Clan History

History of the Clan Gunn

The Clan Gunn claims direct descent from Gunni, grandson of Sweyn Asleifsson, the “Ultimate Viking” and hero of the Orkneyinga Saga. Clan Gunn is also descended from the Norse “Jarls”, or Earls of Orkney through Gunni’s wife Ragnhild, who was grand-daughter and eventual heiress of St. Rognvald, Jarl of Orkney. Through Ragnild’s father Erik Staybrails the senior heir of Moddan of Dale, the Clan also descends from Moddan of Dale and the ancient Mormaers or High Stewards of Caithness

The principal Gunn lands were acquired through Ragnhild who inherited great estates in Caithness and Sutherland in 1198 on the death of her brother Harold Ungi, Jarl of Orkney and Caithness. These lands were inherited by Snaekoll Gunni’s son, the second chief of the Clan.

By the thirteenth century the Gunns were at the height of their powers and appear to have possessed the whole of Caithness.

Little is known of the Clan during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. There is, however, some interesting evidence to indicate that Sir James Gun, Chief of the Clan Gunn, may have accompanied Henry Sinclair of Orkney on his reputed expedition to the New World, some ninety years before Columbus claimed to have discovered America. An effigy of a mediaeval Knight in armour, reputed to be Sir James Gun is cut into a rock face at Westford, Massachusetts.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were many skirmishes between the Gunns and their neighbours the Sinclairs, the Keiths and others who had obtained grants of land from the Scottish kings who were anxious to increase their influence over the fringes of their kingdom. As a result the Gunns were gradually disposed of their lands in the more fertile parts of Caithness. By the mid fifteenth century Gunn of Ulbster, Chief of Clan Gunn and Crowner of Caithness held his main lands at Ulbster and Clyth. He established his main seat at Halberry Head on the East Coast of Caithness, a mile south of Snaekoll, Gunni’s son’s Castle at Bruan.

With a view to ending the long standing conflict between the Gunns and the Keiths, a reconciliation was arranged to take place at the Chapel of St. Tears near Ackergill Tower, owned at the time by the Keiths. Each Clan had agreed to bring twelve men to the parley but the Keiths treacherously brought two men on each horse and overcame the Gunns. A son of the Chief of the Gunns escaped and later wreaked vengeance on the Keiths by killing the Keith chieftain as he drank to his Clan’s victory in the Castle of Dirlot near Westerdale.

In 1978 the Earl of Kintore, Chief of Clan Keith, and Iain Gunn of Banniskirk, Commander of the Clan Gunn signed a Treaty of Friendship between the two Clans at the site of the Chapel, thus bringing to an end a five hundred year old feud.

With the death of the Crowner and his sons at Ackergill, the Clan split into three main branches.

James, (Saumas) the Crowner’s eldest son survived the battle, and settled in Kildonan, Sutherland where he obtained lands from the Earl of Sutherland. Robert the second surviving son established his line in Braemore in the Southern heights of Caithness as Robson or Caithness Gunns. John the third surviving son, settled in Cattaig in Strathmore in the higher reaches of the River Thurso near Westerdale.