About the Author

Bruce Henderson is a computer engineer living in Southern California. With the help of his cousins he is researching the history of the Henderson family of southern Caithness. You can contact him at bruce@sigalarm.com

Genealogy of the Earls of Orkney and Kings of Scotland

Another gem from St. Magnus – Earl of Orkney by John Mooney.. This chart shows the family connection between Malcolm II, King of Scotland and the Earls of Orkney, including Magnus Earlandson. As it turns it, Malcolm’s bloodline also connects the Earls of Orkney to King Magnus Barelegs of Norway, and Henry I of England.

When Sigurd II died at the Battle of Clontarf, Malcolm II raised young Thorfinn at the Scottish royal court, and later granted him the title of “Mormaer of Caithness”. Because of this bond, Caithness was largely under the control of the Orkney Earls until the treaty of Perth.

Below is a rendering of a chart showing these family ties for further study. Clicking on the image (or here) will open a high-resolution PDF version.

Malcolm II Genealogy

Genealogy of the Earls of Orkney

One of my prized old books is a work from the early 20th century entitled St. Magnus – Earl of Orkney by John Mooney.

Within it’s pages are a great wealth of information about Magnus Erlendson, who later became St. Magnus, the patron saint of the Gunns and a important figure in the history of our ancestors.

Among the many treasures in its pages are a series of genealogical tables describing the noble families of Orkney, Scotland, Iceland and Norway. Below is a rendering of that table for further study. Clicking on the image (or here) will open a high-resolution PDF version.

Earldom Genealogy

When Caithness Became Scottish


Scotland was not always as we think of it today. In fact it was composed over centuries by consolidating multiple minor kingdoms and territories into a single unified state under a single king. Starting in the twelfth century, the Scottish kingdom came increasingly under Norman influence.

During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the Scottish crown and the Norwegian Earls of Orkney somewhat shared the rule of Caithness and Sutherland, while Norway exclusive rule of Orkney. During this period, the tribal confederation that would become the Gunn clan controlled a significant portion of the land in Caithness and northern Sutherland, and in many regards functioned as the government for the territory due to their cohesion, wide land holdings and generally fair minded approach to rule.

It is quite likely these early Gunns maintained close ties to their kin and friends in Orkney, and members of the Norse families may have even kept ties with Norway. Across Gunn controlled areas, the people spoke a mix of Gaelic and Norn, a form of norse language that had been regionally adapted. They would have paid taxes to the Norwegian Jarl in Kirkwall, and would have attended churches organized under the Orcadian bishop.

During the thirteenth century, the Scottish kings, seeking to consolidate their kingdom, repeatedly offered to purchase Scottish territory that was under Norwegian rule. This included the western Hebrides islands, the Kintyre peninsula and the Isle of Man. The Norwegian crown held no interest in giving up these important lands, and repeatedly refused these offers. With the ascension of Scottish king Alexander III, Scotland gave up on purchase and used force to make their point. In the summer of 1262, Scottish forces began raiding the islands, beginning with Skye.

Outraged by this provocation, Norwegian king Hakon IV assembled a massive fleet of longships to drive the Scottish back and reclaim their lands. His battle fleet first sailed to Orkney, where they were no doubt reinforced by Caithness and Orkney fighters and additional warships. The sight of over 100 warships, crewed by battle hardened Viking raiders and skirmishers, sent a clear signal to Alexander III – we will not give you that which is rightfully ours. Upon reaching the west coast of Scotland, Hakon’s fleet anchored near the Isle of Arran, where they were joined by allies from Skye, Islay, Jura, Mull and Man.

Impressed with this show of force, King Alexander III dispatched an envoy to discuss terms with King Hakon, while the Scottish king marshaled his forces to repel the Norsemen by force. Due to the Scottish crown’s long and fruitful relationship with the Norman French, this force had at it’s core units of heavily armored and well trained vassal knights and heavy infantry. Upon arriving at the anchored fleet off the west coast of Scotland, the envoy complimented Hakon, and once again repeated Scotland’s offer to buy the lands he controlled in Scotland.

