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

Origins of the Hendersons Of Caithness

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.

19 comments to Origins of the Hendersons Of Caithness


    i was reading your site very informative i always felt like the hendersons were vikings if we were the bodyguard clan for the mcdonalds that made me think we had no land so we migrated from scandinavia to the uk and also we are strong hence bodyguard clan vikings are strong paul anderson the worlds strongest man the key is (son) on end of name where you have russians which are neighbors to scandinavia with sen,sin at end of name just alot of the worlds strongest men have son at end of name just speculating thanks again

  • Nancy Henderson

    When my grandfather Henderson was alive, he used to tell us the family originated in northern Scotland and were related to clan Gunn. His father, Gavin Henderson, was born there and emigrated to Canada at the age of 3. His parents (my Great-great grandparents) were William Henderson who married Janet McKay (or MacKay) in 1863, in Wick, Caithness. While I have details of the family once they arrived in Canada, I know nothing about my Scottish ancestors and I have no idea where to begin to look. Any suggestions where I might begin?

  • Bruce

    Nancy – great that you have some anchors to Caithness in your family’s history. There is a huge resource at the Wick public library, and the staff there frequently likes to help ex-pats piece together their history.

    I have been to the library several times myself, and they are a wealth of information. The more tied to Wick you are, the more information they can product to color in your history. I suggest going to their web site, and getting in contact

    Gail Inglis @ north highland archives


  • Ken Henderson

    Hi Bruce,
    Just checking in from Nova Scotia. Nothing much to add from our last emails. I now have 104 y markers from Genebase and am waiting for 37 from FTDNA. Will get back to you when I get them to see if it points in any other direction. It will give us a little test on marker comparison between the two.


  • Nancy Henderson

    Thank you for the contact information, Bruce. I live in Canada so searching from this side of the “pond” can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. I will contact Gail Inglis as you suggested. Thank you so much.
    Nancy Saxby (Henderson)

  • Mark Henderson

    I have recovered my family heritage pointing back to Wick Caithness with an Alexander Henderson born 1862.

  • Aaron Henderson

    i’m still confused as to WHY Henryson and all its spelling and pronunciation variations became HENDERson is HENDER how Henry is pronounced in the Scandanavian countries? Now in Norweigen HENDER means “Hands” plural.i’m told that a “Hender” is a word for Black-Smith in Norway.i’m wodering if the name Hender meaning “Hands” in Norweigen is used to describe someone that is a craftsman or is skilled at making things obviously with their hands in Norway or Sweden.OR if Hender is a word or name that signifies “The Hand of The King” BodyGuard etc.In the name Hendry was the intrusive “D” sound ADDED or SUBTRACTED and WHY?The most popular account is the name WAS Henderyson. was the D added becuase some peoples COULDN’T pronounce the R in Henry WITHOUT adding the D? i tend to think that since the HENDER are of Norse stock that the HENDER does NOT originate completely from Henry.

  • Aaron Henderson

    as an addendum to my first post.i ask the question is HENDER a word that defines or describes a HEAD person a “Chief” as does the name Henry mean “Home Ruler” or Head Man or Chief of HOME or village?If Henry is derived from the Saxon words Heim-Reich , wouldn’t it mean it’s a borrowed named ? it’s obviously NOT Pictish OR Scottish naming in origin.perhaps it’s a Saxon name that was absorbed into Scottish culture by way of Saxons that REMAINED in Scotland after the Saxons abandoned large scale campaigning in Scotland and fit themselves in with the native scots,and a FAR older name than the tradition that the HENDER are from the Norse Henry Gunn of the 1400’s as far as Henry Gunn is concerned he simply ADOPTED this name as HENDERSONS were already established in the time of Robert Bruce having been in Glencoe at the time that King Robert Bruce gave Glencoe to Angus Og MacDonald and settled his son Ian(John)in Lochaber and THAT Henderson chief being a HENRY was chief of the Hendersons in Glencoe in the 1300’s.It has been written there are many DIFFERENT origins of the HENDERSON name.adopting the Henderson name a transplanting it DOESN’T define or explain the origins of the Surname as a whole.did Henry Gunn style himself HENDERSON or Henryson and WHY this mysterious “Intrusive dialectual “D” if HENDERson ISN’T just that ..the sons of HENDER?

  • Aaron Henderson

    the situation of Scottish clans and septs becomes confusing when you take into consideration that in the late 1700’s early 1800’s 2 enterprising Italians compiled a faulty list of Surnames connected to clan affiliations.

