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

Genealogy of the Earls of Orkney

One of my prized old books is a work from the early 20th century entitled St. Magnus – Earl of Orkney by John Mooney.

Within it’s pages are a great wealth of information about Magnus Erlendson, who later became St. Magnus, the patron saint of the Gunns and a important figure in the history of our ancestors.

Among the many treasures in its pages are a series of genealogical tables describing the noble families of Orkney, Scotland, Iceland and Norway. Below is a rendering of that table for further study. Clicking on the image (or here) will open a high-resolution PDF version.

Earldom Genealogy

When Caithness Became Scottish

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Scotland was not always as we think of it today. In fact it was composed over centuries by consolidating multiple minor kingdoms and territories into a single unified state under a single king. Starting in the twelfth century, the Scottish kingdom came increasingly under Norman influence.

During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the Scottish crown and the Norwegian Earls of Orkney somewhat shared the rule of Caithness and Sutherland, while Norway exclusive rule of Orkney. During this period, the tribal confederation that would become the Gunn clan controlled a significant portion of the land in Caithness and northern Sutherland, and in many regards functioned as the government for the territory due to their cohesion, wide land holdings and generally fair minded approach to rule.

It is quite likely these early Gunns maintained close ties to their kin and friends in Orkney, and members of the Norse families may have even kept ties with Norway. Across Gunn controlled areas, the people spoke a mix of Gaelic and Norn, a form of norse language that had been regionally adapted. They would have paid taxes to the Norwegian Jarl in Kirkwall, and would have attended churches organized under the Orcadian bishop.

During the thirteenth century, the Scottish kings, seeking to consolidate their kingdom, repeatedly offered to purchase Scottish territory that was under Norwegian rule. This included the western Hebrides islands, the Kintyre peninsula and the Isle of Man. The Norwegian crown held no interest in giving up these important lands, and repeatedly refused these offers. With the ascension of Scottish king Alexander III, Scotland gave up on purchase and used force to make their point. In the summer of 1262, Scottish forces began raiding the islands, beginning with Skye.

Outraged by this provocation, Norwegian king Hakon IV assembled a massive fleet of longships to drive the Scottish back and reclaim their lands. His battle fleet first sailed to Orkney, where they were no doubt reinforced by Caithness and Orkney fighters and additional warships. The sight of over 100 warships, crewed by battle hardened Viking raiders and skirmishers, sent a clear signal to Alexander III – we will not give you that which is rightfully ours. Upon reaching the west coast of Scotland, Hakon’s fleet anchored near the Isle of Arran, where they were joined by allies from Skye, Islay, Jura, Mull and Man.

Impressed with this show of force, King Alexander III dispatched an envoy to discuss terms with King Hakon, while the Scottish king marshaled his forces to repel the Norsemen by force. Due to the Scottish crown’s long and fruitful relationship with the Norman French, this force had at it’s core units of heavily armored and well trained vassal knights and heavy infantry. Upon arriving at the anchored fleet off the west coast of Scotland, the envoy complimented Hakon, and once again repeated Scotland’s offer to buy the lands he controlled in Scotland.

While discussions between the envoy and Hakon continued, the Scottish king moved his forces, including a core of heavily armored Norman calvary and foot-soldiers to Largs, where the Norwegian force was anchored in a storm. While a small Norse party was ashore to rescue a stranded ship, they were attacked by the Scottish forces. The norsemen were outnumbered 10 to 1, and a storm kept the bulk of Hakon’s forces aboard their ships anchored off shore.

Stalemated by the large, heavily armored force on the shore and the approaching winter, Hakon decided to withdraw his forces to Orkney to await the spring. Unfortunately for the Norse, King Hakon died in Orkney that winter, and his successor, King Magnus VI, decided to accept Scotland’s offer to sell the disputed territory.

In the treaty of Perth, Scotland gained solid control over all lands to the north of England, while ceding claims to Shetland and Orkney. As a result, Sutherland and Caithness changed hands from Norwegian to Scottish rule.

