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 and Kings of Scotland

Another gem from St. Magnus – Earl of Orkney by John Mooney.. This chart shows the family connection between Malcolm II, King of Scotland and the Earls of Orkney, including Magnus Earlandson. As it turns it, Malcolm’s bloodline also connects the Earls of Orkney to King Magnus Barelegs of Norway, and Henry I of England.

When Sigurd II died at the Battle of Clontarf, Malcolm II raised young Thorfinn at the Scottish royal court, and later granted him the title of “Mormaer of Caithness”. Because of this bond, Caithness was largely under the control of the Orkney Earls until the treaty of Perth.

Below is a rendering of a chart showing these family ties for further study. Clicking on the image (or here) will open a high-resolution PDF version.

Malcolm II Genealogy

The Highland Folk Museum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

When Caithness Became Scottish

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Scotland was not always as we think of it today. In fact it was composed over centuries by consolidating multiple minor kingdoms and territories into a single unified state under a single king. Starting in the twelfth century, the Scottish kingdom came increasingly under Norman influence.

During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the Scottish crown and the Norwegian Earls of Orkney somewhat shared the rule of Caithness and Sutherland, while Norway exclusive rule of Orkney. During this period, the tribal confederation that would become the Gunn clan controlled a significant portion of the land in Caithness and northern Sutherland, and in many regards functioned as the government for the territory due to their cohesion, wide land holdings and generally fair minded approach to rule.

It is quite likely these early Gunns maintained close ties to their kin and friends in Orkney, and members of the Norse families may have even kept ties with Norway. Across Gunn controlled areas, the people spoke a mix of Gaelic and Norn, a form of norse language that had been regionally adapted. They would have paid taxes to the Norwegian Jarl in Kirkwall, and would have attended churches organized under the Orcadian bishop.

During the thirteenth century, the Scottish kings, seeking to consolidate their kingdom, repeatedly offered to purchase Scottish territory that was under Norwegian rule. This included the western Hebrides islands, the Kintyre peninsula and the Isle of Man. The Norwegian crown held no interest in giving up these important lands, and repeatedly refused these offers. With the ascension of Scottish king Alexander III, Scotland gave up on purchase and used force to make their point. In the summer of 1262, Scottish forces began raiding the islands, beginning with Skye.

Outraged by this provocation, Norwegian king Hakon IV assembled a massive fleet of longships to drive the Scottish back and reclaim their lands. His battle fleet first sailed to Orkney, where they were no doubt reinforced by Caithness and Orkney fighters and additional warships. The sight of over 100 warships, crewed by battle hardened Viking raiders and skirmishers, sent a clear signal to Alexander III – we will not give you that which is rightfully ours. Upon reaching the west coast of Scotland, Hakon’s fleet anchored near the Isle of Arran, where they were joined by allies from Skye, Islay, Jura, Mull and Man.

Impressed with this show of force, King Alexander III dispatched an envoy to discuss terms with King Hakon, while the Scottish king marshaled his forces to repel the Norsemen by force. Due to the Scottish crown’s long and fruitful relationship with the Norman French, this force had at it’s core units of heavily armored and well trained vassal knights and heavy infantry. Upon arriving at the anchored fleet off the west coast of Scotland, the envoy complimented Hakon, and once again repeated Scotland’s offer to buy the lands he controlled in Scotland.

While discussions between the envoy and Hakon continued, the Scottish king moved his forces, including a core of heavily armored Norman calvary and foot-soldiers to Largs, where the Norwegian force was anchored in a storm. While a small Norse party was ashore to rescue a stranded ship, they were attacked by the Scottish forces. The norsemen were outnumbered 10 to 1, and a storm kept the bulk of Hakon’s forces aboard their ships anchored off shore.

Stalemated by the large, heavily armored force on the shore and the approaching winter, Hakon decided to withdraw his forces to Orkney to await the spring. Unfortunately for the Norse, King Hakon died in Orkney that winter, and his successor, King Magnus VI, decided to accept Scotland’s offer to sell the disputed territory.

