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By Andrew M. Cowan

A critique of the book When Scotland Was Jewish by Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman and Donald N. Yates (McFarland & Company, 2007) 800-253-2187

The stated intent of this book is to assemble historic, genealogical, linguistic, archeological, and geographic evidence, combined with the relatively new technique of Y-DNA analysis, to open a new perspective of the history of Scotland: that most of Scottish history and culture was of Jewish origin. In addition, its further purpose is to create a better understanding of the great diversity in origins of the Scottish population, dispelling the view of orthodox historians of the prevalence of the Celtic population in Scotland.

The authors of this book paint an image of themselves as two researchers on a voyage of discovery, sailing into a scholarly and historical breach onboard a hypothesis of Jewish Scotland, observing signs missed by everyone for four hundred years. They are very brave to have embarked on such a fragile and leaky vessel with their banner “Scotland was Jewish” waving like the Jolly Roger (with its telltale Jewish crossbones) high on the mast.

Readers will find some elements of this book demonstrate a commendable degree of scholarship, but even in a cursory examination the inferential evidence will be seen as very weak. The book is also plagued with poor indexing and footnotes, poor organization and poor cross referencing, making it virtually impossible to follow the authors’ lines of reasoning and arguments in a coherent way. It is not my intent to provide an exhaustive commentary on those weaknesses. My principal interest is in how they have used the Cowan surname and Cowan Family Tree DNA Project data in support of their hypothesis. I will examine closely their treatment of the historic John Cowane of Stirling as well as their association of the Cowan surname with Melungeon communities of the Appalachian regions of the United States. The use of Y-DNA from the Melungeon group combined with Y-DNA results of the Cowan surname to infer genetic origins of early Scottish population groups will also be examined.

At some point a reviewer should tout at least a few qualifications for the job. Here is my meager offering. I am one of the founders of the Society for Sensible Explanations in Seattle (minimifidians all). I have read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. My name is Cowan. That’s it. So take from it what you will.


John Cowane, a merchant of Stirling in the years 1570 to 1633, is vital to the thesis of this book. The authors claim to establish him as the first readily identifiable figure in what they call a second wave of French and Iberian Jewish families arriving in Scotland as persecution and expulsion of Jews increased in Europe. It is important, then, that we look closely at the way his “very probable” Jewish ancestry has been established.

The story of John Cowane is an interesting one and is described very well in the book’s citations from David Morris’ The Stirling Merchant Guild and the Life of John Cowane as a principal source. The authors state that the name Cowane and the surname Kohane, often adopted by members of the Jewish priestly caste, are analogous, meaning akin in some way. It is inferred from this relationship between surnames that John Cowane very probably was a Jewish priest or at least of Jewish ancestry. It is appropriate for readers to examine the inductive reasoning by which such an estimate of probability is reached because this is seen frequently throughout the book.

Stripping away descriptive materials about John Cowane to expose the line of reasoning leading their position, the analysis runs like this:

No consideration is made of other sources of the name Cowane. The authors offer no clue in support of their inference and none can be found in a web search.

An alternative source for the Cowane surname can be found in “A Treatise of the Cowan Family” (Cowan, Robert L., Scottish-American Genealogist, Vol. 8, 1985) in which more than 50 variant spellings from four separate origins are listed. One of these is the name Macgilliecomhghain, a Gaelic name meaning son or the servant/follower of Cowan (referring to Saint Cowan, usually written as Comgan). According to Robert Cowan, applying the rules of Gaelic pronunciation, dropping the silent “mhgh” from Macgilliecomhghain leaves Co-an. The tendency to slur between these two sounds gives the present day Cowan or Cowen. Cowane is listed among about twenty variants of this source. Therefore, the name Cowane could be analogous to the name Comhghain and may have been adopted by a group of people who subscribed to the teachings of an 8th century religious man.

