About the Author

Bruce Henderson is a computer engineer living in Southern California. With the help of his cousins he is researching the history of the Henderson family of southern Caithness. You can contact him at bruce@sigalarm.com

Finding Adam – Part One


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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!

What’s Coming For Ramscraigs


I hope all our readers had a wonderful a joyous Christmas. With Hogmanay right around the corner, there is much to look forward to in 2010. Currently, the family tree is being updated, and a version that covers some of the other families of the area is in work. We hope to expand the number of lines we have published to hopefully include some of the Gunns, a few Sutherlands, and possibly the Bethunes.

Meanwhile, I am trying to put together an expedition back to Caithness for the summer or spring of 2010. I would very much like to re-visit Knockfin, Rhian and finally pin down which of the abandoned houses in Ramscraigs belong to which family.

Part of the work to make any possible trip as productive as possible is finding out as much about the areas as I can. During the Landward filming, I was presented with a host of new facts, which I have been working to incorporate into the history. One effort of research is using aerial images in both the visible and infra-red bands to try and better establish where the buildings were, and where features of the terrain were located, such as the old road (which pre-dates the path of the A9), the village of Ramscraigs, the buildings at Knockfin and Rhian, and the site where they landed Herring at the beach below Ramscraigs.

It has been a struggle to come up with the data, as most of the companies that might have it seem none too eager for business. It may be necessary to collect it myself during my trip. I am far from an expert and doing so, but I am not without some skill in the area.

Any expedition would (hopefully) include documenting the places and stories of the area, in photos, on video and recording the people, that we hope to share with you.

The Ledger – Sinclair Spinning Co.


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, including a digital version of them in PDF format created using a sodapdf software online.

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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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