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

Family Tree Poster Updated

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In the past year we have continued our family research, and as a result an updated version of the family tree poster is now live on the web site. I will be taking a few copies with me to the UK in May, with the “master” copy going to the Dunbeath Heritage Centre.

This version adds the information from Margaret Irvine from her family, as well as expansion of the Knockfin Hendersons and the descendants of Reverend Adam.

You can find it under “Resources” to the right, or at this link: Hendersons Family Tree PDF

The Quest to Find Reverend Adam - Now Online

The story of our family’s quest to uncover the history of Reverend Adam C. Henderson (my great-grandfather) is now compiled from its pieces and on its own page. You can find it on this site at the top: Finding Adam

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.

Reverend Adam Portrait, Circa 1909

Thanks to the dedication and hard work of a Henderson cousin, we have at long last found our ancestor’s photos. This one is a portrait of 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.

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Words cannot describe the gratitude I feel towards my cousin for finding this, and taking the time to pass this on.

Introducing The Reverend Adam C. Henderson & Family

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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 more than a century after it was taken, is the photo we all hoped existed. It appears to be Reverend Adam C. Henderson, his wife Jane, and the lady at the far end being named Connie Cunningham – possibly a cousin of Adam, along with their children Hughina, Annie, Jane, Baby Isabella, Mary, Donald and Dora. No hint of where James (my grandfather) is during this shot, though maybe he is behind the camera. 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.

I cannot thank my cousin Sheri enough, this is truly a treasure.

[Update 07 Feb 2010] – A special thanks to Kathryn Campbell for giving us a possible location: The graveyard house at Cathcart cemetery.

Finding Adam – Part Two

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Trinity Divinity School, Glasgow, where Adam studied to become a minister of the Free Church

This is a continuation the story of our joint research to find the history of the Reverend Adam C. Henderson. You can read the first part in Finding Adam – Part One.

In the first part of this story, 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

As a hint that some of what we seek is not so much lost as it is misplaced, a strange photograph came to light in September of 2009. During a visit to my Aunt Moira, she brought out old photo albums and we looked through them. As we were flipping throughout the book, a tiny photograph fell out from behind a larger black and white photograph. In it were four people, sitting in front of what we now know was the reverend’s house on Derby Crescent in Kelvin Grove, Glasgow. One is clearly my grandfather James as a young man. Seated with him is a young lady, whom my Aunt identified as my grandmother, along with an older man and an older woman.

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Is this Reverend Adam C. Henderson, his wife Jane and my Grandfather James? We hope to find enough evidence in the future to determine this beyond doubt.

The older man bears a significant resemblance to the young fellow from the 1871 Trinity group photo, while the older lady shares some resemblance to my grandfather. Is it Reverend Adam and his wife Jane? We have no concrete proof until we have a photograph that we know is of him, but it hints that perhaps in a box in an attic somewhere in Scotland or in Canada hides some of what we seek. With time and persistence, we will continue the search as our labor of love.

Finding Adam – Part One

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What we think is the ruins of Donald’s House in Ramscraigs, where Adam was born and grew up.

This story is provided to motivate other researchers to go beyond the genealogy of their families and into their history. The search for this man, his history and his family has been the driving force behind my research.

One of the great searches that has been at the foundation of the project has been uncovering information about my Henderson great-grandfather, a man by the name of Reverend Adam Cunningham Henderson. Prior to my visit to Scotland in September of 2006, was the earliest ancestor I knew about.

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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Group photo of students at the Trinity College circa 1871

The search for Adam was not done – and would lead us to new discoveries about his family, his brothers and would eventually take us to Caithness. Be sure to check back for part two soon!

What’s Coming For Ramscraigs

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I hope all our readers had a wonderful a joyous Christmas. With Hogmanay right around the corner, there is much to look forward to in 2010. Currently, the family tree is being updated, and a version that covers some of the other families of the area is in work. We hope to expand the number of lines we have published to hopefully include some of the Gunns, a few Sutherlands, and possibly the Bethunes.

Meanwhile, I am trying to put together an expedition back to Caithness for the summer or spring of 2010. I would very much like to re-visit Knockfin, Rhian and finally pin down which of the abandoned houses in Ramscraigs belong to which family.

Part of the work to make any possible trip as productive as possible is finding out as much about the areas as I can. During the Landward filming, I was presented with a host of new facts, which I have been working to incorporate into the history. One effort of research is using aerial images in both the visible and infra-red bands to try and better establish where the buildings were, and where features of the terrain were located, such as the old road (which pre-dates the path of the A9), the village of Ramscraigs, the buildings at Knockfin and Rhian, and the site where they landed Herring at the beach below Ramscraigs.

