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

Henderson Family Life At Rhian


The ruins of the outbuildings a Rhian

During the time when James Henderson and his family lived at Rhian (1799 – 1840), the two primary forces in southern Caithness was the fishing industry and the clearances. Where the clearances was pushing families out of their highland farms towards the coast, the money that could be made at fishing was pulling young men and abled bodied folk down to the coast to earn a steady wage.

At Rhian, the family likely lived in a traditional highland blockhouse, or taigh dubh. Blackhouses were so named because of the central peat fire that would eventually cover the interior walls with a layer of black soot. They were typically built with double wall dry-stone walls, with a layer of earth or sod at the top of the walls to bring them to full height, and to seat the wooden crucks.

The house only had one door, though which both people and animals would enter the house, with the animals on the byre and and the people on the other, with a sail-cloth separating the two sides of the house. There is a peat fire in the middle of the human end of the house, smoke being left to curl up towards a hole in the thatch. Cooking was done via pots that would hang from the rafters over the peat fire, or a flat iron griddle to cook bannocks.


Image of a typical highland blackhouse

The thatched roof was supported by rafters made of wood held together with wooden pins. The rafters were not laid on the wall head, but were notched into cavities built into the stacked stone walls. The rafters were curved, giving the entire roof a slightly domed effect. These rafters were then thatched with layers of straw, sod and rushes held down with rope and when possible wire netting. The inner walls were plastered with a mixture of lime and sand, while the outer walls were sealed with the same mixture. The house exteriors were pained white when possible.

In many houses the central kitchen / family room held a traditional pit hearth capable of holding a week or more of ashes from the peat fire. Peat was abundant in Caithness, and most houses had a good sized “peat stack” that would provide heat and cooking through the colder months.


A diagram of how the Rhian house was likely laid out

The peat fire was essential to the home, and was rarely, if ever extinguished (it was considered bad luck). Here in the kitchen/living room apartment the fire rested against the gable, the smoke simply curling up the wall and through a hole in the roof.


Interior of a reconstructed blackhouse showing the central peat fire, and the cupboard. Image courtesy of photoeverywhere

Economics of the farm at Rhian was based more or less on living from the land. The diet was largely of oatmeal, potatoes, mutton, pork, milk, cheese, crowdie, eggs, and hares of which there was an abundance, augmented with salt herring and other fish that was available in increasing supply from the fishing. The cow or cattle were often under the same roof as the humans during the winter. This was for the sake of the animal – it was essential to the family that the cow was in good health and gave a good yield of milk. The cow benefited from the warmth of the fire but also gave out large quantities of heat itself, from its body and manure.

The byre was at the lower end of the house so that the urine would drain into the arable land. The ammonia from the urine also helped to sterilize the house. Each spring the byre would be cleaned out of the accumulated manure which would be placed on the crops as fertilizer. Human waste would also be gathered for this purpose with the urine being used for treating fabrics such as tweed.

The cattle they reared were of the Highland type, horned and shaggy, and their horses were the Highland garron. Rhian had a pair of working horses for ploughing and tilling the soil. The Henderson croft likely kept about twenty four to thirty cattle, while on the hill pasture they had perhaps forty to fifty Cheviot ewes.

In all tasks, the family would have enlisted every soul, from the feeding of livestock to the cleaning of the Byre, the two parents and seven children would have been busy nearly every waking hour. School was attended in Berriedale, in a simple one-room school house where the children received a rudimentary education.


The Rhian croft structures, looking south towards Berriedale and the Ord of Caithness

The Sunday sabbath was strictly observed, and young and old alike were expected to study the word of the Lord well.
William, Angus and John showed a great deal of interest in the croft, and as they grew older took on an increasing amount of work at Rhian, and saved what money the could earn for the day when they would have a farm of their own. The family livestock required constant and daily attention.

In summer months, the older boys were given the responsibility of taking the herds higher in the hills to the lush seasonal pastures there. Cattle were milked, and that milk crafted into butter and cheese as a means of storing it for the winter. With the long summer days, the summer grazings required nearly around-the-clock supervision of the herds. While in the highland pastures, the boys would sleep in small, rough structures known as Sheilings. The herds would be driven back down to the coast a few weeks before the grain was brought in, allowing the boys to attend classes, church and help gather harvest.


A typical Caithness Sheiling structure

Donald was frequently nearby with his uncle, John Sutherland. John had a workshop on his croft where he made and repaired boots and shoes. Donald showed a keen interest in things mechanical and working with tools, and John was all too happy to have willing hands to help. Donald eventually formally became John’s apprentice and devoted himself to becoming a shoemaker, a trade that would eventually become pivotal to his family and his descendants.

Younger sons Robert and Alexander heard the call of the sea, and gravitated towards the Berriedale harbor, helping land the catch when the fleet was in, or helping the boats in any way a young man could. In Caithness of that age, fishing for Herring and Salmon was a solid and growing business. With limited tillable land, and eldest sons William and Angus focused on farming, fishing was the best path for a young man to make his way in the world.

Thanks to Meg Sinclair of the Dubeath Heritage Centre for information about the Rhian blackhouse

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