About the Author

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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

Family Treasures In Wick

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High Street, Wick

During my trip this spring to Caithness, I had a few hours to spare thanks to major road work to repair the Berriedale Braes.  As a result, I went to Wick and spent time at their fantastic heritage center.  Their extensive artifacts and holdings include many items from Wicks history, with a special focus during the herring boom.

The friendly staff had a surprise for me, contrary to what I had been told, the Johnston collection of glass photographic plates had not all been lost.  In fact many hundreds had survived.  In fact they have taken the time to catalog and index them, allowing visitors to look for scenes of interest.

Immediately I began searching for my Henderson kin, and sure enough several Hendersons from Ramscraigs and Dunbeath had their portrait taken on glass plates.  For a modest fee, the museum staff were happy to scan these plates into JPEG files.

As a result, I am pleased to share the first of these treasures, a photograph of a young Donald Henderson, the grandson of Angus (second son of James of Rhian) born in in 1864.  In this photo he is 19 years old.  The family likeness, especially with cousin Sally, is wonderful to see.

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Jane R Taylor Henderson and Family

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Cousin Sheri has come up with family history gold once more, with a group photo showing several of the kin during the mid to late 1910s. Several important members of the Reverend’s family are present including:

Top Row: Isabella Ross (Henderson) Gow – Jane R (Taylor) Henderson aka Mrs. Adam C. Henderson – Adam Cunninghame Henderson Gow

Bottom Row: Mary (McDonald) Henderson – James Henderson – Agnes (Nan) Henderson aka Mrs. John T Henderson

Thanks again to Sheri for the work that went into finding this photo and sharing it.

Family Tree Poster Updated

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In the past year we have continued our family research, and as a result an updated version of the family tree poster is now live on the web site. I will be taking a few copies with me to the UK in May, with the “master” copy going to the Dunbeath Heritage Centre.

This version adds the information from Margaret Irvine from her family, as well as expansion of the Knockfin Hendersons and the descendants of Reverend Adam.

You can find it under “Resources” to the right, or at this link: Hendersons Family Tree PDF

The Ledger – Sinclair Spinning Co.

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During a trip to Scotland a few years ago, I gave into temptation and visited the National Archives of Scotland – a repository of all manner of historical documents maintained by the Scottish government.

They provide a nice web interface to search the archives, and one of the few things that come up if you use the search words “Henderson Caithness” was a ledger book from one William Henderson circa 1802 or so. William is not an uncommon name, but it went on the list to review. I was hoping it might shed some light our family, but ready to spend some time leafing through it to find what I wanted.

What this artifact turned out to be was a record of the Sinclair Spinning Company of Berriedale, Caithness. This fellow, William Henderson, operated a business gathering lint and wool from the local farms, and spinning it into yard and woven into cloth. His ledger records each family he traded with, the amount of goods he took in, and the payment made. In some cases he paid in cash and in others he traded in kind for flour, sugar and other goods. As such, it functions as a partial census of the area, noting each family and their location. Even the amount of wool can give the reader some idea of the scale of each croft. The ledger is some 200 pages in length, covering family crofts from as far south as Helmsdale to as far north as Latheron,

As luck would have it, I did not have to look through this fascinating book for long, because there on the 3rd page was one of William’s first customer – James and his brother Angus. This led me to outline the following notion of who I can pin down to the family that came from Knockfin.

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Since this finding, new information has been shared by the Nan Bethune of Dunbeath, possibly drawing in a number of other Hendersons of the region into the same family. (more on that in the days to come).

What happened to Angus is a mystery. We think that he fathered an illegitimate child, and then disappears from any and all records. We suspect that he may have emigrated to Canada, or possibly joined the Army and never returned to Caithness. William, on the other hand, may have gone on to become one of the factors for James Sinclair, the man behind the Berriedale clearances. But that is still a matter of research.

Landward Episode 23 - Commentary

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The episode has aired now (November 27th in Scotland) and thankfully I was able to find a way to see it, and I would now like to share my comments on the episode with you.

First off, I think it was great! It’s by far the best 6 minutes of Henderson ancient history on television thus far. Most of the folks in the family who saw it wish it would have been longer, which is understandable. But the pacing, the camera work and way they packed that much information into 6 minutes was fantastic.

Word from Landward is that they will provide us with the whole footage some time this spring. I am not sure if it will be possible, but I would very much like to try and put together a “directors cut” of the segment from the portion that aired along with some other elements from the tape.

The detailed comments, and hints about what else was filmed Continue reading Landward Episode 23 – Commentary

Catherine Henderson Barnie

Catharine Henderson 1832.jpg In what I hope can be a reoccurring series, I am happy to introduce you to one of the Henderson ancestors. The distinguished lady pictures is Catherine Henderson. The photograph comes courtesy of Cousin Sally Crossley, one of her descendants.

