During the years that Earl Rögnvald held power in Orkney and Caithness, Scotland was undergoing an age of significant transformation towards a feudal society that would later be at the heart of the conflict that would bring about the battle of St. Tears and the destruction of Clan Gunn.
The King of Scotland at this time ruled under the name David I, and was so influential that a period of his reign is frequently referred to as the Davidian Revolution. David spent his childhood years in the court of King Henry I of England, and while there gained an appreciation for the Norman approach of feudalism, where landed vassal lords and their retainer knights and lesser nobles controlled the populace.
Feudalism and the time in which it happened across most of Scotland plays an important role in understanding the events that led to the Battle of St. Tears, specifically of note the Norman feudal system and the Norse approach to governing were different and distinct.
During the rule of King David I of Scotland, he began to implement a broad program of Normanization. This period was characterized by his import of Norman / French and Norman / Anglo knights to become the instruments of implementing his feudal system. Feudalism revolved around royal land grants, known as Fiefs, that bound the person receiving the land, known as a vassal and the person granting, known as a lord together in an economic, military and in the Norman case religious alliance. During this period David I granted numerous parcels of lands to these knights, and trusted in them to maintain order and control over the Scottish peasants.
David I also undertook a broad effort to re-shape the central Royal Scottish government to be more like the government of Anglo-Norman England. In part this may have been based on his childhood in the court of Henry I of England. It was during this time that a Norman / French family, the St. Clairs became lords of Roslin, near Edinburgh. This family will, centuries later, scheme for the Scottish throne and become the Earls of Caithness.
It was during the reign of David I that religious hagiography began to rise in Britain. Hagiography is the study, reverence and worship of saints. From this focus on the power and majesty of God, the King and his noble subjects derived what has been described as “Divine Right“. Under the principles of divine right, the monarch and by extension his vassals derive their right to rule over the people directly from the will of God Almighty. A later Scottish King, James VI would write, “According to the text, a good king “acknowledgeth himself ordained for his people, having received from the god a burden of government, whereof he must be countable”.
Divine right in many ways clashed with the existing spiritual and cultural systems of the indigenous Scots, who had become Christians via the Gaelic / Irish church, and functioned via small local government that operated via tribal council and chiefs selected by leading men of each area or village. The notion that some strange French man had been ordained by God to rule over them must have seemed quite absurd.
With these Norman lords and knights came another new social practice, the tradition of passing title, land and holdings to the first born son of each family. This is known as primogeniture, and like the concept of divine right and feudal lords, was completely alien to the Scots. By tradition, the title of the leading man for a family, area of village was frequently passed through the maternal line, or transferred while the holder was still living to the man determined to be the most capable of carrying out the best interests of the tribe of community. For the Norse, inheritance of titles and land was divided among children, and not always just male children. This custom resulted in such situations as there being as many as 3 Earls of Orkney at the same time.
Again it’s important to note that Caithness and Orkney were still under Norse rule at this time, and the norman feudal system, divine right and integral primogeniture would not arrive in the North for many decades to come. When Caithness eventually became Scottish, this culture clash would take more than a century to resolve, and would play an important role in setting the stage for the final battle of Clan Gunn.
At present I am presenting a series of posts that re-interpret the history of Clan Gunn up through the battle of St. Tears. Where possible I have attempted to cast the facts of the story in the wider context of Scottish and Norwegian history and politics. Some of this new work may eventually be proven wrong. Readers should not take umbrage if they find their closely held beliefs challenged here, no offense is intended, none should be taken.
It is impossible to make sense of what happened at St. Tears without understanding the ancient Gunn clan, and how that influences the event leading up to that pivotal moment in their history. The Gunns are an ancient family that are blood descendants of Norwegian settlers of Orkney and Caithness. For a number of years they were the power in the north, and resisted external authority with guile and cunning.
The story behind the Gunns starts in Orkney, an archipelago to the north of Scotland. Sometime in the 10th century, it began to be colonized by men from Norway. The world was enjoying what was to later become known as the “Medieval Warm Period“, when temperatures were significantly warmer than they are today. Bathed in the currents of the gulf stream coupled with long spring and summer daylight hours, Orkney must have seemed like a fertile paradise to young men looking for opportunity away from Norwegian shores. Orkney’s waters teamed with fish, and the gentle rolling hills were arable with some hard work and careful planning.