One must consider this possible source of the Cowane surname to be at least as strong as that of the Jewish priestly class. If so, then John Cowane’s inferred Jewish ancestry becomes only a presumption. The point is that alternative explanations are almost never considered in this book.

The authors offer other evidences of John Cowane’s Jewishness.

They find the generous bequest of forty thousand merkes left by John Cowane, Dean of the Stirling Merchants Guild, for construction of a hospital to care for aged guild brothers would be unusual for a Christian Scotsman at the time but such charities were found regularly in Jewish communities all over Europe. The inference is that the bequest was made because of John Cowane’s Jewish ancestry, not because of his tenure as Dean of the Guild. Perhaps so, but no evidence is offered to show that this was an unusual practice in Scotland.

In a picture caption, Hirschman tells us that John Cowane’s grave marker displays the same “cabalistic imagery” seen in the Guild hospital building. The principal image on the stone and on the chair is a figure 4 with two adjoining X marks on the ends of the horizontal and vertical lines. This figure is best understood as Cowane’s individual merchant’s mark and is representative of many variations of the basic figure and the reverse four widely used in Scotland and England.

There is no evidence to be found in web searches that this symbol was of ancient cabala origin. Rather, the Sign of Four is considered to have evolved from an early Christian symbol, Chi Rho (XP), standing for Christus Rex in Greek letters. In medieval times it was simplified to a reverse “4.” The marks are thought to have originated among Flemish merchants and worked their way to Scotland. The authors, however, have misinterpreted the gravestone engraving as something secretly indicating Jewish origins of the merchant. Now, John may have had Flemish roots and he also may have been a Jewish merchant, but a more sensible explanation based on common trade practices would seem more likely.

Next is the matter of the Holy Blood Altar in the kirk in Stirling. Merchant guilds in several burghs in Scotland in the early days were given the responsibility for collecting a tax on goods for the support and maintenance of a Holy Blood Altar in a special aisle of the Kirk. The Holy Blood Altar was a special place for honoring the blood of Christ. The responsibility for its support was a very public one. The authors contend that the Holy Blood Altar and the Merchants Guild in Stirling with John Cowane as its Dean, were secretly Crypto-Jewish rather than Christian. The only support for this is that Cowane was a merchant supplying the Royal House of Stewart, and Prince Michael Stewart claims that the Stewarts were of Davidic descent.

At this point, I would like to comment on the citations and extracts from the The Forgotten Monarchy by Prince Michael Stewart and used by the authors in their first chapter. Prince Michael Stewart claims titles, honors, and Jewish ancestry that seem to be accepted on face value without question by the authors. His Jewish ancestry is clinched by his title as Honorary Head of the University of Glasgow Jewish student association.

Although Hirschman and Yates distance themselves a bit from His Royal Highness and believe his explanation for the ancient Jewish lineage of the Scottish kings too far fetched to support historical argument, they do feel Prince Michael Stewart’s narrative is more detailed and nuanced in some aspects of Scottish history than they have seen elsewhere. Most of these nuances are linked to practices within “the Celtic Church” that are considered similar to those of Judaism. Stewart claims:

HRH Prince Michael claims the title Archpriest of the Celtic Apostolic Church and we would presume that he writes authoritatively about the Celtic Church matters.

Stewart also provides Hirschman and Yates with a different perspective on the arrival of the “outsiders” into Scotland during the 1100s, noting that many of these immigrants were Flemish rather than French, and although some Normans ventured into Scotland at the time of Malcolm III, there was no effective penetration until the reign of King David I (1124-53). The resultant settlement was far more Flemish than Norman, even though some of the noble families of Flanders had been granted lands in Normandy before the conquest of England.