Catherine was the youngest daughter born in 1832 to Angus Henderson (born 24 Apr 1802, son of James of Rhian) and his wife Catherine Gunn (born about 1800 in the Dunbeath area). This family is believed to have lived at a croft in an area called Balnabruich (see map here for where that is) close to the town of Dunbeath.

She married a man named George Barnie (born 1818 in Ramscraigs) who worked as a farm hand on the Dunbeath Estate (more on the Barnies later) on 15 February 1856 and settled in the Ramscraigs area. During this period, the Herring boom was nearing a crest, and the town of Dunbeath was a bustling hub of industry. All facets of life were tied to the growing fishing industry, and the swell of commerce it brought to Dunbeath men and women seeking work, and there is some evidence that George may have worked for a time with Donald Henderson making shoes at his shop at Ramscraigs. In the 1861, George Barnie listed his profession as a Fisherman in the Scottish census.

George and Catherine had 9 children. and lived to a ripe old age of 96, dying in 1914.

Missing Families - Where Did They Go?

Dunbeath Bridge

By 1810, there is no further record of either William or Angus Henderson in and around the villages of Berriedale or Dunbeath.  No record of their death is transcribed in the parish records, and there is no further appearance in any official documents, including the first census of Scotland in 1841.
This begs the question – where did these men and their families go?  There are several intriguing possibilities.  As was cited earlier, the Red River colonies of Manitoba were a frequent destination for Caithness colonists seeking a new opportunity.  Is it possible the Angus or William sailed to Canada to join Lord Selkirk’s settlement, and found a way to survive the brutal Canadian winters, and the hostile living conditions.
Sadly the records of the early colonies that would become Winnepeg are not accurate enough to provide us with a list of names and places of origin to determine this.
There is some evidence that some young men from this region were transported to Australia either by choice or being sentenced to “Transportation” for even minor infractions.  One such example is the case of Donald Henderson who lived in Dunbeath at this time.  It is not known if Donald was in any way related to our Hendersons, but he provides a narrative of what may have happened to William and or Angus.
One summer’s night, the fishing fleet had come in from a successful day catching Herring, and many of the crew were enjoying the services of the inn near the harbor in Dunbeath.  Reports say that nearly 50 men were at the inn, mostly from Dunbeath and Berriedale, with a few visiting boats from the village of Helmedale further to the south.  As the night wore on, many of the men had quite a bit to drink, and there was a general rowdy drunkenness in the air.  Towards midnight, the inn keeper (who was also a Henderson), directed the most drunken of the bunch to leave the inn and head towards their beds.
While walking away, several of the men from Dunbeath and Helmsdale stopped on the bridge over the Dunbeath river, where a series of boasts were made between crews, each claiming to be the strongest, bravest and toughest from their village.  It did not take long before the boasts turned to action, with the fishermen lifting one another up and tossing men from the bridge into the icy river below.  At first this was good natured, but devolved into a fierce contests between the men of Dunbeath and the men of Helmsdale.
This would probably be the end of it, had not some travelers, not connected to the proceedings, happened to cross the bridge, and found themselves tossed into the river below.  One of these men proceeded to the inn, where the local sheriff (who was also the innkeeper) was alerted.  With several of his staff, the innkeeper went to the bridge to “break it up” and found himself mobbed by the drunken sailors.  When things were finally settled, several men, including this Donald Henderson, were in irons.  Later that month in court, he and his fellow ruffians were sentenced to 10 years “transportation” for their role in the disturbance, and were in essence exiled to Australia.

The old Dunbeath bridge and mill in the early 1900s

By 1810, there is no further record of either William or Angus Henderson in and around the villages of Berriedale or Dunbeath.  No record of their death is transcribed in the parish records, and there is no further appearance in any official documents, including the first census of Scotland in 1841.

This begs the question – where did these men and what family they had go?  There are several intriguing possibilities.  As was cited earlier, the Red River colonies of Manitoba were a frequent destination for Caithness colonists seeking a new opportunity.  Is it possible the Angus or William sailed to Canada to join Lord Selkirk’s settlement, and found a way to survive the brutal Canadian winters, and the hostile living conditions.

Sadly the records of the early colonies that would become Winnepeg are not accurate enough to provide us with a list of names and places of origin to determine this.

There is some evidence that some young men from this region were transported to Australia either by choice or being sentenced to “Transportation” for even minor infractions.  One such example is the case of Donald Henderson who lived in Dunbeath at this time.  It is not known if Donald was in any way related to our Hendersons, but he provides a narrative of what may have happened to William and or Angus.

One summer’s night, the fishing fleet had come in from a successful day catching Herring, and many of the crew were enjoying the services of the inn near the harbor in Dunbeath.  Reports say that nearly 50 men were at the inn, mostly from Dunbeath and Berriedale, with a few visiting boats from the village of Helmedale further to the south.  As the night wore on, many of the men had quite a bit to drink, and there was a general rowdy drunkenness in the air.  Towards midnight, the inn keeper (who was also a Henderson), directed the most drunken of the bunch to leave the inn and head towards their beds.

