Given the size of the island we ended up on we must have been better at the dying then the conquering.”


A picture of Paul McNeil
Paul McNeil, a 70-year-old clansman, from Washington state, said he was “devastated” when he got his DNA results


Paul McNeil, a 70-year-old clansman, from Washington state, said he was “devastated” when he got his DNA results.

He said: “I nervously awaited the results, and was emotionally devastated when we received them.”

The college teacher added: “A heavy workload (and a bottle of whiskey (corr) after work), helped me to get over it in a matter of weeks.”

“I found solace in the fact that, if not a Celt, I am nevertheless a Gael.


Picture of Michael MacNeil
Michael MacNeil, 62, from Nova Scotia, Canada, was surprised by the results


Michael MacNeil, 62, from Nova Scotia, Canada, said: “It wasn’t what I expected.”

The Aerospace engineer, whose family emigrated from Barra seven generations ago, continued: “I’m pretty good with being of Viking descent. I have no problems at all. You are what you are.”

Calum MacNeil, a retired fisherman who lives near Castlebay on the Isle of Barra, joked: “I knew that anyway but I didn’t want to tell anybody.”

Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose dynasty dominated Ireland between the 5th and 10th Centuries, got his name from taking hostages as a strategy against his opponent chieftains.

The King, who died in 405AD, was the founder of the longest and most powerful Irish royal dynasty and known by some as the greatest king that Ireland ever knew.

Alex Buchanan, from Hobart, Tasmania, who helped set up the project, said: “All MacNeils from Barra (so far tested) have Viking Y-DNA.

“They are of two types: The MacNeils of Barra who have an oral history linking them to the Chiefly line and most clansmen are in a group defined by the Y-DNA marker L165.

“The other type forms a smaller group of clansmen defined by Y-DNA marker L176.

“The Argyll MacNeils belong to a third Viking-derived group defined by Y-DNA marker L22.”

He added: “Some McNeills from Argyll, but mostly from the Glasgow region, do have Irish Y-DNA, however I think we will find that it is no more common amongst McNeills that it is amongst any other group of Scotsmen from the west of Scotland.

“Irishmen have been moving to Scotland for a very long time, there was a great influx during the industrial revolution when they came in search of employment in the factories of the Clyde region.”

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    • Sure. FamilyTreeDNA is the main place where these families (and many others) are being tested. Order the YDNA test (must be a man carrying the surname) thru the MacNeil project or the Scottish project.

    • I’m told Ancestry.com does DNA tests for individuals that will provide your DNA history for a semi-reasonable fee

      • You want to do a yDNA test, the DNA passed from father to son. That kind of test is on familytreedna.com not ancestry; join a surname project(familytreedna.com has the most and largest) to see various yDNA offerings. A good test is 37 marker yDNA but you can start with 12 or 25 and upgrade to more over time, especially if you find matches you wish to determine how close in time you and another person share a common ancestor.

  1. This is amazing information. My brother and I have worn hammers around our necks for years, now I know why! My uncle was heavy into MacNeil clan activities for a great many years in California and had visited Barra a couple of times. Even though I had a “holy shit” moment when my son sent me this link today, I wasn’t really shocked. I had a nagging suspicion we might have *some* Norse DNA, given the location. My Uncle traced our family lineage to the inner isles, Colonsey and particularly Gigha. We have lived in the US for a few generations, have ties to Nova Scotia, but also have lineage to Neil McNeill a well known tory during the American revolution, in Redding, north of Boston; he fled to Canada for a few years post revolution. Thanks for the info.
    Best Regards, Rich McNeill

    • Pretty sure the McNeill’s (double L) are a different clan, from Taynish, Gigha and Colonsay (Argyll McNeills). X

      • Well, my grandmother’s family is MacNeill/McNeill and the family moved from Scotland to N. Ireland after 1745, then to America in about 1763. My second cousin, Donny McNeill, tested with Ancestry.com and he HAS the marker for Niall of the Nine Hostages. The results came with the comment that he was probably related to the Argyll McNeills.

  2. Considering the extent of Norse dominance in Ireland. Ulster, Munster and Leinster. Isn’t it as likely that Niall was Norse and that their claim is still true ?

    • I would have thought so. After all there were no DNA tests a long time ago and the Vikings, both Danish and Norse had been absorbed into the Gael Irish and Gael Scots cultures.

    • I would have thought that Neil was Viking. After all there were no DNA tests a long time ago, and the Vikings, both Danish and Norse had been absorbed into the Gael Irish and Gael Scots cultures.

    • Since Niall died 500 years before the rise of the Vikings, it is unlikely that Niall was Norse unless the Vikings had access to time travel.

  3. The name of the Irish king Niall – isn’t that a Norse viking name? If know it only from the icelandic saga of Njal….

  4. Oral tradition.?We (O’Neills) always said the “O”s and the “Mc”s were never matched.Truth in old wives tales then..or old Vikings tales

  5. It seems like this study is looking exclusively at patterns of DNA inherited father to son on the Y chromosome. It would be interesting to see what the mitochondrial DNA looks like. If viking DNA got into the clan DNA it seems more likely to have come from male vikings than female, assuming the two groups were interbreeding. It could be that they are related to the king but through the female side, which transmits the mitochondrial DNA.

