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

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

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