|Northern Isles of Scotland Stout Family History Project
In common with the rest of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland are fortunate in having very well organised and accessible
public records of births, marriages and deaths. Since 1855 the statutory records have been very detailed and these
allow relationships over several generations to be traced very easily. The major limitation
placed on access (especially over the Internet) is closure of the most recent records on privacy grounds.
Before 1855 the records are much less detailed and, in general, are limited to the Old Parish Registers of births and
christenings. These registers were kept with varying degrees of rigour. For most parishes, registers are extant from the
late eighteenth century onwards but there are damaged pages in some of the older registers.
Using these resources, together with census records, land tenure records and other documents in the public domain it
is quite straightforward to construct family trees which originate with individuals who were born in the early to mid
For most families, however, there is no way to do classic genealogical research back in time beyond the early
eighteenth century. There may be isolated records which show the presence of members of a surname group in a
specific location, for example a parish or township, but there is insufficient information to show any linkages between
Genetic information can be used to establish some such linkages. With current testing techniques it is not possible (at
reasonable cost) to determine the precise relationship between two individuals using genetic methods but it is possible
to say whether any two individuals had a common ancestor in the male line. Estimating when the most recent common
ancestor (MRCA) lived is still very imprecise at the current state of the art, but it is expected that over time the
accumulation of data from projects like ours will enable increasingly precise and reliable estimates to be made. Even
now, by carrying out a genetic test of two carefully selected individuals who represent different family trees it is possible
to draw conclusions about whether the two trees are, in fact branches of a single tree.
This kind of study is sometimes known as “deep genealogy”. It is also possible to use genetic analysis to study the
movement of populations over very long historical periods. The Stout surname project is associated with the work of Dr.
Jim Wilson of Edinburgh University, who is a co-administrator of the project, as well as the Shetland Surnames Project
led by Dr. David Faux. .
Genetic methods of doing genealogy are very similar in principle to paternity testing. They depend on the fact that a
small part of the genetic makeup of a man is passed on to each of his sons more or less unchanged, in particular
without any combination with genetic material from the mother. At the molecular level this is a stable pattern of chemical
units (called nucleotides) in the DNA of the Y (male) chromosome. The stable molecular pattern of the Y chromosome
for any individual man is called his haplotype. This pattern, part of the genetic blueprint of the individual, can be found
in every cell in the body and can be sampled easily, by scraping some cells from the inside of the cheek for example.
By discovering the pattern at selected places in the haplotype it is possible to record enough of the pattern to
characterise the individual and compare him with others. Because of the stability of the pattern it will be identical or
almost identical to that of his father.
Changes do occur in the transmission of the haplotype from one generation to the next but these changes are very
infrequent. In the areas of the haplotype which are used for standard comparisons there might be only one change
every three to six generations. The changes are essentially transcription errors during creation of the sperm cell, which
have no biological or health significance. The fact that changes do occur is as useful to genealogy as the relative
stability since it allows degrees of relatedness to be analysed.
An exciting aspect of haplotype analysis is the capability it provides of tracing relationships which go back hundreds and
thousands of years. It has been shown that there are very large groups of individuals, called haplogroups, whose
members each share a common patrilineal ancestor who lived thousands of years ago.
Some of these haplogroups are specifically associated with Scandinavia, while others, for example the group known as
R1b, is extremely common and ubiquitous over Europe and the Middle East.
Using traditional methods of genealogical research it has been shown that there are three or four Stout family trees
originating in Fair Isle which are still extant; two from the Mainland of Shetland; and two or three from the South Isles of
Orkney. Other lines may also be extant overseas but are not known to be so in Orkney or Shetland.
As well as strong circumstantial evidence, there are family traditions which suggest that the Fair Isle trees are in fact
branches of a single tree. This tradition suggests that in the early eighteenth century a Thomas Stout was sent to Fair
Isle as a schoolmaster by the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge and that all of the Stouts of
Fair Isle are descended from him. The records of the SSPCK are extant and confirm that there was a Thomas Stout in
their employment in Fair Isle between 1756 and 1767 (although perhaps not continuously). However, there are land
tenure records which may conflict with a simple interpretation that this teacher was the sole patriarch of the Stouts of
There is some circumstantial evidence and similar traditions about the Stouts of Mainland Shetland. Indeed it would be
surprising if they were not also related to the Stouts of Fair Isle. The Mainland Stouts have strong Dunrossness
connections, Dunrossness being the Mainland parish which Fair Isle now belongs to and the main
centre of population of Stouts in Shetland at the end of the eighteenth century. (An interesting question, incidentally, is
what became of the very large numbers of Stouts who were living in Dunrossness at that time. Emigration and disease
no doubt contributed to their disappearance.)
The Stouts of the South Isles of Orkney mostly originated from the parish of Walls in Hoy. However, of the four identified
trees one originated in Fara. It seems likely that all of these Stouts are related – but do they have any connection with
the Shetland Stouts?
There are many entries in the Old Parish Registers and in land tenure records which can not be reliably assigned to
any of the main trees discussed above. The earliest known record is the will of Henry Stout in Stronsay, dated 1633.