The Norse settlers found the islands already inhabited by Celts and Picts, who were farming the land and enjoying the bounty of Orkney. But the population never saw a massed invasion of horned-helmeted viking warriors swarming ashore from dragon-headed longboats in Scapa flow. These men of the north came in peace, and worked hard to integrate with the local people. In time the king of Norway set up a government in the islands headed by a Jarl (Earl) of his choosing. The line of the Orkney Jarls inter-married with the local people, and with the chieftains and Moramers in Scotland. By all accounts it was a time of peace and prosperity.
The Magnus Line
Little is made today of the importance of Magnus Erlendsson to Clan Gunn. This can be attributed to a number of factors that I hope to discuss in more detail in the coming months. During the late 11th century, the Earldom of Orkney was shared by two men, Haakon Paulsson and Magnus Erlendsson. Today it would seem very strange that any king would force two men to share rule, but most of our notions of nobility come from Norman rule of England. Norse customs and traditions are different than those of the Norman French in terms of lineage and inheritance. Modern notions of hereditary leadership revolve around the notion of primogeniture, the practice where the eldest male child assumes all titles and possessions of the father upon his death. To the Norse (and by extension the Gunns) this would have seemed alien and barbaric. Titles and possessions were divided among the male heirs of age, so a local chief that had three sons would result in three chiefs where there had been just one. In Norse customs, all three held equal claim to their father’s legacy.
Such was the case in the earldom of Orkney, where two cousins, Haakon and Magnus, shared lordship of the isles. Eventually the title was consolidated under Haakon after he had Magnus killed on Eligsay in 1117. For his martyrdom, Magnus was eventually elevated to Sainthood, and became one of the most important religious figures in northern Scotland for several hundred years. Part of that elevation was thanks to his nephew, Rognvald, who years later took up the title of Earl of Orkney, and built a great cathedral in Kirkwall dedicated to his uncle, St. Magnus the Martyr.
Gunn legend tells that their founding ancestors included a member of this noble house of Norway, a grand-daughter of Earl Rognvald (later St. Rognvald) named Ragnhild, who would go on to become the mother of Snaekoll and the provider of the Gunn lands in Caithness. As the grand-daughter of the Earl, her dowry included many lands in this southern provence of the Orkney Earldom.
The Asleifsson Line
While the majority of the Norsemen on Orkney were merchants, craftsmen and farmers, there were some notable vikings and warriors. The Gunns claim heritage from one particularly famous fellow, Sweyn Asleifsson – ‘The Ultimate Viking’. Sweyn is a fascinating fellow who merits a great deal of study, but suffice to say he became a fast friend of Earl Rognvald, even though many times they were at odds over important matters of the day. While Rognvald was a skillful statesman and diplomat, Sweyn specialized in raiding, looting, pillaging, revenge and all the other activities we tend to associate with Vikings.
Where Sweyn enters this story is through his grandson, a man named Gunni, who becomes the husband of Ragnhild, Earl Rognvald’s grand daughter. The Orkniga Saga includes mention to the last days of Earl Rognvald, where he is in Caithness a few days before the battle that ended his life. In the Saga it is mentioned that he is attending a wedding in Berriedale. It’s tempting to think that this might have been the union between Gunni and his granddaughter Ragnhild, and Berriedale would put it squarely at “ground zero” for our story.
Founding of A Dynasty
Again the modern notion of clan and family might prevent us from seeing the past. Many believe that families with a given clan surname are all descended from a single male clan chief. Thankfully DNA testing has provided ample evidence proving this is typically not the case. For the Gunn clan, it’s formation was more of a federation or syndicate. There were many strong local chieftains in the land that Gunni and later Snaekoll ruled. Rather than assume they used the Norman approach of conquer, subjugate and oppress, they likely followed the path that had worked so well in Orkney. Form alliances with like minded leaders and organize them towards a common good.
