An Early history of Clan Gunn - The Viking Clan

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An Early history of Clan Gunn - The Viking Clan

Part One.
by Robert M. Gunn, MA


The Clan Gunn is often referred to as "the MacGregors of the North" due, in part, to their many conflicts with their neighbours, which had the unfortunate result of the Gunns being eventually blamed (by other clans) as the "chief trouble-makers in the area." Of course this isn't the case, as will be shown.

The origins of the Gunns are obscured by the lack of credible written material and are somewhat speculative having become quite contentious in more recent times.

The Gunn's are of Norse descent (possibly being mixed with Northern Pictish tribes), originally claiming descent from one Gunni (sometimes called Guin), (1) the second son of Olav the Black, the Norwegian King of Man and the Isles, who died in 1237. Additionally, a second tradition states that (2) they were descended from Guin (Gunni) a century earlier, as the son of Olav of Gairsay (a different Olav) who lived in Orkney.

Lastly, a more recent book about Clan Gunn suggests that the two above theories are erroneous and unsupportable. (3) The "History of Clan Gunn", by Mark Rugg Gunn, provides a compelling tale of Gunn descent from Gunni, grandson of the Viking adventurer Svein Asliefarsson, of the Orkneyinga Saga fame. Of course, information derived from the Sagas is somewhat subjective and open to historical interpretation and evaluation. Dr. Anna Ritchie, writing for Historic Scotland in her book "The Vikings in Scotland", says this regarding the sagas:

"The major historical source for the Norse Earldom of Orkney, Caithness, Shetland and the Western Isles lies in the Icelandic Sagas. Primarily Orkneyinga saga, but also Landnamabok, Egil's saga, Magnus' saga, and others. But the historical value of these sagas varies and is not always easy to define. At best they covey an impression of political life in the Eleventh and Twelfth centuries, at worst they may be misleading in failing to distinguish anachronistic oral tradition and contemporary society. "

The account in the Orkneyinga saga (106) of Svein Asleifarsson's Viking exploits in the mid-twelfth century is a good example:

'In the spring he had more than enough to occupy him, with a great deal of seed to sow which he saw to himself. Then when that job was done, he would go off plundering in the Hebrides and in Ireland in what he called his "spring-trip", then back home just after midsummer, where he stayed until the fields had been reaped and the grain was safely in. After that he would go off raiding again and never come back until the first month of winter was ended. This he used to call his "autumn-trip". ' -- Orkneyinga Sagas.

This is a fascinating account of the Viking lifestyle, but it occurs in a time when we know that Viking raiding was no longer a normal part of Viking life. Unless the authors of the saga are confusing the dates or simply making an allegory of the earlier Viking period, it is anachronistic. Therefore, one must use caution when taking the sagas as historical texts rather than as narrative political histories.

According to Moncreiffe, the Clan Gunn was Gunn of Kilearnan whose Gaelic title was 'Mac Sheumais Chataich'. The family derived their name from their Norse Orcadian name Gunni, whose wife Ragnhild inherited great estates on the Scottish mainland in Caithness (Katanes) and Sutherland (Sundrlund - meaning "south land").

He goes on the list a sketchy genealogy which, more or less, agrees with the writings of Mark Rugg Gunn. Essentially, without listing all of the names (taken from the sagas) of the individual Vikings involved, they come to the somewhat speculative conclusion that, in fact, the clan Gunn is descended from Gunni, a descendant of Svein Asliefarsson, the "hero" of the Orkeyinga Sagas. I'm not going to dispute this or confirm it, as there are some factual errors (recognised by the clan) in both books.  M. R. Gunn goes into such detail, partially based on old documents of various ministers -- portions of it missing or written by more than one hand; it would be best to read his book on the clan Gunn if you want all that early genealogy and his conclusions of the early clan Gunn. Attempting to trace the lineage of a clan that was primarily Norse and left no written records until the 13th-14th century, is very speculative work by its very nature.  I applaud his efforts and undoubtedly he has opened the door to many undiscovered areas of Gunn history, but it isn't truly verifiable.