The will of Giles Stout in Hoy, dated 11 May, 1660 is also extant.
Members of all of the families mentioned above are scattered to the four winds, many in Canada and New Zealand,
including descendants of Sir Robert Stout, an early Prime Minister of that country, who belonged to one of the families
of Mainland Shetland and emigrated from Lerwick to Otago in 1864.
So far, a small amount of genetic research has been brought to bear on the Stouts but what has been done has
produced interesting results. A number of individuals have participated, representing two of the Fair Isle trees, two
Dunrossness trees and one of the South Isles trees. The first conclusion is that the two Fair Isle trees, together with the
two Dunrossness trees do have a common ancestor in the not too distant past ie consistent with the hypothesis that
Thomas Stout the schoolmaster or his father was the originator of the Fair Isle Stouts and that he came from
The second conclusion is to lend support to the finding of a paternity hearing in the Sheriff Court at Kirkwall in 1869
where the great-grandfather of one of the participants had the Stout surname conferred on him.
The third, still tentative conclusion is that the South Isles Stouts may not be related at all in the male line to the Stouts of
Shetland. More research, involving more participants, is required in order to confirm that.
All of the participants have been found to belong to the haplogroup R1b1, a lineage of the haplogroup R1b, mentioned
above as the most common and ubiquitous in Europe.
In the genetic work done so far we have more or less established the canonical haplotype typical of all of the Stouts of
Shetland origin. There is an early indication that it may not be shared by the South Isles Stouts. These are questions
which the project hopes to settle.
If we can deduce a few very early haplotypes the next step will be to see whether we can draw conclusions about where
they came from and when. Making progress on this will depend on the wider population movement studies and analysis
of the haplogroups.
Some haplogroups have already been associated with Scandinavia and when an individual is found in the Northern Isles
who belongs to one of these groups the obvious conclusion drawn is that he is descended in the male line from a
The situation with the R1b haplogroup is much more complex. It would have been represented in Orkney and Shetland
(in common with all of Europe) in pre-Norse times, going all the way back to the earliest settlers after the last Ice Age, to
Skara Brae, the Picts and the Iron Age brough-dwellers. It would also have been
represented in Scandinavia, among the “Vikings”, and probably among Norse settlers in Orkney and Shetland. There
will also be many representatives of the R1b haplogroup in the Northern Isles who are descended from post-Norse
The origin of the name “Stout” is a separate but related question. There is no clear evidence whether it is a native
Orkney or Shetland surname or not, although it could be. If it is, then it arose independently in parallel with the
appearance of the name in other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe, notably in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the
UK, and in the countries of the mediaeval Hanseatic League. Today most of the large population of Stouts in the US
have English or German ancestry.
The genetic testing service currently used by the Stout project is run by Family Tree DNA in the US. Details are
provided on their web site at
Our project is registered as "Stout (Scot origin)". It is affiliated to the Shetland Surnames project administered by Dr.
David Faux, who is a co-administrator of the Stout (Scot origin) project. The second co-administrator and a technical
advisor to the project is Dr. Jim Wilson of Edinburgh University. There is a general Stout project under the FT DNA
umbrella and we could become affiliated with them if we choose in order to exchange information.
Ethical issues are rife in the application of genetic technology. The application to deep genealogy is no exception.
Even in the foregoing simple statement of results so far in the Stout project there is a hint of some of the potential
ethical issues of this research. Comparison of genetic information from a few individuals can allow conclusions to be
drawn about very large family groups. In particular, issues of paternity can be decided which may have potential
implications for all of the descendents of the individual ancestor concerned. In the case we looked at so far the outcome
was the expected, happy one – but what if we had shown that the court finding was wrong?
Some people possibly find traditional genealogy intrusive and a threat to privacy, but at least the information being
collected and collated is essentially in the public domain. With DNA testing we may inadvertently uncover family secrets
which have never been in any sense public, may have been forgotten by the families concerned or may not even have
been known with certainty by those most closely involved at the time.
Deep genealogists (euphemistically?) refer to the failure to transfer a surname from biological father to his child as a
mispaternity event. This obviously occurs in most births arising from an extramarital or adulterous relationship, whether
or not the mother is married. Social and biological fatherhood also diverge in the process of adoption.
The Stout surname project takes account of the potential sensitivity of all DNA information and protects the privacy of
participants by placing limits on disclosure. In particular, results and analysis will be posted only in the password-
protected participants web pages on this site. Access will be provided only to participants, potential participants and to
Dr. Faux and Dr. Wilson.
What is the motivation for doing DNA-based family history research? What indeed is the motivation for doing family
history research at all?
To varying extents most of us, possibly in a search for personal identity, share some curiosity about our ancestors.
