HISTORIC CASTLES AND FAMILIES OF THE NORTH
6. Castles Gunn and Halberry - The Gunns
Descent of Clan Gunn
Who are the Gunns, and by what manner or means did they acquire at the very dawn of their history the extensive landed properties at Clyth on the East coast of Caithness where they built their two strongholds of Castle Gunn (ND 308386) and Castle Halberry (ID 302378)? The two questions are, in my opinion, indivisible. There are no less than three different traditions regarding the descent of the clan.
The first version, which hitherto has been most generally accepted is the one based on the writings of Torfaeus. This is the one most favoured by Calder (History of Caithness - 1887) and is the one I have given in my chapter on the “Castles of Caithness” (Caithness Book 1972) and also in my recent article in Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol. 1., No 5 (1975). In this version the progenitor of the clan is Gunn, or Gunni, or Gunnius (Norse ‘Gunr’, meaning war) second son of Olaus Rolfi an eleventh century governor of Caithness for the Norse Earls of Orkney and Caithness who then resided in Orkney. His younger brother was Sweyn the celebrated pirate and reputed ancestor of the Swansons. Their mother Aslief was said to be descended from a noble of the Norwegian family.
Version No.2 based on the “Chronicle of Man” states that the clan’s ancestor was Gun or Guin (Welsh - Guynn; Manx - Gawne) second son of Olaus or Olave the Black, fifth Norse King of Man and the Isles who died in 1237.
Version No. 3 claims that Sweyn had a grandson Gunn or Gunni - probably called after his grand-uncle. He was a son of Andrew the younger of Sweyn’s two sons, and that it is from him and not from the elder Gunn that the clan descends.
In Browne’s History of the Highlands (1850), mention is made of an accompanying tradition to the one that puts Gunn the son of Olaus Rolfi as the clan ancestor. This tradition states that Gunn received from his maternal grandfather Farquhar, earl of Ross, the possessions in Caithness which long formed the patrimony of the clan. But at this point it must be said that the various traditions must have got their “lines crossed”, for Farquhar, second Earl of Ross, who had landed possessions in Caithness was not the grandfather of Gunn Olausson, but of Gunn, Prince of Man, by Christina, his second daughter, the third wife of Olave, King of Man.
Can Gunn, grandson of Sweyn be taken seriously as a contender? I think not. There are no indications that Sweyn possessed any lands at all apart from his “pirate lair” castles of Lambaborg and Gairsay, still less that he transmitted lands to any of his descendants. If, in fact, this Gunn was the clan ancestor it would have the astonishing effect of making the Gunns a sept of the Swansons instead of the other way around, which had been for centuries the accepted position. Regarding the other two contenders, one point should be made. George Gunn the Crowner or Coroner of Caithness, who was treacherously killed by the Keiths about 1464, was believed to be the seventh Chief in descent from the founder. As twenty six years is the average time by which one generation succeeds another, a date somewhere between 1240 and 1280 is suggested as the foundation years of the clan which would put it nearer the time of Gunn, Prince of Man, than of Gunn Olasusson who had lived about a century earlier.
Yet another tradition which tends to tilt the question in favour of the line of Manx princes is the story of the early Gunn Chieftain who spent a great deal of his time at the court of the King of Norway and married (some say bigamously) the Norwegian King’s daughter. Unfortunately tragedy struck, for the ship carrying her back to Castle Gunn foundered on the rocks below the stronghold. The Princess was drowned and the large dowry of silver and gold lost.
George (“Crowner”) Gunn
As we come down the years to the fifteenth century we find the aforementioned George Gunn, seventh Chief, ruling in medieval splendour in his castle at Halberry; Castle Gunn having been abandoned by then. Before the Earldom of Caithness had been created by the Scottish King in 1455 in favour of the Sinclair family (by this time heirs to the ancient Norse Earldom) the justiciary of the county was in the hands of the Gunn Chieftain. He wore a great silver badge to proclaim the authority of his position. A deadly feud had raged for a long time between the two clans of Keith - based at Ackergill Tower - and the Gunns, which culminated in the death of George, two of his sons and a number of his clansmen. One tradition puts the venue of this episode at St. Tear’s Chapel (ND 367545) near Ackergill while a Highland version says that it happened near Strathmore.