It has been a struggle to come up with the data, as most of the companies that might have it seem none too eager for business. It may be necessary to collect it myself during my trip. I am far from an expert and doing so, but I am not without some skill in the area.

Any expedition would (hopefully) include documenting the places and stories of the area, in photos, on video and recording the people, that we hope to share with you.

The Ledger – Sinclair Spinning Co.

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During a trip to Scotland a few years ago, I gave into temptation and visited the National Archives of Scotland – a repository of all manner of historical documents maintained by the Scottish government.

They provide a nice web interface to search the archives, and one of the few things that come up if you use the search words “Henderson Caithness” was a ledger book from one William Henderson circa 1802 or so. William is not an uncommon name, but it went on the list to review. I was hoping it might shed some light our family, but ready to spend some time leafing through it to find what I wanted.

What this artifact turned out to be was a record of the Sinclair Spinning Company of Berriedale, Caithness. This fellow, William Henderson, operated a business gathering lint and wool from the local farms, and spinning it into yard and woven into cloth. His ledger records each family he traded with, the amount of goods he took in, and the payment made. In some cases he paid in cash and in others he traded in kind for flour, sugar and other goods. As such, it functions as a partial census of the area, noting each family and their location. Even the amount of wool can give the reader some idea of the scale of each croft. The ledger is some 200 pages in length, covering family crofts from as far south as Helmsdale to as far north as Latheron,

As luck would have it, I did not have to look through this fascinating book for long, because there on the 3rd page was one of William’s first customer – James and his brother Angus. This led me to outline the following notion of who I can pin down to the family that came from Knockfin.

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Since this finding, new information has been shared by the Nan Bethune of Dunbeath, possibly drawing in a number of other Hendersons of the region into the same family. (more on that in the days to come).

What happened to Angus is a mystery. We think that he fathered an illegitimate child, and then disappears from any and all records. We suspect that he may have emigrated to Canada, or possibly joined the Army and never returned to Caithness. William, on the other hand, may have gone on to become one of the factors for James Sinclair, the man behind the Berriedale clearances. But that is still a matter of research.

Henderson - Gunn Genetic Connections: The Missing Link

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The heather covered hills of Kildonan

Part of our research into family history has been to use DNA to look beyond where the stories stop and into the deeper ancestry of the Hendersons of Caithness. The human Y chromosome is passed unaltered from father to son, with a few mutations creeping in ever several generations or so. An emerging field of research has been to connect families based on similarities in their Y chromosomes – if the DNA matches closely, they are related.

For my Henderson family, this has presented a historical puzzle. The history of Caithness describes the sundering of the Gunn clan following the battle of St. Tears, and how Henry Gunn and his family decided to part ways with their kin and took the surname Henderson. If history is correct, my DNA should match the DNA of someone in the Gunn family. However, that has not been the case, even when we were able to test the DNA of a Gunn with confirmed Ramscraigs heritage.

Several weeks ago, as a result of this web site, a fellow in Canada by the name of Henderson contacted me via email. A very pleasant gentleman, we carried on an good conversation over email, and eventually it came to light that his family emigrated to Canada, living in Nova Scotia and Manitoba. To me, this was an immediate attention grabber. Many displaced families from Caithness and Sutherland had joined the Selkirk settlement in Manitoba and the Red River valley.

His roots to Scotland included an ancestor from Kildonan who lived in Helmsdale before shipping over to Canada. This is the same path that many Hendersons and Gunns had taken during the period of the clearances, and his family line would hold many possible points of history.

Fortunately, he had his DNA tested some time ago, though it was not even remotely close to mine. Instead, an interesting thing arose. The Gunn who helped us out so much by offering his DNA for testing was a very close match, close enough in fact that the most recent common ancestor was likely in the 500-700 year time frame.

At long last, here was DNA science proving the connection between the Gunns and the Hendersons. This man, whose family was forced from Kildonan (the last stronghold of the Gunn clan), carried with him the Gunn DNA fingerprint. He had realized this himself some time ago, but had met with rejection and confusion from the Gunn clan association. For many of Clan Henderson USA, his genetics are a breakthrough in history. Many members of their genetics project have lost their connection to Scotland through the decay of time. But with this new DNA sample, many of these are clearly Kildonan Gunn Hendersons who arrived in the colonies either seeking a better life, or after being cleared from the Strath of Kildonan.

For my genetic line, the work to solve the puzzle of a I1d-Norse ancestory goes on.

Henderson Family Life At Rhian

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sheiling2.jpg

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

Landward Episode 23 - Commentary

Colin-Knockfin.jpg
The episode has aired now (November 27th in Scotland) and thankfully I was able to find a way to see it, and I would now like to share my comments on the episode with you.

