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.

8 comments to The Foundations of Clan Gunn

  • Brian Robson

    Aug 7, 2011 page. 2nd last paragraph. “the” should be then or they (twice)?

  • Mairi Gunn

    Thanks very much. I have never seen this research before. I am struggling to piece together our history. Are you aware of the efforts of various men to become the new chief?

  • Bruce

    Hello Mairi (great name by the way), I have of the work to have a new chief of Clan Gunn. Frankly I think it’s a fantastic idea as it will mean a lot to so many folks around the world. Before anyone asks, I don’t have a clue who should be chief! I think it should go to whomever wants to do it, and would best represent all the wonderful Gunns in this world.

    As I have tried to point out via this blog, “back in the day” the person who was chief was not a prize handed down like an inheritance (that came from the Norman notion of primogeniture), it came from whom the clan elders believed was the best choice to lead the clan. I am delighted to see that the plan for selecting a new chief will likely follow this ancient approach.

  • Mairi Gunn

    Can you please help me determine whether the Gunns fought on both sides at Culloden?

  • Bruce

    Mairi – An interesting question there about Culloden. What is of interest is how little is recorded in Scottish history about anything north of Inverness. That does not mean that nothing of interest happened there, rather there seems to be some prejudice against recording historic events in Caithness and Sutherland.

    On to Culloden. From what I have learned in my study of the Gunns, Caithness and Sutherland, I would say that we know for certain a contingent of Gunns did rally to the Jacobite cause. If we take Calder’s “Traditional History of Caithness” as rote, the number was not large, but there were Gunns backing Charles Stewart at Culloden. Interestingly enough, the Sinclair Earl of Caithness backed the Hanoverian crown, and there may have been Gunns who supported the Earl, and in fact fought on the Hanoverian side.

  • Magnus Gunn

    Bruce – Love your work!….this is most interesting….looking forward to reading all your essays

  • John McKenzie Gunn

    The website of the Clan Gunn Sociiety of North America contains up-to-date information about the efforts to have a new chief of Clan Gunn recognized officially by the “proper authorities.” I did not look it up today, but recently a recommendation was made to those authorities, and the tone of the post seemed to imply that those who presented the recommendation were optimistic that it will be approved.

    Just where do I fit into this picture? My great-great grandfather, Donald Gunn, a fisherman on the Isle of Skye, kidnapped Mary Glass, a serving girl in a manor house near Glasgow and took her to the Isle of Skye, where they were married and where their first child a daughter, was born in 1803. Soon thereafter they emigrated with a group of Scots, first to Moore County, North Carolina, then briefly to Keshaw County, Sought Carolina, where my great grandfather, whose name I bear, was born, their 8th and youngest child. They moved then, still with a group of Scots, to the Euchee Valley is West Florida, just South of De Funiak Springs, where they lived for the remainder of their lives. They are buried in the cemetery of the lovely little Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church, which is still active. In the 1840s my great grandfather moved to Cuthbert, Randolph County Georgia, where the family was centered until my parents moved away with my siblings and me in 1940.

    John M. Gunn

  • Look that !!! The breamore Gunn they were also called Robson gunn …

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