In the treaty of Perth, Scotland gained solid control over all lands to the north of England, while ceding claims to Shetland and Orkney. As a result, Sutherland and Caithness changed hands from Norwegian to Scottish rule.

Scotland would have a difficult and rocky road to bring the Viking north to accept and follow their rule. With the Gunn clan / syndicate as the functional government, Scotland would have to deal with them or conquer them to make any progress. This reality would give rise to tensions as Scotland tried and failed to implement feudalism in their new territory in the coming decades, which would eventually drive the crown and their appointed Norman Earls to actively break up the Gunn territory and clan cohesion, eventually leading to a final conflict with the Anglo / Norman Keiths.

While at first there was little dramatic change for the robust and prosperous Gunns of Caithness, the wind of change was blowing, and not in their favor.

Disclaimer – New Ideas Within

At present I am presenting a series of posts that re-interpret the history of Clan Gunn up through the battle of St. Tears. Where possible I have attempted to cast the facts of the story in the wider context of Scottish and Norwegian history and politics. Some of this new work may eventually be proven wrong. Readers should not take umbrage if they find their closely held beliefs challenged here, no offense is intended, none should be taken.

The Foundations of Clan Gunn

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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.

My Difficulty With The Battle Of St. Tears

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Like most interested in the history for Clan Gunn, I have studied the multiple versions of the Battle of St. Tears that have been written and compiled by prior historians and story tellers. The best of these efforts are contained within Mark R. Gunn’s History of the Clan Gunn.

Each telling of this tale follows a similar path – after a long standing feud the Gunns and Keiths declare that they will meet at the St. Tears chapel near Girnigo, and each side will bring twelve horse of men. The Gunns, ever valorous and honorable, arrive and enter the chapel to pray and wait for the Keiths. The dastardly Keiths arrive with two men on each horse, breaking the spirit of the agreement but not the letter. Outnumbered 24 to 12, the Gunns are ravaged in valiant battle, a blow from which they never recover. The clan fractures with sub-factions going their own way. My own ancestors following Henry Gunn, and forming what came to be known as the Hendersons of Caithness.

Like most of you good people, I took the ancient tale at face value. After all, what else did we have to work from? I hope to answer that question shortly, but first let me tell you why I came to decide that this grand story is in fact not quite as accurate as we would hope.

George “Crowner” Gunn Was No Fool

Let me get this right, the canon story of St. Tears requires us to believe that after over 100 years of bitter feud, including the kidnapping and death of a bride on her the eve of her wedding, that the leader of Clan Gunn – himself a savvy and battle tested warrior, would for a moment take the word of the Keiths to play by any rules? Would a clan that wielded as much power as Gunn show up to such an event with anything less than a massive show of force?

The Crowner’s Sons

The story leading up to St. Tears states that the chief had twelve sons, and that these twelve sturdy men were the force that arrived at St. Tears to settle the age-old feud with the Keiths. Even if George had twelve sons, why would all of them be present? What father would risk his entire family on a weapons laden encounter with your enemy? Are we expected to believe that the fruit of George’s loins were the men most capable of holding a sword among the hundreds or thousands of Gunn warriors in Caithness?

Many People Survived

In the well known story, several of the Gunn party at St. Tears survived, not the least of which is Henry Gunn who took revenge at castle Dirlot, and the Crowner’s oldest son James who claimed the chiefship after his father’s death. If the origin of family names, Robert Gunn also survived as did William Gunn and Sweyn Gunn. Come to think of it, quite a few of the Crowner’s sons seem to have survived St. Tears. If you are the Keiths, and you know that you outnumber your enemy 2:1, would you let any of them survive? You can count on the fact that they will be back in force to extract their revenge. In fact this cycle of attack and revenge been going on for decades. Are we to believe that the Keiths showed mercy to the Gunns at the exact moment when they held their doom in their gauntlets?

Simply put, a critical look at the story of St. Tears seems to indicate that the legend may not be the whole story. Understanding what was happening to the Gunns and the Keiths at that time, and how Clan Gunn actually worked is the key to peeling back the varnish of multiple legends to try and take a guess at something that could be closer to the truth. I hope to be able to provide that soon. Until then I encourage readers to think about the battle of St. Tears, and how much of it is unlikely because it defies both common sense and subsequent history.