  • Rosemarie Truchon Henderson

    My 4th great grandfather was Dunbar Henderson who married in Wick, Caithness. One of his sons Peter (my 3rd great grandfather) came over to the Red River Settlement in Manitoba, Canada. Thank you Bruce for providing us with this wealth of information!

  • Rosemarie Truchon

    Nancy Henderson, I wonder if we are connected for my 3rd great grandfather came from Wick to Canada. There are also McKays marrying into this line? I am hoping that we can somehow come in contact with each other if you are interested. I am also researching the family history of my Henderson line.


  • Nancy Henderson

    Rosemarie Truchon – please contact me at njsaxby@gmail.com. I only have a marriage record for my gggrandfather William Henderson and Janet Mackay. I know nothing of their parentage, nor do I have any information on other children they may have had other than my ggrandfather Gavin. Have hit the proverbial brick wall. Would be wonderful if we could find a connection. Thanks. Nancy Saxby

  • Margaret Miller

    Hi Bruce, somewhere along the line I believe I am related through Marjory Henderson 1805 to 30th April 1893 she married Robert Munro …….1809 to 18th March 1899? They married 30th June 1939
    Lived at Rockhead Ramscraigs
    their Daughter Catherine Munro had a son to Thomas Paterson….Thomas Munro Pateron….
    He was my Grandad, he married Catherine Mann…family Robert,Catherine,James and John
    James was my Dad
    could you possibly tell me were Marjory and Roberts Parents, many thanks Margaret
    ps I live in Caithness

  • Philip Henderson

    Hi Bruce, My name is Philip Henderson and I live in Centennial Co. just outside of Denver. I have researched my family name years ago and am now back into it on Ancestry. Most of the family was in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. I have got to my Great.great, great grandfather . HIs name was Elihu Taply Henderson born in 1795 and died 1844. I can’t find anything more on him, do you have any suggestions.
    Another question on Coat of Arms for Henderson. The one I have I think from the Fordell one saya in the description that the Glues, three piles issuing out of the sinister side , on the chief of the last. English description says the the shield of red the three piles (Triangles) coming from the sinister (Left) side are in silver. Most of the Coat of Arms I see for Henderson show the silver triangles on the right side which I believe is incorrect, Am I correct?
    Thanks. God Bless.

  • Bruce

    Hello Philip – sorry for the delay in responding, I was on a road trip across the west and had limited internet access.

    As far as a coat of arms for Hendersons – The Henderson name actually came about in multiple places in the UK, and it’s tough to know which group your ancestors came from without a DNA test. As for myself, I am fortunate enough to know about my Caithness origins. For my Hendersons, there has never been a coat of arms (to my knowledge) as none of us were never considered nobility.

    The Fordell coat of arms are (from what I understand) a personal coat of arms that belong solely to the Chief. Now none of us Yanks stand on such ceremony, and tend to display this stuff at will. But sadly I can’t offer you any advice on the heraldry on the Fordell Coat of Arms. I do know they changed for Alistair from the Coat of Arms that belonged to his father, the prior chief. Perhaps that’s where the versions come from?

    Best of luck – Bruce

  • Robert Henderson

    HI Bruce, managed to trace my 6th great grandfather John Henderson born 1750, in Canisbay, Caithness but have had troubled going back any further. I have found some links to his father Magnus born 1720 but from what I can see there are some gaps in the birth records around that time. Wondered if you had advice on how I could possibly get any more information going back along the line? Many thanks. Rob.

  • Bruce

    Thanks for posting Robert. The truth is I have been unable to find really anything that mentions my specific Henderson family any earlier than say about 1770. So I can’t be much help to you, sorry to say. I wish you good luck and proper breakthroughs in your hunt, I know how rewarding it can be.

  • Marie Flaherty

    We are headed to Northern Scotland in Oct 2019 and was wondering if there are any Henderson sites or info while we are there? Nice information, thanks
    My Husband’s 3rd Great Grandfather is below.

    William Henderson was born on January 13, 1798, in Thurso, Caithness, Scotland, the son of Anne and William. He was baptized on March 8, 1798. He had one son with Isabella in 1823.

  • Bruce

    Hello Marie – I would visit the Dunbeath Heritage Centre, and the Wick Heritage Centre. There is also a great place called Timespan in Helmsdale that is worth visiting, and if you want to see how farming went in the 18th and 19th centuries, visit the Laidhay croft near Dunbeath.

    Simply put, you could fill a week in Caithness with great historical and outdoor adventures, and still have plenty left for next time. As I tell everyone, “I have unfinished business in Caithness”.

    Enjoy your trip!

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