The original history of the clan (the Olaf the Black theory) appears very flawed and unsupportable, but if one reads those early accounts it clearly states "Clan Gunn claims descent from" Olaf the Black, but it never confirmed it. So, we are left with a very conjectural situation regarding just which Gunni the clan is descended from. Whoever the correct progenitor was, one fact remains certain: the Gunn's are of Norse Viking descent and the name-father of the clan was one Gunni .

This brief history of the clan isn't intended to dispute or debunk the theories of Mark Rugg Gunn, but rather to list all three theories very briefly (as has been done) and pick up the story of the clan later on when more information is available and therefore more verifiable.

The clans early emblem was the galley (longship), the boat which symbolised their ancestral (Norse) mother-goddess Freya. Whatever the real origins of Gunni, we do know he existed, and he is the name-father of the clan and must have been a powerful man in Caithness.

In most clan compilation publications, (which are unfortunately often inaccurate) one thing seems clear: Clan Gunn was a very war-like clan and had continual feuds with their more numerous neighbours. It has been suggested by many writers and historians, that the name Gunn actually derives from the Norse word 'gunnr' which means war, and that description fits. The history of the clan is filled with feuds, wars and conflicts with their neighbours and often the much smaller clan of Gunn had their backs against the wall. But Sir Charles MacKinnon describes the Gunn's as "survivors" and this, as will be seen, is most accurate. R.R. MacIan dubbed the Gunn's the "MacGregor's of the North."

The clan has an early connection with the Orkney's as well as with Norway. The Gunn lands, Caithness and parts of Sutherland, put them in close proximity, in later centuries, to some larger clans such as the Sinclair's (who were granted their lands in the North in the 15th century), the Sutherland's, the MacKay's and later the Keith's. Therefore it isn't surprising that this war-like clan felt quite threatened by all the new arrivals. The Gunn's were, literally, encircled by these numerically superior clans. The result was often conflict and clan warfare. The Gunns reputation for being aggressive and war-like can be directly attributed to their geographical situation - hemmed in by sometimes-hostile neighbours. More on the conflicts and feuds later.

The Crowner

The majority of the Sept names of the clan Gunn come from the sons of the most famous of all Gunn Chiefs, George Gunn, the "Crowner" of Caithness, circa 1464. The Crowner (an office of Warden or Steward) often spelt coroner, was the office George held and he was known to wear a great silver badge of that office, which he used to fasten his plaid. This is how he acquired the nickname "Am Braisteach Mor" - this stood for 'the great broached one'.

The lands of the Gunn chiefs was in the Highland tracts of Caithness, and especially a long stretch of territory called "Gleann na Guineach" or Gunn's Glen in Kildonan. This was close to the border on Sutherland around the uppermost region of the river Helmsdale. It was a precarious place, being between the territories of the rival Earls of Caithness (Sinclair) and Sutherland.

Halberry Castle
[Halberry or Hallburg castle] It has been said that George Gunn occupied the tower of Dirlot by force in 1464. George, the Crowner of Caithness and chief of Clan Gunn, also had another castle at Hallburg or Halberry Castle in Mid Clyth, just north of Lybster.  He is said to have held court in his castle at Clyth in such splendour as to rival any Highland chief.  The castle stood on a promontory jutting out to sea, with a large channel dug into the rock for a drawbridge.

These were the days when the Gunn's only had a few neighbours and proudly held almost all of the area, before the arrival of the Norman clans Sinclair; the Celtic-Teutonic-Norman clan Keith; and the Celtic-Norse-Flemish clan Sutherland, moved in the area and began to take Gunn land. Only Clan MacKay occupied parts of these areas prior to the clan Gunn. Gunn predates both the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland. Inevitably the newer families and clans came (most got their lands largely by grants of the Scottish kings or by marriage), and the smaller clan Gunn was driven back into the mountains on the Caithness border. Prior to this, the Gunn's held these lands by 'fire and sword'. In recent times, there is still a place called "The Crouner's Garden" at Strath farm near Watten.  Additionally, Gunn family burial ground was long in the St. Magnus chapel at Spittal close to Dirlot Castle.