Septs of the Clan Gunn.
From the younger sons of the Crowner are descended several septs of the Clan Gunn. From Robert the second son came the Gunns of Braemore, known as the “Robson” Gunns. From William is derived the Wilsons and Williamsons of Caithness, and from Henry the Hendersons of Caithness. Another son, John, is ancestor of the Gunns of Dale, Dalemore, and Camster.
Settlement in Kildonan.
The Crowner’s eldest son, James, succeeded to the Chiefship, but abandoned the Caithness Estates and settled with a following of his clan at Kildonan where they henceforth lived as vassals of the Sutherland Earls. Why they did so is one of the mysteries of history. It might have been due to the harassing tactics of the Keiths, but more likely that with the recreation of the new Earldom of Caithness it was found that the Gunns had no legal titles to their lands. Following this settlement in Kildonan the line of Chiefs, losing their Norse culture and adopting the Celtic, including the Gaelic language, became known as MacSheumas or MacKeamish (sons of Kames). On the death of the tenth MacKeamish without an heir, about the middle of last century, the Chiefship became dormant and at present efforts are being made by the clan society to trace the next in line.
Although physically in possession of lands in Caithness from about the twelth or thirteenth century, no branch of the Gunns had any legal tenure of land until the middle of the seventeenth century, so presumably they held their possessions by the sword. Mixed up as they were with all the clan feuds in Caithness and Sutherland - at times at war with the Mackays as well as the Keiths - with the Sinclairs as well as the Sutherlands, the countless incidents in which they were involved have more character of romance than reality.
Gunns of Braemore
While the Chiefly line continued in the neighbouring county a very large section of the clan under the leadership of the “Robson” Gunns of Braemore continued to spread through the Highland parishes of Latheron and Halkirk in Caithness. Owing to this detachment they became to be recognised as almost a separate branch - in fact Gunn of Braemore is frequently mentioned in history as Chief of the Gunns in Caithness.
Spital was the principal burial place of the clan in Caithness while many of the clan are buried at Dirlot a few miles away in a district thickly peopled with Gunns in former years.
Today the ancient castles of the clan are reduced to mere fragments. At Castle Gunn the structure stood on a peninsula running north and parallel to the coast. At the highest part where the castle stood, it is level in height with the mainland but slopes very steeply down a glacis of rock to the narrow neck where it joins the land at the foot of a high cliff.
At this point it is only slightly above the level of the waves. An ancient stairway, cut in the rock, descends from the cliff top to the approach to the castle. This stairway is now broken and dangerous. The keep measures 11m x 7m with walls 1m thick. A further wall protected the castle on its landward side at the top of the steep shelf of rock. A small circular depression beside the keep may indicate an ancient well. The castle was apparently abandoned when Halberry was built a mile to the South in about the fifteenth century. Last century most of the stonework of Castle Gunn was used to build a causeway at the small harbour nearby.
Castle Halberry occupies the largest site of all the Caithness coastal castles. The peninsula on which it was built covers an area of at least one hectare. A deep ditch 7.5m wide cuts the headland from the mainland and a most unusual feature is that the keep does not rise from the far edge of this trench but about 18m distant from it. The foundations of the keep are clearly discernable and measure 13.5 x 8.5m. The stones from the ruined castle were used to build the great network of dry stone dykes around the fields of Clyth Mains Farm when it was formed in the early part of last century. The tenant who had the work done was a Dr Henderson, from Thurso, himself a descendant of the Clan Gunn and a near relative of the two distinguished literary sons of Caithness - the authors respectively “Caithness Family History” and An Agricultural Survey of Caithness”.
Henderson Caithness Family History Douglas 1884
McGibbon & Ross The Castellated & Domestic Architecture of Scotland Douglas 1889
Munro Kinsman & Clansman Johnston & 1971 Bacon
Curle Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Caithness HMSO 1911
Browne History of the Highlands and Of the Highland Clans . Fullerton & Co 1850
Sinclair The Gunns Rae 1890
Gunn History of Clan Gunn McLaren
Published October 1975 Bulletin