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.

Finding Adam – Part Two

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Trinity Divinity School, Glasgow, where Adam studied to become a minister of the Free Church

This is a continuation the story of our joint research to find the history of the Reverend Adam C. Henderson. You can read the first part in Finding Adam – Part One.

In the first part of this story, our research went from a few names and a handful of dates into a the outline of a history about my great-grandfather, the Reverend Adam C. Henderson, who was born in Ramscraigs and escaped his humble origins to attended the University of Glasgow, and become a pillar of the Busby and East Kilbride community. Though we were incredibly fortunate to find not only his university records, but what we think is a photograph of Adam at divinity school, there were still so many gaps in his life we hoped to fill.

As is the case for many parts of the UK, the area around Busby (near Glasgow) and East Kilbride enjoys a group of local scholars who work to discover, document and preserve the local history. For the area where Adam was minister, the Giffnock Library is the hub of the Busby Historical Society. The Giffnock holds a significant and growing collection of documents, recordings and photographs of Busby and East kilbride. We contacted them in 2007, and they were happy to help us locate what information they had, which led us to be in contact with John McVicar by mid 2008, who was compiling a book on the history of Busby.

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Busby Free Church, photo courtesy of the Giffnock Library

Thanks to the McVicar’s work, we were able to learn a great deal about Adam’s community; the places, events and environment in which he lived, along with the organizations and associations that he belonged to. Sadly they had no additional photographs of the reverend and his family, but the information they had about his activities was welcome additional detail about a man we knew little about.

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A clip from John McVicar’s book on Busby and its history

Though we were adding to our knowledge, it was a nagging problem that we could not locate Adam’s grave. For a man who had played a prominent role in the communities of Busby and East Kilbride, the lack of evidence of his life remained an enduring mystery.

In an attempt to tear through the fog of time, we resolved to locate, by brute force searching if necessary, Adam’s grave and the final disposition of his children and their descendants (if any). By consulting Scotland’s People, we began locating and downloading images for the birth, marriage and death records for every one of Adam’s children. In the process of doing this, we found that sadly there were two babies born to that family that did not survive for long. We were surprised to find that a surprisingly low number of his children actually married, and that for a large family of that size there were very few grandchildren. Most of our searches forward towards the present day dead ended, leaving us with the impression that Adam’s line was not nearly as robust as one might think.

Worse yet, the older members of the family we contacted remembered conflicting information, some of which eventually turned out to be wrong. It was our sincere hope that we could contact some of his descendants in hope that they might be able to help us fill the family history.

As luck would have it, we were eventually sift through immigration, birth and marriage record to determine that two of Adam’s younger children had married and immigrated to Ontario. They died in the 1970s, and were buried in Hamilton, Ontario. Thanks once again to the magic of the internet, I was able to enlist the aid of the local library to uncover the obituaries for them and their wives, which named several of the descendants.

Armed with these names, we worked to find a recent postal address, and then sent a series of introductory letters, asking if they would be willing to re-connect with the family and help us in our research as best they can. Fortunately for us, our relatives seem to be uniformly kind and generous, and we soon incorporated two new cousins into the project. Sadly for us, they were, like us, without much useful information. This lack of passed down history and relics seems to have been universal, and point to some rift in the past that at present we cannot identify.

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A portion of my granfather James’ birth certificate, part of the search for the Reverend’s family

Throughout 2008, we searched cemeteries across the Glasgow, Busby and Rutherford area, including walking through looking at headstones. Clearly the brute force method was not yielding results. It could have been that his grave was unmarked, or that weathering had removed any inscription we could read. Early in 2009, I decided to begin “socially engineering” government records keepers in central Scotland to help find his grave. Late in January we got lucky, and we were able to locate his grave in Cathcart Cemetery, Section F, Lair 471, along with his mother, his wife, his mother in law, and two babies that died within the first year, Donald and John. Photographs show that the grave is either unmarked, or the headstone is lying face down in the dirt.

