An Early history of Clan Gunn - The Viking Clan

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An Early history of Clan Gunn - The Viking Clan

Part Two.
by Robert M. Gunn, MA

Battle of Dirlot

In 1464, the two clans fought again at the Battle of Dirlot, resulting in massive casualties on both sides, the less numerous Gunns losing the battle, but not before their archers inflicted heavy losses on the Keiths.  The Gunns were noted as excellent archers by all accounts, and used the short bow (not the long bow) to offset their inferior numbers. They were also known to be great swordsmen wielding great broadswords and most likely claymores.  Undoubtedly, some of this comes from their war-like, Viking heritage.

Numerous Gunn's and Keith's had perished in the two major conflicts that followed the abduction of Helen; farms were going untended and fallow.  It seems there were not enough men to harvest adequate food. So it was decided (probably by agreement of George Gunn, The Crowner and his rival George Keith, Chief of the Keiths), to settle the whole matter in one equal meeting between the two clans with the two clan Chiefs in attendance.  It isn't known whether or not this was a meeting of reconciliation gone sour, or a 'battle of champions' of equal numbers of men. It was agreed that 12 horsemen from each clan would meet at an arranged place, and if they could not settle their differences, they would resolve it with a battle of champions.  The Gunns, including George and many of his sons were to meet the Keiths outside the Chapel of St. Tears. [Note: The spelling on the chapel varies from book to book. It has been spelt Tears, Tyer, Tayre, etc. For the purposes of this account I'm using the most common spelling - Tears.]

Battle of Allt Nan Gamhna - also known as St. Tears

There are over four variations on this feud. But by far the most common is the one I've chosen to recount here.

The Gaelic accounts of this battle is know and the battle of Altnagown or "Allt Nan Gamhna" which means 'brook of the year-old calves'. It has become better known by the nearby chapel of St. Tears, in more modern times, as the Battle of St. Tears. The date of this battle varies but most accounts give the year as 1478 whilst another, 1464, the latter being most likely.

[gunn as drawn by McIan]The Gunn's, led by their Chief, George Gunn "The Crowner", arrived first and went into the chapel to pray. The Keith's arrived slowly, and seeing the horses tied up outside the chapel, decided on an ambush. But using the words of author Sir Charles MacKinnon of Dunakin, "the Keith's played a dirty trick mounting two men on each horse.", giving them a 2 to 1 advantage over the Gunns.  Led by their chief, George Keith of Ackergill and his 23 men, fell upon the Gunns inside the chapel and a great and confused battle ensued. Claymore, dirks, swords and targes banged out a terrible sound of carnage as the battle spread from the chapel to the outside and all around.

Considering they were so deviously outnumbered, the Gunns fought bravely and killed many of the treacherous Keiths, before the sheer force of numbers overwhelmed them. The Gunns were forced to make a retreat, but seven (some accounts say 8 or more) of the Gunn's lay dead as well as many Keiths, including the Gunn Chief, George the Crowner. Four of his sons were also killed and the Crowner's great silver brooch (badge of office) was stolen by the Keiths.

Whilst the brooch and arms were stolen, the misunderstanding that this is why the Gunn's do not currently have a chief is mistaken. But that's another story.

The remaining four or five Gunns found safe cover and hid in a glen near a stream in upper Strathnaver. There, they dressed their numerous wounds and burned with anger and revenge.  At this point the story becomes unclear as there are two very different versions of what occurred next - although the outcome of both is the same.


Dirlot Castle
[Dirlot Castle] One version claims one of the Crowner's surviving sons, who was less wounded than the others, silently followed the Keith's on their journey to castle Dirlot.  One account says it was John Gunn but most other accounts, (including that of Rev. Donald Sage) agree it was one Henry Gunn, one of the sons of the slain Crowner, who followed the Keith's to Ackergill castle.  Henry took with him several Gunns and set up an ambush outside Dirlot castle.  Henry climbed up a steep and winding hill that eventually put him on a level with a window of Castle Dirlot, where he could see the Keith's celebrating inside. In this account, which cannot be verified but occurs in several tomes, Henry watched the Keith's celebrating their victory at St. Tears by quaffing ale and rejoicing.

Henry took aim with his bow and shot an arrow through the open window, striking George, the Chief of the Keith's, in the neck, thus killing him. After this he is said to have shouted:
"A Gunn's compliment to a Keith", although another Gaelic translation is, "A Gunn's blessing to a Keith!" The remaining Keith's ran towards to door to seek out the shooter, but were ambushed one by one by Gunn's hiding outside the door. It is said that more Keith's were killed here at Dirlot castle than the Gunn's that died at St. Tears.

