Multiple Sclerosis thistle flower "The Scottish Disease"

"People living in Scotland who also have a Scottish name are more
than twice as likely to develop multiple sclerosis .... than the English."

Independent, 16 June 1998

Shortly after I was diagnosed and still hobbling around with sticks, people would enquire, "What's wrong?" Then I noticed something rather strange. If that person was Scottish, I didn't have to explain anything! It isn't surprising. In Scotland people who don't know someone - mother, father, grandparents, sister, brother, husband, wife, or friend - who doesn't suffer from MS is fortunate indeed. Is there some connection between multiple sclerosis and people from Scotland? "The Scottish Disease" as it is called north of the Border, occurs more frequently there than in the south of England or other parts of the world. A population study in the Lothian and Borders published in 1998 in "The Journal of Neurology & Psychiatry" reported that twice as many people - 2 per 1,000 in Scotland as opposed to half that number or 1 per 1,000 in England and Wales - suffered from MS. This figure was recently updated when it was discovered that Scotland has 10,500 people with MS, out of a population of 5.1 million. That's a much higher rate than England or Wales. According to a Scottish newspaper if you have a Scottish surname you run twice the risk of developing the illness.

For more detailed figures Click here

"Scotland the mainland around Aberdeen, the Orkney and Shetland Islands has the highest risk (of MS]. The best explanation is that this reflects the genetic background because those are areas where there is a very high influence of Nordic genes, probably delivered by the Vikings, as I understand it they were in the habit of leaving behind their genetic material in the most generous way.

Alastair Compston, professor of neurology and head of the department of clinical neurosciences at Cambridge University.

viking chieftain

Other regions of high MS prevalence around the world were settled by Scottish immigrants. During the 18th and 19th centuries The Highland Clearances forced displacements of the population of the Scottish Highlands leading to mass emigration mainly to Canada, the United States of America, and Australia. In the USA British colonies were settled all along the US east coast, particularly Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North and South Carolina and later Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Americans can thank these Scottish settlers for the Rev. Elijah Craig, (of Bourbon whiskey fame), "Blue Grass" music, paper-mills, and MS! During the English Civil War in the 1600s, Scots mercenaries from both sides were transported and the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 also saw many Scots transported. A few hapless souls were kidnapped by pirates who sold them as slaves to work on plantations in the West Indies.

When carrying out the research for "Famous People with MS" I was amazed by the large number of celebrities in the United States with MS who had Scottish ancestry, including Afro-Americans. (Scots slave-masters were not averse to seeking sexual favours from their women slaves!) This celtic influence is noted famous people such Lena Horne, born Helena Mary Calhoun Horne and Richard Pryor, born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III. 'Calhoun' and 'Lennox' - a marked Scottish influence in their first or given names.

Some of you might have heard of, Augustus Frederick d'Este grandson of George III. I thought, "Why should the descendent of German, Hanovarian nobility have MS?" Although Augustus' mother, Lady Augusta Murray was born in London, she was of ancient Scottish lineage. Augustus Frederick's grandfather was John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, his grandmother, Lady Charlotte Stewart, daughter of the Alexander Stewart, 6th Earl of Galloway.

I first became interested in the genetic component of MS when I read that the greatest geographical concentration of MS was in a small village in Northern Ireland, home to Scottish farmers who moved to Ulster during the 18th century. Needless to say many families were inter-related Scots. many So why do so many people with Scottish ancestry have this increased susceptibility to MS? Yet another epidemiological study has been mounted in Aberdeenshire, Orkney and Shetland.

Only this year, 2011, UK and Canadian scientists, comparing DNA changes found against existing databases, identified the mutated gene, CYP27B1, in 35 parents of children with MS and, in every case, the child inherited this gene. Researchers say this adds weight to suggestions of a link between vitamin D deficiency and MS. When people inherit two copies of this gene they develop a genetic form of rickets - a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency which is the major cause of infantile rickets. Just one copy of the mutated CYP27B1 gene affects a key enzyme which leads people with this gene to have lower levels of vitamin D.

There are high levels of both vitamin D deficiency and MS among Scotland's 10,500 sufferers, the highest incidence of MS anywhere in the world.

Last edited December 2011. ©Terence Wilson MMIX