It may not be considered inappropriate to preface the "Notes of Caithness Family History" now published by a brief sketch of their author.
John Henderson was descended from the Brabster-dorran branch of the Caithness Hendersons. Of his grandfather's three sons, two were, like himself, long and intimately associated with the public business of their native county.
Captain John Henderson, the eldest of the brothers, after serving in the Caithness Fencibles during the Irish Rebellion, spent his later years at Castlegreen, Thurso, which he built. He died there in 1828, aged sixty-nine. He was for many years factor on the Ulbster estates, and was the first agent in Thurso for the Commercial Bank of Scotland. In 1812 he published a "General View of the Agriculture of Caithness", the first family contribution to the annals of the county, and a work of considerable interest. He married Jane, daughter of Captain William Maclean of the 40th Regiment, and his wife, Mary, daughter of John Sutherland of Forse. The only survivor of their family is Major-General William Henderson, R.A.
William, the second brother, and father of the subject of this notice, after an extended legal practice in Thurso, and also acting as factor on many estates in the county, was appointed. Sheriff-Substitute of Caithness, an office which he held until his death in 1826, aged fifty-eight. He was proprietor of the estate of Scotscalder, which he bought from Captain Balfour. He married Anne, daughter of Patrick Brodie, Esq. Of four deceased sons of their large family, the eldest, Dr. Patrick, was the author of an unpublished "History of Caithness", and several other works. John was the second son. Alexander, the third, succeeded his uncle, Captain John, as agent for the Commercial Bank in Thurso, The fourth, Dr. William, was a distinguished physician and Professor of General Pathology in the University of Edinburgh.
James, the third of the brothers, was Captain in the Ross-shire Militia. He married Eliza, daughter of Sir Edmund Lacon, Bart., who, with their only child, predeceased him. He died in 1825, aged fifty-five.
John Henderson was born in the old house of Ormlie, near Thurso, on the 21st December 1800. He received his early education in his native town, and subsequently attended Tain Academy, concluding his academical career at the University of Aberdeen. On leaving Aberdeen he served his apprenticeship in the office of Mr. Inglis, W.S., and after completing his legal studies, was admitted Writer to the Signet in 1824. Circumstances led him to decide upon commencing business in Wick, where he settled in 1828. He there received the appointment of Procurator Fiscal, which he retained until his removal to Thurso in 1852. He afterwards held all the important county appointments, and in addition to these a large number of factorships. His resignation of the Freswick factorship in 1879 terminated a business connection between the proprietors of these estates and his family of more than sixty years. And at different periods Mr. Henderson was also factor on the Hempriggs, Thrumster, Forse, Brabster, Lochend, Forss, and Rattar estates.
In 1852 he removed to Thurso to take up, on his brother Alexander's retirement, the agency of the Commercial Bank, which he held until his death. He was for many years an elder in the parish church of Thurso, and was an attached but not sectarian member of the Church of Scotland.
In 1829 he married his cousin, Barbara, daughter of William Henderson, Esq., Edinburgh, and sister of John Henderson, the first Queen's Remembrancer. She was in all respects worthy of her husband, and her death, in 1859, threw an abiding shadow over his remaining years.
During his long life Mr. Henderson had seen many and great changes pass over the community to which he belonged. The world into which he was born was, he used to say, a different one from that of his later years.
As a boy he had worshipped in the ancient and now ruined parish church of St. Peter, and remembered its curiously painted wood-work and quaint galleries and pews; and he had heard the "dead-bells" tolled before the coffin, as funerals passed down to the old churchyard. Little of the New Town of Thurso was then built, and thatch prevailed more than slates on the roofs of the houses which did exist. In these days the citizens' cows grazed on the "common" pasture-ground; were gathered in the evening on the" Clingrag" (or Lingering) Hill, and conducted collectively to the entrance of the main street, whence each animal sedately took her way ,to her own place of abode. He remembered the annual game of "knotty", which took place on New-Year's day on the sands of Thurso, below the long" links", which have now disappeared; the regularly recurring faction fights on the market-days at which he and his companions delightedly "assisted"; and the cock-fights which the schoolboys were encouraged to promote, the winning bird being always considered a perquisite of the Master. He recollected the arrival of the news of the battle of Salamanca, and other victories of the Peninsular war. These were events of moment to Caithness wives and mothers, for above two thousand Caithness recruits were "attested" during that period, and the Williamsons, Inneses, and Davidsons lost more than one gallant soldier-son at Fuentes de Onoro, - the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo; Salamanca, and the siege of Burgos. He used to tell of the rejoicings for the battle of Waterloo, when a Thurso bailie, who had vowed never to change his wig while Bonaparte retained power, came down from his house, and preceded by the town-piper, and followed by his maid-servant bearing a new wig under her apron, marched three times round the bon-fire in MacDonald Square, and at the end of the last circuit threw the time-honoured head-gear into the flames.
His journeyings to and from his father's house and Edinburgh were chiefly performed on board the coasting vessels, which were then the most available means of communication between North and South. The fortnight's voyage between Thurso and Leith was sometimes exceeded by days, or even weeks; and on one occasion, in consequence of an unusually prolonged detention, the passengers and crew of the "John O'Groat" were constrained to consume the gifts of Caithness geese, and other Christmas fare, which were on their way from "country cousins" to expectant, but disappointed recipients in the Scottish capital.
During his later years Mr. Henderson gradually resigned the various appointments which he had. retained during his residence in Thurso, except the bank agency; and his well-earned time of comparative rest was spent in the retirement of his much-loved home at Ormlie. During those years the volume of "Notes", which had been gradually growing beneath his hand, received many additions. Its compilation had long afforded him an object of interest external to the engrossing cares of business, and the unwearied trouble he took in verifying every detail, and inserting only what he believed to be absolutely accurate, was characteristic.
In the spring of 1883 his health began to fail, and gradually increasing illness terminated in his death on the 25th of August of the same year.
To one who best knew him in the daily intercourse of a home-life full of sacred memories, it is not easy to estimate, as a whole, such a life as his. The worthy inheritor of a name associated with just, honourable, and upright lives, his public duties were discharged with unvarying faithfulness and punctuality. In his many factorships he always knew how to combine the interests of his clients with the well-being of the tenantry. A singular youthfulness, purity, and guilelessness of nature remained with him throughout his life, a clear and strong intellect enabled him to grasp and master every subject to which he applied himself, and an earnest love of truth and thirst after knowledge led to an unceasing pursuit of both. Like most men of well-balanced character, he had a strong sense of humour. His judgment of men and things was ever sound, calm, just, and charitable, and in his nature assumption and self-seeking found no place.
The words of one who knew him well may most fitly close this brief record of his life: - "His sterling, reliable character, his manly straight-forward way of doing business, his quiet but firm manner, his kindly consideration for many a poor man struggling with difficulties, gained for him, as a business man, a place which business men rarely attain to in the hearts of the people. . . . As one who felt it a privilege to know and love him, I would like to pay a tribute to his memory by pointing out, what was indeed apparent to all, that the singular success of his career was due not merely to his natural disposition and manner, but to what the grace of God had made him as a Christian man. He had learned the secret of doing his work in all the variety of his offices 'as to the Lord, and not to man', and on this, as the foundation principle of all his dealings with men, was built a business life rarely equalled in its usefulness. . . . His death was, like his life, a humble and unquestioning profession of his faith in his Redeemer. He had "finished his course", he had "kept the faith"; and when death came, it came to one who, through the grace of God preparing him for it, had nothing to do but to die".
Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Or the furious winter's rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.
A. B. H.
ORMLIE LODGE, Thurso, February 5th, 1884.