Taking into account the DNA evidence and strong indications from the Gunn clan folklore, it is quite likely that there were actually several distinct Gunn partitions within Caithness. Each would have been governed by a “Lead Man” or chieftain, who would have had his own lieutenants and tacksmen who worked for him. They would operate along the lines described in and earlier post, Clans In Ancient Caithness. Going back through the folklore, we can see citations of specific groups, namely
Original map courtesy of Wikipedia
- Kildonan – A fertile valley in the north of Sutherland, this was the home range of the last chief, George “Crowner” Gunn
- Braemore – The next strath north of Kildonan, this includes Berriedale and possibly Dunbeath
- Clyth – Farming region on the coast to the south of Wick, home of the primary Gunn castle Halberry
- Halkirk / Spittal – Strath inland from Clyth – south of Thurso and west of Wick. This was home to the Gunn high church at Spittal, dedicated to the Gunn patron Saint, St. Magnus the Marty.
- Murkle / Castlehill – On the north shore east of of Thurso.
These five region groups all contributed men to the derbhfine (the clan’s ruling body), and rotated the Chiefship among them. Rules and laws would not have necessarily been handed down autocratically, but would have been the result of Nordic councils / parliaments known as “Things” that would be held periodically to address the needs of the times.
In summary – it is likely that the Gunns consolidated several allied chiefs in Caithness when they took control over lands inherited by Earl Rognvald’s granddaughter, Ragnhild. These ancient Gunns believed that they had the blood of saints (both Magnus and Rognvald) and the ultimate viking (Sweyn Asleifsson) in their veins. The coalition they formed operated under the banner of “Clan Gunn” and for centuries proved to be peaceful and prosperous. The affiliated tribal areas each had their own distinct approaches and customs at first, but the operated together for the common good. In fact it was so successful and so stable, it was unchallenged until Norman Scots began to try and assert feudal power in Caithness as Norweigan power waned in the 14th century.
While all of this may seem meaningless at first, these aspects of how Clan Gunn started, the regional sub-tribes and ties to Orkney, Norway and the patron Saints play an important foundation in revisiting the legend of St. Tears.
Like most interested in the history for Clan Gunn, I have studied the multiple versions of the Battle of St. Tears that have been written and compiled by prior historians and story tellers. The best of these efforts are contained within Mark R. Gunn’s History of the Clan Gunn.
Each telling of this tale follows a similar path – after a long standing feud the Gunns and Keiths declare that they will meet at the St. Tears chapel near Girnigo, and each side will bring twelve horse of men. The Gunns, ever valorous and honorable, arrive and enter the chapel to pray and wait for the Keiths. The dastardly Keiths arrive with two men on each horse, breaking the spirit of the agreement but not the letter. Outnumbered 24 to 12, the Gunns are ravaged in valiant battle, a blow from which they never recover. The clan fractures with sub-factions going their own way. My own ancestors following Henry Gunn, and forming what came to be known as the Hendersons of Caithness.
Like most of you good people, I took the ancient tale at face value. After all, what else did we have to work from? I hope to answer that question shortly, but first let me tell you why I came to decide that this grand story is in fact not quite as accurate as we would hope.
George “Crowner” Gunn Was No Fool
Let me get this right, the canon story of St. Tears requires us to believe that after over 100 years of bitter feud, including the kidnapping and death of a bride on her the eve of her wedding, that the leader of Clan Gunn – himself a savvy and battle tested warrior, would for a moment take the word of the Keiths to play by any rules? Would a clan that wielded as much power as Gunn show up to such an event with anything less than a massive show of force?
The Crowner’s Sons
The story leading up to St. Tears states that the chief had twelve sons, and that these twelve sturdy men were the force that arrived at St. Tears to settle the age-old feud with the Keiths. Even if George had twelve sons, why would all of them be present? What father would risk his entire family on a weapons laden encounter with your enemy? Are we expected to believe that the fruit of George’s loins were the men most capable of holding a sword among the hundreds or thousands of Gunn warriors in Caithness?