Conflict in the North

Since 1426, the Gunn's had been embroiled in combat and conflict primarily with the Keith's of Ackergill. They had also feuded with the MacKay's and Sutherlands, but it was the Keith's with which the Gunn's would have the bitterest of troubles.  The Keith's, a Celtic branch of the Chattan confederation, were also of Teutonic and Norman origin and obtained lands near and of the Gunn's by grants and inheritance through marriage. The Keith's of Ackergill had a connection (inheritance) of land through a Cheyne heiress, an important rival land-claim in Caithness from a remote ancestor John, Jarl of Orkney. Ironically, it is alleged that Gunni's (the name-father of clan Gunn) son, Snaekoll, murdered the Jarl in 1231.

Perhaps this only added fuel to fire of an already smoldering cauldron of distrust, rivalry and hate betwixt the two clans. The Keith's, newcomers to the area, challenged the Gunn Chief's both for the political hegemony of the region and for the land itself.

The first recorded feud between the two is known as the 'Battle of Tannach Moor' (Blar-Tannie) near Wick.

The history (and probably some legend) that leads to this battle is one of the most dramatic and tragic events in the Clan's long history of feuds.  It began in Braemore early in the 15th century.  Lachlan Gunn of Braemore had an only daughter named Helen who was so striking a woman she was known as "the Beauty of Braemore."  Helen was soon to marry Alexander Gunn, her cousin (common in those days) whom she'd known since childhood. The happy event was set, but fate intervened before the marriage could take place.

"The harp that has rung with the strains of the fight,
Shall to beauty and love be devoted tonight;
For the maiden is wed that we all did adore --
The pride of our valley, the flower of Braemore.

Tho' here we are all full of joy and delight,
There are hearts in the glen that are breaking tonight,
And many a sigh from the sad bosom wrung,
Is heaving for Helen, the charming and young.

The Keith in the lowlands, that dastardly hoard,
For the loss of the maiden may brandish his sword;
But we mind not his threats -- let him come to Braemore,
And we will give him a taste of the Highland Claymore!

May the choicest of blessings descend from above,
On the gallant young man and his dear lady love;
And long may they flourish in beauty and pride,
Like the ash and the birch on you green mountain side.
(Mr. Calder of Caithness)

However, Dugald Keith, factor of the district had other plans.  Legend says he first glimpsed Helen one day when passing through Braemore and was immediately smitten by her beauty and charm. He'd made some advances to Helen, which she rejected. Some say the advances were of a crude nature and Helen was indignant about it. Spurned and angered by her rejection he set his plan to kidnap Helen in motion. On the night before the wedding of Alexander and Helen, the Gunn's were gathered in Braemore for a celebration and feast. Dugald Keith and some of his men came riding in, taking everyone by surprise, and to the shock and dismay of the Gunn's he took Helen and slaughtered several Gunn's who tried to stop him. Her lover, Alexander, was on of the people slain by the Keith's.

Ackergill Castle
[Ackergill castle] Dugald Keith secluded Helen away in Ackergill Castle where she was a virtual prisoner. She was distraught at her capture and the death of her lover, Alexander, and did her best to deter the lustful advances of Dugald Keith. What actually happened to Helen during her imprisonment can only be imagined and isn't really known, but the outcome is. Knowing there was no escape and determined not to give herself to Dugald, she devised a plan to get to the top of the castle tower. One day she asked her keeper if he would allow her to go to the tower so she could look upon her 'new' land. The guard, charmed by her beauty, acquiesced thinking she could not escape. But escape wasn't Helen's plan. Rather than become the victim of the brutal and licentious advances of Dugald Keith, Helen threw herself from the tower and plummeted to her death. The Beauty of Braemore was no more.

On came the gale, impetuous and rude,
Howling in hollow gusts where Helen stood.
She gazed around her on the troubled scene --
There was a calm composure on her mien,
And on her lips a faint smile seemed to play,
A moment's space, and then it died away.

She raised her hands on high, and prayed to Heaven,
That all her youthfull sins might be forgiven,
And this, a greater than them all combined,
The last sad crime of an unhappy mind;
Then from the top she sprang in frantic woe,
And instant fell a lifeless corpse below.

The conflict and tension that already existed between the Gunn's and the Keith's was about to escalate into a series of protracted feuds and battles that would last for many generations to come.

After Helen's suicide at Ackergill Castle, the Gunn's retaliated with a series of raids that were, for the most part, indecisive. But one year after Helen's death, in 1426, the two adversaries would meet at Tannach Moor near Wick. At Tannach Moor (Blar-Tannie) the Keith's enlisted the aid of a branch of the MacKay's who had previously feuded with the Gunns.