While walking away, several of the men from Dunbeath and Helmsdale stopped on the bridge over the Dunbeath river, where a series of boasts were made between crews, each claiming to be the strongest, bravest and toughest from their village.  It did not take long before the boasts turned to action, with the fishermen lifting one another up and tossing men from the bridge into the icy river below.  At first this was good natured, but devolved into a fierce contests between the men of Dunbeath and the men of Helmsdale.

This would probably be the end of it, had not some travelers, not connected to the proceedings, happened to cross the bridge, and found themselves tossed into the river below.  One of these men proceeded to the inn, where the local sheriff (who was also the innkeeper) was alerted.  With several of his staff, the innkeeper went to the bridge to “break it up” and found himself mobbed by the drunken sailors.  When things were finally settled, several men, including this Donald Henderson, were in irons.  Later that month in court, he and his fellow ruffians were sentenced to 10 years “transportation” for their role in the disturbance, and were in essence exiled to Australia.

Chances are, there are members of the family in North America or Austrailia to this day.  Hopefully one day they will find this site and thereby gain the means to re-connect with their past.

James Henderson of Rhian

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Ruins of the Henderson croft at Rhian

One of the early recorded sites for our Henderson family is a place named Rhian, that is south of Dunbeath, and the ruins of some of the structures still stand today.

In the late 1700’s, the Sinclair landowners of the Berriedale and Dunbeath estates had decided to change the way their land was being used. Up to this point, small parcels of land were leased to farmers to grow food and raise livestock. This had been the way for centuries, and the entire culture supported the rhythm of the family farm also called a croft.

What was to come was large scale sheep farming, and to make room for these large flocks of sheep, the tenants had to be removed from their small farms dotting the countryside. This effort to change the use of the land gave rise to the “Highland Clearances”, of which so much has been written and told. The first clearance of Berriedale happened in the late 1700s, and focused on areas south of the Berriedale river. At this time, our Henderson ancestors were living in the somewhat idyllic enclave at Knockfin, and this action to clear the farms from the land must have been a life changing event. Clearly it was only a matter of time before the rest of Berriedale was cleared, and with it Knockfin.

What happened next begs for more reasearch. The historical records show that all of the Hendersons leave Knockfin between 1795 and 1801, with James taking up residence at Rhian replacing a fellow by the name of Grant who held the lease before him. Parish birth records show that at least 2 Sutherland families remained at Rhian up until the clearances, but it is clear that James and his brothers left before they were told to leave.

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James worked as a farm hand for the Berriedale estate during his early adulthood, and eventually met Mary Sutherland who lived just north of Berriedale in Borgue. They fell in love, and on February 12th of 1799, they were married in Berriedale according to the rights and practices of the Church of Scotland.

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Excerpt from Latheron old parish records

Shortly thereafter, the first of many children were born to this family. (family tree diagram here)

– William, born 29 Nov 1799
– Angus, born 24 Apr 1802
– Marjory, born 9 Jun 1804
– Donald, born 12 Apr 1807
– John, born 21 Oct 1816
– Alexander, born 28 Feb 1817
– Robert, born 1818

It is possible that there were other children born (research continues on the old parish records) to this family that died young or were not born alive. Of these 7 children, all would remain in the area around Berriedale and Dunbeath during their lives.

During this period of time, the fishing industry in Caithness was beginning to ramp up. In large towns such as Thurso and Wick, as well as smaller villages such as Dunbeath, an increasing amount of the community’s income was derived from drift net fishing of Herring and Salmon.

The family lived in a traditional, thatched roof Caithness longhouse. A typical rush thatched Caithness long-house incorporating dwelling, byre and stable into a single structure, with some crofts (such as the house at Rhian) having and additional free-standing barn (the structure shown in the photo). The Rhian croft house was built to traditional Caithness design: two rooms with fireplaces situated at either end of the building with a closet or unheated bedroom in the middle opposite the front entrance passage. All, or most, of the partitions were formed by the backs or end of box beds. Some of the houses did not have a central stone built gable.

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Traditional Caithness box bed at the Timespan museum in Helmsdale

The Family Tree Poster

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One of the items that appears in the upcoming landward episode is a 20 foot long scroll of paper that displays the family tree as we know it as of June 2009. Several of the cousins have asked what software was used to produce it, and I am sorry to report that it was produced by hand on a Mac using a drawing / drafting package named OmniGraffle. While I had tried many other applications, and they all have their strengths, I found that none of them could produce the diagram I had in my head.

In order to produce the document that appears on television, this diagram is then printed on an engineering plotter, similar to printing blueprints for a house or construction project.

For those of you who wish a closer look, the Adobe PDF version is now posted to this web site under the new “Resources” section on the right. If you open it, be warned that you will need to scroll around to see it. Going forward I will stage documents, audio files, video files and other foundation reference material here for easy access. I have been known to print copies off from time to time, with cousins getting strange cardboard tubes in the mail.

This document is already in need of revision, given what was learned in the last expedition to Caithness, so with luck there will be a new version before the first of the year.