Clan History

Blog from the North – Feb 2015

Bunty Gunn
Bunty Gunn

 

What a start to February we had up here in Caithness.  Gusts of snow, howling winds, blue, tropical skies, warm sun, hard frosts – you name it, we had it.  They always say that you can experience the whole gamut of weather in a day if you live in Caithness.  We seem to be sorted out now, though, and the snowdrops are up.  This year they appear to have very short stalks.  My neighbour and I were comparing and she says that it’s the first year she’s noticed this.  One of nature’s great mysteries to me is that each year patches of snowdrops appear where they have never been before.  I thought that you had to plant them “in the green”, but I never set eyes on some of the new ones, never mind plant them.  It must be the birds.

The bit of sun that we have had has started to ripen our lemon.  Our one lemon on the tree in the conservatory.  I think it must be the most northerly lemon in Scotland, but I will stand corrected if anyone can beat it.  We are nurturing this lemon, because usually there comes a time when the fruit just falls off the tree, hardly ripe and quite useless.  I have high hopes of this one.  Watch this space.

I can’t say that there is much election fever up here yet.  John Thurso, our Lib.Dem MP is doing more to get in touch than any of the other candidates.  In fact, I’m not sure who the other candidates are.  John is helping in the fight to get proper funding for our hospital in Wick.  It is woefully short of doctors and surgeons and the excuse is that nobody wants to come up here to live.  We are faced with losing 24 hour surgical care which to me seems a nonsense because the alternative is to put a sufferer in an ambulance and take it 100 miles to Inverness.  Imagine being in labour and being told that the local staff can’t cope and having to spend several hours in a very rattly ambulance.  There is a hospital helicopter, but if it is snowing or too windy or foggy it can’t take off.  Wick may seem like the end of the earth to some, but a lot of people have moved here for the freedom of lifestyle, the education, the general ambience and I really don’t see that doctors need to think they are at a dead end.  Nobody, after all, stays in a place for ever.  There’s a big move locally to raise awareness of the situation – I don’t mean civil unrest, but there could be a march or two.  Watch this other space.

Iain and I are looking forward to coming to Durham for the St. Donan’s Day dinner on the 18th  April.  This part of the world is familiar to me as my parents came from County Durham (Stockton on Tees) and my uncle farmed in Eaglescliffe, where we got married.  It will be good to see my own “homeland” again and good to meet the Clan at the dinner that Ed Aksamit has arranged  for us at Lumley Castle.  I’m sure we’ll get a good turn-out for it.  If you are reading this – do come along.

 

Bunty

 

 

Blog From the North – Jan 2015

Bunty Gunn
Bunty Gunn

It always strikes me as odd that the moment winter starts, this country always behaves as though it were the deepest surprise imaginable.  Goodness me – snow!  And cold winds!  The roads become impassable, the railways stop, the airplanes ice up and the Power goes off – and we are astonished, nay, amazed that temperatures can drop so far in this green and pleasant land.

 

In fact winter hit Caithness in a big way just after New Year with the coldest winds, the severest storms and the heaviest and most damaging hail.  Swiney House where Iain and I live was, we know, up and running in 1750 because there is a reference to it in a book about Caithness where a man “comes down the coast to have breakfast with his cousin in his new house at Swiney.”  And we know who the cousin was.  So the old place has seen some weather in its time and stands remarkably firm, give or take a slate or two or a crack in the stone facings here and there.  But when the power goes off, it is a very cold old house.  We discovered that there were two fireplaces in the hall, covered up now, of course, and fireplaces in most of the rooms – long hidden beneath plasterboard, alas.  When we bought the house we were entranced by the previous inhabitant’s artistic skill in depicting flames rising from the electric wall heaters and cut out birds in another place which was immediately named “the Roasting Robins room”.  Thinking back to our childhood, there was, of course,very rarely any central heating in houses and Iain and I recalled darting along glacial corridors to the warmer climes of the sitting rooms.  We remembered the agony of hitting your toe on the stone hot-water-bottle put into the end of your bed to warm it and icy linoleum in the bathroom, if you couldn’t find your bedroom slippers.  There was always, of course, the kitchen range, hungry for coke (a kind of coal), but reliably providing hot water and a surface to cook on.  In this day, I rely on a kettle set on an ancient primus stove for hot water and two mobile gas rings for anything more sophisticated than a boiled egg.

