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

Reconciling DNA and History


No discussion of Henderson pre-history would be complete without mention of DNA testing of Henderson Y chromosomes, and what it tells us about history. In 2009, a detailed genetic sequence of a Henderson Y chromosome was performed (67 markers) and it gave the first indications of a Norse, rather than Scottish deep ancestry. The DNA sequence showed that the Y chromosome has a very strong Norse origin, with likely origin in Norway, Sweeden or Iceland. It falls into the genetic designation of “I1d”, also known as I1 “Ultra Norse”. This norse heritage, and the unusual nature of the chromosome sequence (even within the I1d databases) means that finding a similar expression will strongly imply a shared heritage.

By the historical account of the genesis of the Hendersons of Caithness, this Y chromosome should be very close to the Gunn Y chromosome, and this is where the mysteries start.

The Gunns have been working on a catalog of their Y DNA for some time. In fact they have a robust variety of tests results. Nearly every Gunn man tested comes back with a DNA sequence that falls into two very similar groups. These DNA sequences show broad european origin, or the “R1b” designator (as opposed to Henderson I1). Across northern Europe as a whole, the “R” genes account for 80% of the population, and the “I” genes account for 18%. Of the 3 dozen or so Gunns tested, there is a very predictable pattern, none of which are even close to the Henderson I1d.

The Gunns that had been tested were mostly families that had been in the USA for several generations, and had cloudy concepts of their connection to Caithness. This called into doubt (in the researcher’s mind anyhow) how much stock to put in their DNAs relevance. As luck would have it, we found and befriended a fellow (David Gunn) who has not only a direct and recorded link to Caithness, his family lived in the Ramscraigs area. He kindly agreed to be tested, and after a few weeks of waiting, the results came in with a strong R1b type, aligned with the main European male line.

That means the results show no Y chromosome similarity between him and the Henderson DNA tested. In fact, he is a strong match for the main body of the Gunn male line, which is likely to re-construct the lines of a few of the Gunn families cleared from the Strath of Kildonan, which will be significant progress in the Gunn project.

What does that mean for Henderson history? There are several options, but suffice to say, none of us will likely ever see the answer to this, unless DNA testing for genealogical purposes becomes more common. Some theories are below:

1: Family Plan – History as cited may be correct but incomplete. When Henry Gunn left his family to form the Hendersons, he likely took his sons and daughters with him. This means that it is possible that his daughter’s families also took the name Henderson, thus giving us a surname that is not genetically connected to the Gunn line.

2: Friends Plan – When Henry formed his new family, some of the retainers of the Gunn family went with him, and took the Henderson name. This would mean there were multiple male blood lines at the formation of the Henderson of that area.

3: 6th House: There are 5 documented cases of the emergence of the surname “Henderson” across Scotland when last names came into fashion in the middle ages. It is possible that our ancestors came to use this name on their own because of some progenitor named Henry.

4: The Lost Line: This is the biggest wild card in the deck. As history would have it, the chief’s line in the Gunn family died out, to such an extent that the Gunns did not have a chief until one was appointed (for some reason) in the last 100 years. It is theoretically possible that the Hendersons of Berriedale and Dunbeath do carry Henry Gunn’s Y chromosome, which is the same as George the Crowner of Caithness. The Gunn progenitors were referred to in history as the “Ultimate Vikings” and were from the same region that our “I1d – Ultra Norse” is found.

As DNA Genealogy is still an emerging field, more test results will help us (eventually) unravel this mystery.

Maps of Ramscraigs

When my research first started, I had never heard of Ramscraigs, and finding information about what it was and where it was was my first big challenge. Thankfully my previous military training helped me understand the importance of geography and maps, and thanks to the UK Ordinance Survey, I eventually was able to find a map that listed Ramscraigs and showed some features online. I have reproduced sections of those maps below:


These maps have had two important locations that are seldom used in the present day:

Knockfin – a small village on a bend in the Berriedale River that was the home of the our Henderson family prior to the second Berriedale clearance. It has several houses, a barn and even a corn drying kiln. A fairly prosperous settlement.