But, and this is a big one, His Royal Highness Prince Michael James Alexander Stewart, 7th Count of Albany (Scotland) is a fraud. His birth certificate establishing his aristocratic parentage has been found to be a forgery. A Scottish Sunday Mail newspaper dated 23 June 2006 carries a story entitled “Fake King of Scots Flees to Belgium.” It reported that in the wake of publicity surrounding his claims and his loss of British citizenship, he had sold his house in Edinburgh and returned to Belgium to live with his mother. His real name is Michael Lafosse and his claims of Royal ancestry were first exposed in an investigation conducted in 1980 by Jack S. MacDonald for the Scottish Patriots organization. MacDonald concludes, “This report must therefore find that the Claimant is a forger and a fraud.”

A second investigation by Sean Murphy of the Center for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies in 2002, also establishes that birth and marriage records used by Michael Lafosse were false.

It is not known whether either of these reports was readily available to Hirschman and Yates but both are easily found on the web. It is a bit sad to see that they were misled by the writings of such a charlatan as Michael Lafosse, but had they known his background, they surely would have had reason to question all of the material in his book including that concerning the Royal Stewart Family. It would have seemed rather more scholarly if Hirschman and Yates had cited original sources rather than rely on the validity of the research of Michael Lafosse.

At the conclusion of the chapter “Origins of Scotland,” Hirschman and Yates declare, “We have found one Scot of aristocratic descent who claims Jewish ancestry. Admittedly, this is not an overwhelming showing in a country of five million persons, but at least it is a start”. Had the authors been aware of the fraudulent genealogy of their Scot of “aristocratic descent” they might have realized that they had made no start at all.

They had said early on that HRH’s explanation of his Davidic descent is just too far fetched to support serious historical argument, and yet they continue to cite extracts from his book at least eight times leading to the point of finding strong hints that the Guild hall at Cowane’s hospital was frequented by supporters of the Stewarts and of the Davidic bloodline the Stewarts embodied. And further, they find some branches of the “Clan Cowan” (there never was such a thing as a Clan Cowan, only families) have coats of arms displaying scallop shells, symbols that indicate “the bearers were Jacobite in their sympathies and supporters of the Royal Stewart (Judaic) monarchy.” Hirschman and Yates, while questioning HRH’s claims of Davidic ancestry, continue to use those claims to support their contention of the Jewishness of the Stewart kings. The implication seems so essential to the thesis that it cannot be relinquished.

As if to make up for weakness in the Stewart case, the authors suddenly find that they can report a second Scottish Jew (Chapter 1, note 19). Fogo was one of the Scots bishops of the 1600s whose surname they assert derives from a mountain in the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of Africa settled by the Portuguese Jewish exiles in the 1500s. This last statement is the only evidence offered for Fogo’s Jewish ancestry. However, it is easy to find a Fogo Parish in Berwickshire with a church documented there as early as 1159. The surname Foggo or Fogo is derived from this place. The name is from the old English pre-seventh century word “fogga”, meaning dry, rank grass left standing through the winter. The land was endowed to the Earls of Dunbar by King David I. The early documented uses of the name are for Adam de Foghou, identified as a witness in a charter to Kelso abbey in 1147, and Dean Gamel de Fogghou who witnessed a charter to the Abbey of Kelso about the same year. Others of the surname include John de Fogo, who appears as Abbot of Melrose in 1425 and confessor to King James I in 1436. This surname more likely relates to the Scottish place name, Fogo, rather than the Cape Verde Island volcano Fogo even though Jews expelled from Portugual in 1490 had settled there.

Once again, an aristocratic Scot of Jewish ancestry bites the dust.

Interestingly, the authors don’t recognize that among King David’s entourage, the Cospatrics (listed on page 16) are the first Earls of Dunbar and owners of the lands of Fogo. Early history of the Earls of Dunbar can be found in the book by George Chalmers, Caledonia: A historical and topological account of North Britain from the most ancient time to the present times (Vol 3, New Edition, 1888).