 

In my childhood, spent in the country in Cumbria, we had a haybox into which went a hot stew or pot of soup to keep up to temperature for the man of the house’s meal.  Years later, when in London we suffered under rationed electricity during the ill-fated Miners’ strike, I made another haybox.  We cooked when we had power and then stored the result deep in a box lined with the guinea pig’s hay.  The guinea pig was elsewhere, I hasten to add.  We also used a trick which had been taught to my mother – a Yorkshire woman – by a lace maker.  You light a candle and set it at the centre of four filled water glasses.  The result of this is to provide four pools of light in which you can work.  The children and I used to play cards this way.  But, oh the joy when the light came back on and hot baths could be had once more.

 

And it’s now that we should all be thanking our lucky stars for the intrepid men (and women) who go out in atrocious weather  and mend the power lines that are down. We should also be singing the praises of the men with the gritting lorries who keep the roads open for us to creep out and buy the milk.  I’m afraid we take it for granted that these things will happen.

 

So to those of you who, in your own countries, regularly end up under six to ten feet of snow without the same sort of help and  without even a grumble, spare a thought for your wimpy friends over here.  I don’t think we are programmed to enjoy winter in general.  Somehow ski-ing and sledging are so much more fun in the sun.  So here’s to Spring.  I notice that the bulbs are beginning to come up in the drive – probably a bit too early, but if they can be hopeful, so can we.  Happy New Year to you all.

Blog from the North – Dec 14

Bunty Gunn
Bunty Gunn

December came in like a lamb up here.  We couldn’t believe that we didn’t have to wear jackets to go out.  The sun shone, obviously the globe warmed and we were the lucky recipients.  A different tale a bit later, though.  High winds, and snow on the higher ground started about a week ago.  When I say “higher ground” I actually mean anything over about a rise of ten of twelve feet.  The Achavanich road to Thurso is a nightmare if there is even a flake of snow in the air.  My poor, bald neighbour was caught out there one year, without either a hat or gloves.  He had to dig himself out, but keep getting back into the car in order not to freeze to the road.  As I write, sleet and hail are trying to destroy the windows and even the geese that were feeding in the field have departed.  They seem to like the salty grass – or whatever creatures live in it – and they are a beautiful sight as they roam the territory.

 

When I think of the geese, I think of the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  She always used to have a really private holiday in Caithness during October and at her last visit, when she was at least a hundred years old, she was regretting the fact that she hadn’t seen the geese flying south.  On the day she was leaving the Castle of Mey, the oddest thing happened.  As she got into her car a perfect skein of geese swooped low over Mey.  I don’t think they did a Victory Roll or anything like that, but they did fly over Her Majesty who said  “Now I’m content.  At last I’ve seen them.”  And that was the last time that Caithness saw her.

 

Of course, other people think of geese as a delicious feast and to all of you who will be celebrating, Iain and I wish you a very happy time with a profitable New Year to come.   What is it the newspapers used to say?  “And a Merry Christmas to all our readers.”  My sentiments exactly.

Blog from the North – Nov 2014

Bunty Gunn
Bunty Gunn

If I may, I’ll paraphrase the poet and say “no flowers, no fruit, no Blog, November”. I’m late with this.   Here we are nearly into December and the weather is still, occasionally shirt-sleeve.  Our little corner of the country has done rather well. Earlier we did have the iciest strong winds, straight off the Urals I think, which, if you park your car the wrong way in the village street, can slam the door and take your leg off.  It pays to test the direction before you get out.

 

It’s odd looking out of the window and seeing in this November countryside how farming is changing before our eyes.  We face onto beautiful open fields which are completely empty.  The cattle will be in barns by now, but there are no sheep.  Those that were there have long gone to the sales.  Nothing moves in the landscape.  Even the two horses which, wrapped up in their blankets, usually weather the winter outside,  are absent.

 

I say nothing moves, but our neighbour with the cherry-picker is in much demand.  Now is the time to clean out what are called up here “rhones”.  In my English way I would say “gutters”, but up here a gutter is the draining edge of a lane or farm road.  And there’s a difference between “bucket” and “pail”.  The former is something to put rubbish in;  the latter is for liquids like water or milk.

 

In the case of our house, the cherry-picker was being used to try and discover the reason for some damp patches that had emerged.  A lot of picking out and filling in went on during which time a neat little sealed up window appeared.  If it had been reglazed it would have lit the closet very dramatically.  It became obvious that the inside of the house had been quite materially altered at some point and that two rooms and a closet had once been one apartment.  There will be other windows hidden away, no doubt, because of this.  We do know that there were at least  two fireplaces in the hall – now hidden by Victorian tongue and grooved pine planks.  Old houses are truly fascinating.  Our oddest discovery, years ago when having the wiring renewed, was that originally the trunking under the floor boards had been lined with moss as a sound absorber.  It was good, too.  The modern stuff isn’t nearly as effective.

