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.

Family Treasures In Wick


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.


Jane R Taylor Henderson and Family

Hendersons 1920.jpeg

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.

Reverend Adam Portrait, Circa 1909

Thanks to the dedication and hard work of a Henderson cousin, we have at long last found our ancestor’s photos. This one is a portrait of him in 1909, the year that he died. By this point his health had become frail, and he was retired from full time duties as the minister of the Busby Free Church.

Reverend Adam C Henderson - 1909.jpg

Words cannot describe the gratitude I feel towards my cousin for finding this, and taking the time to pass this on.

Introducing The Reverend Adam C. Henderson & Family

Reverend Adam C. Henderson.jpg

Some days when you are researching history, you get lucky. Early in our research efforts it became clear that it was very likely that photos of Reverend Adam had been taken at some point during his life, and that there was a reasonable chance that his family was photographed as well. The question would be – had any survived to the present age.

Then, as luck would have it, a cousin and member of the research team found an old photo, in a place where you would not normally keep a photo, such as at the bottom of a dresser drawer.

There, preseved for us to find more than a century after it was taken, is the photo we all hoped existed. It appears to be Reverend Adam C. Henderson, his wife Jane, and the lady at the far end being named Connie Cunningham – possibly a cousin of Adam, along with their children Hughina, Annie, Jane, Baby Isabella, Mary, Donald and Dora. No hint of where James (my grandfather) is during this shot, though maybe he is behind the camera. We are still trying to figure out where this photo was taken, thought it seems like it could be a church doorway, it does not match the photos we have of the Busby Free Church.

I cannot thank my cousin Sheri enough, this is truly a treasure.

[Update 07 Feb 2010] – A special thanks to Kathryn Campbell for giving us a possible location: The graveyard house at Cathcart cemetery.