Many People Survived
In the well known story, several of the Gunn party at St. Tears survived, not the least of which is Henry Gunn who took revenge at castle Dirlot, and the Crowner’s oldest son James who claimed the chiefship after his father’s death. If the origin of family names, Robert Gunn also survived as did William Gunn and Sweyn Gunn. Come to think of it, quite a few of the Crowner’s sons seem to have survived St. Tears. If you are the Keiths, and you know that you outnumber your enemy 2:1, would you let any of them survive? You can count on the fact that they will be back in force to extract their revenge. In fact this cycle of attack and revenge been going on for decades. Are we to believe that the Keiths showed mercy to the Gunns at the exact moment when they held their doom in their gauntlets?
Simply put, a critical look at the story of St. Tears seems to indicate that the legend may not be the whole story. Understanding what was happening to the Gunns and the Keiths at that time, and how Clan Gunn actually worked is the key to peeling back the varnish of multiple legends to try and take a guess at something that could be closer to the truth. I hope to be able to provide that soon. Until then I encourage readers to think about the battle of St. Tears, and how much of it is unlikely because it defies both common sense and subsequent history.
Little discussion of Henderson history during the early years in Scotland can take place without an understanding of the Scottish clan system, and how their customs and traditions shaped the political and social landscape in which our ancient ancestors lived.
The term “Clan” is from the Gaelic tongue, and literally means “family” or in some sense “tribe”. Our modern notion of Clans comes from fanciful stories, movies and a romanticized image that came about during Victorian times, with what some Scots call the “Balmorification” of the Highland culture. Because most core Scottish culture has been driven underground or banned outright by the act of proscription following Culloden, a new prologue for highland life was created as it became fashionable to be Scottish in the 1800s.
The clan was an evolution from Pictish / Celtic iron age “tribes”, where people banded together in confederation for community, defense and commerce. Contrary to popular belief, the members of a given clan are and were not all blood descendants of a single male progenitor, as is the popular notion. Members of a given clan could be part of the chief’s direct or extended family, or could be tenants on his lands, friends or companions of his or his kin, or families that lived within the clan’s area of influence. The members of the community, or clansmen, gave their loyalty to the clan chief and in return he gave them protection, justice, and leadership. Clan Henderson DNA project has proven this to be the case with several branches, including the Caithness Hendersons from Clan Gunn, which show at least 3 major bloodlines.
Within a clan, all functions of government took place including laws, customs, justice and legal frameworks, treaties with other clans (even other countries in some cases!) and to some extent, religious functions. The Clan chief was monarch of this community who held ultimate power and responsibility for the welfare of his clan. The chief’s court and government typically had high officers and wise men of the clan. This included the designated successor to the chief, sometimes known as the Tanist – who was many times not the chief’s eldest son, the Champion or Commander who led the clan in battle and was responsible for security of the chief’s lands, the Brieve (judge) who administered the laws of the clan and the crown, as well as bards (responsible for documenting the clan’s history) and doctors.
The leading men of the clan were the derbhfine. These were the not always immediate children or brothers of the current Chief, but were generally within 4 generation direct kinship to the current chief. They were the men that the Chief relied upon for counsel, and to carry out the daily functioning of the Clan government. This group of men would be tasked to select the next chief in event the current chief should die in battle, from disease or old age. The frequent recitations of a clan’s genealogy by its bards was therefore a reminder of who was currently in or out of the clan’s derbfine as much as it was a claim to ancient lineages.
The chief’s children were frequently raised for part of their lives away from the clan court. This tradition known in english as “Fosterage” was an important way to reinforce the social ties between allied clans. At a young age, children of the derbfine would be sent to the household of relatives of the leading clan gentry. This meant that traditionally, some portion of the next generation’s upbringing would be within a family of an allied clan. This fostered intense loyalty and inter-clan ties.
Below them was a group known as the duine-uasail, or the gentlemen of the clan. They would frequently be minor chiefs in their own right, holding the land in a given glen or toun and enacting the Clan’s government on behalf of the chief. Below them were the common folk of the clan who may or may not be related by blood to higher ranking members.
