Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Hendersons of Dounreay

Sit down, dear reader, accept a dram of good single malt and make yourself at home in the old manse while I  tell you the bloody and woeful tale, full of blood-guilt and treachery, of the Hendersons of Dounreay. It was a dark and stormy night and the North Sea wind howled around the castle walls at Dounreay...actually, can the Scottish brogue. I doubt many of my readers will be that much interested in what follows, but since I've nowhere else to publish it here it is - and I'll try and make it as interesting as possible (for those interested in the history, I've inserted some hyperlinks).  I'm currently on two weeks'  recreational leave which gives me time to pursue one of my sporadic hobbies: genealogy. After a few false starts in the past I've now managed to trace the Scottish side of the family back to the 1700s. The Hendersons hailed from Dounreay in Caithness, the northernmost county in Britain (actually from Buldoo, a hamlet in the shadow of Dounreay castle, both of which are now part of the town of Thurso (from the Old Norse Thjórsá; we'll come to the Norse connections presently), the northernmost town in mainland Britain.  An artist's impression of Dounreay Castle, based on the still extant ruins, is pictured - alas, the Hendersons of Dounreay didn't actually live in the castle as they were but poor "crofters", as Highland tenant farmers were known, who lived very much "outside the walls" grinding out a subsistence existence off the miserly coastal plain soils. Crofting was a "hard scrabble" existence at the best of times, especially on the north coast of Caithness where Dounreay is to be found, where from what I've seen in pictures at least and from my research the land or climate does not look particularly favourable even for subsistence farming (note: the smiling man in the pic below is obviously not a crofter: he is too happy and well-fed to be such).

Anyone familiar with the recondite facts of Scottish clan history will twig that my Scottish ancestors are of the Caithness branch of the Henderson Clan (quite separate from the more famous Hendersons of Glencoe), who separated from the Gunn clan following the Battle of St Tears - no, not Tolkien's mythical battle as told in The Silmarillion but an actual battle (probably not without its own mythical elements) fought between Clan Keith and Clan Gunn in 1478 for control of Caithness. As the bloody history goes, following the underhanded usurpation of sovereignty over Caithness by the Keiths at the Chapel of St Tear, where the blood of Gunn's still stained the walls two centuries later according to a history compiled in the time of King James  (the feud was only officially settled in 1978 - and you thought German Lutherans were stubborn!), the second son of the Gunn clan chieftain, Henry Gunn, avenged the honour of the clan and retrieved its sovereignty over Caithness by attacking the Keith castle that very night while the Keiths were celebrating their murderous exploits, killing the Keith chieftain with an arrow to his throat and subsequently retrieving the all-important clan chieftain's brooch, symbolic of his power and authority over land and people. Henry expected to be made chieftain himself upon his triumphant return to the Gunn hearth, but when his older brother objected and violence threatened to ensue (no precious petals, these Scots!) Henry did the honourable thing and, like Abraham separating from Lot, went his own way peacefully and retired to some of the less promising farmland of Caithnessrather than engage in internecine warfare (they were Christians, after all!). This action is a beacon of light and charity that I cling to in this otherwise dark history; it's not for nothing that the Henderson Clan motto is Sola Virtus Nobilitat (Virtue Alone Ennobles). Those relatives and others who remained loyal to Henry and went with him into local exile styled themselves "Hendersons" (Sons of Henry).

