Clan History

Gunn Clan Crest: An arm attired in the Gunn tartan with the hand grasping a basket hilt sword.

Gunn Clan Motto: Aut Pax Aut Bellum (Either peace or war).

The name originated from a Norse personal name “Gunni” (which means “war”). The first Gunni came to Caithness at the end of the 12th century when his wife inherited land there from her brother who was Jarl (Earl) of Orkney. Gunni’s wife was descended from St Ragnvald who founded the St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Gunni’s Viking grandfather had been killed in 1171 on a raid on Dublin. Orkney, Shetland and Shetland were still part of Norway at this time.

Although Ottar, a descendant of Gunni, is known to have lived around 1280 and is the assumed progenitor of the Gunn chiefs, the first chief of the clan to be recorded with certainty was George Gunn who was the coroner of Caithness in the 15th century. He was known as “Am Braisdeach Mor” or “the great brooch-wearer” from his insignia as coroner. He had a castle at Clyth on the east coast of Caithness. A number of separate lines of Gunns became established in Braemore (known as the Robson Gunns), Killearnan, Kildonan and also the Caithness Hendersons and Williamsons.

There is evidence that at the end of the 14th century Sir James Gunn accompanied Sir Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, to North America, nearly one hundred years before Christopher Columbus.

The Gunns became established in the highland areas of Caithness and they were frequently in conflict with the clan Keith. The source (excuse?) for the feud was said to have been when Dugald Keith, who had been spurned by Helen, a daughter of Gunn of Braemor, surrounded her home, killed a number of the inhabitants and carried her back to Ackergill Castle. Helen then threw herself from the tower there rather than submit. There were frequent battles over the years with considerable loss of life. Towards the end of the 15th century a “battle of champions” was agreed with twelve horsemen on each side. But the Keiths turned up with two men on each horse and slaughtered the Gunns. Among the dead were the chief and his four sons who were killed despite taking refuge in the chapel of St Tyr. The grandson of the murdered chief was the first to hold the title “MacSheumais Chataich” (son of James of Caithness, his father). The feud was finally settled in a formal Treaty of Friendship – in 1978. The book Conflicts of the Clans, written in 1764, has this to say;

The Crowner Slain by the Keiths in the Chapel of St. TayreAbout the year of God 1478, there was some dissention in Caithness betwixt the Keiths and the Clan Gunn. A meeting was appointed for their reconciliation, at the Chaple of St. Tayre, in Caithness, hard by Girnigo, with twelve horse on either side. The Crowner (chieftain of Clan Gunn) with the most part of his sons and chief kinsmen came to the chapel, to the number of twelve; and, as they were within the chapel at their prayers, the Laird of Inverugie and Ackergill arrived there with twelve horse, and two men upon every horse; thinking it no breach of trust to come with twenty-four men, seeing they had but twelve horses as was appointed.So the twenty-four gentlemen rushed in at the door of the chapel, and invaded the Crowner and his company unawares; who, nevertheless, made great resistance. In the end the Clan Gunn were all slain, with the most of the Keiths. Their blood may be seen to this day [1764] upon the walls within the Chapel at St. Tyre, where they were slain. Afterwards William Mackames (the Crowner’s grandchild) in revenge of his grandfather, killed George Keith of Ackergill and his son, with ten of their men, at Drummuie in Sutherland, as they were travelling from Inverugie into Caithness.

In 1586 the Sinclair Earls of Caithness and the Gordon earls of Sutherland agreed a pact to destroy the Clan Gunn and in order to strengthen their position Gunn of Killearnan married the sister of the chief of the clan Mackay. However, the lands of Killearnan were not lost through battle but by debt. They later obtained land at Badenloch and tried to establish themselves with all the accoutrements of a Highland chief.

In the 17th century, Sir William Gunn who was a brother of the Robson chief, rose to be a battalion commander in the service of the king of Sweden and then fought for King Charles I who gave him a knighthood in 1639. He later married a German baroness and became an imperial general in the Holy Roman Empire.

The Gunns did not become involved in the 1715 Jacobite Uprising and when Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard in 1745 the Gunns fought on the side of the Hanoverian government.

Gunns did independently fight for the Bonnie Prince and a list can be found in the publication No Quarter Given, the muster roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Army 1745–46.

The Gunns suffered greatly as a result of the Highland Clearances in the 19th century and many emigrated or were forced to move to other areas of Scotland.

On September 25, 2015, the Lord Lyon King of Arms for Scotland issued an interlocutor recognizing Iain Alexander Gunn of Banniskirk as Chief of Clan Gunn. He is now Iain Alexander Gunn of Gunn, Chief of Clan Gunn. At a Family Convention, held in Orkney on July 18, 2015, a petition to the Lyon Court requesting this recognition was approved and sent to the Lyon for action. For the first time in 230 years the Clan has a recognized Chief. Iain previously served as Commander of Clan Gunn for over forty-three years . Further details can be found here

In modern times the novelist Neil M Gunn wrote many books based on his childhood on the coast of Caithness.

The Gunn clan motto is “Aut Pax Aut Bellum” which means “Either peace or war”.

The Clan Gunn Society Membership List gives no less that 77 names “recognised as being associated with Clan Gunn, but the list given in Frank Adam’s “The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands”, revised by Sir Thomas lnnes of Learney is much shorter. This is the list the Chief and Council recognise and consists of;
Gallie Georgeson Jameson Johnson Keene MacCorkill Maclan MacKeamish MacRob Manson Robison Sandison Williamson Gaunson Henderson Jamieson Kean MacComas MacCorkle MacKames MacKean MacWilliam Nolson Robson Swanson Wilson

These are nearly all derived from the sons or descendants of “the Crowner”-James, John (or Ian). Henry. Robert, William and George. Gaunson is Gunn’s son,Manson is Magnus’ son, Swanson is Sweyn’s son, Nelson is Neil’s son and Sandison is Alexander’s son.

The ‘Macfl‘hor-Ketils’ are mentioned as belonging to the Clan Gunn in a feud with the Mackays.

Surnames regarded as possible derivatives of Septs of the Gunn clan include Anderson — Enrick — Galdie — Gallie — Ganson — Gauldie — Gaunson — Georgeson — GUNN — Henderson — Inrig — Jameson — Jamieson — Johnson — Kean — Keene — MacCorkill — MacCorkle — MacCullie — MacIan — MacKames –MacKeamish — MacKean — MacMains — MacManus — MacOmish — MacOomas — MacRob — MacWilliam — Mangus — Main — Mann — Manson — Manus — Neilson — Nelson — Robinson — Robson — Robison — Sandison — Swan — Swanney — Swanson — Will — Williamson — Wills — Wilson — Wylie — Wyllie.

This photograph of the Sept names in the Heritage Centre reflects some of those variations.

Sept List

While the onus would be on the applicant to show lineage to the original sept list we understand names were changed, shortened, translated from Gaelic and misspelled at many times in history. There may be other derivatives out there!

Gunn is still one of the top twenty surnames in the Highland region of Scotland according to the General Register Office.

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