Rhian – a small croft between Borgue and Ramscraigs that James Henderson relocated to upon leaving Knockfin. Historical documents (more to come there) have several interesting things to say about Rhian

Ramscraigs is now a sparsely populated area of Southern Caithness, but at one time as a thriving village that had its own schoolhouse and church. Before the modern A9 road was laid down, the old road took a different course, and early maps show a cluster of buildings (shops?) at Ramscraigs. The area depicted in these maps (which I hope to post in the future) now are simply fields of sheep.

James Henderson of Rhian

Ruins of the Henderson croft at Rhian

One of the early recorded sites for our Henderson family is a place named Rhian, that is south of Dunbeath, and the ruins of some of the structures still stand today.

In the late 1700’s, the Sinclair landowners of the Berriedale and Dunbeath estates had decided to change the way their land was being used. Up to this point, small parcels of land were leased to farmers to grow food and raise livestock. This had been the way for centuries, and the entire culture supported the rhythm of the family farm also called a croft.

What was to come was large scale sheep farming, and to make room for these large flocks of sheep, the tenants had to be removed from their small farms dotting the countryside. This effort to change the use of the land gave rise to the “Highland Clearances”, of which so much has been written and told. The first clearance of Berriedale happened in the late 1700s, and focused on areas south of the Berriedale river. At this time, our Henderson ancestors were living in the somewhat idyllic enclave at Knockfin, and this action to clear the farms from the land must have been a life changing event. Clearly it was only a matter of time before the rest of Berriedale was cleared, and with it Knockfin.

What happened next begs for more reasearch. The historical records show that all of the Hendersons leave Knockfin between 1795 and 1801, with James taking up residence at Rhian replacing a fellow by the name of Grant who held the lease before him. Parish birth records show that at least 2 Sutherland families remained at Rhian up until the clearances, but it is clear that James and his brothers left before they were told to leave.


James worked as a farm hand for the Berriedale estate during his early adulthood, and eventually met Mary Sutherland who lived just north of Berriedale in Borgue. They fell in love, and on February 12th of 1799, they were married in Berriedale according to the rights and practices of the Church of Scotland.

Excerpt from Latheron old parish records

Shortly thereafter, the first of many children were born to this family. (family tree diagram here)

– William, born 29 Nov 1799
– Angus, born 24 Apr 1802
– Marjory, born 9 Jun 1804
– Donald, born 12 Apr 1807
– John, born 21 Oct 1816
– Alexander, born 28 Feb 1817
– Robert, born 1818

It is possible that there were other children born (research continues on the old parish records) to this family that died young or were not born alive. Of these 7 children, all would remain in the area around Berriedale and Dunbeath during their lives.

During this period of time, the fishing industry in Caithness was beginning to ramp up. In large towns such as Thurso and Wick, as well as smaller villages such as Dunbeath, an increasing amount of the community’s income was derived from drift net fishing of Herring and Salmon.

The family lived in a traditional, thatched roof Caithness longhouse. A typical rush thatched Caithness long-house incorporating dwelling, byre and stable into a single structure, with some crofts (such as the house at Rhian) having and additional free-standing barn (the structure shown in the photo). The Rhian croft house was built to traditional Caithness design: two rooms with fireplaces situated at either end of the building with a closet or unheated bedroom in the middle opposite the front entrance passage. All, or most, of the partitions were formed by the backs or end of box beds. Some of the houses did not have a central stone built gable.

Caithness Box Bed.jpg
Traditional Caithness box bed at the Timespan museum in Helmsdale

The Family Tree Poster


One of the items that appears in the upcoming landward episode is a 20 foot long scroll of paper that displays the family tree as we know it as of June 2009. Several of the cousins have asked what software was used to produce it, and I am sorry to report that it was produced by hand on a Mac using a drawing / drafting package named OmniGraffle. While I had tried many other applications, and they all have their strengths, I found that none of them could produce the diagram I had in my head.

In order to produce the document that appears on television, this diagram is then printed on an engineering plotter, similar to printing blueprints for a house or construction project.