According to this account, Henry was able to secure his father's sword, Chain-mail armour and Badge of office from the Keith's, but a dispute between Henry and his oldest brother James had a dispute over ownership of these items, with James as the elder winning out, resulting in Henry leaving the family, vowing that none of his descendants will bear the name Gunn again. It is said he moved out of the area and became estranged from the Gunn's. But this cannot be verified and indeed has the sound of a legend. Despite this, it might explain the Henderson branch of the Gunns being considered a seperate clan, rather than a sept.

An Alexander Gunn of Watten, tells us that the Crowner's Brooch (assumed lost) was a gift from the King of Scotland to the Crowner for his office, and that it was found during the last century in Kildonan and passed into the possession of MacLeod of Cadbell.  But this is the last we hear of it and there is no way to confirm it. Its whereabouts are unknown and unlikely to be found.

So there is a story of revenge in the tale where Henry takes matters into his hands the night of the battle of St. Tears outside Dirlot (recounted above). But there is another of revenge as well.

In this account, which appears to be verified by both Robert Gordon's writings and the Fraser Chronicles, a grandson of the slain George Gunn, the Crowner, William MacKames (also spelled William MacHamish), waited for an occasion to take revenge of the son of the Keith Chief, (also named George Keith of Ackergill), his son Alexander and 10 Keith retainers. It was apparently an ambush at Drummoy in Sutherland as they were travelling from Inverugie to Caithness. William MacKames and his fellow Gunns, ambushed with bow and sword, the Keith Chief (George Keith of Ackergill), his son and 10 men - killing them all. The Keith's, expecting death, asked for time for prayers but were refused. William is reputed to have said, "Your father interrupted my grandfather at prayer in God's house (St. Tears) and that he (William) would grant them no time for such devotion since they denied it to his grandfather's men. All of them were slain by the Gunns.

Some writers of the Battle of St. Tears, deny that an armed conflict amongst 36 men (12 Gunns and 24 Keiths) could have taken place in the relatively small chapel. However, it should be noted that this is only where the battle started and probably was taking place out-of-doors as well as in. In fact, according to Robert Gordon's accounts (160 years after the events) and several others including the Fraser Chronicles, bloodstains could be seen on the walls of the chapel for many years after the conflict.

So it seems revenge was indeed taken on the Keiths in one fashion or another. Interestingly, according to Mark Rugg Gunn, the Castle Dirlot was occupied by one Alexander Sutherland a relative of the Dunrobin family. It was said that it was he who welcomed the Keith's so cordially after the battle with the Gunns at the Chapel of St. Tears. This would explain why the Keith's went to Dirlot after the battle rather than to their Castle at Ackergill.

As an interesting side note, Alexander Sutherland, the cordial host, had himself killed a MacKay a year earlier, Alexander Dunbar of Cumnock in a quarrel, and was later apprehended by Dunbar's uncle, MacKay of Strathnaver. Mackay of Strathnaver used nearly as devious a strategy as did the Keiths at St. Tears to apprehend Sutherland. Mackay, with ten followers, were on a 'friendly' visit where they were given a feast with Alexander Sutherland and twenty of his men. The wily MacKay of Strathnaver, arranged for each of his ten men to sit in between every two of the Sutherland men. At a given signal, the MacKay's stood drawing their dirks and quickly stabbing to their right and then their left, killed or wounded all of the Sutherland men and captured Alexander Sutherland taking him as prisoner to Edinburgh and then to Stirling where he was executed in 1499.  In reward for this deed, James IV of Scotland gave the Castle Dirlot and some of Sutherland's estate to the MacKays, which was very considerable. In attendance of the MacKay men who dispatched the Sutherland's were three Gunns.

But battle for the Gunn's was not over. In the next instalment (coming 2004) of "A Brief History of Clan Gunn", we shall look at the battle of Torran Dubh and the son's of the Crowner which form the basis of many of the Clan's sept names.

Author: Robert Gunn
Author/European Historian, MA
© 2000/09 RMG

Primary Sources:
The Highland Clans, Moncreiffe of that Ilk, D Hicks
Scottish Highlanders, MacKinnon of Dunakin
History of Clan Gunn, Mark Rugg Gunn
Kith and Kin
Scottish Clans and Tartans, Bain
Scottish Surnames and families, Whyte
Clan Gunn history, NA MacCorkill
Feuds of the Clans, MacGregor
Scottish clans and Tartans, R.R. MacIan
Scottish Clans, Innes of Learney
The Vikings in Scotland, Dr F. Ritchie
The Orkeyinga Sagas
The Vikings, Bronstead
Clan Gunn, Thomas Sinclair
And 11 secondary sources

Next: In part three we look at the major sept names of Clan Gunn, their origins and why certain names now listed in the Gunn society are highly questionable.

  • Part 3, The Septs and Names of clan Gunn - including some questionable inclusions.
  • Gunn history Menu

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