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 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.

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

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”.

James-Henderson-Knockfin-Birth-1766

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