First off, I think it was great! It’s by far the best 6 minutes of Henderson ancient history on television thus far. Most of the folks in the family who saw it wish it would have been longer, which is understandable. But the pacing, the camera work and way they packed that much information into 6 minutes was fantastic.

Word from Landward is that they will provide us with the whole footage some time this spring. I am not sure if it will be possible, but I would very much like to try and put together a “directors cut” of the segment from the portion that aired along with some other elements from the tape.

The detailed comments, and hints about what else was filmed Continue reading Landward Episode 23 – Commentary

Catherine Henderson Barnie

Catharine Henderson 1832.jpg In what I hope can be a reoccurring series, I am happy to introduce you to one of the Henderson ancestors. The distinguished lady pictures is Catherine Henderson. The photograph comes courtesy of Cousin Sally Crossley, one of her descendants.

Catherine was the youngest daughter born in 1832 to Angus Henderson (born 24 Apr 1802, son of James of Rhian) and his wife Catherine Gunn (born about 1800 in the Dunbeath area). This family is believed to have lived at a croft in an area called Balnabruich (see map here for where that is) close to the town of Dunbeath.

She married a man named George Barnie (born 1818 in Ramscraigs) who worked as a farm hand on the Dunbeath Estate (more on the Barnies later) on 15 February 1856 and settled in the Ramscraigs area. During this period, the Herring boom was nearing a crest, and the town of Dunbeath was a bustling hub of industry. All facets of life were tied to the growing fishing industry, and the swell of commerce it brought to Dunbeath men and women seeking work, and there is some evidence that George may have worked for a time with Donald Henderson making shoes at his shop at Ramscraigs. In the 1861, George Barnie listed his profession as a Fisherman in the Scottish census.

George and Catherine had 9 children. and lived to a ripe old age of 96, dying in 1914.

Landward Episode 23 - My Thanks

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George, Anson and Holly at Knockfin

With the Landward segment now aired, I would like to publicly thank everyone who put forth the effort to make this happen. This includes:

Landward
First off, it was great fun to do a segment on Landward, and I am forever grateful for the chance to present a portion of our story. Thanks to Holly for going with the idea which originally was to film at Badbea and transition to Knockfin instead. Holly kept things moving forward, and Colin; thanks for lugging that camera all over the place.

Holly Booth – Landward Assistant Producer
Colin MacLure – Landward Cameraman

Dunbeath Heritage
Simply put, without the good work of the Dunbeath Heritage Centre, none of this could have ever happened. The Centre served as a hub for the shoot, and put forth an enormous amount of research and logistical support. For those that are wondering, a visit to the Dunbeath Centre is worth the drive to Caithness all on its own. With Dunbeath being a rich site of archeology and historical research, the centre’s collection will hopefully continue to grow.

Meg Sinclair – Director of the Dunbeath Heritage Center
Nan Bethune – Historian and national treasure
George Bethune – Historian and national treasure
Margaret Irvine – Cousin & researcher
Sandy Gunn – Owner of the Rhian site

Knockfin – Wellbeck Estate
Anson is one of the nicest fellows you could ever hope to meet, and I can’t thank him enough for taking us back to Knockfin. My only regret is that I did not have as much time as I wanted to capture the beauty of this place in pictures, but the Estate and Anson has kindly offered to take me back there when I can return to Caithness.

Anson MacAuslan – Factor, Wellbeck Estate

Badbea Families
This whole thing really started with Lynn and Martin Craig. The original concept that came from Lynn and Holly was to return someone to Badbea in conjunction with Scotland’s 2009 Homecoming celebrations. Over time the idea morphed into the Knockfin plan instead, largely due to who was available to travel to Caithness (me). The Craig’s work to preserve the important legacy of Badbea continues to this day, with their fantastic web site, The Badbea Families.

Lynn Craig – Badbea Families
Martin Craig – Badbea Families

To all of you who put forth the effort to make this happen, my eternal thanks. I am sure I have forgotten someone, so please consider yourself thanked if I overlooked you, and drop me an email.

Missing Families - Where Did They Go?