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The section of Cathcart cemetery where Adam and his family are buried

Many questions remained, one of the biggest was how could a clever boy from a humble background afford the costly tuition at the University of Glasgow, let alone the cost of living in Glasgow in the 1860s while attending school. We had uncovered as much as we could find in Lanarkshire as we could think to look for, the next step in finding Adam was to visit Caithness, and see what could be found.

Luck would strike again when a few days before my expedition to Caithness, the records of the Busby Free Church turned up in a long forgotten storage location at another Busby church, and we were very kindly invited to review it. There were the church minutes from Adam’s tenure as moderator

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Section of the church minutes from the Busby Free Church.

Traveling to Caithness is not trivial, as the best way to reach it is a long drive up the treacherous A9 motor-way north from Inverness. We had contacted the Dunbeath Heritage Centre, and the staff encouraged me to visit to research my family. Words are insufficient to describe the level of emotion as I crested the Ord of Caithness near that ruins of Badbea, and descended the Berriedale Braes. There, perched high above the hairpin turns was the old Berriedale graveyard, where I knew Adam’s father and brother were buried.

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The graves of our ancestors overlooking Berriedale and the Ord of Caithness

The hillsides were dotted with ruined and abandoned stone houses, one of which I knew had to have been Donald’s house, where Adam was born and raised. To me, this was a land of legend – yet at the same time only separated from any of us by the will to go there and see it for ourselves.

The Dunbeath Centre was more than I could have hoped for, and the staff were incredibly helpful. Not only did they know of the family, but they had taken the time to catalog and record the family tree on a very long chart, which they generously copied for me to take home. They also identified where to find the graves of many of my Henderson ancestors and kin. The remainder of the trip focused on photographing the area, many of which are now part of this site.

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The Dunbeath Heritage Centre – a true Scottish treasure

Though we have made tremendous progress from that first search, there is much that we are looking for but may never find. The mystery remains of why so little was passed down from Adam’s family to the present day, and what became of photos, letters or other things from that day. One fact brought to light from our research regards Adam’s mother, Ann Cunningham Henderson. When Donald died in 1892, Ann moved to south to Lanarkshire and lived with Adam and his family for the rest of her years. By working with Sally, it has become clear that people in Caithness were very enthusiastic about having their photos taken. In fact there were several places, including Wick and Thurso, where there were portrait studios. In addition these photographers would sell a portrait sitting during “Market Days” which would happen twice a year (spring and fall) in Dunbeath. Therefore it is possible that photographs of Donald and Ann were taken when they were quite old. The question comes up then, what happened to them and could they have survived the present age? (more on this in a bit). Ann passed away in 1900, 9 years before Adam’s death and 21 years before Jane’s death. From what I have been able to gather chatting with some folk historians in Dunbeath, it was the custom (and sorry if this is universal to Scotland) that people of that time would keep a “Kist”, a trunk, box or chest that held “bonnie things”. When Ann moved to Busby to live with Adam, the chances are very high that her Kist (if she had one) would have come with her. Whatever Ann may have taken to Busby would probably represent the pinnacle of what we might be able to recover from a family history standpoint, if any has survived to this day.

As a hint that some of what we seek is not so much lost as it is misplaced, a strange photograph came to light in September of 2009. During a visit to my Aunt Moira, she brought out old photo albums and we looked through them. As we were flipping throughout the book, a tiny photograph fell out from behind a larger black and white photograph. In it were four people, sitting in front of what we now know was the reverend’s house on Derby Crescent in Kelvin Grove, Glasgow. One is clearly my grandfather James as a young man. Seated with him is a young lady, whom my Aunt identified as my grandmother, along with an older man and an older woman.

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Is this Reverend Adam C. Henderson, his wife Jane and my Grandfather James? We hope to find enough evidence in the future to determine this beyond doubt.

The older man bears a significant resemblance to the young fellow from the 1871 Trinity group photo, while the older lady shares some resemblance to my grandfather. Is it Reverend Adam and his wife Jane? We have no concrete proof until we have a photograph that we know is of him, but it hints that perhaps in a box in an attic somewhere in Scotland or in Canada hides some of what we seek. With time and persistence, we will continue the search as our labor of love.