    • But MtDNA is inherited through the mother’s mother’s mother and so on back. So the Irish King Neil’s wife’s DNA will be nowhere near the Neils ever since and getting further away every generation?

  6. It all adds up with the pillaging in the Norse type of vessels. The ‘birlinn’ boats is an anglification of ‘byrðing’, which was one of the smaller classes of Viking longboats. The person name ‘Njål’ in the Norse sagas may, however, be a loan from Irish or Scottish ‘Niall’.

  7. Note that this study only tested the Y-DNA-line. MacNeills might well be descended from Niall through eg. a son of a daughter of his. the celtic line of descent was traditionally matrilineal, even though the males ruled. A king might thus be succeeded by his daughters son.

  8. Not very surprising as the Hebrides was a Norwegian possession for a few hundred years up until the Treaty of Perth in 1266.

  9. I wish to be tested because “Harper” is from the Buchanan clan and my father’s ancestors are Scottish decent.

    • OVi…what part of the Harper clan are you from? I have done extensive research on the Harper’s from Aberdeenshire. There is another lady on
      Ancestry that has done research on the Harper’s from around Banffshire.

    • Our Harpers are y haplogroup G2A-P15. We are in Ireland(Ulster) and suspect that we came to County Down with Hugh Montgomery in 1606. I hope you get tested.

  10. My family tree goes back to Malcolm of Scotland, and Rollo the Viking but I have traced it through my English Ancestry not my Scottish. Although I am told that Angus is the original clan of Scotland and are descended from the Pics but I haven’t found proof od this….yet

    • You won’t find proof – the Picts left no trace, nothing, zilch, nada, and there is no history of who they were, what tongue they spoke, nothing anywhere. They get lots of mentions in histories, but that’s it. It is thought by some that they were the descendants of the some of the first Gaels to reach Ireland and Western Scotland – that would help to explain how it took only 150 years for all of Scotland to become Irish speaking from the 6th century. But it’s just a thought – no-one knows, or will ever know, exactly who they were.

  11. The study itself does not disprove a relationship with King Niall. It looks at the paternal line which is only half the story. For example, if every MacNeil on the planet was a descendant of Niall’s daughter, the study would not show it.

  12. Paul McNeil from Washington State said in the article – “I found solace in the fact that, if not a Celt, I am nevertheless a Gael.” Que? All Gaels are Celtic, though not all Celtcs are Gaels.

  13. I live in the United States and ran across this article about Clan MacNeil, the clan of my ancestors on my mom’s side. There is a Thomas MacNeil mentioned in the 9 generations of genealogy info I have from the family genealogist/historian.

    This article makes sense because I had my DNA ancestry analyzed through 23andme and it came up with a bunch of Northern European, with Norwegian/Scandinavia. Now I know where the connection is. 🙂

  14. I had DNA done on Ancestry and was shocked that I am mostly Vikling. Then British and Irish. Having been to Ireland and seeing the Viking history there I understand it now.

  15. There is a reason that there are viking markers in McNeil blood. Centuries ago a McNeil, I will hv to look him up married into the viking royal family. The Viking showed McNeil how to make theiur own long boats.McNeils of Gigha hv Viking markers. Gigha and Barra group seperated. as did the McNeils from what becamethe oNeils around 1000. The caste on Barra was built in 1013.

  16. I’m totally confused now. I thought my family was Hispanic. This might explain my aversion to tortillas and a secret love of stinky fish.

  17. This is a Y chromosome study. I believe it identifies only the strictly paternal line of ancestors–the father of the father of the father, etc.–which is just a small fraction of one’s ancestry. Due to the predatory nature of human history, I think it actually identifies only the ethnicity of most recent raiders, who killed all the men and raped all the women, replacing half of the genome with their own genetic content including the Y chromosomes. (This is similar to the case of South America, where the Y chromosomes are all European, and the plasmid DNA–identifying the maternal line–is all Native American.) The overall genome is probably half Viking and half Celtic.

    Did the raiders colonize or just make a big DNA deposit then return home? If they stayed, linguistic studies should find all sorts of unique dialect elements of Danish origin in today’s speech, like in Yorkshire dialect.

  18. Hey McNeilses..ses.. Don’t be put down by this.
    We are doing pretty OK, us viking-descendants.
    I mean, yes it comes with a propensity for heavy drinking and fighting, but I wouldn’t say that sets us apart from the Irish by *that* much.

    Anyways, welcome to the club.

  19. I found the same with..d n a … 20% Viking and only 4% Ireland… I was surprised and thrilled. Northern Ireland…Clarke Brophy and Murphy.

  20. My male cousin did the “Big Y” test with Family Tree DNA which proved that we are also descended from the Vikings in Norway. I’m proud to be Scottish, but also proud of being a Viking.

  21. my lineage is, great great grandparents were from county Cork in Ireland. name of Neale, which is anglicised version of o’Neill. despite his tenuous link, i did ancestry.com dna test and have a full tjird Irish dna ie more han any other single group. Incredible! well, as per the wider argument, i read in a fairly recent dnatest ok uk people’s that neale, o’neill, Neil, Neill and other variants ARE all related, so most likely subtantiates Niall being their common ancestor. email me if you like [email protected]

  22. The King or Ireland in 850 AD was Nordic therefore how does this claim work? There could be thousands or claims like this. Royal lineages would be dependent on what line and what point in history you start from.

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