Scotland would have a difficult and rocky road to bring the Viking north to accept and follow their rule. With the Gunn clan / syndicate as the functional government, Scotland would have to deal with them or conquer them to make any progress. This reality would give rise to tensions as Scotland tried and failed to implement feudalism in their new territory in the coming decades, which would eventually drive the crown and their appointed Norman Earls to actively break up the Gunn territory and clan cohesion, eventually leading to a final conflict with the Anglo / Norman Keiths.

While at first there was little dramatic change for the robust and prosperous Gunns of Caithness, the wind of change was blowing, and not in their favor.

Founding Feudal Scotland – David I

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During the years that Earl Rögnvald held power in Orkney and Caithness, Scotland was undergoing an age of significant transformation towards a feudal society that would later be at the heart of the conflict that would bring about the battle of St. Tears and the destruction of Clan Gunn.

The King of Scotland at this time ruled under the name David I, and was so influential that a period of his reign is frequently referred to as the Davidian Revolution. David spent his childhood years in the court of King Henry I of England, and while there gained an appreciation for the Norman approach of feudalism, where landed vassal lords and their retainer knights and lesser nobles controlled the populace.

Feudalism and the time in which it happened across most of Scotland plays an important role in understanding the events that led to the Battle of St. Tears, specifically of note the Norman feudal system and the Norse approach to governing were different and distinct.

Norman Feudalism

During the rule of King David I of Scotland, he began to implement a broad program of Normanization. This period was characterized by his import of Norman / French and Norman / Anglo knights to become the instruments of implementing his feudal system. Feudalism revolved around royal land grants, known as Fiefs, that bound the person receiving the land, known as a vassal and the person granting, known as a lord together in an economic, military and in the Norman case religious alliance. During this period David I granted numerous parcels of lands to these knights, and trusted in them to maintain order and control over the Scottish peasants.

David I also undertook a broad effort to re-shape the central Royal Scottish government to be more like the government of Anglo-Norman England. In part this may have been based on his childhood in the court of Henry I of England. It was during this time that a Norman / French family, the St. Clairs became lords of Roslin, near Edinburgh. This family will, centuries later, scheme for the Scottish throne and become the Earls of Caithness.

Divine Right

It was during the reign of David I that religious hagiography began to rise in Britain. Hagiography is the study, reverence and worship of saints. From this focus on the power and majesty of God, the King and his noble subjects derived what has been described as “Divine Right“. Under the principles of divine right, the monarch and by extension his vassals derive their right to rule over the people directly from the will of God Almighty. A later Scottish King, James VI would write, “According to the text, a good king “acknowledgeth himself ordained for his people, having received from the god a burden of government, whereof he must be countable”.

Divine right in many ways clashed with the existing spiritual and cultural systems of the indigenous Scots, who had become Christians via the Gaelic / Irish church, and functioned via small local government that operated via tribal council and chiefs selected by leading men of each area or village. The notion that some strange French man had been ordained by God to rule over them must have seemed quite absurd.

Primogeniture

With these Norman lords and knights came another new social practice, the tradition of passing title, land and holdings to the first born son of each family. This is known as primogeniture, and like the concept of divine right and feudal lords, was completely alien to the Scots. By tradition, the title of the leading man for a family, area of village was frequently passed through the maternal line, or transferred while the holder was still living to the man determined to be the most capable of carrying out the best interests of the tribe of community. For the Norse, inheritance of titles and land was divided among children, and not always just male children. This custom resulted in such situations as there being as many as 3 Earls of Orkney at the same time.

Again it’s important to note that Caithness and Orkney were still under Norse rule at this time, and the norman feudal system, divine right and integral primogeniture would not arrive in the North for many decades to come. When Caithness eventually became Scottish, this culture clash would take more than a century to resolve, and would play an important role in setting the stage for the final battle of Clan Gunn.

Disclaimer – New Ideas Within

At present I am presenting a series of posts that re-interpret the history of Clan Gunn up through the battle of St. Tears. Where possible I have attempted to cast the facts of the story in the wider context of Scottish and Norwegian history and politics. Some of this new work may eventually be proven wrong. Readers should not take umbrage if they find their closely held beliefs challenged here, no offense is intended, none should be taken.