The site of the St. Tears chapel in the present day
The name of Henderson is one long associated with the greatness of Scotland. Unique from most clans, the name came into being is several distinct areas by different means. In the far north of Scotland, in the isolated county of Caithness, the name Henderson came into being as the result of a bloody battle in 1478.
History tells that the Hendersons of Caithness were once a part of the ancient clan Gunn. The Gunns came to Scotland as stewards of the northern counties, that were at one point under the control of the viking Jarls of Orkney. The Gunns helped to manage Caithness and parts of Sutherland and established themselves over the decades and prospered. When the northern territories were ceded to Scotland, many of the norse families, including the Gunns, who had been living there decided to remain and become citizens of the Scottish crown.
The Gunns had several fierce rivalries with neighboring clans, with the most bitter being with another ancient family of the north, the Keiths. Throughout the 1400’s, the Gunns struggled to protect their lands from incursion and the ever escalating revenge attacks for some ancient wrong that were returned in kind between the clans.
In a bid to set aside their feud with the Keiths, George Gunn, who held the title of “Crowner” (the enforcer and sheriff for the Sinclair Caithness earl) offered a peace summit at a neutral location on holy ground. Both clans agreed that the chiefs would come escorted by “twelve horse” of each clan at the chapel of St. Tears (St. Tayre) on the coast north of Wick. The Gunns arrived first with 12 men consisting of his sons and his finest fighters and entered the chapel to pray. A short time later the Keith party arrived with 2 men astride each horse and proceeded to slaughter every Gunn inside the chapel. Several of the Crowner’s sons escaped, leaving their father and kinsmen butchered at the altar. The Keiths took the chief’s armor, his weapons and the enormous brooch that he wore as a badge of office to the earl of Caithness, and retreated to their castle at Dirlot.
Beaten and bloodied but thirsty for vengeance, the chief’s 3rd son, Henry, roused a few men still fit to fight and approached Dirlot that very night. The Gunns found the Keiths in full celebration quaffing great drafts of ale. Henry drew back on his bow and let fly an arrow which found its mark in the throat of the chief of Clan Keith. As he did so, he shouted in Gaelic, “Iomcharagnn Guinach gu Cadhaich,” which translates to, “A Gunn’s compliments to a Keith.” In the confusion that followed, many of the Keiths where slain and the weapons and brooch of the Crowner were recovered.
In the aftermath of the battle, Henry and his men returned victorious to Gunn clan territory, having avenged the murder under truce of his father and the chief. In the days following, Henry Gunn donned his father’s armor, weapons and brooch and attempted to assume the chieftains role as well as the office of sheriff. The oldest surviving son, James, claimed ownership over the legacy and the title as his birth right. The division threatened to erupt into violence between large segments of the Gunn clan until Henry relented and surrendered his claims and the chief’s possessions to James, though it is sometimes told that Henry kept the Crowner’s brooch.
On that day, Henry decided to remove himself and his kin from the Gunns, and never again take that name. When he departed, he took with him his children (both sons and daughters) and their families, along with his closest friends and kinsmen. They lived apart from their Gunn cousins though they always kept on friendly terms with them, but took a very neutral position on all clan rivalries, feuds and wars from that time on. Each of them took the name the “Sons of Henry” or as we know it today – Henderson.