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

The Norse and the Celt – Early Caithness

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The ancient history of the Hendersons is tied to that of Caithness, the land that they settled as their home. Caithness itself is not native to the British Isles geologically, but rather is a piece of the North American continent that plate tectonics has grafted onto Scotland many millions of years ago. It’s geology is distinct and separate from the land south of the Great Glen, and this unique geology is responsible for the rich deposits of oil and shale that are the life blood of the North Sea economy.

But before the norse Vikings came to this Caithness, it was inhabited by Picts and later Gales. There is a great deal of evidence that Caithness has been people for at least the last 4,000 years. This comes in the form of dozens of Brochs scattered across the coast. A Broch is an Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure of a type found in Scotland. Brochs include some of the most sophisticated examples of drystone architecture ever created, and belong to the classification “complex Atlantic Roundhouse” devised by Scottish archaeologists in the 1980s. In old Norse they are called “Borg”, a name which appears in southern Caithness.

These Brochs were built during the Bronze and Iron ages, between 1,000 BC and 400 AD, most likely by the native Picts and Gaels who lived there at the time. Their purpose and use is still the subject of little agreement among archaeologists, but they likely served the same purpose as later day castles; a fortification that provided defense in times of war, and a symbol of lordship and power in times of peace.

Sometime during the 8th century AD, the Norse began to colonize northern Scotland and Caithness, under claim from the Norwegian Earldom of Orkney. Picts came to Orkney during the Bronze Age and archaeological data shows that there were people living there prior to the Vikings who came to Orkney, probably by the latter part of the 8th century although this is up for dispute. Norwegian Vikings probably either came to the islands first as farmers who were seeking land or as warriors who were claiming territory and riches as was common with Viking conquests elsewhere.

Though it is controversial, there is evidence emerging that the Norse occupation of Caithness was not a violent or tyrannical rule. Much of this evidence is coming in relation to research being performed by George and Nan Bethune, and work done via the Dunbeath Heritage Centre. The emerging picture is of Dunbeath as a town that straddled the Gaelic people of the south of Caithness and the Norse people to the north, where these two groups of people met to trade, worship and interact. Emerging science is describing a history for Dunbeath that goes back to the earliest periods of our recorded history – a tale that deserves much deeper study.

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