This system would often lead to rotation among the leading branches of the clan taking leadership for a generation. The average lifespan in the middle ages was shorter than required for a chief’s children to reach an age to be considered for selection as the Tanist or heir-apparent before he died. This method of succession then saw leadership trade off between core family groups of the clan, creating a balance that helped ensure patrilineal tyranny could not take root. When the new chief took charge of the clan, the next Tanist was elected by the derbfine and duine-uasail to fill the position vacated by the one now risen to chieftainship. He may have come from the branch to which the deceased belonged, or may have been from one of the other related cadet branches. The next succession would be handled in the same manner. If a chieftain attempted to have his own son (or brother) chosen over the choice of the ruling council, the electors were outraged, as they feared subjugation to one branch. This system of checks and balances kept the leadership of highland clans true to their purpose of leadership and benevolence towards the clan.
Tanistry as the system of succession left the Chief position open to those who were ambitious and dedicated to the clan. But it was a frequent source of conflict both in families and between clans, though at the same time it created a democratic monarchy. Tanistry was abolished by a legal decision during the reign of James VI of Scotland, who later became James I of England and Ireland. At that time the feudal system of primogeniture (eldest son assumes rulership) replaced the old highland way.
We can safely assume that some of the Crowner’s sons had been fostered with the Sutherlands, the Cheynes and possibly the Sinclairs. Our oldest surviving records show close bonds between our direct Henderson ancestors and the Sutherland family in Berriedale, where they had held power for some time before the Sinclair’s for Freswick took over the the late 1700s.
During the 1400s, when George Gunn was chief, they were still a very powerful clan that governed the flow country from Clyth in the north to Brora in the south. George had several sons, all of which would have been members of the derbhfine, or clan princes. We can also assume that George’s brothers and several cousins would have made up part of this ruling council. History describes several branches of the Gunns, including Braemore, Dunbeath and Latheron. Each of these regions would have been the responsibility of a member of the derbhfine, and would be represented either at the great hall in Kinbrace or at Clyth when the chief held court.
In terms of our ancient Henderson and Gunn ancestors, we can assume that James, the Crowner’s oldest son was likely the Tanist, while there are ample indications that Henry was likely the Gunn Champion or Commander. Given that many of the derbhfine would have perished in the battle of St. Tears, it is possible that there was no consensus on the next chief, which fueled the conflict which eventually led to Henry’s departing and forming his own Henderson clan.
The origin of the Hendersons of Caithness runs through the tower of Ackergil. The great feud between the Gunns and the Keiths which eventually sundered clan Gunn, and formed the Hendersons, has its roots here.
By the mid 1400s, the Keiths began to openly challenge the Gunns for supremacy in Caithness and Sutherland. The story of Ackergil begins further south in Braemore, to the west of Berriedale and Ramscraigs. In mid 1400’s, the local chief, Lachlan Gunn of Braemore, was to marry his daughter Helen of Braemore to distant cousin Alexander. Helen was reputed to have been of unparalleled beauty, and she had caught the eye of many local men, including Dugald Keith of Ackergil. Dugald had campaigned for her hand, but Lachlan Gunn held no interest in marrying his daughter to the Keiths.
Not content to lose her to another, Dugald mustered a group of clansmen and made their way south to Braemore. On the eve of Helen’s wedding night, the Keiths besieged Lachlan’s great hall, trapping Helen and a large number of feasting wedding guests inside. Pledging safe release for all if Helen surrendered to him, she was bound and taken north to Ackergil. With his prize claimed, Duglad Keith set the Braemore great hall ablaze, burning the wedding party alive.
At Ackergil, Dugald Keith locked Helen at the top of the tower, vowing to win her love no matter how long it took. As the days passed, Helen became increasingly despondent. One evening at sunset, she managed to distract her guards, and flung herself from the tower to the courtyard below.
This bloodshed between the Gunns and Keiths began what would be a 500 year feud that would eventually sunder the Gunns and render them defunct as a power in Caithness.
In May of 2010, I was fortunate enough to visit Ackergil, which is now a very pleasant house that is frequently rented out for weddings and ceremonies.
