BADGE: Craobh Aitean (juniperis communis) juniper
PIBROCH: Failte nan Guinneach
Round the coasts of the extreme north of Scotland, and notably on the eastern and northern shores, the place-names have an interesting tale to tell: These "wicks" and "oes" and "dales" speak of the settlements of Norse and Danish rovers in days now remote. For some five centuries, down to the time of the battle of Largs, in 1263, that part of the country, along with the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and the Hebrides, was, in fact, Norwegian territory, and to the present hour the inhabitants, at any rate of the coast districts, have probably more Norwegian than Scottish blood in their veins. This is not least true in the case of the Clan Gunn, whose possessions lay in the Kildonan district, about the upper waters of the River Helmsdale, where Ben Grainmore towers two thousand feet against the sky, and the mountain glens come down to the fertile strath of the Helmsdale itself. The soil is fertile, the little mountain lochs abound with trout and char, and red deer, grouse, ptarmigan, and blackcock have always been plentiful on the moors, while grains of gold are even yet to be found in the sand and gravel of the streams. It was a country to attract the wild Norse rover, and round the Pictish towers or castles, of which the ruins still remain, many a desperate onslaught must have taken place between the older Pictish inhabitants and the Viking adventurers before these latter secured possession of the region.
Clan Gunn, which had its home here in later centuries, took its name and claimed descent from Guinn, second son of Olaf the Black, King of Man and the Isles, who died in 1237. The Gaelic Guinneach signifies fierce, keen, sharp, and is probably an accurate description of the outstanding characteristics of the clan. From later chiefs of the race are descended septs known in modern times by the names of Jamieson, Johnson, Williamson, Anderson, Robson, and others, while the Gallies take their name from a party of the clan which settled in Ross-shire, and was known as the Gall-'aobh, or men from the stranger's side.
The territory of the clan lay on the border between the country of the Earls of Sutherland and the Earls of Caithness while to the west of it lay Strathnaver, the territory of the Mackays, otherwise Lord Reay's country: With all these neighbours the Gunns from time to time had feuds and friendships, and some of the episodes which occurred between them were among the most romantic and desperate in the history of the north. Alike as friends and as foes the Gunns appear always to have been held in the highest estimation. It is obvious that, at a very early date, they had acquired the character of being "bonnie fechters".
Perhaps the most outstanding event in the history of the clan was the battle of Alt-no-gaun, fought in the year 1478. The chief of that time, George Gunn, was then the greatest man in the north, there being then no Earl of Sutherland to overshadow him. Moreover, he held the dignity of Crowner, or coroner; then a high officer of justice. In virtue of this office the chief wore as a badge a large silver brooch, from which he was known as Fear a Bhuaisteach mar. In his time a member of the family of Keith, afterwards Earls Marischal, married the heiress of the Cheynes of Acrigil, and thus obtained a footing on the borders of the Gunn country. The Gunns looked with little pleasure upon the appearance of the followers of such a powerful family in their neighbourhood, and accordingly disagreements and a serious feud sprang up between them. With a view to an understanding a meeting was held in the chapel of St.Tain, but this aggravated rather than diminished the differences between the parties, and, matters having come to a head, an arrangement was made to fight out the quarrel at an appointed place. Each chief was to appear with his relations, a party of not more than twelve horse, and the battle was to be fought to the death.
The place chosen was a remote part of Strathmore, but when the Crowner and his eleven champions reached the spot they found that the Keiths were double their number, having treacherously mounted two men on each horse. This action, however, merely enraged the Gunns, who hurled themselves into the combat with added fury and desperation. Both sides fought till they could fight no more, and when the battle was over the Crowner and seven of his clan lay dead, while the Keiths were barely able to carry their slain and wounded from the field. Of the Gunns the five who survived were all sons of the Chief, and all wounded. As night fell they sat down by the bank of a stream, where Torquil, the one most slightly wounded, washed and dressed the injuries of the other four. As they talked over the disaster of the day the youngest of them, Little Henry, burning to revenge defeat and the treachery of the Keiths, and to recover his father's sword, brooch, and armour, induced two of his brothers - the only two still able to fight - to go with him in pursuit of the victorious party. They came up with the latter at the castle of Dalraid. By this time it was night, and through the narrow window Henry Gunn and his brothers looked in and saw the Keiths drinking ale and relating to their hosts, the Sutherlands, the incidents of the day's encounter. Little Henry watched his chance, and as the Chief of the Keiths raised the tankard to his lips he bent his bow and sent an arrow through his heart, at the same time calling out "Beannachd na Guinnich do 'n Chai" - the Gunn's compliment to Keith ! The company inside dashed for the door, and as they came out several were killed by the Gunns, who were waiting for them. It was no equal match, however, and the Gunns presently retired under cover of the darkness, and making for the spot where they had left their brother, all five retreated in safety to their own country.
