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Gunn Connections
Septs Of Clan Gunn
Robert M Gunn M. A.

Part 1 - The Four Main Branches of Clan Gunn And Their Septs

The Crowners sons James, William and Henry went to Sutherland (largely the MacHamish Gunns) -- out of reach of the Earls of Caithness -- and settled in Strathullie. A second (possibly the largest) segment of the Gunns continued to inhabit the highlands (with a small "h") of Caithness (The Robson Gunns or Gunns of Braemore), centering on Braemore. Some of this Ilk took up residence in a desperate border area betwixt the Sinclairs and the MacKays (the Aberach Mackays), the latter being their deadly rivals, in Strathy and Strath Halladale.

A third branch of Gunns became the Bregaul Gunns of Dale (the sons of John), and a fourth branch of Gunns was later to become the Henderson Gunns of the Caithness lowlands. They held lands in Halkirk and Westerdale.

The youngest son, Henry had a severe falling out with James, possibly over rightful possession of the Crowners arms and other equipment. His departure was so bitter that he moved back to the lowlands of Caithness. William followed him a bit later and these Gunns became the Henderson Gunns of Caithness. The Mac-Sheumais branch became the chiefly branch of the Sutherland Gunns and was known by the genitive, the MacHamish Gunns. The MacHamish Gunns or Gunns of Sutherland held excellent lands in Killearnan and Kildonan, in the latter a parish still exists today.

Another branch of the Gunns, possibly the largest, (those in the highlands of Caithness and the border area mentioned above), were descendants of the Crowners son Robert. They became known as the Robson Gunns or the Gunns of Braemore. According to the work on Gunn history by Mark Rugg Gunn (a most interesting book), the sons of the Crowner were (in order of age):
James (MacHamish Gunns), Robert (Robson Gunns or Gunns of Braemore), John (the Bregaul Gunns), Torquil (from Thor-ketil, meaning Thor's kettle or cauldron), William, Alexander, Henry (later the Hendersons of Caithness), and daughters Bessie and Mary. This chart may be found on page 268 of the aforementioned book.

Thus the Gunns became scattered throughout the Caithness and Sutherland area, especially in four main branches. The result was the emergence of many septs most based on names of the Crowners sons. One exception was the sept Swan that we will look at later.

The Original Septs of Clan Gunn

Going in order of age of the sons we have:
1) Jameson, Jamieson, Jamison, MacHamish, Mackeamish and many variations in spelling.
These names are forms of the eldest son James (son of James) who became the chief of the clan in Sutherland. They held land at Kilearnan and Kildonan.

2) Robson, Robeson, Robison, Robinson, MacRob,
Names after Robert, who was slain along with Crowner at St. Tears.

Sir Robert Gordon says:
"John Robson, chieftain of Clangun in Catteness (Caithness), did now of late, the yeir of God 1618, mak his refuge of Sutherland, having fallen out with the Earle of Catteness (Sinclair) and Macky; so that this whole surname doth for the present (1618) depend altogether upon the house of Southerland."

It should be noted that initially (until about 1600) they were allied with the Earl of Caithness or Sinclairs, until a dispute arose between them. [More on that in "History of Clan Gunn, Vol. 3]. It is from this branch that we have the Robson Gunns of Caithness or the Gunns of Braemore and Strathy.

There is also an unrelated branch of Robsons from the Anglo-Scottish Border area.

3) Johnson, MacIan
Sons of John, also slain by the Keiths at St. Tears. Also from the Caithness area, they became the Gunns of Bregaul of Dale (Easterdale).

It is also necessary to mention that 'son of John' - Johnson - can be found all over Britain as this is and was a very common name. Not all surnames of Johnson are of the Clan Gunn.

John was also killed at St. Tears but his son William of Cattaig, held lands near Dirlot, the Dale, Dalemore and Bregaul. They are the third of the branches, known as the Gunns of Bregaul or Dale. They also had lands in the Strathmore area.