Now (and this is where it gets really interesting), let's delve a little further into the far-reaches of Scottish history in these parts. Those up with their Scottish history will know that Caithness was, along with the Orkney and Shetland Islands, Norwegian territory from the late 8th C. until 1266 (actually Orkney wasn't ceded until 1468), and the locals spoke a form of Norse called Norn into the 1500s, around which time Gaelic became dominant (no English for a long time in these parts; even my ancestors who came to Australia in the early 1800s would have known Gaelic as their mother tongue). In the Orkneyinga Saga the King of Scotland is none other than Karl Hundasson! Without historical parallel, Hundasson is a mysterious figure, perhaps a caricature (Hundasson means literally "son of a dog"!) of King Macbeth of Scotland (whom Shakespeare later loosely based his eponymous play on.). I'm not suggesting that I'm descended from King Macbeth (!), but the Norwegian name Hundason/Hundasson, along with Erlandsson, Haraldsson, Magnusson etc. was common in the far north of Scotland well before the formal establishment of the Henderson Clan, and it is most probable that my original ancestors from this family line were indeed Norwegians, or, more accurately, Norsemen. In fact the Gunn Clan claims descent from the Viking Jarls (Earls) of Orkney, probably via Gunni, the grandson of the infamous Scottish Norwegian Viking, Swein Asleifsson, who features in the Orkneyinga Saga (the lovable Swein is pictured above, doing what he did best: attacking the hapless and much smaller indigenous Scottish Picts. The Norsemen were renowned for their height; my own blonde-haired, blue eyed paternal grandfather was 6'4", an unusually tall frame for his generation  - unfortunately, no doubt through dilution with British blood, the male DNA line lost 8" by the time I came along, although the blue eyes and fair hair survived ;0). Recent DNA investigations of male Gunns and Hendersons from the Caithness line do indeed prove the family link and also the Norwegian ancestry.

But wait, there's more! How did the Hendersons of Dounreay come to Australia? In the late 1700s the Highland Clearances (in Scottish Gaelic: Fuadach nan Gàidheal; banishing of the Gaels. Highland Emigrant's Monument, Helmsdale, Scotland pictured) began, as the farmland which the crofters earned their meagre living from was given over by the absentee Scottish landlords to the more profitable sheep and wool growing (a practice called Enclosure, which had already begun in Tudor times in England). The crofters were expected to survive on less arable land or become fishermen or kelp collectors, and many were evicted altogether when the landlords refused to renew their annual tenancy agreements. Some emigrated to the Scottish Lowlands but many others ventured further to Canada (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Winnipeg), the United States (the Carolinas) and various parts of the colony of New South Wales, Australia. Thus today there are more descendants of Scottish Highlanders in these parts of North America and Australia than there are in Scotland itself. The Highland Clearances were only stopped in 1886, when the British parliament passed an act granting security of tenure to Highland tenant farmers, which mean that crofting survived well into the 20th century - a dubious benefit, to be sure, since most of their emigrant relatives had long since achieved self-sufficiency and even a measure of modest prosperity of which their Scottish cousins could only dream
(by the early 20th C., my great-grandfather, the grandson of the original Highland crofter emigrant Henderson, had established his own "stock and station agency" or rural supplies and livestock auctioneering small business).

 That's the point where, by the grace of God and their own hard work, the story of my Scottish ancestors gets better, but less interesting - no marauding, no more inter-clan bloodshed or evictions at the hands of heartless landlords (not that I know of, anyway), just a tale of dour and sober Presbyterians  - to this day the consumption of alcohol is verboten on Presbyterian Church of Australia premises; I wonder how they celebrate the Lord's Supper? ;0) - working hard to improve their lot in a new and strange land. Like quite a few other Scots emigrants to Australia, my ancestors settled in the Bega district of southern New South Wales, which has a maritime climate not unlike their Dounreay home - not as bitterly cold in winter, though - but with richer farmland, and there their presence continues to this day. Just as in Canada and the USA, the Scottish emigrants to Australia made a contribution to their adopted land that belies their small numbers. Indeed, although it is a fact unknown to most Australians, there is an unpretentious tomb in Scotland upon which is engraved the epitaph "The Father of Australia", and not without good reason.
Interestingly, the contemporary world-wide Clan Henderson chieftain was a medical doctor who resided here in Toowoomba until his death in 2004, after which his son, who resides in Brisbane - my old home town, itself named after a Scottish governor of New South Wales - inherited the title.



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