Finding Adam – Part One

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What we think is the ruins of Donald’s House in Ramscraigs, where Adam was born and grew up.

This story is provided to motivate other researchers to go beyond the genealogy of their families and into their history. The search for this man, his history and his family has been the driving force behind my research.

One of the great searches that has been at the foundation of the project has been uncovering information about my Henderson great-grandfather, a man by the name of Reverend Adam Cunningham Henderson. Prior to my visit to Scotland in September of 2006, was the earliest ancestor I knew about.

During that wonderful visit with the family in East Kilbride, my cousin Lesley handed me a 2 page outline of the family tree that had been created by my Uncle Jim’s son, Anthony. It included not only Adam and all of his 11 or so children, but the name of Adam’s father – Donald and the name “Caithness” – a place I new very little about at that time.

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My Scottish family – September 2006

These mysteries were what launched the research project – it was to me very odd that a man who had been so central to the community of East Kilbride at the turn of the 20th century would leave so little evidence of his life. None of us had any photos, and very few stories of the man. We did not know what had happened to his many children, and if they had families of their own. We did not even know where he was buried.

Upon returning home to the US, I resolved to find everything I could about Adam and his family before memories faded and more was lost. Where to start was the question. Thankfully – this is the internet age; a subscription to the fantastic ancestry.com very quickly started supplying me with information about Adam and his parents.

A few short days after starting, I had located Adam in the Scottish census for 1851, and his brothers (previously unknown) James and Alexander. This struck me as a surprise (though it shouldn’t) – Adam had brothers, what had become of their families? I was also able to verify the data that Anthony had put together that Adam’s father was Donald Henderson, a shoemaker in Ramscraigs and his mother Ann Cunningham. Ramscraigs was at that time, another name that had no meaning for me – was it a place, a name of farm or house? Typing that into Google did not even result in anything useful. Furthermore the name “Clashcarn” appears in the census as well.

Oddly enough, the 1861 census did not show Adam at home. He would have been 19 at the time, and it was a mystery where he could be. Oddly enough, after additional searching he turns up in the busy fishing town of Wick, miles to the north of Ramscraigs and Dunbeath, with an occupation listed as “Student”. This is in itself unusual, as pupils in school are typically listed as “Scholar”. His relationship is listed as “Boarder” in the house of a merchant in Wick. This piece of census information was to later lead to a significant discoveries about Adams years in Caithness.

Later in time I was able to use ancestry.com’s record searches to find him in Glasgow in 1871 attending university and living with is young wife, Jane Taylor, and then during his service as a minister of the Free Church of Scotland with his growing family at the manse in Busby, Lanarkshire.

Armed with places, dates and names, it was time to dig deeper into the life and times of this man who was pivotal in the family’s history.

Over the course of several months, I collected and digested what little information I could find about the Busby Free Church, which I came to find out had been converted into flats in the last few years. Thanks to Catherine Pearson of the Free Church of Scotland, I came to find out that Adam began his ministry career in Harthill in 1875, and translated to Busby in 1878. The records of the Busby Free Church were clearly going to be of great interest, but where were they? Normally such records would go to the Scottish National Archives, or to a local collection. Checking with all sources, including the library in Glasgow resulted in no trace of those records, anywhere.

As luck would have it, in the summer of 2008 I was able to visit Scotland once more. Prior to my trip, I resolved to consult whatever records I could find at the University of Glasgow, and see if there were any records of his time as a student. On a free afternoon, with the sun shining, I made my way to Great Western Road in Glasgow, and eventually to the university archives.

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The old university on Glasgow High Street before the new campus was complete

Though I did not have an appointment (I had no idea the records were there), the staff was so very helpful and friendly, and quickly found a large amount of information, starting with his name in a book that celebrated the anniversary of the Trinity college (divinity school), where it confirmed what we had pieced together:

With his identity confirmed, the staff began to bring out several volumes, including class rosters. His first year entry is shown below:

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Adam’s name in the Glasgow University 1867 roster – click for larger view

Adam, much to my delight, lists Ramscraigs Caithness as his home. I have actually found that a few documents related to members of my family denote a specific citation of Dunbeath or Ramscraigs, including immigration records where there is page after page of “country of origin” listed simply as “Scotland”, there in the midst of it is someone who put “Dunbeath, Scotland” – and it’s a Henderson or a Gunn.