For those of you who wish a closer look, the Adobe PDF version is now posted to this web site under the new “Resources” section on the right. If you open it, be warned that you will need to scroll around to see it. Going forward I will stage documents, audio files, video files and other foundation reference material here for easy access. I have been known to print copies off from time to time, with cousins getting strange cardboard tubes in the mail.

This document is already in need of revision, given what was learned in the last expedition to Caithness, so with luck there will be a new version before the first of the year.

Vikings in the Woodshed


One of the tools the team has employed to look into the past is DNA profiling and typing through the folks at Family Tree DNA, starting with a 67 marker test of my Y chromosome. Unlike most DNA which is a mix of the mother’s and father’s genes, the Y chromosome happens to get passed pretty much verbatim with a mutation every few thousand years. As such it gives us a good idea of where the Henderson name came from as it was passed from father to son.

There is a notion of something they call a Haplogroup, which is a way of categorizing people’s ancestry by the DNA. Most of Europe falls into types called R and R1. In fact Somerled who was the progenitor of the MacDonald clan was type R1a, which was done by testing his direct male ancestors, as they have an exact copy of his Y chromosome.

When we run the Henderson Y chromosome through the same test we get the broad Haplogroup I1. This points to a fairly certain Scandinavian origin of the Henderson male chromosome, which is actually somewhat unexpected. It is true that Caithness was a thriving Nordic colony for many centuries, but even so, the I1 type is less than 20% (on average) of northern European men.

But then that broad classification only uses the first few markers or so of the 67 that I had tested on the Y chromosome, and going further is where the fun starts. Full 67 Chromosome results are linked here.

Seems that because of specific mutations, the Henderson male DNA can be further categorized into sub-group 5. As I metioned before this group was actually fairly limited, and were concentrated in Norway, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Furthermore, adding a few more of the elements we narrow it down into a sub-sub group (called a Subclade) that spits out a cryptic name of “I-L22-uN1”. Now if you google that you will get nothing fun, but it seems if you use “UN1” or “Ultra Norse” there is quite a bit more to be found.

So now we can classify ourselves on the Henderson ancient side as “Ultra Norse”, which is a much smaller group (but we are not done yet!). One citation from DNA researchers is that “I1-uN is very close to totally absent south of the Baltic and North Seas”. The Henderson Y chromosome shows distinct variations that are not common with Orkney, Shetland or most other “Ultra Norse” Y chromosomes. What that all means I am still looking into. Using some of the Y chromosome databases show almost no match with anyone once you get past 12 of the 67 or so factors.

Given that history states we are and offshoot of the Gunn clan, having Norse DNA makes a degree of sense, but interestingly enough, none of the Gunns that have done Y chromosome testing seem to match.

So what does this all mean? Henderson DNA is from an Ultra-Norse strain that can possibly be assigned to Henry Gunn or his band, son of George “Crowner of Caithness” Gunn who died at the Battle of St. Tears in 1478. After Henry claimed the Chiefship of the Gunns, he was talked out of it by his surviving brothers, and left to form his out outfit that became the Hendersons of Caithness and northern Sutherland. Right now I have not been able to find any Gunn Y chromosomes in the databases, but it should match if what I suspect is correct. The DNA patterns also rule out Danes, Normans, Saxons, indigenous Britons (Welsh), Picts, Romans and for the most part the Celts. In fact the Henderson Y chromosome is distinct from typical viking Y to some extent, with the genetic “pool” being from a fairly specific and limited part of Norway / Finland.

As DNA genealogy is still and emerging science, there is quite a bit left to be discovered. But as my Y chromosome has taught me, over 1,000 years ago, some norse family who were our ancestors traveled to Scotland. We have Vikings in the Woodshed.

Nan and George Bethune on Ballachly “House of Peace”


Any reader of Neil Gunn’s books knows he makes reference to a long abandoned holy site in Dunbeath that he refers to in “Highland River” as the House of Peace. This was always assumed to be folklore, as there is no evidence of a church remained to the present age.

