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 Highland Folk Museum

Newtonmore  Pan
A wide view of Baile Gean at Newtonmore

One of the great resources that has furthered my understanding of Knockfin, and the nature of a small highland village has been the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore. For my trips to Caithness, it is conveniently located on the A9 in the highlands as I drive north from Glasgow. Started in 1935 by Dr Isobel F. Grant, the museum captures a model of rural village life in Scotland in several periods, including the 1700s.

Newtonmore Dyke
Approaching Baile Gean, the village head dyke (dry stone wall) de-marks the boundary of the village

The 1700’s highland village, “Baile Gean” is located at the south end of the museum grounds, and features a number of re-created highland blockhouses that seek to interpret the types of dwellings found in a typical highland village.

Tacksmans House 3
Exterior of the village main house, where the Tacksman’s family lived. There is clear evidence of a similar structure at Knockfin

In includes the main village house, or the Tacksman’s house, a Cottar’s house (poorer crofters), a Weaver’s house (craftspeople who many not have farmed at all) and a Stockman’s house (crofters who kept livestock). All of these structure follow the type that would be considered a typical highland “Blackhouse” due to their central peat-fired hearth and low thatched roofs. Blackhouses were named thusly as the soot and peat smoke would build up on the couples, rafters (aka Cabers) and the thatch until the entire interior would turn black. This thatch would be replaced and the sooty material would be used to fertilize the fields.

Tacksmans House
Interior of the Tacksman’s house with central hearth and low “creepie” chairs. Tartan rugs decorate the walls.

The village would have a lead family, who held the tack for the village. The tack was the lease or deed from chief or laird for the land and holdings encompassing and worked by the village. The job of the Tacksman was to ensure that rents were collected and paid either in coin or in produce.

Their recreation of the town is based on the floor plans and foundations discovered through archeology of several sites, and study of old structures and long experiments of trial and error where the conservators and staff made multiple attempts to build actual blockhouses and township support structures.

Newtonmore Village 1
Baile Gean township showing multiple high-quality recreations of highland blackhouses.

Much like Knockfin, Baile Gean contains a variety of houses of different sizes and purposes, arranged according to convention and custom. In the case of Baile Gean, the doorways all face as close to East as possible, as it was considered good to have the morning sun great you. In Caithness this was quite impractical, as gale force winds heavy with rain would blow from the sea just to the east. Instead the doors to the blackhouses in Knockfin all seem to point south, again to capture what sun they can.

Much to my delight the buildings at Newtonmore / Baile Gean include a barn, a grain kiln, and sheiling huts, which were features of the village at Knockfinn as well.

Shieling 1
Sheiling huts at Newtonmore.

In the subject of Sheiling huts, these rough shelters were built in the high pastures, they were home when the herds were taken upland to graze in the summer. Frequently this was the work of the women of the village, and these huts provided sleeping shelter, as well as storage for butter and cheese made from the milk harvested during the summer grazing.

Additional high-res photos can be found in the Ramscraigs photo gallery.

Clans In Ancient Caithness


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 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.

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