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

The Ledger – Sinclair Spinning Co.


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a few years ago, I gave into temptation and visited the National Archives of Scotland – a repository of all manner of historical documents maintained by the Scottish government, including a digital version of them in PDF format created using a sodapdf software online.

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.


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.

Henderson Family Life At Rhian


The ruins of the outbuildings a Rhian

During the time when James Henderson and his family lived at Rhian (1799 – 1840), the two primary forces in southern Caithness was the fishing industry and the clearances. Where the clearances was pushing families out of their highland farms towards the coast, the money that could be made at fishing was pulling young men and abled bodied folk down to the coast to earn a steady wage.

At Rhian, the family likely lived in a traditional highland blockhouse, or taigh dubh. Blackhouses were so named because of the central peat fire that would eventually cover the interior walls with a layer of black soot. They were typically built with double wall dry-stone walls, with a layer of earth or sod at the top of the walls to bring them to full height, and to seat the wooden crucks.

The house only had one door, though which both people and animals would enter the house, with the animals on the byre and and the people on the other, with a sail-cloth separating the two sides of the house. There is a peat fire in the middle of the human end of the house, smoke being left to curl up towards a hole in the thatch. Cooking was done via pots that would hang from the rafters over the peat fire, or a flat iron griddle to cook bannocks.


Image of a typical highland blackhouse

The thatched roof was supported by rafters made of wood held together with wooden pins. The rafters were not laid on the wall head, but were notched into cavities built into the stacked stone walls. The rafters were curved, giving the entire roof a slightly domed effect. These rafters were then thatched with layers of straw, sod and rushes held down with rope and when possible wire netting. The inner walls were plastered with a mixture of lime and sand, while the outer walls were sealed with the same mixture. The house exteriors were pained white when possible.

In many houses the central kitchen / family room held a traditional pit hearth capable of holding a week or more of ashes from the peat fire. Peat was abundant in Caithness, and most houses had a good sized “peat stack” that would provide heat and cooking through the colder months.


A diagram of how the Rhian house was likely laid out

The peat fire was essential to the home, and was rarely, if ever extinguished (it was considered bad luck). Here in the kitchen/living room apartment the fire rested against the gable, the smoke simply curling up the wall and through a hole in the roof.


Interior of a reconstructed blackhouse showing the central peat fire, and the cupboard. Image courtesy of photoeverywhere

Economics of the farm at Rhian was based more or less on living from the land. The diet was largely of oatmeal, potatoes, mutton, pork, milk, cheese, crowdie, eggs, and hares of which there was an abundance, augmented with salt herring and other fish that was available in increasing supply from the fishing. The cow or cattle were often under the same roof as the humans during the winter. This was for the sake of the animal – it was essential to the family that the cow was in good health and gave a good yield of milk. The cow benefited from the warmth of the fire but also gave out large quantities of heat itself, from its body and manure.

The byre was at the lower end of the house so that the urine would drain into the arable land. The ammonia from the urine also helped to sterilize the house. Each spring the byre would be cleaned out of the accumulated manure which would be placed on the crops as fertilizer. Human waste would also be gathered for this purpose with the urine being used for treating fabrics such as tweed.

The cattle they reared were of the Highland type, horned and shaggy, and their horses were the Highland garron. Rhian had a pair of working horses for ploughing and tilling the soil. The Henderson croft likely kept about twenty four to thirty cattle, while on the hill pasture they had perhaps forty to fifty Cheviot ewes.

In all tasks, the family would have enlisted every soul, from the feeding of livestock to the cleaning of the Byre, the two parents and seven children would have been busy nearly every waking hour. School was attended in Berriedale, in a simple one-room school house where the children received a rudimentary education.


The Rhian croft structures, looking south towards Berriedale and the Ord of Caithness

The Sunday sabbath was strictly observed, and young and old alike were expected to study the word of the Lord well.
William, Angus and John showed a great deal of interest in the croft, and as they grew older took on an increasing amount of work at Rhian, and saved what money the could earn for the day when they would have a farm of their own. The family livestock required constant and daily attention.

In summer months, the older boys were given the responsibility of taking the herds higher in the hills to the lush seasonal pastures there. Cattle were milked, and that milk crafted into butter and cheese as a means of storing it for the winter. With the long summer days, the summer grazings required nearly around-the-clock supervision of the herds. While in the highland pastures, the boys would sleep in small, rough structures known as Sheilings. The herds would be driven back down to the coast a few weeks before the grain was brought in, allowing the boys to attend classes, church and help gather harvest.


A typical Caithness Sheiling structure

Donald was frequently nearby with his uncle, John Sutherland. John had a workshop on his croft where he made and repaired boots and shoes. Donald showed a keen interest in things mechanical and working with tools, and John was all too happy to have willing hands to help. Donald eventually formally became John’s apprentice and devoted himself to becoming a shoemaker, a trade that would eventually become pivotal to his family and his descendants.

Younger sons Robert and Alexander heard the call of the sea, and gravitated towards the Berriedale harbor, helping land the catch when the fleet was in, or helping the boats in any way a young man could. In Caithness of that age, fishing for Herring and Salmon was a solid and growing business. With limited tillable land, and eldest sons William and Angus focused on farming, fishing was the best path for a young man to make his way in the world.

Thanks to Meg Sinclair of the Dubeath Heritage Centre for information about the Rhian blackhouse

Landward Episode 23 - Commentary

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

James Henderson of Rhian

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.


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.

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.

Caithness Box Bed.jpg
Traditional Caithness box bed at the Timespan museum in Helmsdale

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