While discussions between the envoy and Hakon continued, the Scottish king moved his forces, including a core of heavily armored Norman calvary and foot-soldiers to Largs, where the Norwegian force was anchored in a storm. While a small Norse party was ashore to rescue a stranded ship, they were attacked by the Scottish forces. The norsemen were outnumbered 10 to 1, and a storm kept the bulk of Hakon’s forces aboard their ships anchored off shore.

Stalemated by the large, heavily armored force on the shore and the approaching winter, Hakon decided to withdraw his forces to Orkney to await the spring. Unfortunately for the Norse, King Hakon died in Orkney that winter, and his successor, King Magnus VI, decided to accept Scotland’s offer to sell the disputed territory.

In the treaty of Perth, Scotland gained solid control over all lands to the north of England, while ceding claims to Shetland and Orkney. As a result, Sutherland and Caithness changed hands from Norwegian to Scottish rule.

Scotland would have a difficult and rocky road to bring the Viking north to accept and follow their rule. With the Gunn clan / syndicate as the functional government, Scotland would have to deal with them or conquer them to make any progress. This reality would give rise to tensions as Scotland tried and failed to implement feudalism in their new territory in the coming decades, which would eventually drive the crown and their appointed Norman Earls to actively break up the Gunn territory and clan cohesion, eventually leading to a final conflict with the Anglo / Norman Keiths.

While at first there was little dramatic change for the robust and prosperous Gunns of Caithness, the wind of change was blowing, and not in their favor.

The Foundations of Clan Gunn

Rainbow bridge

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

Gunn Map
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.

The Norse and the Celt – Early Caithness


The ancient history of the Hendersons is tied to that of Caithness, the land that they settled as their home. Caithness itself is not native to the British Isles geologically, but rather is a piece of the North American continent that plate tectonics has grafted onto Scotland many millions of years ago. It’s geology is distinct and separate from the land south of the Great Glen, and this unique geology is responsible for the rich deposits of oil and shale that are the life blood of the North Sea economy.

But before the norse Vikings came to this Caithness, it was inhabited by Picts and later Gales. There is a great deal of evidence that Caithness has been people for at least the last 4,000 years. This comes in the form of dozens of Brochs scattered across the coast. A Broch is an Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure of a type found in Scotland. Brochs include some of the most sophisticated examples of drystone architecture ever created, and belong to the classification “complex Atlantic Roundhouse” devised by Scottish archaeologists in the 1980s. In old Norse they are called “Borg”, a name which appears in southern Caithness.

These Brochs were built during the Bronze and Iron ages, between 1,000 BC and 400 AD, most likely by the native Picts and Gaels who lived there at the time. Their purpose and use is still the subject of little agreement among archaeologists, but they likely served the same purpose as later day castles; a fortification that provided defense in times of war, and a symbol of lordship and power in times of peace.

Sometime during the 8th century AD, the Norse began to colonize northern Scotland and Caithness, under claim from the Norwegian Earldom of Orkney. Picts came to Orkney during the Bronze Age and archaeological data shows that there were people living there prior to the Vikings who came to Orkney, probably by the latter part of the 8th century although this is up for dispute. Norwegian Vikings probably either came to the islands first as farmers who were seeking land or as warriors who were claiming territory and riches as was common with Viking conquests elsewhere.

Though it is controversial, there is evidence emerging that the Norse occupation of Caithness was not a violent or tyrannical rule. Much of this evidence is coming in relation to research being performed by George and Nan Bethune, and work done via the Dunbeath Heritage Centre. The emerging picture is of Dunbeath as a town that straddled the Gaelic people of the south of Caithness and the Norse people to the north, where these two groups of people met to trade, worship and interact. Emerging science is describing a history for Dunbeath that goes back to the earliest periods of our recorded history – a tale that deserves much deeper study.

Reconciling DNA and History


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.

Vikings in the Woodshed


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.