About the Author

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


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.

2 comments to My Difficulty With The Battle Of St. Tears

  • Bill Jones

    I believe the story it is very close to the one handed down from my granmother who kept track of her ancestors very well her grandfather john Mckenzie Gun came to this contry on the ship Scotia in the 1700,s to escape the bounty put on the family form the SInclairs and keiths association with the king. They all moved to Skye soon after the battle as a bounty for any member of the Gunn Clan. my granmother is buried in Cuthbert GA in the family lot her granparents are bured in Euchee Valley Fl with a group of people that all ccame over prior to the Revolutionary war. They came with Campbells, Mc Cloeds, Glass,McKinnon, McAlisters, They were all indentured servents in Wilmington NC for a breif period before moving to Floriday near Argyle. She told the story many times of the fair Helen that jumped to her Death after being held captive by members of the Keiths she took her life rather than marry a keith. My grandmother said it started a long lasing war between the clans that ended with George calling out the Keiths at St Ters and the trickery that killed him several sons and some that actually recovered form the battle had been told many times by her grandfather who also served as quatermaster in Generall Hoods army at Atlanta. They did not have TV or movies in her days and they kept history and family heritage very dearly. If you would have put her on the withness stand she would have testified to the story. She was born in 1890 in Cuthbert GA. She also had the family caln scarf for the Gunns. Her nephew is still living in Lexington VA and was history teacher at Washington and Lee. He lives in assited living facility there.

  • John McKenzie Gunn

    Dear Bill,

    Small corrction:

    Our great great grandparents, Donald and Mary Glass Gunn, came with a broup of Scots from the Isle of Skye first to Moore County, North Carolina, then briefly to Kershaw County, South Carolina, where our great grandfather, John McKenzie Gunn, for whom I am named, as was my father, your mother’s brother, was born on the 14th of December 1822, the youngest of their 8 children. Soon thereafter the family moved,still with a group of Scots,to the Euchee Valley, Florida, just South of De Funiak Springs. Donald and Mary are buried in the cemetery of the beautiful little Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church, still active. I’m pretty sure your mother visited that cemetery; I remember talking with her about it. John McKenzie Gunn I moved to Cuthbert where two older sisters who had married brothers were living, sometime in the 1840s. First he was a school teacher, but then he established a mercantile business that became quite successful, He married Susan Douglass. Our grandfather, John Douglass Gunn, was the youngest of their four surviving children and only male; the first born child, also male, died in early childhood.

    If you have not seen it, the Gunn house now has been beutifully restored by a Mr. Wade, and there is a picture on the Internet, which you can bring up by googling John McKenzie Gunn House Cuthebert, Georgia.

    There’s lovely old family tradition that Donald Gunn, a fisherman living on the Isle of Skye, kidnapped Mary Glass, a serving girl in a manor house near Glasgow, and took her in his fishing boat to the Isle of Skye,
    where they were married and where their first child, a daughter, was born. Family tradition does not say whether she was a willing kidnappee.
    A granddaugher named Campbell told Bappa that “Grandpa Gunn was illiterate but Grandma Gunn could read a little.”

    There is also a fascinating story about how our great grandfather got his hame, despite the fact that he had an older brother named John–
    John Glass Gunn. But that’s for another day.

    I will mail you some more material, which I have been intending to send you, anyway.

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