A lot of attention is given to the X mark, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, or as it is referred to in the book, Tav, Taw, Tough, Tau or even Tao/Tough (sic). Wherever it is seen, it seems (according to the authors) to indicate a Jewish origin or some secret significance and is referred to as a cabalistic symbol. It is found to indicate Templar or Jewish graves. St. Andrew’s Cross is said to represent the Judaic or Templar X mark. King William the Lyon and King David I are depicted on the Charter of Abroath, both having crossed legs in the form of the Templar/cabalistic X mark. An illustration of a Templar tomb carving sketched by Elizabeth Hirschman shows crossed legs in the Tau/Tough image. William Fraser, Bishop of St. Andrews (1279-1297) had two seals with the “tell-tale X mark”. Photographs by Elizabeth Hirschman (p. 49) show a Tau/Tough symbol and a skull and crossbones marking Templar or Freemason graves. The skull and crossbones are referred to several times as Templar symbols (i.e. p. 54-55, 58). Hirschman and Yates propose that the Scottish saltire flag is derived from the cabalistic Tau/Tough image. All of this begins to feel rather far-fetched. Secret signs can be seen everywhere.

Here are some references I found useful in understanding the crossed leg syndrome. A fairly lengthy article by John Piggot, Jr. written in 1868 in Notes and Queries on “Cross-Legged Effigies and the Crusaders” gathers much historical and archeological information bearing on the subject. He says that many well known Crusaders do not appear cross-legged and there exist cross-legged effigies that are known not to have been Crusaders. It is a popular error to assign them to the Templars. The only known effigy of a Templar is that found in the cemetery of St. Yvod de Braine, near Soissons in France, but even this is questioned by some.

There is a story that a group of Templars joined a Masonic order in Stirling and became known as the Cross Legged Masons in 1560.

In Encyclopedia of Freemasonry by Albert Gallatin Mackey, entries on Cross legged Knights tell that in the Middle Ages it was the custom to bury the body of a Knight Templar with one leg crossed over the other, and on many monuments in the churches of Europe the effigies of those Knights are to be found often in a diminutive size. This practice was not confined to Templars, but was appropriate to all persons who had vowed to fight in defense of the Christian religion.

The quote below from The Roslyn Hoax by Robert L. D. Cooper (2007, p. 275) is an alternate interpretation of the skull and cross bones symbols.

The pre-Reformation Church in Scotland in common with church practice everywhere, used many standard images and symbols. This cannot be over emphasized. What is of major importance in Scotland is that after 1559 symbols of mortality were used instead of angels etc. The new church encouraged what might be considered non-Christian symbolism but that would be to misunderstand the theology of the Scottish Protestant Church and its ideas regarding symbols and their purpose. It was acceptable to use the skull and crossed bones because they were not ‘Popish’. The symbol was intended to remind everyone of their ultimate fate. To concentrate on a few post-Reformation symbols in Scotland is misleading. There are numerous other post-Reformation symbols such as the hourglass, etc.

Cooper cites Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland (p. 577): "After the Reformation only emblems of Mortality were allowed (skull, crossed bones, hourglass, cherubs, open book)."

Cooper continues, “These were an entirely new form of abstract Christian symbolism ‘designed’ and sanctioned by the new church to replace those of the Roman Church because they were not idolatrous. These symbols were more abstract than the earlier Catholic symbols because they were intended to focus attention on death.”


It is the nature of Y-DNA that analysis of samples cannot be easily acquired from long past populations or individuals. Inferences must be made from samples of current donors. Projected inferences about population founder events, migration routes, and times back to common ancestors can be made but cautiously and only in the context of serious historical and archeological findings.

Inferences from surname similarity, cultural artifacts, and Semitic features seen in portraits, historic behavior and social interactions must be taken with caution and buttressed with hard evidence such as Y-DNA patterns specifically identified among Jewish populations presently found in certain geographic areas to be convincing.

Yates and Hirschman selected a set of surnames names from descendants in a Melungeon population of Appalachia, believed to be representative of names in a wave of immigration to Scotland about 1100 CE. The selected names were Caldwell, Christie, Cowan and Kennedy. Samples were collected from donors having these names because the authors considered them to have a high probability of Jewish ancestry. Part of that belief is because the authors both have concluded they had Jewish ancestors among this Melungeon population. No supporting evidence is given of the extent of Jewishness in the overall Melungeon population. From this Y-DNA base inferences are made concerning the possible Jewishness of people with these surnames in Scotland.

