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

Reconciling DNA and History


No discussion of Henderson pre-history would be complete without mention of DNA testing of Henderson Y chromosomes, and what it tells us about history. In 2009, a detailed genetic sequence of a Henderson Y chromosome was performed (67 markers) and it gave the first indications of a Norse, rather than Scottish deep ancestry. The DNA sequence showed that the Y chromosome has a very strong Norse origin, with likely origin in Norway, Sweeden or Iceland. It falls into the genetic designation of “I1d”, also known as I1 “Ultra Norse”. This norse heritage, and the unusual nature of the chromosome sequence (even within the I1d databases) means that finding a similar expression will strongly imply a shared heritage.

By the historical account of the genesis of the Hendersons of Caithness, this Y chromosome should be very close to the Gunn Y chromosome, and this is where the mysteries start.

The Gunns have been working on a catalog of their Y DNA for some time. In fact they have a robust variety of tests results. Nearly every Gunn man tested comes back with a DNA sequence that falls into two very similar groups. These DNA sequences show broad european origin, or the “R1b” designator (as opposed to Henderson I1). Across northern Europe as a whole, the “R” genes account for 80% of the population, and the “I” genes account for 18%. Of the 3 dozen or so Gunns tested, there is a very predictable pattern, none of which are even close to the Henderson I1d.

The Gunns that had been tested were mostly families that had been in the USA for several generations, and had cloudy concepts of their connection to Caithness. This called into doubt (in the researcher’s mind anyhow) how much stock to put in their DNAs relevance. As luck would have it, we found and befriended a fellow (David Gunn) who has not only a direct and recorded link to Caithness, his family lived in the Ramscraigs area. He kindly agreed to be tested, and after a few weeks of waiting, the results came in with a strong R1b type, aligned with the main European male line.

That means the results show no Y chromosome similarity between him and the Henderson DNA tested. In fact, he is a strong match for the main body of the Gunn male line, which is likely to re-construct the lines of a few of the Gunn families cleared from the Strath of Kildonan, which will be significant progress in the Gunn project.

What does that mean for Henderson history? There are several options, but suffice to say, none of us will likely ever see the answer to this, unless DNA testing for genealogical purposes becomes more common. Some theories are below:

1: Family Plan – History as cited may be correct but incomplete. When Henry Gunn left his family to form the Hendersons, he likely took his sons and daughters with him. This means that it is possible that his daughter’s families also took the name Henderson, thus giving us a surname that is not genetically connected to the Gunn line.

2: Friends Plan – When Henry formed his new family, some of the retainers of the Gunn family went with him, and took the Henderson name. This would mean there were multiple male blood lines at the formation of the Henderson of that area.

3: 6th House: There are 5 documented cases of the emergence of the surname “Henderson” across Scotland when last names came into fashion in the middle ages. It is possible that our ancestors came to use this name on their own because of some progenitor named Henry.

4: The Lost Line: This is the biggest wild card in the deck. As history would have it, the chief’s line in the Gunn family died out, to such an extent that the Gunns did not have a chief until one was appointed (for some reason) in the last 100 years. It is theoretically possible that the Hendersons of Berriedale and Dunbeath do carry Henry Gunn’s Y chromosome, which is the same as George the Crowner of Caithness. The Gunn progenitors were referred to in history as the “Ultimate Vikings” and were from the same region that our “I1d – Ultra Norse” is found.

As DNA Genealogy is still an emerging field, more test results will help us (eventually) unravel this mystery.

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