A DNA survey has been launched to trace the descendants of Britons who settled in Russia hundreds of years ago.

Though largely unknown in the UK, this eastward history of British migration is well acknowledged in Russia.

Russians bearing the surname Lermontov, for example, claim descent from a Scottish soldier captured in the 17th Century.

The new survey will test whether this story, along with similar ones, are backed up by genetic data.

The Russian-British project is being led by Professor Bryan Sykes, founder of DNA analysis service Oxford Ancestors.

“An academic colleague made reference to Russian families who claimed a British progenitor, and, even though they could not speak a word of conversational English, were able to recite fragments of British nursery rhymes and Scottish songs,” Professor Sykes explained.

These traditions were apparently transmitted orally from one generation to the next.

Apart from Lermontov, surnames to be analysed during the course of the project will include the Greig and Crichton families in Moscow, a family of Reads in St Petersburg (a Nikolai Read was commander of Russian forces in the Caucusus during the mid-19th Century), and Smytovs.

Britons may have settled in Russia for many reasons. British mercernaries fighting in European wars are well-attested.

And between the 13th and 17th Centuries, there were strong trading links between Britain and the Baltic via the Hanseatic League - an alliance of trading guilds.

The surname Lermontov supposedly derives from the Scottish surname Learmonth (or one of its variants such as Learmont, Learmond or Learmouth).

One notable bearer was Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (1814 - 1841), one of Russia’s foremost poets.

Lermontov was born in Moscow to a respectable family who traced descent from Scottish Learmonths. One of these, recorded in Russian records as Peter Lermontoff, settled in the country in the early 17th Century after being captured by the Russian army.

However, despite exhaustive searches by Russian literary historians and members of the family, it has been impossible to locate records linking Peter Lermontoff back to Scotland.

Paternal line

Oxford Ancestors is currently seeking participants for the genetic study.

“We want to see whether the Lermontovs and the Learmounts are one and the same,” Professor Sykes told the BBC News website.

“That is just the kind of thing we can check with the Y chromosome.”

The Y chromosome is a package of genetic material normally found only in males. It is passed down from father to son, more or less unchanged, just like a surname.

But over many generations, the Y chromosome accumulates small changes in its DNA sequence.

This generates a variety of distinctive male lineages in human populations. Studying the relationships between these different lineages can help scientists reconstruct genealogical trees and even tell them about ancient population movements.

Sharing a surname also significantly raises the likelihood of sharing the same type of Y chromosome, with the link getting stronger as the surname gets rarer.

Unusual find

If the Russian Lermontovs and the Scottish Learmounts are related, they should share signature mutations on their male chromosome that point to a common ancestry.

“We hope to take DNA samples from a few people with the same name and then we’ll be able to identify a common chromosome in the Scottish Learmonts,” the University of Oxford geneticist explained.

“The hope is that it would be an unusual chromosome, so when we saw it somewhere else - Russia, for example - we could be pretty sure that was because of common ancestry.”

Professor Sykes, whose paperback book Blood of the Isles traces the ancestral roots of the British, explained: “We’ve done this many times in Britain looking at different surnames that seem to have a common origin from their spelling; sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.”

in BBC News