Am I a MacGregor?

The name “Gregory” is used as both a first name and a surname, and I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said “No, your last name” after I told them my name was “Gregory”. Jokes about having two (actually, three) “first” names have been a staple in my life as well.

There have been 16 popes with the name “Gregory”, including Pope Gregory I (“Gregory the Great”, which, had it not been taken, would have been a nickname I would have aspired to myself; he can keep “Saint Gregory”). Think “Gregorian calendar” (Pope Gregory XIII) or “Gregorian chants” (though these are probably not actually a product of Pope Gregory I). Readers with a snarkier side may consider this blog an example of “Gregorian rants” if they so desire.

There are many derivatives of the name “Gregor”, of which “Gregory” is one. It appears to date back to the Latin “Gregorious” and the Greek “Gregorios”, meaning “alert, watchful, or vigilant”. When my father and stepmother were in Greece, they were often told that they had a “very good Greek name”. Other languages have their own versions as well.

When I was living in the west end of London (specifically, the “London Borough of Richmond-Upon-Thames“), I would have my hair cut by a fantastic old-school barber, an ex-merchant marine who lived in a long boat on the Thames and who did the final trim on one’s neck with a straight razor. On my first visit, he remarked that I “must have Scottish blood”. The reason, apparently, had to do with my thick hair and reddish goatee. “What’s your surname?” he asked. “Gregory,” I replied. “Well there you go,” he said.

You see, the other, more circuitous origin of the name “Gregory” is via the Scottish Clan MacGregor (meaning “son of Gregor”, and thus linked back to the Latin/Greek origin). It seems the MacGregors ran afoul of King James VI, who made bearing the MacGregor name a capital offence in 1603. You may be familiar with subsequent adventure involving the “Scottish Robin Hood”, Rob Roy MacGregor, as portrayed on screen by Liam Neeson (who is not a Scottish folk hero at all, but a Northern Irish Jedi).

When given the choice between changing their names or being executed, most MacGregors opted for the former. The resulting names, which numbered more than 100 and of which Gregory was one of the more obvious, became septs of Clan MacGregor. The ban on the name MacGregor was lifted in 1774, but the division into different septs remains.

Today, my fellow DNA Network member Blaine Bettinger of The Genetic Genealogist reports on an effort by the Clan Gregor Society to use DNA to reunite the Clan MacGregor.

The idea of the MacGregor DNA Project is to draw comparisons to a genetic profile from a known descendant of the chief’s line (known only as “kit 2124”). Anyone who shares 31 out of the 37 DNA markers with this individual will be given full membership in the Clan Gregor Society, regardless of current surname. Gregory is one of a few surnames focused on explicitly as part of the project.

The project primarily is making use of Y-chromosome loci, which would mean that only descendants related through their father’s side would register. It appears that some mitochondrial DNA analysis is also being conducted, which would identify individuals related through descent on their mother’s side.

As per the old tradition in our society, I received my surname from my father and, as per the old tradition in biology, I also received my Y chromosome from him. In other words, it would be perfectly feasible for me to take the test and see if my red beard is homologous to that of Rob Roy.

But really, what’s the point? I am not Scottish, I am Canadian, and I am perfectly happy with that identity. Moreover, like a great many North Americans, I represent a mixture of many different families: Gregory, Davis, Sager, MacKenzie, and who knows what else (though I confess that the ingredients here are pretty limited in their variety, coming as they all do from the British Isles). It’s really only because of a quirk of our culture that I associate almost exclusively with Gregory.

Still, it would be pretty cool to wear an official clan tartan…

3 thoughts on “Am I a MacGregor?

  1. You’re absolutely right, on the one hand many people identify with their surname even though it only supplies a fraction of DNA, but on the other hand that fraction of DNA is almost an entire chromosome.

    It’s great that you have a surname that has a DNA project – I’m the only person with my surname that has ever been genealogically tested. Makes it very hard to compare the results!!

  2. I say go for it – then you could terrorize me and other grad students at committee meetings by adopting an aggressive Scottish accent and ranting against the monarchy.

    It would certainly make things more interesting around here.

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