THE CLAN GUNN AND ITS COUNTRY
Published by the Clan Gunn Heritage Trust,
Clan Gunn Heritage Centre, Latheron, Caithness.
The Clan Gunn claims descent from the Norse jarls or Earls of Orkney and from the ancient Celtic Mormaers of Caithness through Ragnhild, daughter of Moddan in Dale, son of Moddan, Mormaer (High Steward) of Caithness, who was killed in 1040, and granddaughter of Saint Rognvald, jarl in Orkney, who married Gunni, the reputed name-father of the Clan. Gunni was himself a grandson of Sweyn Asleif's son, the 'Ultimate Viking' and hero of the Orkneyinga Saga.
Sweyn Asleif's son had his long hall on the Island of Gairsay, off the east coast of the mainland of Orkney, and lands in Caithness at Freswick, a few miles south of Duncansbay. The principal Gunn lands were, however, acquired through Ragnhild, who inherited great estates in Caithness and Sutherland on the death of her brother, Harold Ungi, jarl in Orkney and Earl in Caithness in 1198.
These were inherited by Snaekoll (White head) Gunni's-son the second chief of the Clan. His rights to the Norse Earldom were, however, forfeited as he had murdered John, the then jarl in Orkney, over a land claim dispute arising from their mutual descent from the ancient Jarls of Orkney. Thus from the middle of the 13th century the Gunns were essentially a Caithness family.
At this time the Clan Gunn were at the height of their power. They appeared to possess virtually the whole of Caithness, which was then passing from the influence of the Norse Earldom to that of the King of Scots. Snaekoll Gunni's-son is reputed to have built Castle Gunn at Bruan, on the east coast of Caithness south of Wick. There is a tradition that Castle Gunn was destroyed by the King of Norway, whose daughter one of the Gunn chiefs had married though he already had a wife at Castle Gunn. When the second wife sailed to Caithness to join her husband, the Gunn clan arranged for the beacon to be placed on a dangerous rock at Ulbster and so wrecked the ship and all on board were drowned. The castle was destroyed in revenge and the Gunn chief and his retainers were slain.
Little is known of the history of the Clan during the 13th and 14th century and it is not until the 15th century that history records the exploits of the Clan and its chiefs. Nonetheless, it is clear that during the 14th and 15th centuries the Gunns were gradually dispossessed of their lands in the fertile parts of Caithness by the Sinclairs, Keiths and others, who obtained grants of land from the Scottish kings, anxious to increase their influence over the fringes of their kingdom. Consequently by the mid-15th century George Gunn of Ulbster, Chief of Clan Gunn and Crowner of Caithness, held his main lands at Ulbster and Clyth on the rocky coast of Caithness, and the majority of the Clan by then occupied the highland regions of Caithness in what are now the Parishes of Latheron, Halkirk and Reay.
It was George Gunn, the Crowner, also known as 'Am Braisdeach Mor,' or 'Big Broochy' from the insignia worn by the Gunn chiefs, as Crowners of Caithness, who after many skirmishes with the Clan Keith over rival land claims sought to reach a conciliation with the Keith at St. Tayre's Chapel, near Ackergill Tower, the seat of Keith of Ackergill in 1478 (others say 1464) and was killed in the unequal battle at the chapel where the Keiths arrived for the twelve aside parley with two men to each horse. In 1978 the Earl of Kintore, Chief of Clan Keith and Iain Gunn of Banniskirk, the Commander of Clan Gunn, signed a Treaty of Friendship between the two clans at the site of the chapel, bringing to an end the 500 year old feud.
After the death of George, the Crowner, and his sons at Ackergill, the Clan split into three distinct families - James or Seumas, the Crowner's eldest son, who survived the battle, moved with his family to Kildonan in Sutherland, subsequently known as Gleann na Guineach or Gunn's Glen, where he obtained lands from the Earls of Sutherland; Robert, the second surviving son established his line in Braemore, in the southern heights of Caithness as the Robson Gunns, and John, the third surviving son settled in Cattaig or Bregaul in Strathmore, in the higher reaches of the River Thurso above Westerdale.
