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

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.

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.

Landward Episode 23 - Commentary

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The episode has aired now (November 27th in Scotland) and thankfully I was able to find a way to see it, and I would now like to share my comments on the episode with you.

First off, I think it was great! It’s by far the best 6 minutes of Henderson ancient history on television thus far. Most of the folks in the family who saw it wish it would have been longer, which is understandable. But the pacing, the camera work and way they packed that much information into 6 minutes was fantastic.

Word from Landward is that they will provide us with the whole footage some time this spring. I am not sure if it will be possible, but I would very much like to try and put together a “directors cut” of the segment from the portion that aired along with some other elements from the tape.

The detailed comments, and hints about what else was filmed Continue reading Landward Episode 23 – Commentary

Landward Episode 23 - My Thanks

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George, Anson and Holly at Knockfin

With the Landward segment now aired, I would like to publicly thank everyone who put forth the effort to make this happen. This includes:

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First off, it was great fun to do a segment on Landward, and I am forever grateful for the chance to present a portion of our story. Thanks to Holly for going with the idea which originally was to film at Badbea and transition to Knockfin instead. Holly kept things moving forward, and Colin; thanks for lugging that camera all over the place.

Holly Booth – Landward Assistant Producer
Colin MacLure – Landward Cameraman

Dunbeath Heritage
Simply put, without the good work of the Dunbeath Heritage Centre, none of this could have ever happened. The Centre served as a hub for the shoot, and put forth an enormous amount of research and logistical support. For those that are wondering, a visit to the Dunbeath Centre is worth the drive to Caithness all on its own. With Dunbeath being a rich site of archeology and historical research, the centre’s collection will hopefully continue to grow.

Meg Sinclair – Director of the Dunbeath Heritage Center
Nan Bethune – Historian and national treasure
George Bethune – Historian and national treasure
Margaret Irvine – Cousin & researcher
Sandy Gunn – Owner of the Rhian site

Knockfin – Wellbeck Estate
Anson is one of the nicest fellows you could ever hope to meet, and I can’t thank him enough for taking us back to Knockfin. My only regret is that I did not have as much time as I wanted to capture the beauty of this place in pictures, but the Estate and Anson has kindly offered to take me back there when I can return to Caithness.

Anson MacAuslan – Factor, Wellbeck Estate

Badbea Families
This whole thing really started with Lynn and Martin Craig. The original concept that came from Lynn and Holly was to return someone to Badbea in conjunction with Scotland’s 2009 Homecoming celebrations. Over time the idea morphed into the Knockfin plan instead, largely due to who was available to travel to Caithness (me). The Craig’s work to preserve the important legacy of Badbea continues to this day, with their fantastic web site, The Badbea Families.

Lynn Craig – Badbea Families
Martin Craig – Badbea Families

To all of you who put forth the effort to make this happen, my eternal thanks. I am sure I have forgotten someone, so please consider yourself thanked if I overlooked you, and drop me an email.

Landward Story Now Online

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The story of how the Henderson saga became part of an episode of BBC Scotland’s program “Landward” is now online. The episode with the Dunbeath footage airs Friday November 27th at 7:00 PM on BBC2 Scotland. Those able to use the BBC iPlayer can view the episode online.

>Read the story here<

Finding Knockfin

As we were tracing our family tree back in time, the oldest record we could find was the birth record for James Henderson, who lived in Rhian. James was born to a man named William, in a place called “Knockfin Berriedale”.

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This posed a mystery for us, as the name Knockfin had not been used in Caithness or much of anywhere in a very long time (it would turn out for over 200 years).

Using current maps, there was one place in Caithness that used the name Knockfin, a remote location up in the hills east of the Strath of Kildonan, typically used as summer pasture for the herds.

While I have not had the joy of hiking up there yet, I have used some imagery from Google Earth and others to spot the ruins of some structures there, but something did not quite add up.

Months later I was able to come across the digital version of John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland, 1832 at the National Library of Scotland. When browsing around southern Caithness (Henderson home ground), I found the below section of the map near Berriedale:

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Immediately the thrill of discovery was upon me – here was an old map that recorded the name of Knockfin, not dozens of miles from Berriedale, but located on the river.

Fortunately, Google Earth had recently improved the quality of their satellite imagery over Caithness, so I went looking for any signs of habitation, and there it was!

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This discovery would eventually lead to the filming of the Landward episode, and a remarkable trip to this ancient Henderson homeland in September of 2009