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Issue 93 - The Clan Henderson

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017


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The Clan Henderson

MacEanruig, Henryson of D'Handresson? James Irvine Robertson reveals your clan history

MacEanruig is the Gaelic for Henderson, the son of Henry. Say this often enough, and with a Scots accent, and Henryson usually slurred into Henderson or even as far as D'Handresson, for those who moved to France, but scores of variations in spelling exist, in both Gaelic and English. Three separate main lines of descent are known within the clan, one from the south of Scotland, one in the far north and a third somewhere in the middle.

The oldest and chiefly line originates in Dumfriesshire as a sept that rode with the Liddesdale Eliotts and Armstrongs, the most alarming of all the Border reivers. A William Henrison was governor of Lochmaben Castle in 1374 (See: p.10). From this family came John Henderson who became Lord Advocate, the chief law officer of James III and Lord Justice Clerk. He obtained several estates with his seat at Fordell Castle in Fife and was killed in 1513 when James IV led much of the nation's leadership to their deaths at the battle of Flodden.

A scion of the family of Fordell, Alexander Henderson was born in Fife in 1583. His was a time when Britain was racked by religious fervour. Stuart kings believed they were divinely ordained to rule and they wanted bishops through whom they could control the church. As always, religion and politics unleash dangerous passions. Henderson was a brilliant student at St Andrews and was converted to Presbyterianism by a sermon in 1615. His qualities soon made him a leader in the church. In 1638 he was appointed minister of the High Kirk in Edinburgh and, described as ‘incomparablie the ablest man of us all’, was elected moderator of the General Assembly. He was the architect of the National Covenant of 1638 that set out the principles of the Church of Scotland in direct opposition to Charles I and, in the wake of the Bishops' Wars, he negotiated the pacification of Berwick and met the king. He was leader in the negotiations that tried to unite the church in the United Kingdom, but these foundered through Charles's intransigence.

What made him exceptional was his ability to win the respect of his adversaries. In spite of being implacable opponents the king appointed him his chaplain and seems to have enjoyed cordial relations with him. In this time of fanaticism, Henderson had the ability to pursue his radical agenda with dignity, reason and moderation. Having laid the foundation for the Presbyterian Kirk, he died in 1646. A contemporary and fellow minister, Robert Baillie, wrote that he ‘ought to be accounted by us and posterity, the fairest ornament, after John Knox, of incomparable memory, that ever the Church of Scotland did enjoy'.

The Hendersons who have their origins in the far north of Scotland were originally Gunns, a clan descended from a Viking called Sweyn Asleifsson 'whose activities include[d] drunkenness, murder and plundering’. The Gunns were the first to carve out a territory in Caithness and the chief became Crowner, the enforcer for the earls of Caithness, but they were soon rivalled by others — particularly the Keiths. A centuries-long feud kicked off between the two clans when the Keiths attacked the wedding party of beautiful Helen Gunn. They left with the bride, leaving many dead, and took her to their castle at Ackergill. She threw herself from the top of its tower.

In 1478 a peace conference was arranged at the chapel of St Tayre. Twelve horsemen on each side were to meet, but the Keiths turned up with their horses double-mounted and killed every Gunn in the chapel. The chief was slain and the Keiths made off with his armour and his Crowner's badge. Henry, one of his surviving sons, sought instant revenge. He gathered some men and tracked the killers to their castle. He sent an arrow through the window and into the throat of the Keith chief as he raised a celebratory drink to his lips. In the confusion that followed, many Keiths were slain and Henry returned with his father's armour and badge. He thought this feat should make him chief, but his elder brother disagreed and this threatened to divide the clan. Henry gave way but split his followers from the
main clan and formed his own sept, the Henrysons, in Gaelic the MacEanruigs.

Another Highland branch of the clan were believed to have held Glen Coe for 300 years before Bruce granted the glen to Clan Donald as part of their reward for support in the Wars of Independence. The daughter of the principal MacEanruig married Iain Freoch of Clan Donald, and their people became the MacIains or the Macdonalds of Glencoe. Glen Coe is a grim place to wrest a living by farming and the clan became notorious for raiding cattle from their neighbours and further afield.

After the collapse of the Jacobite Rising against the new king, William of Orange, the government demanded an oath of loyalty from all clan chiefs by New Year's Day 1692. The 12th Chief of Glencoe, Alasdair MacIain, was caught in a snowstorm and failed to make the deadline.
William’s Secretary for Scotland was Sir John Dalrymple, a Lowlander with a deep hatred and contempt for the clans. The best way to cow them was to be ruthless and MacIain's misadventure gave him the excuse. He ordered that the clan be wiped out. The troops received their terrible orders on 12 February, which were to take effect before dawn on the following day. The massacre was incompetently carried out by a commander, Captain Campbell, whose face was seen to be 'frozen in despair’. In total 38 were killed and 22 are said to have been Hendersons. But this did not break the clan. Its members were at Sheriffmuir in 1715 and two of its five officers listed at Culloden in 1746 were MacErichs (Hendersons).

There is no chief of the Macdonalds of Glencoe today, but it is said that four contenders are petitioning Lord Lyon for the honour, all Hendersons. The chief of Clan Henderson is Alistair Donald Henderson of Fordell, who lives in Australia.

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