About the Author

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Bruce Henderson is a computer engineer living in Southern California. With the help of his cousins he is researching the history of the Henderson family of southern Caithness. You can contact him at bruce@sigalarm.com

My Difficulty With The Battle Of St. Tears

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Like most interested in the history for Clan Gunn, I have studied the multiple versions of the Battle of St. Tears that have been written and compiled by prior historians and story tellers. The best of these efforts are contained within Mark R. Gunn’s History of the Clan Gunn.

Each telling of this tale follows a similar path – after a long standing feud the Gunns and Keiths declare that they will meet at the St. Tears chapel near Girnigo, and each side will bring twelve horse of men. The Gunns, ever valorous and honorable, arrive and enter the chapel to pray and wait for the Keiths. The dastardly Keiths arrive with two men on each horse, breaking the spirit of the agreement but not the letter. Outnumbered 24 to 12, the Gunns are ravaged in valiant battle, a blow from which they never recover. The clan fractures with sub-factions going their own way. My own ancestors following Henry Gunn, and forming what came to be known as the Hendersons of Caithness.

Like most of you good people, I took the ancient tale at face value. After all, what else did we have to work from? I hope to answer that question shortly, but first let me tell you why I came to decide that this grand story is in fact not quite as accurate as we would hope.

George “Crowner” Gunn Was No Fool

Let me get this right, the canon story of St. Tears requires us to believe that after over 100 years of bitter feud, including the kidnapping and death of a bride on her the eve of her wedding, that the leader of Clan Gunn – himself a savvy and battle tested warrior, would for a moment take the word of the Keiths to play by any rules? Would a clan that wielded as much power as Gunn show up to such an event with anything less than a massive show of force?

The Crowner’s Sons

The story leading up to St. Tears states that the chief had twelve sons, and that these twelve sturdy men were the force that arrived at St. Tears to settle the age-old feud with the Keiths. Even if George had twelve sons, why would all of them be present? What father would risk his entire family on a weapons laden encounter with your enemy? Are we expected to believe that the fruit of George’s loins were the men most capable of holding a sword among the hundreds or thousands of Gunn warriors in Caithness?

Many People Survived

In the well known story, several of the Gunn party at St. Tears survived, not the least of which is Henry Gunn who took revenge at castle Dirlot, and the Crowner’s oldest son James who claimed the chiefship after his father’s death. If the origin of family names, Robert Gunn also survived as did William Gunn and Sweyn Gunn. Come to think of it, quite a few of the Crowner’s sons seem to have survived St. Tears. If you are the Keiths, and you know that you outnumber your enemy 2:1, would you let any of them survive? You can count on the fact that they will be back in force to extract their revenge. In fact this cycle of attack and revenge been going on for decades. Are we to believe that the Keiths showed mercy to the Gunns at the exact moment when they held their doom in their gauntlets?

Simply put, a critical look at the story of St. Tears seems to indicate that the legend may not be the whole story. Understanding what was happening to the Gunns and the Keiths at that time, and how Clan Gunn actually worked is the key to peeling back the varnish of multiple legends to try and take a guess at something that could be closer to the truth. I hope to be able to provide that soon. Until then I encourage readers to think about the battle of St. Tears, and how much of it is unlikely because it defies both common sense and subsequent history.

Ackergil Tower – Ancient Seat of Clan Keith

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The origin of the Hendersons of Caithness runs through the tower of Ackergil.  The great feud between the Gunns and the Keiths which eventually sundered clan Gunn, and formed the Hendersons, has its roots here.

By the mid 1400s, the Keiths began to openly challenge the Gunns for supremacy in Caithness and Sutherland.  The story of Ackergil begins further south in Braemore, to the west of Berriedale and Ramscraigs.  In mid 1400’s, the local chief, Lachlan Gunn of Braemore, was to marry his daughter Helen of Braemore to distant cousin Alexander.  Helen was reputed to have been of unparalleled beauty, and she had caught the eye of many local men, including Dugald Keith of Ackergil.  Dugald had campaigned for her hand, but Lachlan Gunn held no interest in marrying his daughter to the Keiths.

Not content to lose her to another, Dugald mustered a group of clansmen and made their way south to Braemore. On the eve of Helen’s wedding night, the Keiths besieged Lachlan’s great hall, trapping Helen and a large number of feasting wedding guests inside.  Pledging safe release for all if Helen surrendered to him, she was bound and taken north to Ackergil.  With his prize claimed, Duglad Keith set the Braemore great hall ablaze, burning the wedding party alive.

At Ackergil, Dugald Keith locked Helen at the top of the tower, vowing to win her love no matter how long it took.  As the days passed, Helen became increasingly despondent.  One evening at sunset, she managed to distract her guards, and flung herself from the tower to the courtyard below.

This bloodshed between the Gunns and Keiths began what would be a 500 year feud that would eventually sunder the Gunns and render them defunct as a power in Caithness.

In May of 2010, I was fortunate enough to visit Ackergil, which is now a very pleasant house that is frequently rented out for weddings and ceremonies.