The heather covered hills of Kildonan
Part of our research into family history has been to use DNA to look beyond where the stories stop and into the deeper ancestry of the Hendersons of Caithness. The human Y chromosome is passed unaltered from father to son, with a few mutations creeping in ever several generations or so. An emerging field of research has been to connect families based on similarities in their Y chromosomes – if the DNA matches closely, they are related.
For my Henderson family, this has presented a historical puzzle. The history of Caithness describes the sundering of the Gunn clan following the battle of St. Tears, and how Henry Gunn and his family decided to part ways with their kin and took the surname Henderson. If history is correct, my DNA should match the DNA of someone in the Gunn family. However, that has not been the case, even when we were able to test the DNA of a Gunn with confirmed Ramscraigs heritage.
Several weeks ago, as a result of this web site, a fellow in Canada by the name of Henderson contacted me via email. A very pleasant gentleman, we carried on an good conversation over email, and eventually it came to light that his family emigrated to Canada, living in Nova Scotia and Manitoba. To me, this was an immediate attention grabber. Many displaced families from Caithness and Sutherland had joined the Selkirk settlement in Manitoba and the Red River valley.
His roots to Scotland included an ancestor from Kildonan who lived in Helmsdale before shipping over to Canada. This is the same path that many Hendersons and Gunns had taken during the period of the clearances, and his family line would hold many possible points of history.
Fortunately, he had his DNA tested some time ago, though it was not even remotely close to mine. Instead, an interesting thing arose. The Gunn who helped us out so much by offering his DNA for testing was a very close match, close enough in fact that the most recent common ancestor was likely in the 500-700 year time frame.
At long last, here was DNA science proving the connection between the Gunns and the Hendersons. This man, whose family was forced from Kildonan (the last stronghold of the Gunn clan), carried with him the Gunn DNA fingerprint. He had realized this himself some time ago, but had met with rejection and confusion from the Gunn clan association. For many of Clan Henderson USA, his genetics are a breakthrough in history. Many members of their genetics project have lost their connection to Scotland through the decay of time. But with this new DNA sample, many of these are clearly Kildonan Gunn Hendersons who arrived in the colonies either seeking a better life, or after being cleared from the Strath of Kildonan.
For my genetic line, the work to solve the puzzle of a I1d-Norse ancestory goes on.
No discussion of Henderson pre-history would be complete without mention of DNA testing of Henderson Y chromosomes, and what it tells us about history. In 2009, a detailed genetic sequence of a Henderson Y chromosome was performed (67 markers) and it gave the first indications of a Norse, rather than Scottish deep ancestry. The DNA sequence showed that the Y chromosome has a very strong Norse origin, with likely origin in Norway, Sweeden or Iceland. It falls into the genetic designation of “I1d”, also known as I1 “Ultra Norse”. This norse heritage, and the unusual nature of the chromosome sequence (even within the I1d databases) means that finding a similar expression will strongly imply a shared heritage.
By the historical account of the genesis of the Hendersons of Caithness, this Y chromosome should be very close to the Gunn Y chromosome, and this is where the mysteries start.
The Gunns have been working on a catalog of their Y DNA for some time. In fact they have a robust variety of tests results. Nearly every Gunn man tested comes back with a DNA sequence that falls into two very similar groups. These DNA sequences show broad european origin, or the “R1b” designator (as opposed to Henderson I1). Across northern Europe as a whole, the “R” genes account for 80% of the population, and the “I” genes account for 18%. Of the 3 dozen or so Gunns tested, there is a very predictable pattern, none of which are even close to the Henderson I1d.
The Gunns that had been tested were mostly families that had been in the USA for several generations, and had cloudy concepts of their connection to Caithness. This called into doubt (in the researcher’s mind anyhow) how much stock to put in their DNAs relevance. As luck would have it, we found and befriended a fellow (David Gunn) who has not only a direct and recorded link to Caithness, his family lived in the Ramscraigs area. He kindly agreed to be tested, and after a few weeks of waiting, the results came in with a strong R1b type, aligned with the main European male line.