Now, thanks to the sharp eyes and hard work of the Bethunes, the details of this important archeological site are starting to be revealed. In essence, it is possible that a full excavation of the Ballachly (pronouced Balla-klie) site may reveal that the christian church was present in Caithness years before St, Columba,

From the BBC web site (full video when you follow the link):

A group of archaeologists are trying to establish if Norsemen brought Christianity to Caithness before St Columba arrived on Iona. The question has arisen after a dig at an ancient church site at the coastal village of Dunbeath. Pottery dating back to the 6th Century has recently been found in the area. A University of Nottingham team is to carry out further exploration which they hope could show evidence of an even earlier Christian church.

Landward Story Now Online

Henderson Kin3.jpg

The story of how the Henderson saga became part of an episode of BBC Scotland’s program “Landward” is now online. The episode with the Dunbeath footage airs Friday November 27th at 7:00 PM on BBC2 Scotland. Those able to use the BBC iPlayer can view the episode online.

>Read the story here<

Finding Knockfin

As we were tracing our family tree back in time, the oldest record we could find was the birth record for James Henderson, who lived in Rhian. James was born to a man named William, in a place called “Knockfin Berriedale”.


This posed a mystery for us, as the name Knockfin had not been used in Caithness or much of anywhere in a very long time (it would turn out for over 200 years).

Using current maps, there was one place in Caithness that used the name Knockfin, a remote location up in the hills east of the Strath of Kildonan, typically used as summer pasture for the herds.

While I have not had the joy of hiking up there yet, I have used some imagery from Google Earth and others to spot the ruins of some structures there, but something did not quite add up.

Months later I was able to come across the digital version of John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland, 1832 at the National Library of Scotland. When browsing around southern Caithness (Henderson home ground), I found the below section of the map near Berriedale:


Immediately the thrill of discovery was upon me – here was an old map that recorded the name of Knockfin, not dozens of miles from Berriedale, but located on the river.

Fortunately, Google Earth had recently improved the quality of their satellite imagery over Caithness, so I went looking for any signs of habitation, and there it was!

Knockfin Detail.jpg

This discovery would eventually lead to the filming of the Landward episode, and a remarkable trip to this ancient Henderson homeland in September of 2009

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.

Welcome to Ramscraigs

This site is dedicated to the hard work, determination and memories of all the brave Hendersons and Henderson kin who originated from the Berriedale, Ramscraigs and Dunbeath area of southern Caithness, Scotland. Without their foresight and perseverance, the family as it is today would not exist.

My chapter of this story really gets underway in 2006, when, thanks to a business trip to the UK, for which I am forever indebted to Mr. Tony Gibson, I finally overcame whatever reservations I had and made contact with my Scottish kin.

I spent one perfect, glorious day in East Kilbride talking and visiting the most wonderful people, whom I had only known of at a distance before then. Late in the day, my cousin, Lesley, handed me a two page document with a rough family tree printed on it. For various reasons, much of this information had been lost to us American cousins, and this knowledge was pure gold to me. My cousin Anthony had assembled it from what he knew and what information had come from his father, my father’s older brother James.

Some of the names were familiar, some of them new to me. My knowledge went as far back as “the reverend” as he was called in our house, but here was the name of the reverend’s father – Donald, and beside it “Latheron, Scotland”.

I had never heard of Latheron, when asked my scottish family told me it was “up north in Caithness”.

From this foundation was launched an effort to learn what I could. It started small and simple at first, and grew outward. It transited from simply identifying the members of the family and the various relatives down the ages, but towards the history of Caithness, where they lived, how they lived and how they impacted the world around them.

The effort has been a labor of love, but not my labor alone. As the project has progressed we have constantly collected Henderson cousins and kin, with a few more being found and joined to the project ever month or so. Thanks to all their efforts we have achieved more than I ever dreamed possible.

This site now exists to help us record our knowledge for any and all who wish to learn it. Much of what you read here starts as emails between the cousins, where we reveal new information and discuss and enrich the detail in the telling.

Welcome to Ramscraigs – the ancient home of our ancestors, we are glad you came by! The peat fire is blazing, and there is always another chair at the table.