The Cowan Family Tree DNA Project has an R1a1 haplogroup of six members of particular interest to the Hirschman and Yates Y-DNA study and to me personally as I am a part of this group. A scientific paper by Behar, et al, has shown the R1a1 haplotype to be the modal haplotype for the Ashkenazi-Levite sample. The study is based on six Jewish sample sets designated Ashkenazi-Cohanim, Sephardic-Cohanim, Ashkenazi-Levite, Sephardic-Levite, Ashkenazi-Israelite and Sephardic-Israelite. These are compared with non-Jewish population data from Germany, Norway, Sorbia, and Belarus.

Table 1 in the paper shows that 52% or 31 of the 60 A-L men in the study fall into the R1a1 haplotype. Table 4 shows that of these 31 men, 38% or 23 men fall into a microsatellite subgroup of R1a1, defined by the numbers 16 12 25 10 11 13. The rest are scattered among six other subgroups. The Cowan R1a1 haplotype is characterized by microsatellite numbers 16 12 26 10 11 13. Only one non-Jewish Sorbian person in this study of 399 men in Jewish sample sets and 589 men in non-Jewish samples matches the Cowan microsatellite haplotype.

The Cowan R1a1 from the Cowan Family tree database is a genetic distance of 1 from the A-L modal microsatellite haplotype. In the context of this study this would seem to be a very significant difference. It is difficult to determine from this study, however, how distant the Cowan line is from the various A-L lines in the historic development of populations. It would seem that the study does not support an assumption of the descent of the Cowan R1a1 line from A-L populations.

A genealogy of an R1a1 haplogroup member of the Cowan Family Tree DNA Project is included in Chapter 4 concerned with the “Second Wave of Jewish Families.” This genealogy contains the name of James Cowan and his wife, Margaret Christie Russell, buried in the cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, TN. The authors note that the gravestone of the wife is inscribed “A mother in Israel.” This seems to be the only “evidence” of a Jewish or crypto Jewish origin for this family. In a footnote we learn this term was used by the Temple of Sisterhood in Primitive Baptist Churches of the Holston Association in Tennessee. The phrase is from a biblical reference to Deborah as a mother in Israel and has been used in various denominations including Church of Latter Day Saints, Methodist and Presbyterian. The “evidence” is not very convincing.

At the end of Chapter 2 concerned with “DNA and Population Studies” are some truly baffling statements concerning the Cowan surname and DNA. “…we can infer that there are about 180,000 males on its sod, moors or sidewalks carrying the Cowan III [R1b] haplotype. They all likely descend from a common ancestor who lived about 1500 years ago, circa 500 CE. And if our hypothesis is correct he was a Visigoth who lived in southern France.”

“Cowan V is an R1a haplotype and shows an Eastern European ancestry common to Ashkenazi Levites.”

The authors seem to be confused about how to handle the Cowan Y-DNA data; they cop out (p. 43) by suggesting first that “R1b and R1a males adopted the Cowan/Coen surname indicative of the Jewish priestly class when they converted to Judiasm around 750-900 C.E” and that “even though these Scots were not Semitic descendants of Aaron or the priest-kings of Judea, they thought of themselves as such”. Then in a second thought they say, “Despite being Presbyterian by the 1600s, Clan Cowan members were, we argue, Kohanim/Cohans of Sephardic Jewish ancestry.” Well, were they of Semitic origin or not? One way or the other, it would make a great difference in the inferences they draw. The authors seem to want it both ways.


On first opening this book and noting the interest in cabalistic imagery the thought came to my mind about what the noted philosopher, semiologist, and author of the novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco would say.