 

Speaking of poems, brought up as I was on  “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I was fascinated the other day to talk to a man who only discovered what this meant when he went down to England.  Caithness has its mists, but not a lot of mellow fruitfulness.  There aren’t too many plums grown, or pears.  We tend not to have late-harvested apples and tomatoes only grow in greenhouses.  What we do have, in plenty, are rowans.  They make wonderful jelly and as an added advantage, they keep the witches off.  I’d like to see a pear tree do that.

President’s Message – Autumn 2014

80x80 John_Gunn_YngrPresident’s Message – Autumn 2014

I am writing this message from my home in Edinburgh which I’m delighted to say is still part of the United Kingdom. Last month the people of Scotland voted to stay in the Union, hopefully “putting to bed” any further attempts at Scottish Independence for at least a generation. However, while the “majority have spoken”, there were still a lot of Scots who were disappointed with the vote. While Independence proved a step too far for the electorate, the “Yes” voters  should perhaps console themselves with the fact that with the additional powers offered by Westminster (a version of “Devo Max” ) they will most likely have achieved 75% of their wish list anyway.  The important thing now is for us to put the referendum behind us and concentrate on getting the Scottish economy to thrive once again.

Turning to clan matters, we had a very enjoyable Mini Gathering in Caithness in July which began with a delicious buffet supper at the Commander’s House (Swiney) and was followed over the next couple of days by the AGM, a trip to the Halkirk Games, a formal dinner at the Forss House Hotel and finished with a church service at Kildonan church. However, we are now looking forward to next year’s International Gathering, details of which are included in this edition of the Herald together with a booking form. The details are also on the Clan Gunn Society’s website and I’m pleased to say that we have already had a number of firm bookings which is extremely encouraging.

When organising this major event, we are always in somewhat of a dilemma in that we are aware that some of those attending will be doing so for the first time while others are “serial” gathering attendees. We therefore have to try to balance the “must see” attractions for the “first timers” while trying to keep the programme fresh for the “regulars”.  I therefore hope you will agree that the programme looks interesting (it is certainly pretty full) and I am very pleased that we have managed to hold the costs down to roughly the same level that they were three years ago.

Next year’s Gathering will also be slightly different in that it coincides with the Sinclair’s gathering which they hold every 5 years (for the mathematicians amongst you that means we overlap every 15 years) and we have decided to hold a joint Gala Ball on the Friday night. We have also managed to obtain a grant from the Scottish Clan Fund for this event which has allowed us to heavily subsidise the cost and which we hope will encourage more of the local Gunns and Sinclairs to attend.

The next Herald is not due out until next spring so I would therefore like to wish you all a rather early happy Christmas and New Year and encourage as many of you that are able to come to Orkney and Caithness for what promises to be one of the best International Gatherings yet.

 

 

John Gunn

 

Blog From the North – October 2014

Bunty Gunn
Bunty Gunn

Back to Caithness after a splendid month away.  Iain and I visited Iceland – which is very like the countryside of Caithness except that where we have grass and moorland Iceland has moss growing on the lava of many years’ deposit.  We watched a geyser erupt forty feet into the air every eight minutes or so. The path to it and beside it was lined with little pools of extremely hot water, erupting themselves, but in miniature.  It is an extremely odd and somewhat sinister realisation that the earth’s crust is so thin at these points and particularly so when you stand where the tectonic plates are moving, centimetres at a time, so you aren’t actually conscious of them, but where you can see the ground pushed up into walls and ditches.  And while you are considering all this heat, you can see in the distance a huge glacier.  The island is surely correctly named the Land of Ice and Fire.

Our next port of call was Boston, USA where kind clansmen Burke and Barbara Wilson met us and drove us to the Highland Games at Loon Mountain, New Hampshire.  Not “loon” as in the Caithness word for a young man, but as in the bird that with the mournful cry.  The mountain area is beautiful and the Games setting very Scottish.  Gunn was the honoured clan this year, the 140th anniversary of the Games, and the clan tent was manned (or personed) by Dean and Margaret Bulpett who looked after us all so beautifully.  Margaret oversaw the provisions there and in the hotel where the AGM and dinner were held.  We were all very grateful to her.

