Sunday, 8 October 2017

James Irvine - Speaker Profile

Title of Presentation
Surname DNA Projects - a holistic approach

  • The Clan Irwin Association
  • The Scottish Genealogy Society
  • The Orkney Family History Society
  • The Guild of One Name Studies
  • The International Society of Genetic Genealogy

I was born in 1942 of Scottish ancestry, brought up in Ulster, married in Wales and live in Surrey. After retiring from a career in the shipping industry in 2000 I have been able to indulge in my twin passions of genealogy and Orcadian history. I have self-published several books (The Orkney Poll Taxes of the 1690s, Trace Your Orkney Ancestors, Blaeu’s Orkneys and Schetland and The Breckness Estate), and edited others (An Orkney Anthology, George Marwick – Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller, HMS Hampshire: a Century of Myths and Mysteries Unravelled and four volumes of The New Orkney Antiquarian Journal). I also co-edited a transcript of Sir George Mackenzie’s 1672 manuscript Scottish Families for the Scottish Record Society, and am now writing a trilogy of books on genealogy – a biography of Dr.Christopher Irvin, the genealogy of Washington Irving, and the Irwin Surname and its origins.

How did you get into genealogy? 
At the age of 17, I was inspired by a great aunt to explore my Ulster Scots maternal ancestry, and a few years later my discovery that my paternal ancestors came from the Orkney Islands led to an enduring interest in the origins of our surname.

What about your involvement with genetic genealogy? 
In 2005 I was persuaded to help found the Clan Irwin Surname DNA Study, and have administered this project from its inception. We now have 450 participants and a vastly better understanding of the many unrelated branches of our surname and their origins than had been possible hitherto. This includes one branch of nearly 300 members who all share a common ancestor within the surname era, possibly the largest such branch in any surname project. Thanks to nearly 100 of these members taking BigY or SNP Panel tests we have been able to develop a haplotree which extends down to within some of our conventional Scottish and Irish family trees – a milestone in genetic genealogy.

So what will you be talking about at GGI2017? 
At GGI 2015 I addressed techniques for interpreting y-STR and y-SNP test data, using our Clan Irwin surname project as a case study. Since then the avalanche of SNPs from BigY test data and low-level SNP Pack tests has lead to major breakthroughs that enable some haplotrees to be merged with conventional genealogy pedigrees. 

These developments have also shown that while STR tests are still excellent for identifying genetic groups (aka genetic families aka surname branches, that are not related to one another within the surname era), STR data is often unreliable and misleading for identifying sub-groups. 

While SNP Pack tests are still less popular than 67 and 111 marker STR tests, I believe they should be more popular and will in time become so: they are much more reliable (no convergence), they don’t need a prediction tool to place them on a tree, and they are cheaper. SNPs may not yet be “today’s news” for surname projects, but they are certainly “tomorrow’s news”, and I predict 67 and 111 marker STR tests will soon become “yesterday’s news”!

It has also become apparent that while for some lucky men we can already merge their paternal pedigrees with their SNP haplotrees, others will be less fortunate, even after whole genome sequencing has become a commercial reality. I will explain why this is so, and how very high resolution STRs, autosomal tests, and conventional genealogical data may help to bridge the remaining gaps between terminal SNPs and pedigrees. This in turn suggests the opportunities for a much more radical, holistic approach to surname projects.

What DNA tests will be discussed? 
y-STR tests, y-SNP (single SNP, BigY and SNP Pack tests), plus a little on a use for aT tests.

Where can people get more information about you or your topic?

The Clan Irwin Surname DNA Study at

James's previous talks
  • Administering a large yDNA Surname Project to the Guild of One-Name Studies DNA seminar, Cheltenham, 9 Feb. 2013
  • Administering a large Scottish Surname DNA Project to Who Do You Think You Are Live, Glasgow, 29 Aug. 2014
  • A Scots-Irish Case Study - The Irwin Surname DNA Project to the "Back to Your Past" GGI2015 event, Dublin, 10 Oct. 2015 (video version at
  • Surname Projects - Some Fresh Ideas to FTDNA's 11th International Conference on Genetic Genealogy, Houston, 15 Nov. 2015
  • Lessons from a large yDNA Project to Who Do You Think You Are Live, Birmingham, 8 April 2016 (video version at
  • Advanced yDNA testing for Surname Projects to the Guild of One-Name Studies DNA seminar, Cheltenham, 13 Aug. 2016

These lectures are sponsored by FamilyTreeDNA and organised by volunteers from ISOGG (International Society of Genetic Genealogy).

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