A driving force behind our research into family history has been the desire to recover what information we could about my great-grandfather, the Reverend Adam Cunningham Henderson. Some people might rightfully wonder why he is such a focus, and why I have focused on him.
Adam was a transformational figure in family history. He was the first Berriedale Henderson to attend college, elevating himself from his rural roots in Caithness to become a pillar of society in Lanarkshire. In spite of his prominence, very little information about survived to the present age, and surprisingly few of his 11 children chose to marry and have families of their own. Clearly there was a story here that had been lost, but it was recent enough that there were sufficient clues to begin the hunt. This is the story of how we finally found Adam – a project that would span two continents and half a decade.
What we think is the ruins of Donald’s House in Ramscraigs, where Adam was born and grew up.
Prior to September of 2006, Adam was the earliest Scottish ancestor I knew about. In fact I knew very little about him, other than he was a minister who ran his house with an iron hand, and an unswerving devotion to the lord in all aspects of his life. Then, as fortune would dictate, business took me to London for a week, and I made the trip north to Glasgow to pay a visit to my Scottish family.
During that wonderful visit with the family in East Kilbride, my cousin Lesley handed me a 2 page outline of the family tree that had been created by my Uncle Jim’s son, Anthony. It included not only Adam and all of his 11 or so children, but the name of Adam’s father – Donald and the name “Caithness” – a place I new very little about at that time.
My Scottish family – September 2006
These mysteries were what launched the research project – it was to me very odd that a man who had been so central to the community of East Kilbride at the turn of the 20th century would leave so little evidence of his life. None of us had any photos, and very few stories of the man. We did not know what had happened to his many children, and if they had families of their own. We did not even know where he was buried.
Upon returning home to the US, I resolved to find everything I could about Adam and his family before memories faded and more was lost. Where to start was the question. Thankfully – this is the internet age; a subscription to the fantastic ancestry.com very quickly started supplying me with information about Adam and his parents.
A few short days after starting, I had located Adam in the Scottish census for 1851, and his brothers (previously unknown) James and Alexander. This struck me as a surprise (though it shouldn’t) – Adam had brothers, what had become of their families? I was also able to verify the data that Anthony had put together that Adam’s father was Donald Henderson, a shoemaker in Ramscraigs and his mother Ann Cunningham. Ramscraigs was at that time, another name that had no meaning for me – was it a place, a name of farm or house? Typing that into Google did not even result in anything useful. Furthermore the name “Clashcarn” appears in the census as well.
Oddly enough, the 1861 census did not show Adam at home. He would have been 19 at the time, and it was a mystery where he could be. Oddly enough, after additional searching he turns up in the busy fishing town of Wick, miles to the north of Ramscraigs and Dunbeath, with an occupation listed as “Student”. This is in itself unusual, as pupils in school are typically listed as “Scholar”. His relationship is listed as “Boarder” in the house of a merchant in Wick. This piece of census information was to later lead to a significant discoveries about Adams years in Caithness.
Later in time I was able to use ancestry.com’s record searches to find him in Glasgow in 1871 attending university and living with is young wife, Jane Taylor, and then during his service as a minister of the Free Church of Scotland with his growing family at the manse in Busby, Lanarkshire.
Armed with places, dates and names, it was time to dig deeper into the life and times of this man who was pivotal in the family’s history.
Over the course of several months, I collected and digested what little information I could find about the Busby Free Church, which I came to find out had been converted into flats in the last few years. Thanks to Catherine Pearson of the Free Church of Scotland, I came to find out that Adam began his ministry career in Harthill in 1875, and translated to Busby in 1878. The records of the Busby Free Church were clearly going to be of great interest, but where were they? Normally such records would go to the Scottish National Archives, or to a local collection. Checking with all sources, including the library in Glasgow resulted in no trace of those records, anywhere.
As luck would have it, in the summer of 2008 I was able to visit Scotland once more. Prior to my trip, I resolved to consult whatever records I could find at the University of Glasgow, and see if there were any records of his time as a student. On a free afternoon, with the sun shining, I made my way to Great Western Road in Glasgow, and eventually to the university archives.
The old university on Glasgow High Street before the new campus was complete
Though I did not have an appointment (I had no idea the records were there), the staff was so very helpful and friendly, and quickly found a large amount of information, starting with his name in a book that celebrated the anniversary of the Trinity college (divinity school), where it confirmed what we had pieced together:
With his identity confirmed, the staff began to bring out several volumes, including class rosters. His first year entry is shown below:
Adam’s name in the Glasgow University 1867 roster – click for larger view
Adam, much to my delight, lists Ramscraigs Caithness as his home. I have actually found that a few documents related to members of my family denote a specific citation of Dunbeath or Ramscraigs, including immigration records where there is page after page of “country of origin” listed simply as “Scotland”, there in the midst of it is someone who put “Dunbeath, Scotland” – and it’s a Henderson or a Gunn.