That means the results show no Y chromosome similarity between him and the Henderson DNA tested. In fact, he is a strong match for the main body of the Gunn male line, which is likely to re-construct the lines of a few of the Gunn families cleared from the Strath of Kildonan, which will be significant progress in the Gunn project.
What does that mean for Henderson history? There are several options, but suffice to say, none of us will likely ever see the answer to this, unless DNA testing for genealogical purposes becomes more common. Some theories are below:
1: Family Plan – History as cited may be correct but incomplete. When Henry Gunn left his family to form the Hendersons, he likely took his sons and daughters with him. This means that it is possible that his daughter’s families also took the name Henderson, thus giving us a surname that is not genetically connected to the Gunn line.
2: Friends Plan – When Henry formed his new family, some of the retainers of the Gunn family went with him, and took the Henderson name. This would mean there were multiple male blood lines at the formation of the Henderson of that area.
3: 6th House: There are 5 documented cases of the emergence of the surname “Henderson” across Scotland when last names came into fashion in the middle ages. It is possible that our ancestors came to use this name on their own because of some progenitor named Henry.
4: The Lost Line: This is the biggest wild card in the deck. As history would have it, the chief’s line in the Gunn family died out, to such an extent that the Gunns did not have a chief until one was appointed (for some reason) in the last 100 years. It is theoretically possible that the Hendersons of Berriedale and Dunbeath do carry Henry Gunn’s Y chromosome, which is the same as George the Crowner of Caithness. The Gunn progenitors were referred to in history as the “Ultimate Vikings” and were from the same region that our “I1d – Ultra Norse” is found.
As DNA Genealogy is still an emerging field, more test results will help us (eventually) unravel this mystery.
One of the tools the team has employed to look into the past is DNA profiling and typing through the folks at Family Tree DNA, starting with a 67 marker test of my Y chromosome. Unlike most DNA which is a mix of the mother’s and father’s genes, the Y chromosome happens to get passed pretty much verbatim with a mutation every few thousand years. As such it gives us a good idea of where the Henderson name came from as it was passed from father to son.
There is a notion of something they call a Haplogroup, which is a way of categorizing people’s ancestry by the DNA. Most of Europe falls into types called R and R1. In fact Somerled who was the progenitor of the MacDonald clan was type R1a, which was done by testing his direct male ancestors, as they have an exact copy of his Y chromosome.
When we run the Henderson Y chromosome through the same test we get the broad Haplogroup I1. This points to a fairly certain Scandinavian origin of the Henderson male chromosome, which is actually somewhat unexpected. It is true that Caithness was a thriving Nordic colony for many centuries, but even so, the I1 type is less than 20% (on average) of northern European men.
But then that broad classification only uses the first few markers or so of the 67 that I had tested on the Y chromosome, and going further is where the fun starts. Full 67 Chromosome results are linked here.
Seems that because of specific mutations, the Henderson male DNA can be further categorized into sub-group 5. As I metioned before this group was actually fairly limited, and were concentrated in Norway, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Furthermore, adding a few more of the elements we narrow it down into a sub-sub group (called a Subclade) that spits out a cryptic name of “I-L22-uN1”. Now if you google that you will get nothing fun, but it seems if you use “UN1” or “Ultra Norse” there is quite a bit more to be found.
So now we can classify ourselves on the Henderson ancient side as “Ultra Norse”, which is a much smaller group (but we are not done yet!). One citation from DNA researchers is that “I1-uN is very close to totally absent south of the Baltic and North Seas”. The Henderson Y chromosome shows distinct variations that are not common with Orkney, Shetland or most other “Ultra Norse” Y chromosomes. What that all means I am still looking into. Using some of the Y chromosome databases show almost no match with anyone once you get past 12 of the 67 or so factors.
Given that history states we are and offshoot of the Gunn clan, having Norse DNA makes a degree of sense, but interestingly enough, none of the Gunns that have done Y chromosome testing seem to match.