There is also an excitement in the intellectual challenge of doing the research and uncovering new information, even if
the protagonists in the unfolding story are ordinary people who led, in the conventional sense, ordinary lives. When
trawling through the records, the historical and social context of each generation is never far away; the Victorian family
sizes, infant mortality, emigration in response to population pressure, the military pensioners, the harsh workings of the
Poor Law, twentieth century social mobility, the prevalence of tuberculosis in the nineteenth – all are reflected in our
own family histories. It is likely, therefore, that anyone with a strong sense of history will take an interest in their own
historical background. For many Orcadians, there are two particular circumstances which reinforce this. The first is a
strong sense of history in a community which has its own story of nationhood and a physical environment rich with
artifacts from the past. The second is the fact that Orkney has only relatively recently emerged from a preliterate,
subsistence economy where family relationships were extremely important socially and economically and counting kin
was the stuff of everyday conversation.
If we consider a pedigree of over 400 years in depth, say 15 generations, the theoretical number of ancestors
belonging to the earliest generation is 32,768.
To put that in perspective, the population of Orkney peaked at around that level in the nineteenth century. Of course, in
a pedigree of that depth many individuals will occupy several ancestral positions, reflecting the extent to which there
have been cousin marriages. However, it does suggest how, in a small community, even with the contribution of some
incomers, the genetic makeup of an individual is dependent on the entire genetic pool. In that sense the islanders are
descendants of the whole historical community and not of a single line of males.
For that reason, it can be argued that pedigrees are more meaningful and interesting than family trees which show only
descendants in a male line. (The same could be said of tracing a family tree exclusively in the female line, although it is
y-DNA research is relevant to tracing a family tree in the male line, albeit focusing on biological paternity rather than
social fatherhood. In fact there is an equivalent technology allowing relationships to be traced in the female line using
mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) but it is less useful to genealogists, partly because there is simply less interest in family
trees in the female line, partly because maternity is seldom in doubt and partly because the rate of mutation of the
mitochondrial DNA is slower and less revealing. From the argument about meaningfulness of family trees above,
together with the ethical considerations already discussed, the question arises “Why do it?”
In addition to extending the reach of traditional methods of family history research, the DNA-based approach looks at a
new dimension of our personal identity. Even if the scope is limited to a single line of ancestors, it is truly amazing that
we can make definitive statements about our personal origins which refer to the distant past in the neolithic and in some
cases paleolithic. A pedigree of 10,000 years depth, say 400 generations has theoretically an astronomical number of
ancestors (2**400) at the earliest generation. Of course there are multiple appearances of many individual ancestors in
many positions in the pedigree. Nevertheless, the genetic contribution of each individual ancestor to a descendant after
400 generations varies from zero to very little. The persistence of the y-DNA and mtDNA is therefore something of a
For the enthusiast, family history research with or without DNA, is a puzzle-solving exercise of the same kind as
sudokus, jigsaws and crosswords. It is clear that the latter are bland and lifeless by comparison.
The y-DNA markers which we currently test are the first 37 standard markers offered by the company, Family Tree DNA.
The markers have different characteristic mutation rates which make them useful for tracing stability over time as well as
tracing divergence. This allows degrees of relatedness to be measured.
Each marker is a site on the y-chromosome where a piece of “junk” DNA has been repeatedly copied a number of times.
Each new copying error (mutation) typically adds or takes away an iteration of the junk sequence of nucleotides. We
use the number of repetitions of the sequence to evaluate the marker.
If two men are closely related in the male line then most of the markers will exactly match. If they are distant cousins in
the male line then there will be a substantial match; but a few of the markers may differ by a count of 1 or 2 or perhaps
more. By adding up the differences at each marker we arrive at the “genetic distance” between the two men.
Numbers of large scale studies have been completed which allow statistical statements to be made about the mutation
rates of individual markers and groups of markers. Using the measure of genetic distance between two men, it is
possible to estimate the distance to their “most recent common ancestor” (MRCA) in generations or years (TMRCA, the
time to the most recent common ancestor) .
It must be borne in mind that there are many assumptions involved in this estimate. Technically, any statistical statement
must be made with a stated degree of confidence. In the case of TMRCA estimates the degree of confidence is very low
when considering data from only two individuals. As a larger sample of related data is built, more confidence becomes
A useful theoretical construct is the “modal haplotype”. To derive the modal haplotype for a given set of haplotypes we
take the most commonly occurring value in the set for each marker; where there is a tie we take the highest value
occurring. If the set of haplotypes is fairly homogeneous and we know it probably represents a group of men related in
the male line then the modal haplotype is a first approximation to the ancestral haplotype of the group. By examining the
haplotype patterns in more detail in the light of record-based research it may be possible to refine the model of the
Genetic distance and TMCRA can be stated with respect to the modal haplotype for a data set since it offers a statistical
standard for comparison.
The target coverage is to have a few representatives for each line. There should at least be sufficient coverage to
establish a clear canonical haplotype for each line in order to make meaningful comparisons between them.
The Stout family history project is using genetic analysis to go beyond the written
record in order to discover the origins of the Stout surname in Orkney and Shetland.
Our traditional society was patrilineal, meaning that the kinship relationship between
father and son defined other social relationships. Customs such as inheritance were
based on the father to son relationship, for example. Even now, when customs
surrounding patrimony and primogeniture are fading into history, surnames are still
transmitted in the male line. Family histories researched using family sources and
public records usually focus on surname-defined groups.
The focus of the project is mainly on transmission of the Stout surname in the male line.