Rich and Linda Gunn kindly transported us up to Quebec City where we were royally entertained by Ted and Louise.  Ted had arranged for a dinner at the Garrison Club – very smart – where we met some delightful friends of theirs.  Here I admit to a lot of embarrassment.  Many years ago I lived in France for a while and so learned to speak fairly fluently.  Well, in Quebec I might just have well have been speaking in Martian.  The Quebecois French is completely different from anything I had previously heard.  I had a most interesting conversation that evening with a lady weaver, but had to concentrate very hard to follow her.  She later admitted to Louise that she had had the same difficulty with me.  Mercifully a lot of people speak English, but they are not encouraged to by the Government and the young lady receptionists in our American chain hotel had no English at all.  Ken, Ted and Louise’s son, told me that his wife (who is not from Quebec)  can’t understand him at all when he is speaking to his old school friends.  It really is a whole New World out there.

Still with Rich and Linda we made our way back through Vermont where the leaves were beginning to turn and were enriched by the deep red of the maples.  We visited a Ben and Jerry Ice-cream factory, but it rather lost its point as something had gone wrong with one of the mixing machines and strong men in white coats and hairnets were being lowered on harnesses to peer into the depths of the vats.  We were still given a taste of the product, though.  Delicious.

And who would have thought that a marble museum would have been so interesting?  Marble, as in sculpture not as in fireplaces.  There was an amazing frieze of the faces of past Presidents of the United States and a beautiful little piece of some children on a swing carved from a single block.  It reminded me of the story of a famous sculptor who was asked how he knew what he would carve when faced with a huge stone.  “I see a horse in there,” he said, “and I just let it out.”

 

Our final fling was to go to Puglia in the heel of Italy.  Here we found two delightful hotels, had excellent company, food and wine.  The daring one among us was the driver of the hired car and submitted to the horrors of being cut up by the Italian drivers as they sailed past, hooting their horns.  Together we crept up tiny, narrow streets in ancient towns, not actually sure whether we were in a pedestrianised area or not.  Flocks of bus tourists, crowding behind a raised umbrella parted like the Red Sea to let us through.  Nobody stopped us, so I suppose we were  just about legal.  We had a lovely time.  So now we are home at the end of an Indian Summer, about to face an American hurricane’s final fury and all the leaves in the garden to sweep up. It’s good to be back.

Blog From The North Aug-14

Bunty Gunn
Bunty Gunn

Here comes August.  The usual grey skies, sharp winds and the occasional Scotch Mist – just the weather for the (rather rudely called) “Tartan Swallows” who come North to shoot and fish.  You don’t need bright sunlight to lure the salmon or dazzle the grouse.  It’s the season of strange, somewhat surreal conversations for such as Iain and me who don’t either fish or shoot.  “How is the river fishing?”  “How many brace today?”  “What’s the moor like?”  I’m more at home with “Have you got the harvest in yet?” and “Did the rain do much damage to the crop?” It all invokes childhood memories of my uncle’s farm in Yorkshire where, after a storm, every able-bodied person was issued with a broom handle and put to work in the fields, lifting the drooping crop for the threshing machine.  One of the things that has changed in my life time is the advent of the short-straw crops.  Straw isn’t needed any longer for bedding animals down so the remainders are like “pieces of string too small to be of use” – the label on a tin in a neighbours house.  The other innovation is the roll-ups of hay in coloured plastic, making them look like giant marshmallows.  These keep the sheep happy during the winter.  Up here, the cattle are kept in during the winter because they make such a mess of the fields with their hooves.  The loveliest thing is to watch the calves that were born over the winter leaping with joy when they are let out in the Spring.  But that’s for then.  For now, the swallows are thinking of leaving us.  Ours arrive during the first week in May and leave by the first week in September.  You could almost set your calendar by them.  The magic is that they pattern their young, flying in and out of the garage that they have commandeered to show the children where to come back to the following year.  And they do.  They arrive, procreate and leave.  When we were on holiday in Egypt we wondered if some of the swallows we saw at the ancient tombs were Swiney swallows.  I like to think they were.

 

But keeping you completely up to date with Caithness “doings”, Iain and I attended the unveiling of a memorial stone to Donald Sutherland Swanson, outside Thurso Police Station.  Nevill Swanson, his great grandson, unveiled the impressive stone in the company of Mr. Swanson’s grand-daughter, Mrs. Birkin.  He had been an extremely important part of the police network in the nineteenth century.  During his thirty-five years’ service he arrested the Brighton Train Murderer and ended his career by being placed in charge of the Jack the Ripper investigation.  His status then was Superintendent of the Criminal Investigation Department – which meant he was the top detective in the country.  Nevill has given the text of his address at the ceremony to Charlotte for the “Herald”, so you can read all about him there.

