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

The Foundations of Clan Gunn

Rainbow bridge

It is impossible to make sense of what happened at St. Tears without understanding the ancient Gunn clan, and how that influences the event leading up to that pivotal moment in their history. The Gunns are an ancient family that are blood descendants of Norwegian settlers of Orkney and Caithness. For a number of years they were the power in the north, and resisted external authority with guile and cunning.

The story behind the Gunns starts in Orkney, an archipelago to the north of Scotland. Sometime in the 10th century, it began to be colonized by men from Norway. The world was enjoying what was to later become known as the “Medieval Warm Period“, when temperatures were significantly warmer than they are today. Bathed in the currents of the gulf stream coupled with long spring and summer daylight hours, Orkney must have seemed like a fertile paradise to young men looking for opportunity away from Norwegian shores. Orkney’s waters teamed with fish, and the gentle rolling hills were arable with some hard work and careful planning.

The Norse settlers found the islands already inhabited by Celts and Picts, who were farming the land and enjoying the bounty of Orkney. But the population never saw a massed invasion of horned-helmeted viking warriors swarming ashore from dragon-headed longboats in Scapa flow. These men of the north came in peace, and worked hard to integrate with the local people. In time the king of Norway set up a government in the islands headed by a Jarl (Earl) of his choosing. The line of the Orkney Jarls inter-married with the local people, and with the chieftains and Moramers in Scotland. By all accounts it was a time of peace and prosperity.

The Magnus Line

Little is made today of the importance of Magnus Erlendsson to Clan Gunn. This can be attributed to a number of factors that I hope to discuss in more detail in the coming months. During the late 11th century, the Earldom of Orkney was shared by two men, Haakon Paulsson and Magnus Erlendsson. Today it would seem very strange that any king would force two men to share rule, but most of our notions of nobility come from Norman rule of England. Norse customs and traditions are different than those of the Norman French in terms of lineage and inheritance. Modern notions of hereditary leadership revolve around the notion of primogeniture, the practice where the eldest male child assumes all titles and possessions of the father upon his death. To the Norse (and by extension the Gunns) this would have seemed alien and barbaric. Titles and possessions were divided among the male heirs of age, so a local chief that had three sons would result in three chiefs where there had been just one. In Norse customs, all three held equal claim to their father’s legacy.

Such was the case in the earldom of Orkney, where two cousins, Haakon and Magnus, shared lordship of the isles. Eventually the title was consolidated under Haakon after he had Magnus killed on Eligsay in 1117. For his martyrdom, Magnus was eventually elevated to Sainthood, and became one of the most important religious figures in northern Scotland for several hundred years. Part of that elevation was thanks to his nephew, Rognvald, who years later took up the title of Earl of Orkney, and built a great cathedral in Kirkwall dedicated to his uncle, St. Magnus the Martyr.

Gunn legend tells that their founding ancestors included a member of this noble house of Norway, a grand-daughter of Earl Rognvald (later St. Rognvald) named Ragnhild, who would go on to become the mother of Snaekoll and the provider of the Gunn lands in Caithness. As the grand-daughter of the Earl, her dowry included many lands in this southern provence of the Orkney Earldom.

The Asleifsson Line

While the majority of the Norsemen on Orkney were merchants, craftsmen and farmers, there were some notable vikings and warriors. The Gunns claim heritage from one particularly famous fellow, Sweyn Asleifsson – ‘The Ultimate Viking’. Sweyn is a fascinating fellow who merits a great deal of study, but suffice to say he became a fast friend of Earl Rognvald, even though many times they were at odds over important matters of the day. While Rognvald was a skillful statesman and diplomat, Sweyn specialized in raiding, looting, pillaging, revenge and all the other activities we tend to associate with Vikings.

Where Sweyn enters this story is through his grandson, a man named Gunni, who becomes the husband of Ragnhild, Earl Rognvald’s grand daughter. The Orkniga Saga includes mention to the last days of Earl Rognvald, where he is in Caithness a few days before the battle that ended his life. In the Saga it is mentioned that he is attending a wedding in Berriedale. It’s tempting to think that this might have been the union between Gunni and his granddaughter Ragnhild, and Berriedale would put it squarely at “ground zero” for our story.

Founding of A Dynasty

Again the modern notion of clan and family might prevent us from seeing the past. Many believe that families with a given clan surname are all descended from a single male clan chief. Thankfully DNA testing has provided ample evidence proving this is typically not the case. For the Gunn clan, it’s formation was more of a federation or syndicate. There were many strong local chieftains in the land that Gunni and later Snaekoll ruled. Rather than assume they used the Norman approach of conquer, subjugate and oppress, they likely followed the path that had worked so well in Orkney. Form alliances with like minded leaders and organize them towards a common good.

Taking into account the DNA evidence and strong indications from the Gunn clan folklore, it is quite likely that there were actually several distinct Gunn partitions within Caithness. Each would have been governed by a “Lead Man” or chieftain, who would have had his own lieutenants and tacksmen who worked for him. They would operate along the lines described in and earlier post, Clans In Ancient Caithness. Going back through the folklore, we can see citations of specific groups, namely

Gunn Map
Original map courtesy of Wikipedia

  • Kildonan – A fertile valley in the north of Sutherland, this was the home range of the last chief, George “Crowner” Gunn
  • Braemore – The next strath north of Kildonan, this includes Berriedale and possibly Dunbeath
  • Clyth – Farming region on the coast to the south of Wick, home of the primary Gunn castle Halberry
  • Halkirk / Spittal – Strath inland from Clyth – south of Thurso and west of Wick. This was home to the Gunn high church at Spittal, dedicated to the Gunn patron Saint, St. Magnus the Marty.
  • Murkle / Castlehill – On the north shore east of of Thurso.

These five region groups all contributed men to the derbhfine (the clan’s ruling body), and rotated the Chiefship among them. Rules and laws would not have necessarily been handed down autocratically, but would have been the result of Nordic councils / parliaments known as “Things” that would be held periodically to address the needs of the times.

In summary – it is likely that the Gunns consolidated several allied chiefs in Caithness when they took control over lands inherited by Earl Rognvald’s granddaughter, Ragnhild. These ancient Gunns believed that they had the blood of saints (both Magnus and Rognvald) and the ultimate viking (Sweyn Asleifsson) in their veins. The coalition they formed operated under the banner of “Clan Gunn” and for centuries proved to be peaceful and prosperous. The affiliated tribal areas each had their own distinct approaches and customs at first, but the operated together for the common good. In fact it was so successful and so stable, it was unchallenged until Norman Scots began to try and assert feudal power in Caithness as Norweigan power waned in the 14th century.

While all of this may seem meaningless at first, these aspects of how Clan Gunn started, the regional sub-tribes and ties to Orkney, Norway and the patron Saints play an important foundation in revisiting the legend of St. Tears.

My Difficulty With The Battle Of St. Tears

StTearsMap

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.