Sutherland YDNA Reveals Scottish Clan Connection

Melanie Mohler

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YDNA testing revealed a Sutherland clan connection Kathleen wasn’t even looking for–but only after she had to unravel not one but two misattributed fathers on a family tree! Read about how Kathleen used both YDNA and autosomal DNA to rebuild her paternal family tree.

Some family mysteries take a lot of time, effort, and techniques to unravel, especially when there are multiple surnames involved. This was the case for Kathleen, a genealogist and Your DNA Guide customer. After learning valuable skills and techniques in our DNA Skills Workshop, YDNA for Genealogy course and Endogamy course, she was able to identify a set of her 3x great-grandparents on her paternal line and solve a 200-year-old mystery using both atDNA and YDNA. In the process, she also discovered another family connection, this time to a famous Scottish clan.

Autosomal DNA identifies a birth father

Kathleen began by looking for her dad’s direct paternal line. Her dad Paul’s surname was Johnson, but her autosomal DNA results revealed that she had many Phillips DNA cousins. Using these matches, she discovered that her dad’s biological father was actually his mother’s World War I boyfriend, Andrew Jackson Phillips.

Kathleen then asked a male Phillips relative to take a YDNA test at the 37 marker, just to confirm if the Phillips connection was correct. He was a match to her brother Fred. So she knew she was on the right track.

YDNA test leads to Scottish clan

Around the same time that Kathleen learned how she was related to the Philips matches, her brother Fred’s Big Y results came in. (Big Y is a higher level of YDNA testing to look more deeply at how you might be connected to your YDNA matches.) Fred had tons of matches, but they all had the surname Sutherland. Not a single Johnson or Phillips in the lot. This suggests the possibility that at some point in the past, at least one child on this line didn’t carry the surname of his birth father. The Sutherland surname may have been connected with this line, but had become disconnected.

Kathleen entered her brother into the Sutherland surname project at FamilyTreeDNA. The results? Kathleen and Fred learned that their dad was a direct male line descendant of William de Moravia, the progenitor of Clan Sutherland. They descend from Kenneth, the 4th Earl of Sutherland. They were invited to be part of a historical project about the Declaration of Arbroath and its signers. Kenneth’s older brother William, the 3rd Earl, signed it but died with no male heirs. So the project used Kenneth’s descendants’ YDNA to represent that of William.

Despite learning about their early ancestors, they still weren’t sure how (and when) they were connected to the Sutherland line. There were no Sutherlands in the family tree that they knew of!

Identifying 3x great grandparents

The most distant ancestor on this line that Kathleen could initially find was Thornton Phillips, Sr., her 2x great grandfather. Not she nor any Phillips relatives who did genealogy were able to find Thornton’s parents.

It’s only with DNA testing that Kathleen was able to solve the mystery. She later found Thornton’s mother Dinah Howard with her autosomal DNA results using techniques she learned in the DNA Skills Workshop. When she revisited her research on Dinah, Kathleen learned who Dinah eventually married (four years after Thornton was born): a man named Alexander Sutherland!

Evidence strongly suggested this was the 3x great-grandparent couple her family had been looking for, but it didn’t make sense that Alexander’s son didn’t have the Sutherland surname. How could this be?

Kathleen did descendancy research on Alexander Sutherland’s sons and came across another woman looking for his descendants. Kathleen took a chance and messaged her, asking if she had any male relatives on that direct line. Her uncle James agreed to take a Big Y test and ended up matching Fred and their Phillips cousin, with Alexander Sutherland being identified as their most recent common ancestor. The only issue was that James’ surname is Sullivan.

James’ niece then told Kathleen that the surname was Sullivan, but everyone knew they were really Sutherlands. So Kathleen did some research and found that William M. Sutherland (James’ grandfather) had died when his two sons William and Marshall were barely one year old. The two boys were taken in by relatives surnamed Sullivan and they took on that surname to fit in. Kathleen had already learned from previous research that Dinah Howard’s mother’s maiden name was Sullivan, so this made sense to her. Likely those Sullivans were Dinah’s relatives.


Family tree of Kathleen’s paternal line created with Lucidchart.*

After much genealogy research, autosomal DNA testing, and YDNA target testing, Kathleen found her biological paternal grandfather and her 3x great-grandparents, reconnecting multiple surname disruptions. And these led to a fascinating connection with Scottish history and Clan Sutherland.

She still gets very excited when she talks about this case. She credits the Your DNA Guide courses for teaching her the skills she needed to untangle these family mysteries. James Sullivan (Sutherland!) and his wife have been excited to learn all of this, too, and are planning a trip to Scotland this spring.

Kathleen learned the foundational skills for her autosomal DNA results that were needed to solve her family’s 200-year-old mystery in Your DNA Guide’s DNA Skills Workshop. You can develop these skills too! Learn more about the DNA Skills Workshop and what you can learn in this 10-week, hands-on experience.

Take the DNA Skills Workshop


*We regularly recommend products and services that we know and would use personally. Some recommendations use affiliate links. When you purchase using these links, I may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you!

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  1. Kathy

    Pretty cool, Kathleen. I am glad you finally got this all figured out.

    • Kathleen Withers

      Thanks. Adding the names of Alexander Sutherland and his wife Dinah Howard to my family tree was truly thrilling.


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