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

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.

Ackergil Tower – Ancient Seat of Clan Keith

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The origin of the Hendersons of Caithness runs through the tower of Ackergil.  The great feud between the Gunns and the Keiths which eventually sundered clan Gunn, and formed the Hendersons, has its roots here.

By the mid 1400s, the Keiths began to openly challenge the Gunns for supremacy in Caithness and Sutherland.  The story of Ackergil begins further south in Braemore, to the west of Berriedale and Ramscraigs.  In mid 1400’s, the local chief, Lachlan Gunn of Braemore, was to marry his daughter Helen of Braemore to distant cousin Alexander.  Helen was reputed to have been of unparalleled beauty, and she had caught the eye of many local men, including Dugald Keith of Ackergil.  Dugald had campaigned for her hand, but Lachlan Gunn held no interest in marrying his daughter to the Keiths.

Not content to lose her to another, Dugald mustered a group of clansmen and made their way south to Braemore. On the eve of Helen’s wedding night, the Keiths besieged Lachlan’s great hall, trapping Helen and a large number of feasting wedding guests inside.  Pledging safe release for all if Helen surrendered to him, she was bound and taken north to Ackergil.  With his prize claimed, Duglad Keith set the Braemore great hall ablaze, burning the wedding party alive.

At Ackergil, Dugald Keith locked Helen at the top of the tower, vowing to win her love no matter how long it took.  As the days passed, Helen became increasingly despondent.  One evening at sunset, she managed to distract her guards, and flung herself from the tower to the courtyard below.

This bloodshed between the Gunns and Keiths began what would be a 500 year feud that would eventually sunder the Gunns and render them defunct as a power in Caithness.

In May of 2010, I was fortunate enough to visit Ackergil, which is now a very pleasant house that is frequently rented out for weddings and ceremonies.

A Visit To St. Tears

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A stone marking the site of the St. Tear’s Chapel near Ackergil Tower

One of the emotional moments of the this spring’s trip to Caithness was an expedition early in the morning of my last day in Caithness.  I have read and written about the pivotal battle at the Chapel of St. Tears, where the Gunn clan was slain by an overwhelming force from Clan Keith.

The morning was bright and warm, especially for Caithness.  The locals were very tolerant of a large American stumbling around their fields, and eventually they helped put me in the right area.

The site of the chapel is a few yards from the shore between Ackergil and Girnigoe? castles, and much to my surprise is marked by a small memorial stone, shown above.

On this site, I could not help but think what impact the Gunns would have had on Scottish history had the fight never happened.  The Gunns resisted the feudalization of Scotland, and their elimination as a force in the north removed a counterweight to the Sinclairs, the Sutherlands and the Mackays.  After St. Tears, the Gunns never again held their hereditary role of arbiters and enforcers in Caithness.  One could imagine what Scotland might look like had the Kildonan, Langwell and Berriedale clearances had not paved the way for so many “improvers” to push the people from the land.

Family Treasures In Wick

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High Street, Wick

During my trip this spring to Caithness, I had a few hours to spare thanks to major road work to repair the Berriedale Braes.  As a result, I went to Wick and spent time at their fantastic heritage center.  Their extensive artifacts and holdings include many items from Wicks history, with a special focus during the herring boom.

The friendly staff had a surprise for me, contrary to what I had been told, the Johnston collection of glass photographic plates had not all been lost.  In fact many hundreds had survived.  In fact they have taken the time to catalog and index them, allowing visitors to look for scenes of interest.

Immediately I began searching for my Henderson kin, and sure enough several Hendersons from Ramscraigs and Dunbeath had their portrait taken on glass plates.  For a modest fee, the museum staff were happy to scan these plates into JPEG files.

As a result, I am pleased to share the first of these treasures, a photograph of a young Donald Henderson, the grandson of Angus (second son of James of Rhian) born in in 1864.  In this photo he is 19 years old.  The family likeness, especially with cousin Sally, is wonderful to see.

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