A hundred years later the Chief of the Clan, Alastair Gunn, was again a man of much note and power in the north. He had married a daughter of the Earl of Sutherland, and felt himself entitled to hold his head high among the best in Scotland. This, alas ! led to his undoing. One day, a bout the year 1562, march ing, with his "tail" of followers behind him, along the High Street of Aberdeen, he happened to encounter no less a person than Queen Mary's half-brother, the Earl of Moray, also with his followers. Owing to the condition of the thoroughfares at that time it was not less a point of honour than a matter of convenience to keep the crown of the causeway. This the Earl, by reason of his rank, of course considered himself entitled to, but the haughty Chief of the Gunns showed no disposition to yield the point. In the upshot the Earl by means of one Andrew Munro, entrapped Gunn at the Delvines, near Nairn, whence he was carried to Inverness, where Moray had him executed "under pretence of justice".
Twenty-three years later, in 1585, the clan found itself involved against its neighbours on each side, the Earls of Sutherland and Caithness, heads of the most powerful houses then in the north. It looked as if the Gunns were to be the earthen pipkin crushed between two iron pots, yet they seemed no whit dismayed, and managed to hold their own in valiant fashion. The two earls planned to come upon the Gunns from both sides at once, and, "thereby so to compass them that no place of retreat might be left unto them". The Gunns took up their position in an advantageous spot on the side of Ben Grian, There their enemies, seeing them much fewer in number than themselves made the fatal mistake of thinking lightly of them. Instead of waiting for the Sutherlands to come up and attack simultaneously, the Sinclairs rushed impulsively forward. The Gunns waited till their enemies, breathless with the steep ascent, were close upon them. Then they poured a flight of arrows into them at close quarters, and, rushing down the slope, cut down the commander of the Sinclairs with 120 of his men. The rest they pursued till darkness fell. The Gunns were followed, however, by the Earl of Sutherland's force, which pursued them as far west as the shores of Lochbroom. There the Gunns were brought to an encounter, when they were defeated, their captain, George Gunn, being wounded and taken prisoner, and thirty-two of the clan being slain.
Later in the same reign, in 1616, John, Chief of the Gunns, suffered for the part he was compelled to playas an ally of the Earl of Caithness. The earl, being desirous of visiting his displeasure upon a certain William Innes, brought pressure upon the Chief of the Gunns to burn the corn stacks of Innes's tenants. This, John Gunn long refused to do, offering instead to "do his best to slay William Innes". The earl, however, continued to insist; in the end the corn stacks were burned, thereby no doubt inflicting severe hardship upon the people of the district; and as a result the Chief of the Gunns was rigorously prosecuted and imprisoned in Edinburgh.
A generation later a notable member of the clan was Crowner or Colonel Gunn, a native of Caithness, who, like so many other hardy Scots of that time made a place and a name for himself in the wars abroad. He appears in Scottish history when the Marquess of Montrose, then on the Covenanting side, was besieging the Tower of Gight in Aberdeenshire. Word reached the Marquess that a King's force had landed at Aberdeen, and raising the siege he retreated precipitately to Edinburgh. The force actually landed, however, was a small one, and the most important of its officers was Crowner Gunn. On the failure of the cause of Charles I. the Crowner returned to Germany, where according to the historian of the house of Sutherland he became a major-general in the imperial army, and a baron of the empire, marrying "a rich and noble lady beside the imperial city of Ulm, upon the Danube".
The early seat of the Chiefs of the Clan was the old castle of Hallburg, the name of which sufficiently indicates its Danish or Norwegian origin. In its time this stronghold was considered impregnable. In later days the Chiefs of the Gunns had their seat at the castle of Kilearnan till it was destroyed by fire in 1690.
Strangely enough, after the long warlike history of the clan, the chief means of its dispersion was the introduction of the peaceful sheep. In the twenty years between 1811 and 1831 sheep-raising as a new industry displaced the old breeding of black cattle in the Highlands of Scotland. To make way for it in this district the notorious Sutherland clearances took place. In the former year the population of Kildonan parish, which measures some 250 square miles, numbered 1,574. To make way for sheep-farming most of that population was removed to the neighbouring parish of Loth, and in the glens where hundreds of families of the name of Gunn had for centuries had their happy though humble and too often abjectly poor homes, nothing was to be heard but the bleat of the sheep, the call of the grouse, and the crow of the blackcock. In 1851 the parish of Loth was united to that of Kildonan, and by this means the number of the population was more than restored. Meanwhile, however, many of the old clan of the Gunns had gone out to the world, never to return to the scenes of the doughty deeds of their ancestors.
At the present day the Chiefship of the clan is believed to rest with the family of Gunn of Rhives, which is descended from the second son of MacSheumais, the fifth Chief.
Among the members of the clan who have attained name and fame may be enumerated Barnabas Gunn, musical composer, who died organist of Chelsea Hospital in 1753; John Gunn, author of an Historical Enquiry respecting the Performance of the Harp in the Highlands, and other musical works, who flourished at the end of the eighteenth century; William Gunn, Episcopal clergyman in England and antiquarian writer, who, early in the nineteenth century, published extracts from the Vatican Manuscripts, an account of the Vatican tapestries, and a tenth century Manuscript of the Historic Britonum; Daniel Gunn (1774-1848), the congregational minister, celebrated for his unemotional preaching and his schools at Christchurch, Hampshire, and Robert Campbell Gunn, the naturalist (1808-1881), who, when superintendent of convict prisons in Tasmania, sent home many interesting specimens of previously unknown plants and animals.
SEPTS OF CLAN GUNN