The Hendersons and Williamsons and Wilsons of Caithness are said to be descended from Henry and William, two of the Crowner's younger sons. Other Gunn families established themselves at Crosskirk, near Forss, on the north coast of Caithness and in Reay, Strathy and Strath Halladale in the Mackay country. The various chieftains leased their lands from the Chiefs of Clan Sutherland and Clan Mackay and in turn sublet these to their immediate families who subdivided them amongst their families. There was, however, a surprising amount of movement from one part of the country to another and so it cannot be assumed that all Gunns in one area were necessarily all of the same branch of the family.
Indeed many clansmen do not bear the surname of Gunn. Surnames were not commonly used until comparatively recent times. They would have been of little use where everyone was of the same clan. A man or woman was therefore known as John or jean mac Sheumais or mac Dhaidh, son or daughter of James or David, of Clan Gunn, and when surnames came to be used many adopted their father's name and hence John or jean Robson, Georgeson, Williamson etc.
The Mac Sheumais (or McHamish) Gunns continued to live in Strath Kildonan first at Killeaman and later at Badenloch at the top of the Strath until the old line died out in 1782.
The chiefship of the Clan has been dormant since the death of the son of George Gunn of Rhives in 1874. The head of the Clan, in the absence of a recognised chief is Iain Gunn of Banniskirk, who has been appointed Commander of the Clan by the Lord Lyon King of Arms at the request of the landed and armigerous members of the Clan.
The Clan Gunn Society which was formed in 1960 to promote a spirit of kinship amongst members of the clan throughout the world acquired the Old Parish Church at Latheron as a Clan Heritage Centre. The Clan gathers in Caithness every three years.
The following places have a particular significance for the Clan and its Norse forebears.
Places associated with the Orkney jarldom
Kirkwall - the capital of Orkney derives its name from Kirkjuvagr (church bay) after the church erected by jarl Rognvaid Brusison to the memory of his friend King Olaf Haraldsson, patron saint of Norway. Kirkwall was already a market town of some significance at the beginning of the 1lth century and became a Royal Burgh in 1486, eighteen years after Orkney was annexed to Scotland, being pledged for 50,000 florins by King Christian I of Norway as part of the dowry of 60,000 florins when his daughter Margaret married James III of Scotland.
St. Magnus Cathedral was started in 1137 by jarl Rognvald Kol'sson in honour of his uncle jarl Magnus who was martyred in the church of Egilsay on 16th April 1116 by his cousin jarl Hakon. The main part of the Cathedral was completed in 1158 but a number of additions were made to it during the next four centuries, the 133 foot tower having been built in 1525. The building which is 218 ft. long and 45 ft. wide houses the relics of St. Magnus and jarl Rognvald, who was himself canonised.
Birsay - is situated 10 miles north-west of Evie past Costa Head, the windiest place in Great Britain, on the bay of the same name. Here on the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island, was the hall of jarl Thorfinn and the cathedral church of Orkney before St. Magnus Cathedral was built. It was here that St. Magnus' body was first buried before being moved to its present resting place. Lying along the slope of the hill are a number of Viking longhouses. The ruined Palace of Birsay was rebuilt late in the 16th century by Earl Robert Stewart, illegitimate son of James V of Scotland.
Egilsay - a small island off the east coast of Rousay, is mainly notable as the site of the martyrdom of St. Magnus by his cousin jarl Hakon. The 12th century church with its lofty round tower forms a conspicuous landmark. The church is reputed to be the actual church in which jarl Magnus spent the night in prayer before he was murdered on 16th April, 1116.
Gairsay - was the island home of Sweyn Asleif's son, grandfather of Gunni, the name-father of the Clan Gunn. It was from this island that Sweyn carried out his vikings described in the Orkneyinga Saga. Langskaill House, which is said to have been built on the site of Sweyn's longhall is an excellent example of a 17th century fortified house. It was built by Sir William Craigie of Gairsay who died in 1712.
