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'Border Reiver' families to spill their blood for genetics research

Hundreds of years after they spilled their blood in a series of vicious raids and reprisals, the Border Reiver clans are being asked to do it all again.

Newcastle University researchers are seeking people with 'Border Reiver' surnames, like Armstrong, Fenwick, Burn or Robson, to donate blood samples for a groundbreaking project which aims to find out if your surname signals your genetic makeup.

The term Border Reivers describes a number of English and Scottish families who fought a seemingly endless series of bloody confrontations from the 13th Century to the mid 17th Century. Sheep stealing and burning each other's homes were part of everyday Border Reiver life - they were rugged, tough people who lived by their own laws.

Now researchers are aiming to find the descendants of these notorious families for the Northern England element of a national project called People of the British Isles (PoBI).

They hope to collect up to 600 blood samples in total for scientific analysis and will be looking for common genetic patterns and the presence of certain genes, such as those that determine hair colour.

Potential volunteers are being asked to attend the Northumberland and Border History Fair in Hexham on December 2 to donate blood samples*.

Volunteers should be able to trace all four of their grandparents to the same geographical area in Northumberland, Northern Cumbria, County Durham and the Scottish Borders. All volunteers who fit these criteria can participate, however, the study team will be particularly interested to hear from people who have a 'Border Reiver' surname by birth or a parent with the surname.

Project leader, Dr Caroline Relton, of Newcastle University's Institute of Human Genetics, said: “The Border Reivers were at the centre of an incredibly exciting era in British history and they left an impressive legacy in the people, culture and architecture of the Border lands.

“We believe there are equally fascinating stories to be told about the Border Reivers' genetic legacy and we hope to make many discoveries using thorough scientific analysis that has never been done before.

“We're encouraging as many of our 'modern day' Border Reivers to come forward so that we can build as full a genetic picture as possible.”

Valerie Robson, secretary of the Tynedale Branch of the Northumberland & Durham Family History Society, who will be attending the Hexham event on December 2, said: “This is an interesting project which, by using present day knowledge, could unlock the past to establish who are the true Reiver descendants.

“I hope volunteers will receive some feedback from the project when completed. It will be of particular interest to Americans who claim Northumbrian ancestors.”

The call for the Border Reivers families follows a separate project commissioned by the Centre for Life in Newcastle for a new exhibit to examine genetic inheritance. Last Saturday, November 25, 100 male volunteer Robsons were invited to give a DNA sample which is being examined for genetic similarities. The results will be included in a 'Robson Encyclopedia', to be featured in an exhibit next Spring.

People of the British Isles is a pioneering project led by Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust which intends to collect 3,500 blood samples from populations throughout the UK. These will be used to look at the pattern of differences in people's genetic make up around the UK. Newcastle University's Institute of Human Genetics is managing the project in the Northern region.

Some early findings will be featured in a TV series to be shown on Channel Four in the New Year.

* Potential volunteers are asked to attend the Northumberland and Border History Fair from 10am-4pm at the Wentworth Leisure Centre in Hexham on Saturday, December 2. The researchers will have a stall at the event where they will take blood samples of around 20ml from volunteers who fit the criteria. They will also be giving a talk about the project. A small charge will be made for entry. More information from Dr Alix Groom, 0191 241 8837 or email


Newcastle University professor John Burn is a typical example of your modern day 'Border Reiver' and has already donated his blood to the project.

Prof Burn is head of the Institute of Human Genetics, which is leading the People of the British Isles project in Northern England.

He comes from a long line of tenant farmers in County Durham - all his grandparents were born in the Wear Valley, close to where John himself was born in West Auckland.

Border Reiver historical records note that, several hundred years ago, the Burn clan lived among the Scottish border areas. Their ancestors still bear their name, along with variations such as Burns and Burness.

The name is generally believed to be territorial, from bourne meaning stream. It could, however, be from the Old English 'beorn', meaning warrior.

The Burns are believed to have been a particularly lawless 'reiving' family and had a reputation for being vicious.

One notorious descendant, Geordie Burn, was hung at Carlisle Castle in the late 16th Century.

Professor Burn said: “I've always been really attracted to finding out more about my ancestors.

“Tracing your family tree back can be a lot of fun but I believe it also provides you with a deeper sense of identity, and, certainly in my case, a greater connection with the North East landscape and environment.

“Scientifically, though, studies like this are incredibly important for dissecting the complex causes of genetic diseases. The main point of the People of the British Isles programme is to get a better understanding of the baseline genetic make-up of the population, which will help with research into more specific conditions.”

Additional source: The Border Reivers website

Further details from the Border Reivers website:
Neil Armstrong - first man on the moon
Lance Armstrong - cyclist
Sir Bobby Charlton - football personality
T.S. Eliot - 19th Century American writer
Fenwick - Newcastle department store
E.M. Forster - 19th Century English novelist
Alan Milburn - British politician
Cynthia Nixon - US actress (Miranda in the US TV series Sex and the City)
Mark Radcliffe - Radio One DJ
Paula Radcliffe - world marathon record holder
Linda Robson - British actress (Birds of a Feather)
George and Robert Stephenson - 19th Century railway pioneers
Bill Turnbull - BBC Network TV presenter

Melanie Reed | alfa
Further information:

Further reports about: Border Northumberland Reiver' Robson blood blood sample

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