According to class rolls, during his four years towards his arts degree, he studied Latin, Greek, Philosophy and even took Physics under Lord Kelvin.
As fortune would have it they also had the records for the Trinity divinity school, and there in his first year was information that had been the topic of discussion between the cousins – his native tongue. There listed on the rolls was the fact that he spoke Gaelic.
Adam’s name in the Trinity College roster – click for larger view
We could come to find out later, that his Gaelic would be useful in his missionary work among the displaced highland Scots who had come to Glasgow seeking work and a better life.
Though I had already collected more than I had ever hoped to find, Moira gave me a smile and said “there are some photos, though they are likely not in very good shape”. Several minutes later a box containing photographs from over 130 years ago were on the desk, showing photos of the staff and lecturers of the university. However, against all odds was a large, fading group photo showing young men seated at the food of a rock face (looking a lot like Edinburgh) dated 1871. If that were not enough, someone had taken the times to write the names on the photo margin below. After cross-checking the attendance rolls, he was the only Henderson at the university that year. Within this group photo, against all odds was a picture of my great-grandfather while he was studying to become a minister. This was literally the first photo anyone of us alive today had seen of the man.
Group photo of students at the Trinity College circa 1871
At this point our research went from a few names and a handful of dates into a the outline of a history about my great-grandfather, the Reverend Adam C. Henderson, who was born in Ramscraigs and escaped his humble origins to attended the University of Glasgow, and become a pillar of the Busby and East Kilbride community. Though we were incredibly fortunate to find not only his university records, but what we think is a photograph of Adam at divinity school, there were still so many gaps in his life we hoped to fill.
Trinity Divinity School, Glasgow, where Adam studied to become a minister of the Free Church
As is the case for many parts of the UK, the area around Busby (near Glasgow) and East Kilbride enjoys a group of local scholars who work to discover, document and preserve the local history. For the area where Adam was minister, the Giffnock Library is the hub of the Busby Historical Society. The Giffnock holds a significant and growing collection of documents, recordings and photographs of Busby and East kilbride. We contacted them in 2007, and they were happy to help us locate what information they had, which led us to be in contact with John McVicar by mid 2008, who was compiling a book on the history of Busby.
Busby Free Church, photo courtesy of the Giffnock Library
Thanks to the McVicar’s work, we were able to learn a great deal about Adam’s community; the places, events and environment in which he lived, along with the organizations and associations that he belonged to. Sadly they had no additional photographs of the reverend and his family, but the information they had about his activities was welcome additional detail about a man we knew little about.
A clip from John McVicar’s book on Busby and its history
Though we were adding to our knowledge, it was a nagging problem that we could not locate Adam’s grave. For a man who had played a prominent role in the communities of Busby and East Kilbride, the lack of evidence of his life remained an enduring mystery.
In an attempt to tear through the fog of time, we resolved to locate, by brute force searching if necessary, Adam’s grave and the final disposition of his children and their descendants (if any). By consulting Scotland’s People, we began locating and downloading images for the birth, marriage and death records for every one of Adam’s children. In the process of doing this, we found that sadly there were two babies born to that family that did not survive for long. We were surprised to find that a surprisingly low number of his children actually married, and that for a large family of that size there were very few grandchildren. Most of our searches forward towards the present day dead ended, leaving us with the impression that Adam’s line was not nearly as robust as one might think.
Worse yet, the older members of the family we contacted remembered conflicting information, some of which eventually turned out to be wrong. It was our sincere hope that we could contact some of his descendants in hope that they might be able to help us fill the family history.
As luck would have it, we were eventually sift through immigration, birth and marriage record to determine that two of Adam’s younger children had married and immigrated to Ontario. They died in the 1970s, and were buried in Hamilton, Ontario. Thanks once again to the magic of the internet, I was able to enlist the aid of the local library to uncover the obituaries for them and their wives, which named several of the descendants.
Armed with these names, we worked to find a recent postal address, and then sent a series of introductory letters, asking if they would be willing to re-connect with the family and help us in our research as best they can. Fortunately for us, our relatives seem to be uniformly kind and generous, and we soon incorporated two new cousins into the project. Sadly for us, they were, like us, without much useful information. This lack of passed down history and relics seems to have been universal, and point to some rift in the past that at present we cannot identify.
A portion of my granfather James’ birth certificate, part of the search for the Reverend’s family
Throughout 2008, we searched cemeteries across the Glasgow, Busby and Rutherford area, including walking through looking at headstones. Clearly the brute force method was not yielding results. It could have been that his grave was unmarked, or that weathering had removed any inscription we could read. Early in 2009, I decided to begin “socially engineering” government records keepers in central Scotland to help find his grave. Late in January we got lucky, and we were able to locate his grave in Cathcart Cemetery, Section F, Lair 471, along with his mother, his wife, his mother in law, and two babies that died within the first year, Donald and John. Photographs show that the grave is either unmarked, or the headstone is lying face down in the dirt.