 

Iain and I are now preparing for our visit to Loon Mountain, New Hampshire, USA for the Highland Games at which, this year, Gunn is the honoured Clan.  Our good friends Rich and Linda Gunn have volunteered to look after us.  What a treat!  Hope they don’t regret it.

 

 

Bunty

Blog From the North July-14

Bunty Gunn
Bunty Gunn

Ah, July!  High summer in Caithness, so one less layer to put on when dressing in the morning. Actually that’s rather unfair because I have been able to wear a summer skirt on at least three occasions already.  Normally you just change the colours, not the weight of the garments.  That said,  we are, for the moment,  having wonderful sunny days and the cows that are lying down are, in my view, just pessimists.  What am I saying?  Here’s the rain coming on – just a shower, but enough to soak the drying washing.  On St. Swithin’s day it was hot and then wet, so the Saint can’t make up his mind, obviously.  You know the old adage?  St. Swithin’s Day if it be fair, for forty days t’will rain nae mair.  We shall see.

The blossom on the apple trees is turning into lusty looking little apples, so here’s hoping for a bumper crop – pies, crumbles and purees for the freezer;  spiced jelly for the cold meats and sweet geranium flavour for putting on toast.  I always think it is very sad that we have the most marvellous natural bounty now and absolutely nothing in the winter.  Except what is imported – and we need to keep the airmiles down, don’t we?

We are just preparing for the Mini Gathering.  A few stalwarts will gather at Swiney House for a  buffet supper on Friday next, then we make a brave show at the Halkirk Games and enjoy a dinner by the river at Forss, just outside Thurso.  We end with a church service in Kildonan Kirk to give thanks for and celebrate the people of the Strath, so we shall be thinking about absent friends in every sense of the word.

Then everyone goes home and we continue our preparations for the International Gathering in 2015. All very exciting – including a joint event with Clan Sinclair at the Assembly Rooms in Wick.  I am already scouring the countryside to see what wild flowers will be at their best at the time of year, having press-ganged a series of relatives into helping decorate the hall for the event.

 Iain and I are off to Loon Mountain in New Hampshire USA for a Games where the Gunns are the honoured Clan.  This is in September.  Our good friends Rich and Linda will meet us and drive us.  We are very honoured to be treated so well by them!

We send our best wishes to everyone and hope to see lots of you next year.

P.S.  Cows now standing up – fingers crossed!

President’s Message – Summer 2014

June 2014 – President’s Message

80x80 John_Gunn_YngrI can’t believe how fast the year has passed so far and summer is now upon us. Yes, even in Edinburgh. Apart from the very slight increase in temperature, the way that we tell it’s summer in Edinburgh is by the increase in the number of people on the streets (mainly tourists).  In fact, the population more than doubles over the summer period 500,000 to a little over a million and while this makes it a little harder to get around it is great for our economy.As I walked to work the other day I noticed the superstructure going up on the castle esplanade for the Edinburgh Tattoo, one of the early signs that the preparations for the Edinburgh Fringe and Festival are well under way. Also, unbelievably the trams are now finished, admittedly two years late and 300% over budget but you can now travel very comfortably from the airport to the city centre even if it does take 8 minutes longer than the airport bus – call me a cynic.The summer looks like being a busy one for the Clan and after a very successful St Donan’s day weekend in London in April we will be following this up with a mini gathering in Caithness at the end of July and a trip to Hatfield House and Gardens in September. Further details of both of these events can be found further on in the latest edition of the Herald and on this website.

In addition, we are also putting the finishing touches to next year’s international gathering and the final programme together with costs and a booking form will be available in the autumn edition of the Herald and on this website. The international gathering will once again be a two centred affair, starting in Orkney and finishing in Caithness and it will run from Saturday July 18th to Sunday 26th July 2015. I very much hope that as many of you as possible will be able to journey to the homelands to enjoy the kinship that this event always produces and to see where it all began.

Next time I write to you we will know whether the people of Scotland have decided if they want independence or not. As the September 18th deadline approaches, the debate is heating up and in some cases is becoming particularly visceral. We can only hope that democracy is allowed to prevail and that both sides are permitted to fairly present their case so that voters have all the facts before making what will perhaps be one of the most important decisions of their lives.
John Gunn