Orphir - Sweyn Asleif's son killed his namesake Sweyn Breastrope at the jarl's drinking hall here in 1135 after which he fled to Tiree for the winter. The round church was built by jarl Hakon who killed jarl Magnus having sought absolution in Rome and thence travelled in penitence to the Holy Land. The church is said to have been modelled on the Church of the holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Stromness - Hamnavoe to our Norse ancestors, is a sheltered port at the eastern end of the Mainland of Orkney. This little town with its picturesque houses and jetties is of fairly modern origin as a town. It developed during the 18th and 19th centuries as a port of call for Atlantic shipping.
Clan Gunn Sites in Caithness and Sutherland
Ackergill - St. Tayre's Chapel at Ackergill was the site of the attempted reconciliation of the Clan Gunn and the Clan Keith in 1468 or 1478. The chapel which was situated on the coast roughly equidistant from Ackergill Tower and Girnigoe Castle was said to have been pulled down about 1800. Nothing now remains. Others claim that the reconciliation meeting took place at Strathmore, in the interior of the County.
Ackergill Tower was built by the Keiths about 1350 and was the scene of the suicide of Fair Helen Gunn of Braemore, who had been abducted on the eve of her wedding by Dugald Keith. The tower was extended in the middle of the 19th century by Sir George Dunbar of Hempriggs.
Badenloch - the later seat of the Gunn Chiefs in Sutherland after the fire at Killearnan. Alexander McHamish died here in 1763. Nothing remains of his house.
Ben Griam - the Gunns and the Mackays beat the combined forces of the Earls of Sutherland and Caithness at Altgowan. In 1601 the Sutherlands, Mackays and Gunns put the Sinclairs to flight at Ben Griam. This is commemorated by the Carn Teaghie - the flight cairn.
Braemore - settled by the Gunns from a verv early date, certainly before the Crowner, and was the seat of the Robson Gunns otherwise known as the Gunns of Braemore. It was from here that Fair Helen of Braemore was abducted in 1415. The Braemore estate passed from Gunn ownership in 1793 when it was sold by George Gunn-Munro of Braemore.
Bruan - the first Castle Gunn was built on the top of a precipitous column of rock detached from the mainland, probably by Snaekol Gunn's son in the mid 13th century. It was said to have been destroyed by the King of Norway in revenge for his daughter's death.
Canisbay - reputed to be the birthplace of Sweyn Asleif's son, son of Olaf Hrolf's son, Norse Governor of.Duncansbay, who was burnt alive in his castle in 1135.
Dalnaglaton - farm of a cadet family through whom the Gunns in Braehour claimed the chiefship in the 19th century on the death of the sons of George Gunn of Rhives. Alexander Gunn of this family was noted for his great strength and agility.
Dirlot - formerly a small keep, built about 1350 by Ronald Cheyne as a hunting Lodge. Later it passed to the Sutherlands and then to the Mackays but reputed at one time to have been occupied by the Gunns. Henry Gunn, one of the surviving sons of Crowner Gunn is said to have revenged his father's death here by killing with an arrow the Keith chieftain who was celebrating his victory. Close by is a small graveyard which was the principal burial place of the Gunns of Cattaig and the Gunns in Dalnaglaton.
Dalemore - within a mile of Dirlot is the old farm house of Dalemore which was the home of Marcus Gunn the chieftain of the Gunns of Cattaig in the 18th century. The farm is still occupied by Gunns continuing 500 years of intermittent Gunn possession.
Freswick - the Caithness estate of Sweyn Asleif's son. His castle of Lambaborg is thought to have been on Ness Head, south of the present fortified House of Freswick, built by Sinclair of Freswick in the 17th centurv.