So what does this all mean? Henderson DNA is from an Ultra-Norse strain that can possibly be assigned to Henry Gunn or his band, son of George “Crowner of Caithness” Gunn who died at the Battle of St. Tears in 1478. After Henry claimed the Chiefship of the Gunns, he was talked out of it by his surviving brothers, and left to form his out outfit that became the Hendersons of Caithness and northern Sutherland. Right now I have not been able to find any Gunn Y chromosomes in the databases, but it should match if what I suspect is correct. The DNA patterns also rule out Danes, Normans, Saxons, indigenous Britons (Welsh), Picts, Romans and for the most part the Celts. In fact the Henderson Y chromosome is distinct from typical viking Y to some extent, with the genetic “pool” being from a fairly specific and limited part of Norway / Finland.
As DNA genealogy is still and emerging science, there is quite a bit left to be discovered. But as my Y chromosome has taught me, over 1,000 years ago, some norse family who were our ancestors traveled to Scotland. We have Vikings in the Woodshed.
The site of the St. Tears chapel in the present day
The name of Henderson is one long associated with the greatness of Scotland. Unique from most clans, the name came into being is several distinct areas by different means. In the far north of Scotland, in the isolated county of Caithness, the name Henderson came into being as the result of a bloody battle in 1478.
History tells that the Hendersons of Caithness were once a part of the ancient clan Gunn. The Gunns came to Scotland as stewards of the northern counties, that were at one point under the control of the viking Jarls of Orkney. The Gunns helped to manage Caithness and parts of Sutherland and established themselves over the decades and prospered. When the northern territories were ceded to Scotland, many of the norse families, including the Gunns, who had been living there decided to remain and become citizens of the Scottish crown.
The Gunns had several fierce rivalries with neighboring clans, with the most bitter being with another ancient family of the north, the Keiths. Throughout the 1400’s, the Gunns struggled to protect their lands from incursion and the ever escalating revenge attacks for some ancient wrong that were returned in kind between the clans.
In a bid to set aside their feud with the Keiths, George Gunn, who held the title of “Crowner” (the enforcer and sheriff for the Sinclair Caithness earl) offered a peace summit at a neutral location on holy ground. Both clans agreed that the chiefs would come escorted by “twelve horse” of each clan at the chapel of St. Tears (St. Tayre) on the coast north of Wick. The Gunns arrived first with 12 men consisting of his sons and his finest fighters and entered the chapel to pray. A short time later the Keith party arrived with 2 men astride each horse and proceeded to slaughter every Gunn inside the chapel. Several of the Crowner’s sons escaped, leaving their father and kinsmen butchered at the altar. The Keiths took the chief’s armor, his weapons and the enormous brooch that he wore as a badge of office to the earl of Caithness, and retreated to their castle at Dirlot.
Beaten and bloodied but thirsty for vengeance, the chief’s 3rd son, Henry, roused a few men still fit to fight and approached Dirlot that very night. The Gunns found the Keiths in full celebration quaffing great drafts of ale. Henry drew back on his bow and let fly an arrow which found its mark in the throat of the chief of Clan Keith. As he did so, he shouted in Gaelic, “Iomcharagnn Guinach gu Cadhaich,” which translates to, “A Gunn’s compliments to a Keith.” In the confusion that followed, many of the Keiths where slain and the weapons and brooch of the Crowner were recovered.
In the aftermath of the battle, Henry and his men returned victorious to Gunn clan territory, having avenged the murder under truce of his father and the chief. In the days following, Henry Gunn donned his father’s armor, weapons and brooch and attempted to assume the chieftains role as well as the office of sheriff. The oldest surviving son, James, claimed ownership over the legacy and the title as his birth right. The division threatened to erupt into violence between large segments of the Gunn clan until Henry relented and surrendered his claims and the chief’s possessions to James, though it is sometimes told that Henry kept the Crowner’s brooch.
On that day, Henry decided to remove himself and his kin from the Gunns, and never again take that name. When he departed, he took with him his children (both sons and daughters) and their families, along with his closest friends and kinsmen. They lived apart from their Gunn cousins though they always kept on friendly terms with them, but took a very neutral position on all clan rivalries, feuds and wars from that time on. Each of them took the name the “Sons of Henry” or as we know it today – Henderson.