SCOTLAND is seeing a “stratospheric” rise in DNA testing by family history enthusiasts, who are tracking down scores of previously unknown relatives as a result, according to Scottish genealogists.

They claim that since DNA testing kits became available in the UK in 2015, a huge number of Scots – intrigued by what more their DNA could tell them about their family – have been adding their results online and clocking up matches to cousins and other relatives.

Figures suggest that about 12 million people from all over the world have taken a test by a DNA-testing company such as Ancestry - which still dominates the market - often aiming to reconnect with unknown family members.  Other popular sites include MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA and LivingDNA with the largest user number still in the US.

However Glasgow-based genealogist and historian Michelle Leonard (pictured below) said: “The use of DNA testing here [as part of family tree research] has gone stratospheric in recent years. I work on a lot of mystery cases – people looking to identify parents, grandparents or even more distant ancestors. In previous years most of these cases were impossible to solve but DNA has now made finding answers a true possibility.”

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Though Scottish figures are not available she claimed she was receiving record numbers of requests for help, with record numbers of potential matches to draw on.

“When Ancestry first started in the UK in 2015 I remember testing and I had 29 matches at the fourth-sixth cousin or closer levels,” she added. “Now I have 520, and in terms of distant matches I have 52k. More and more people are testing all the time and so that means I am finding new matches every day.”

Leonard has since contacted hundreds of her own matches, sharing photos and family stories that she would never otherwise have been able to access and has even met up with some visiting Scotland for the first time. “It has been hugely emotional and rewarding,” she said.

However she warned that people should go into the tests with their eyes open, understanding that they might find something surprising. “There are some people who take the test to find out their ethnicity – 40% Irish, 10% French etc – but that is not the most powerful part of the test,” she said. “Some people don’t understand that they will make matches and that those could be with an adoptee or a half sibling they don’t know about. They need to understand that and to be prepared for the unexpected.”

READ MORE: Did any members of your family sign the historic Declaration of Arbroath?

Concerns have also been raised over future use of the data, which is being handled by private companies, with warnings about future abilities to offer “genetic marketing” based on data. Police have also made use of DNA results on third party databases to solve cold cases.

Alastair Macdonald, a genealogist at Strathclyde University who also sells testing kits online and volunteers with the charity Birthlink, agreed that he had witnessed dramatic growth in the use of DNA testing in Scotland as part of family history searches. “Until three or four years ago there was a degree of suspicion about [using it] like that,” he said. “But we are now at a point where people who may not have thought of using DNA testing that before are realising that it can be a really useful tool.

“On the positive side it can reconnect individuals and families who have experienced adoption or forced separation and allow people particularly in the Scottish diaspora to find an ancestral homeland.

“Genealogically it can help researchers overcome the lack of documentation, for instance due to missing parish records. This can be helpful for a range of reasons. Connection to family and a sense of who you are integral to the human condition.”

He claimed it also highlighted that Scots were not a homogenous race. “[We] descend from a range of different peoples who arrived in the main 4000 years or so ago, but have been topped up by waves of later immigrants such as Anglo-Saxons, Norse, Danes, Flemish, Irish and English,” he added.

However he also warned that caution was required. “There is a need for better education on its use,” he said. “Tests can show up unexpected results. They can show long-kept family secrets, one night stands that end in illegitimacy, siblings who turn out only to be half siblings, fathers who are not fathers after all. The implications can affect the whole family.”

Joan Scott, who lives in Troon but is originally from Galloway – and who has been interested in family trees since she was a child – knows how it can feel to get surprising results from DNA testing.

She first sent away a test two and a half years ago, and at a meet-up with about 45 family members from her paternal grandfather’s line, many of whom she had traced through traditional paper family research, encouraged others to do the same. “But when they got their results, they were matching with each other but they weren’t appearing on my results,” she says. Another man she had always assumed to be a first cousin didn’t match, it gradually became clear. The man she had always known as Papa Templeton – “my favourite person in the world” – was not her real grandfather.

“I cried for an entire weekend,” she said. “My mother died in 2014 and she was as close as anything to her father. I can’t imagine what she would have felt like.”

But once she recovered from her shock she started to feel knowing the truth was incredibly positive. “It’s opened up another door in my life and given me a fuller picture about my family and about myself,” she added.

She has traced numerous second cousins and with Michelle Leonard’s help is still looking to pinpoint her grandfather’s identity. She has also helped one distant cousin who had been handed in to a police station as a baby to trace her half siblings and discover the identity of her mother. “It shows that this can really be life changing,” she added.