Girnigoe and Castle Sinclair - were the principal seats of the Earls of Caithness. Girnigoe whose spectacular ruin stands north of the county town of Wick was erected between 1476 and 1496 by William, Earl of Caithness. Castle Sinclair which was built adjacent in 1606 is also in a ruinous condition having been attacked and partially destroyed by the rightful heir to the Earldom when it was in the possession of Lord Glenorchy who had bought the Earldom from the previous Earl of Caithness. The castle is still the official seat of the Earls of Caithness. In 1586 John Gunn, the Chief of the Gunns of Braemore was hanged at the castle by the then Earl of Caithness in revenge for the defeat of the Caithness men at Altgown by Clan Gunn. In 1612 William Angus Rory Gunn escaped from the castle by jumping into the sea.
Halberrv - Halberry Castle was built by the Gunn chiefs in the latter part of the 13th century as their principal stronghold to replace Castle Gunn. It was formerly protected by a ditch 150ft long and 9-12ft deep with a drawbridge and guard houses. The Crowner lived here in some splendour until his death at St.Tayre's after which the castle was abandoned. Nearby is the Hill of Mannistones, a bronze age stone alignment dating from about 1500 BC. It was also the site of a battle between the Gunns and the Keiths in 1460.
Helmsdale - a village at the mouth of the River Helmsdale which was created by the Countess-Duchess of Sutherland to house those cleared from the interior of the County of Sutherland at the beginning of the 19th century.
Kildonan - named after St. Donan who established his monastery at Suisgill; in the middle of the glen was the home of the McHamish Gunns from the 15th century up to the Clearances in 1819. The original church of Kildonan probably dated from about 1100 and contained the mortuary chapel of the Gunn chiefs at its western end. This was replaced by the present church built in 1788. Down the river from the church is Killearnan the seat of the McHamish Gunns for over 200 years until it was destroyed bv fire in 1690. Nothing remains of the original house.
Kinbrace - at the top of Kildonan is said to have been named after the Crowner's brooch. The Crowner is reputed to have had a fortress north west of the township where he spent the summer. An important cadet family had a wadset of the mill at Kinbrace for many generations.
Navidale - on the coast of Sutherland north of Helmsdale is the township of Navidale which was held by several generations of the McHamish chiefs.
Sandside - the site of a skirmish between the Mackays and the Gunns in 1437, in which the latter were out-numbered, and defeated. In 1615 the corn fields at Sandside were burnt by John Robson, chieftain of the Clan Gunn in Caithness at the instigation of the Earl of Caithness who had a vendetta with Lord Forbes who then owned the Sandside estate.
Spittal - on the slopes of Spittal Hill below the Mybster-Georgemas road are the remains of St. Magnus Chapel, which probably dates from the 12th century. This was the most ancient burial place of the Gunn chiefs who were carried over the hills from Kildonan for burial after the chiefly line moved to Sutherland. The burial ground was used until the early part of this century. Further up the hill was held the annual Jamesmas Fair which provided local farm servants with an opportunity of changing their employment.
Tannach - the site of a battle between the Gunns and the Keiths and Mackays in 1438. The Gunns withdrew, some moving to Braemore and others to Kildonan.
Thurso - Snaekol Gunni's son killed jarl John here in 1231. Thurso East the home of Viscount Thurso of Ulbster was formerly a seat of the Earls of Caithness, Chiefs of Clan Sinclair.
Ubster - associated with the Gunns from a very early date. After the Battle of St. Tayre's it passed to the Kelths, then to the Oliphants, and in 1606 to the Earl of Caithness. It was subsequently acquired by a cadet Sinclair family of whom Lord Thurso is the present head.
Westerdale - has a long association with the Clan Gunn and with the Hendersons, an important sept of the Clan. The later chiefs of the Cattaig family resided at Dale House, which is close by.
Westgarty - on the east coast of Sutherland south of Helmsdale was the birthplace of Sir William Gunn who made his name fighting as a soldier of fortune on the Continent first in the Swedish Service and then for the Holy Roman Emperor. He fought for King Charles I at Bridge of Dee who knighted him in 1639.