Dunbeath Bridge

By 1810, there is no further record of either William or Angus Henderson in and around the villages of Berriedale or Dunbeath.  No record of their death is transcribed in the parish records, and there is no further appearance in any official documents, including the first census of Scotland in 1841.
This begs the question – where did these men and their families go?  There are several intriguing possibilities.  As was cited earlier, the Red River colonies of Manitoba were a frequent destination for Caithness colonists seeking a new opportunity.  Is it possible the Angus or William sailed to Canada to join Lord Selkirk’s settlement, and found a way to survive the brutal Canadian winters, and the hostile living conditions.
Sadly the records of the early colonies that would become Winnepeg are not accurate enough to provide us with a list of names and places of origin to determine this.
There is some evidence that some young men from this region were transported to Australia either by choice or being sentenced to “Transportation” for even minor infractions.  One such example is the case of Donald Henderson who lived in Dunbeath at this time.  It is not known if Donald was in any way related to our Hendersons, but he provides a narrative of what may have happened to William and or Angus.
One summer’s night, the fishing fleet had come in from a successful day catching Herring, and many of the crew were enjoying the services of the inn near the harbor in Dunbeath.  Reports say that nearly 50 men were at the inn, mostly from Dunbeath and Berriedale, with a few visiting boats from the village of Helmedale further to the south.  As the night wore on, many of the men had quite a bit to drink, and there was a general rowdy drunkenness in the air.  Towards midnight, the inn keeper (who was also a Henderson), directed the most drunken of the bunch to leave the inn and head towards their beds.
While walking away, several of the men from Dunbeath and Helmsdale stopped on the bridge over the Dunbeath river, where a series of boasts were made between crews, each claiming to be the strongest, bravest and toughest from their village.  It did not take long before the boasts turned to action, with the fishermen lifting one another up and tossing men from the bridge into the icy river below.  At first this was good natured, but devolved into a fierce contests between the men of Dunbeath and the men of Helmsdale.
This would probably be the end of it, had not some travelers, not connected to the proceedings, happened to cross the bridge, and found themselves tossed into the river below.  One of these men proceeded to the inn, where the local sheriff (who was also the innkeeper) was alerted.  With several of his staff, the innkeeper went to the bridge to “break it up” and found himself mobbed by the drunken sailors.  When things were finally settled, several men, including this Donald Henderson, were in irons.  Later that month in court, he and his fellow ruffians were sentenced to 10 years “transportation” for their role in the disturbance, and were in essence exiled to Australia.

The old Dunbeath bridge and mill in the early 1900s

By 1810, there is no further record of either William or Angus Henderson in and around the villages of Berriedale or Dunbeath.  No record of their death is transcribed in the parish records, and there is no further appearance in any official documents, including the first census of Scotland in 1841.

This begs the question – where did these men and what family they had go?  There are several intriguing possibilities.  As was cited earlier, the Red River colonies of Manitoba were a frequent destination for Caithness colonists seeking a new opportunity.  Is it possible the Angus or William sailed to Canada to join Lord Selkirk’s settlement, and found a way to survive the brutal Canadian winters, and the hostile living conditions.

Sadly the records of the early colonies that would become Winnepeg are not accurate enough to provide us with a list of names and places of origin to determine this.

There is some evidence that some young men from this region were transported to Australia either by choice or being sentenced to “Transportation” for even minor infractions.  One such example is the case of Donald Henderson who lived in Dunbeath at this time.  It is not known if Donald was in any way related to our Hendersons, but he provides a narrative of what may have happened to William and or Angus.

One summer’s night, the fishing fleet had come in from a successful day catching Herring, and many of the crew were enjoying the services of the inn near the harbor in Dunbeath.  Reports say that nearly 50 men were at the inn, mostly from Dunbeath and Berriedale, with a few visiting boats from the village of Helmedale further to the south.  As the night wore on, many of the men had quite a bit to drink, and there was a general rowdy drunkenness in the air.  Towards midnight, the inn keeper (who was also a Henderson), directed the most drunken of the bunch to leave the inn and head towards their beds.

While walking away, several of the men from Dunbeath and Helmsdale stopped on the bridge over the Dunbeath river, where a series of boasts were made between crews, each claiming to be the strongest, bravest and toughest from their village.  It did not take long before the boasts turned to action, with the fishermen lifting one another up and tossing men from the bridge into the icy river below.  At first this was good natured, but devolved into a fierce contests between the men of Dunbeath and the men of Helmsdale.

This would probably be the end of it, had not some travelers, not connected to the proceedings, happened to cross the bridge, and found themselves tossed into the river below.  One of these men proceeded to the inn, where the local sheriff (who was also the innkeeper) was alerted.  With several of his staff, the innkeeper went to the bridge to “break it up” and found himself mobbed by the drunken sailors.  When things were finally settled, several men, including this Donald Henderson, were in irons.  Later that month in court, he and his fellow ruffians were sentenced to 10 years “transportation” for their role in the disturbance, and were in essence exiled to Australia.

Chances are, there are members of the family in North America or Austrailia to this day.  Hopefully one day they will find this site and thereby gain the means to re-connect with their past.