According to class rolls, during his four years towards his arts degree, he studied Latin, Greek, Philosophy and even took Physics under Lord Kelvin.

As fortune would have it they also had the records for the Trinity divinity school, and there in his first year was information that had been the topic of discussion between the cousins – his native tongue. There listed on the rolls was the fact that he spoke Gaelic.

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Adam’s name in the Trinity College roster – click for larger view

We could come to find out later, that his Gaelic would be useful in his missionary work among the displaced highland Scots who had come to Glasgow seeking work and a better life.

Though I had already collected more than I had ever hoped to find, Moira gave me a smile and said “there are some photos, though they are likely not in very good shape”. Several minutes later a box containing photographs from over 130 years ago were on the desk, showing photos of the staff and lecturers of the university. However, against all odds was a large, fading group photo showing young men seated at the food of a rock face (looking a lot like Edinburgh) dated 1871. If that were not enough, someone had taken the times to write the names on the photo margin below. After cross-checking the attendance rolls, he was the only Henderson at the university that year. Within this group photo, against all odds was a picture of my great-grandfather while he was studying to become a minister. This was literally the first photo anyone of us alive today had seen of the man.

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Group photo of students at the Trinity College circa 1871

The search for Adam was not done – and would lead us to new discoveries about his family, his brothers and would eventually take us to Caithness. Be sure to check back for part two soon!

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.

Henderson - Gunn Genetic Connections: The Missing Link

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The heather covered hills of Kildonan

Part of our research into family history has been to use DNA to look beyond where the stories stop and into the deeper ancestry of the Hendersons of Caithness. The human Y chromosome is passed unaltered from father to son, with a few mutations creeping in ever several generations or so. An emerging field of research has been to connect families based on similarities in their Y chromosomes – if the DNA matches closely, they are related.

For my Henderson family, this has presented a historical puzzle. The history of Caithness describes the sundering of the Gunn clan following the battle of St. Tears, and how Henry Gunn and his family decided to part ways with their kin and took the surname Henderson. If history is correct, my DNA should match the DNA of someone in the Gunn family. However, that has not been the case, even when we were able to test the DNA of a Gunn with confirmed Ramscraigs heritage.

Several weeks ago, as a result of this web site, a fellow in Canada by the name of Henderson contacted me via email. A very pleasant gentleman, we carried on an good conversation over email, and eventually it came to light that his family emigrated to Canada, living in Nova Scotia and Manitoba. To me, this was an immediate attention grabber. Many displaced families from Caithness and Sutherland had joined the Selkirk settlement in Manitoba and the Red River valley.

His roots to Scotland included an ancestor from Kildonan who lived in Helmsdale before shipping over to Canada. This is the same path that many Hendersons and Gunns had taken during the period of the clearances, and his family line would hold many possible points of history.

Fortunately, he had his DNA tested some time ago, though it was not even remotely close to mine. Instead, an interesting thing arose. The Gunn who helped us out so much by offering his DNA for testing was a very close match, close enough in fact that the most recent common ancestor was likely in the 500-700 year time frame.

At long last, here was DNA science proving the connection between the Gunns and the Hendersons. This man, whose family was forced from Kildonan (the last stronghold of the Gunn clan), carried with him the Gunn DNA fingerprint. He had realized this himself some time ago, but had met with rejection and confusion from the Gunn clan association. For many of Clan Henderson USA, his genetics are a breakthrough in history. Many members of their genetics project have lost their connection to Scotland through the decay of time. But with this new DNA sample, many of these are clearly Kildonan Gunn Hendersons who arrived in the colonies either seeking a better life, or after being cleared from the Strath of Kildonan.

For my genetic line, the work to solve the puzzle of a I1d-Norse ancestory goes on.

Henderson Family Life At Rhian

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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