My answer now would be that Umberto Eco would not spend much time to comment on this book. Instead, I will let three characters from his novel Foucault’s Pendulum speak for him.

Diollevi is obsessed with the cabala and Talmudic studies insisting that, although his forbears are not Jewish, he is. Casaubon is an authority on the Templars by virtue of his doctoral studies. Belbo is a senior editor of obscure texts at a publishing house.

These friends are reviewing manuscripts on esoteric subjects when they conceive the idea of using a computer to synthesize one vast, all encompassing Plan reflecting the secret history of the world. A chapter heading in the novel is a quotation:

If our hypothesis is correct, the Holy Grail . . . was the breed and descendant of Jesus, the ‘Sang real’ of which the Templars were the guardians . . . At the same time, the Holy Grail must have been, literally, the vessel that had received and contained the blood of Jesus. In other words it must have been the womb of Magdalene.
   ---M. Baigent, R. Leigh, H. Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, 1982, London, Cape, xiv

This discussion follows: “Nobody would take that seriously,” Diotallevi said.

“On the contrary, it would sell a few hundred thousand copies,” I [Casaubon] said grimly. “The story has already been written, with slight variations, in a book on the mystery of the Grail and the secrets of Rennes-le-Chateau. Instead of reading only manuscripts, you should look at what other publishers are printing.”

“Ye Holy Seraphim!” Diotallevi said. “Then this machine says only what we already know.”

Belbo was piqued, “What is he saying—that my idea is an idea others have had? So what? It’s called literary polygenesis. Signor Garamond would say that means I’m telling the truth. It must have taken years for the others to come up with it, whereas the machine and I solved the problem in one evening.”

“I’m with you. The machine’s useful. But I believe we should feed it more statements that don’t come from the Diabolicals. The challenge isn’t to find occult links between Debussy and the Templars. Everybody does that. The problem is to find occult links between, for example, cabala and the spark plugs of a car.”

Later Belbo states, “You were right. Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another. The connection changes the perspective; it leads you to think that every detail of the world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning, that it tells us of a Secret. The rule is simple: Suspect, only suspect. You can read subtexts even in a traffic sign that says ‘No littering’.”


I doubt very many professors of Scottish history will want to take the time to review When Scotland Was Jewish or seriously investigate the premise of the work. While my review leaves much of the book untouched, I can only conclude from what I have studied closely that its inferential approach has not established the premise that Scottish history and culture was largely influenced by Jews and crypto-Jews strongly enough to induce serious historians to view it as a framework for further research. As a consequence the broader concept that many populations immigrant to Scotland assimilated and contributed to its rich culture, may be disregarded by readers and researchers who have tired of the continued insinuation of Jewish ancestry by association of surname variants, eyebrows, and crossed legs.

Use of Y-DNA data as a tool for the study of historic movement of populations has not been advanced by the work reported here. Most scholars will realize much more genealogically-linked DNA data will be necessary before this tool will find usefulness in the genetic soup mixes seen in Scotland and the United States. Indeed throughout world history the ebb and flow of peoples has not been linear and paths of migration often have turned back on themselves. The book seems to have been written a very long time before publication and some information, particularly the DNA data, is quite stale.

Significant advancements in scientific studies have been made in recent years regarding Jewish populations and while the bibliography contains some of them, the well written paper by Ellen Levi-Coffman, “A Mosaic of People: The Jewish Story and a Reassessment of the DNA Evidence” in Journal Genetic Genealogy was missed. The inferences of population genetics from Melungeon communities to that of Scotland in the Middle Ages is particularly onerous, and the extension of haplotype data, clouded by assumptions of populations converted to Judaism and instilled with erroneous beliefs of their Jewish ancestry makes any inference about any haplotype suspect.

Perhaps the most value I have gained from this book is the stimulus to look for sensible explanations, avoid weak evidence in support of extraordinary claims, and wear a life jacket when up to my neck in dubious inferences.

Please contact the author of this review with questions: Andy Cowan