The section of Cathcart cemetery where Adam and his family are buried
Many questions remained, one of the biggest was how could a clever boy from a humble background afford the costly tuition at the University of Glasgow, let alone the cost of living in Glasgow in the 1860s while attending school. We had uncovered as much as we could find in Lanarkshire as we could think to look for, the next step in finding Adam was to visit Caithness, and see what could be found.
Luck would strike again when a few days before my expedition to Caithness, the records of the Busby Free Church turned up in a long forgotten storage location at another Busby church, and we were very kindly invited to review it. There were the church minutes from Adam’s tenure as moderator
Section of the church minutes from the Busby Free Church.
Traveling to Caithness is not trivial, as the best way to reach it is a long drive up the treacherous A9 motor-way north from Inverness. We had contacted the Dunbeath Heritage Centre, and the staff encouraged me to visit to research my family. Words are insufficient to describe the level of emotion as I crested the Ord of Caithness near that ruins of Badbea, and descended the Berriedale Braes. There, perched high above the hairpin turns was the old Berriedale graveyard, where I knew Adam’s father and brother were buried.
The graves of our ancestors overlooking Berriedale and the Ord of Caithness
The hillsides were dotted with ruined and abandoned stone houses, one of which I knew had to have been Donald’s house, where Adam was born and raised. To me, this was a land of legend – yet at the same time only separated from any of us by the will to go there and see it for ourselves.
The Dunbeath Centre was more than I could have hoped for, and the staff were incredibly helpful. Not only did they know of the family, but they had taken the time to catalog and record the family tree on a very long chart, which they generously copied for me to take home. They also identified where to find the graves of many of my Henderson ancestors and kin. The remainder of the trip focused on photographing the area, many of which are now part of this site.
The Dunbeath Heritage Centre – a true Scottish treasure
Though we have made tremendous progress from that first search, there is much that we are looking for but may never find. The mystery remains of why so little was passed down from Adam’s family to the present day, and what became of photos, letters or other things from that day. One fact brought to light from our research regards Adam’s mother, Ann Cunningham Henderson. When Donald died in 1892, Ann moved to south to Lanarkshire and lived with Adam and his family for the rest of her years. By working with Sally, it has become clear that people in Caithness were very enthusiastic about having their photos taken. In fact there were several places, including Wick and Thurso, where there were portrait studios. In addition these photographers would sell a portrait sitting during “Market Days” which would happen twice a year (spring and fall) in Dunbeath. Therefore it is possible that photographs of Donald and Ann were taken when they were quite old. The question comes up then, what happened to them and could they have survived the present age? (more on this in a bit). Ann passed away in 1900, 9 years before Adam’s death and 21 years before Jane’s death. From what I have been able to gather chatting with some folk historians in Dunbeath, it was the custom (and sorry if this is universal to Scotland) that people of that time would keep a “Kist”, a trunk, box or chest that held “bonnie things”. When Ann moved to Busby to live with Adam, the chances are very high that her Kist (if she had one) would have come with her. Whatever Ann may have taken to Busby would probably represent the pinnacle of what we might be able to recover from a family history standpoint, if any has survived to this day.
Then in January, luck would smile upon us once again. Some days when you are researching history, you get lucky. Early in our research efforts it became clear that it was very likely that photos of Reverend Adam had been taken at some point during his life, and that there was a reasonable chance that his family was photographed as well. The question would be – had any survived to the present age.
Then, as luck would have it, a cousin and member of the research team found an old photo, in a place where you would not normally keep a photo, such as at the bottom of a dresser drawer.
There, preseved for us to find, almost a century and a half after it was taken, is the photo we all hoped existed. It appears to be Reverend Adam C. Henderson, his wife Jane, and their children Hughina, Annie, Jane, Baby Isabella, Mary, James and Dora. Given the ages of the children, the photo would have been taken around 1886, and there is a strong chance that the elderly lady on the left is none other than Adam’s mother, Anne (Cunningham) Henderson. We are still trying to figure out where this photo was taken, thought it seems like it could be a church doorway, it does not match the photos we have of the Busby Free Church. A attentive reader, Kathryn Campbell gave us a possible location: The graveyard house at Cathcart cemetery.
Last but not least, the portrait we were certain had been taken, found with the family photo. Thanks to the dedication and hard work of a Henderson cousin, we have at long last found our ancestor’s photos. This one shows him in 1909, the year that he died. By this point his health had become frail, and he was retired from full time duties as the minister of the Busby Free Church.
Though we have finally found the photos we had been searching for, the hunt for our personal history continues across the UK, and at times in the far corners of the world, as documents would show us, the Hendersons were scattered across the globe in the centuries after we left Caithness.