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Issue 43 - The Clan Gunn

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 43
February 2009


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The Clan Gunn

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of another of Scotland's noble families.

The name of the father of Clan Gunn was Gunni, who was born about 1200.

He was a descendant of the Jarls of Orkney, those Viking princes, stemming from the Peace-kings of Uppsala in Sweden. The blood of these jarls mingled with that of the ancient Celtic mormaers of Caithness. It seems likely that the people who followed Gunni belonged to a long-established Pictish tribe and most of the centuries-long conflict which took place with their neighbours was in order to protect their territory from encroaching Gaels.

Gunni begat Snaekoll, Gunni’s-son, who begat Ottar who begat Jakop who was sufficiently Gallicised by then to be also known as James, and he begat Ingram, the name showing a link to the great Norman baronial house of Umfraville. His greatgrandson was George Gunn, recorded in 1464 as Hereditary Crowner, the chief judicial official, of Caithness.

By then Caithness was dominated by the rival earls of Sutherland and Caithness, the Sinclairs, and the territory of the Gunns was concentrated in the 30-mile length of Gleann na Guieach – Gunn’s Glenn – in Kildonan parish. George Gunn forcibly occupied the tower of Dirlot, ‘a very picturesque position on the top of an isolated crag close to the river Thurso.’ He also had another castle at Hallburg north of Lybster on a promontory thrusting out to sea with a gorge cut into the rock on the landward side protected by a drawbridge.

Perhaps more than anywhere else in Scotland land in the far north could only be held by the power of the sword, and the Gunns, never numerous, were famous for their ferocity in protecting their own amid Mackays, Sutherlands, Mathesons, Sinclairs, Gordons and, above all, the Keiths. Writing in 1618, Sir Robert Gordon states that ‘They are verie couragious, rather desperat than valiant.’ For more than two centuries, the Gunns and the Keiths of Ackergill were at each other’s throats, the dispute stemming from the murder of John, Jarl of Orkney who was killed by Snaekoll Gunni’s-son in 1231. In one battle, the Keith champion was assisted by the devil in the shape of a raven sitting on his shoulder who assisted his endeavours by ‘tearing the eyes out of the sockets of some of the Gunns.’ The most celebrated of these conflicts took place in 1478. There are varying traditions about what actually took place, but the most dramatically satisfying one holds that a meeting was agreed at the chapel of St Tyer near Wick to settle this interminable feud. A dozen horsemen from each side would be present. Crowner Gunn and his many sons led their contingent to the designated place and when they arrived, they found the treacherous Keiths had packed two men on each horse. A desperate conflict ensued ending in the death of the Crowner and four of his sons. Not a man was left unwounded.

The surviving Gunns withdrew and the Keiths staggered off the field with the Crowner’s armour as their trophy.

But the Crowner had plenty of sons and not all had been killed. Three of them bandaged themselves up and hobbled after the victorious Keiths, tracking them down to the castle of Dalraid at suppertime where they were describing the day’s battle to their hosts, the Sutherlands. Henry Gunn, the youngest brother, saw through a window the chief of the Keiths raise his drinking horn to his lips and sent an arrow through his heart. The diners erupted through the castle door in rage and several more fell to Gunn missiles before the raiders retreated back into the night.

The Crowner’s son James spawned the Gaelic title of the later chiefs ‘Mac Sheumais Chataich,’son of James of Caithness. The 2nd Mac Sheumais led two great raids against the Earl of Caithness in 1589. The first culminated in the burning of the town of Wick and, in the second, ‘Mac Sheumais Gunn of Kilearnan again wasted Caithness with great ferocity.’ Kilearnan was the territorial title of the chiefs, but two of the great Crowner’s younger sons were ancestors of important branches of the Clan, the ‘Robson’ Gunns of Braemore and the Breugaul Gunns in Dale.

In the 17th century, the Robson Gunns distinguished themselves as soldiers of fortune on the Continent. Sir William Gunn commanded two regiments of horse and 1,000 musketeers in the Swedish service and fought under Lord Aboyne for Charles I before becoming a general and a baron of the Holy Roman Empire.

Like most of the northern clans, the Gunns remained loyal to the government in the 18th century Jacobite risings, but crippling debts obliged them to sell off their lands to the bottomless pocket of the Sutherland family. In 1821, George Gunn, the 10th Mac Sheumais, presided at the formation of the Clan Society to which ‘none were to be admitted but those that can spell Gunn as their name.’ ‘Rebels, swearers, thieves and Sabbathbreakers’ were excluded. Gunn widows and orphans were to be given financial support as were the sick, and help was given for funeral expenses. The close-knit clan remained well aware of the need for mutual support.

George Gunn was the last Chief of the Clan.

The Sutherland Clearances scattered his people overseas, but the Society continued to flourish as few others and maintains the bond between clansmen across the world. The Clan Heritage Centre in the old Kirk of Latheron, 20 minutes south of Wick, was opened in 1985. Today the Clan is led by a commander, appointed by the Lord Lyon King of Arms in 1972, Iain Alexander Gunn of Banniskirk. In 1978, he signed a bond of friendship with the Chief of Clan Keith, ending the feud that began 750 years earlier.