The conflict is described in an MS. written during the reign of King James VI and is recounted here:

The Conflict of Blar-Tannie (Tannach Moor)

translations and corrections in brackets.

"About the year of God 1438 [1426], there fell some variance betwixt the Keiths and the Gunns of Caithness. The Keiths, mistrusting their own forces, sent to Angus Mackay of Strathnaver (the son of Neil Wasse), entreating him to come to their aid, whereunto he easily yielded; so Angus Mackay, accompanied with John Mor MacIan-Riabhaich, went into Caithness with a band of men, and invaded that country.

Then did the Gunns of Caithness assemble in all haste, and met the Strathnaver men and the Keiths at a place in Caithness called Blair-tannie. There ensued a cruel fight, with slaughter on either side.

In the end the Keiths [and their allies] had the victory, by means chiefly of John Mor MacIan-Riabhaich (an Assynt man), who was very famous in these countries for his manhood shown at this conflict. Two chieftains and leaders of the inhabitants of Caithness were slain, with divers [many] others. This Angus Mackay, here mentioned, was afterward burnt and killed in the Church of Tarbat, by a man of the surname of Ross, whom he had often molested with incursions and invasions. "

About a decade later there is a story of a huge Keith involved at the battle of Hallberry Castle, who allegedly captured several Gunns and "tore the eyes out of their sockets." The Norse ancestry might explain this curious event. The legend has it that the Keith's came back with a "huge raven" on their shoulders, that it did the deed to the eyes of the captured Gunns. The Norse raven is a symbol of Woden (Odin) and was the raven-banner of not only many a Viking, but of the old Orkney Earls (Jarls). Although this is an interesting footnote in the history it is likely nothing more than a metaphor for some cruelty or feud, and perhaps only a legend.

Mark Rugg Gunn's "History of the Clan Gunn" offers some further insight into the curious battle involving the Raven and the 'Big Keith'. After Tannach Moor, no specific date noted, the Battle of the Mannistanes took place about a half a mile from Halberry castle. At a place called Mannistanes Hill, a place that derives its name from the many standing stones in the area, was the site of the battle of the black raven (mentioned earlier). The raven probably represents the raven flag, which to people of Norse ancestry assures victory in battle. At Mannistanes the Keith's had a champion of hugh size and strength known as ' Caidh Mor" or 'Big Keith'. He is said to have wielded a large claymore and killed 4 or 5 of the Gunn's but was himself wounded by an injured Gunn. One of the wounded Gunn's managed to draw a knife (probably a dirk) and sliced Big Keith's leg tendon thus disabling him and taking him out of the battle.

After this the Keith's seem to have lost heart and leave the battle. But Moncreiffe says the battle was won by the Keith's, and M.R. Gunn says the Keith's fled. So perhaps it is best to look at this battle as a draw or indecisive. Regardless, it is said that Big Keith never again returned to the Gunn territory. It should be mentioned that the Standing stones around Mannistanes precedes the Gunn's and Keith's by many thousands of years and probably dates to the Neolithic period. This battle seems to belong to tradition rather than historic fact. No specific date can be attributed to it and the outcome is different in two accounts. Nevertheless, there probably was some sort of skirmish between the two clans once again without any real conclusive results for either side.

The tale of the removal of the eyes conjures up ancestral memories of the Gunn's Viking heritage and often-savage justice.  According to Dr Anna Ritchie, there were two methods the Vikings employed to execute or savage enemies for the purpose of setting examples.  One is the removal of an eye (or both) and the other was a terrible form of (usually political) execution known as the 'Blood Eagle".  The Blood Eagle involved the execution of a prisoner of war (usually) by tying him to a stake, his back turned outwards.  With a knife, they would cut two slits into victim's back and draw out or expose the lungs to the outside are.  As he died, his lungs were said to have fluttered in the wind like the wings of an eagle - thus, the Blood Eagle.  But that practise seems to have died out many years before the feuds of the Gunns and Keiths.

In part two we look at the Battle of Dirlot and more Gunn history.

  • Part 2, History of Clan Gunn

  • Early history of Clan Gunn Menu

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