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

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

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.

Clans In Ancient Caithness

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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

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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.