4) MacCorkill , MacCorkle
Sons of Torquil, this Viking name is small in comparison to the names Jamesons, Robsons, Johnsons and Wilsons, but curiously the name is also a common one on the Isle of Man, making some connection to the Kings of the Isle of Man and the Isles possible. They appear to have been involved in conflicts with Clan Mackay. This would seem to imply that the MacCorkill/MacCorkles were with the Robson Gunns or Gunns of Braemore, specifically in the turbulent border area of Strathy, Strath Halladale and Strathnavernia.

5) Will, Wilson, MacWilliam and Williamson (of Caithness and Sutherland)

Sons of William, son of the Crowner. Although some of this line may have actually descended from a later chief named William (specifically the Williamsons). They acquired lands in Banniskirk where the Commander of Clan Gunn is today (or at least his title). They were also associated with the Henderson Gunns (as well as Rorieson and Manson) in the lowlands of Caithness. More on these names later.

Another cautionary note on the commonality of the name Wilson should be made here. Aside from the very different East Coast Wilson's of Clan Innes (who have different arms), the name Wilson is the third most common name in Scotland today. (The first two are Brown and Smith). Wilson's can be found in all areas of Scotland, England and even Ireland. So simply having the surname of Wilson doesn't automatically mean one is a Gunn. This is a practical example of the problem with sept lists. Clan MacKay also claims Williamson.

6) Sandison
Although this could be 'son of Alexander', another of the Crowners sons, there really is scant evidence that the name of Alexander (or Alasdair) was used as a surname by the Clan Gunn. Certainly there are a lot of Alexanders all over Scotland, but at this point there is little reason to suspect they were prominent surnames in Gunn history. However, Sandison is recorded in the history and although the origins are obscure, it could be from the son of Alexander, son of the Crowner.

7) Henderson, Enrick, Inrig, Eanrig (and various spellings)
Sons of Henry, the youngest son of the Crowner.

Not long after James, William and Henry retired to Sutherland after the Battle of St. Tears Chapel, Henry left after a dispute with James swearing that none of his descendants would ever bear the name Gunn again. He, and William later, went to the lowlands of Caithness, possibly to the parish of Halkirk. They became known as the Henderson Gunns of Caithness. In the 20th century some Hendersons formed their own clan. The line of Henry cannot really be followed after his move, but there appears to be a cadet line of Hendersons later on. During the 17th century, the Henderson Gunns settled in Brabsterdorran, Stemster, Forse and Westerdale. The families of Eanruig, Rorieson (son of Roderick) and the Mansons (sons of Magnus or Manus) are of the same stock, according to Mark Rugg Gunn. He does mention, without specifics, that the Henderson Gunns still occasionally used the name Gunn. In 1663 an inquisition mentions a "William Manson" (or Henderson), heir of David Manson Henderson" in Brabsterdorran. According to the "Black Book of Taymouth" by Thomas Sinclair, a principal chronicler of Gunn history, there was a marriage:
"Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy in April 1638, married his bastard sister (I'm quoting), Mary Campbell, to a gentleman called John Henderson of Brabsterdorran, and bestowed on her a tocher (dowry), bridal, and bridal clothes, the sum of 4,000 merks."

This strongly suggests the Hendersons married into a powerful faction of the Campbell Clan and thus explains why so many Hendersons later held high-ranking official positions.

Interestingly and perhaps ironically, there were also Hendersons (not of Gunn stock) in the MacDonald Clan near Glencoe. They were the progenitors of MacIan branch of MacDonalds (MacIan of Glencoe), who was killed in Glencoe in 1692. Also killed was one "Henderson of the Chanters", MacIans personal piper.

There is also a Border family of Hendersons that later acquired land in Fife. Clearly, Henderson is another of those names, along with Johnson and Wilson, that was quite common in Scotland and not all are from the Clan Gunn.

8) Mann, Manson, Manus, Magnus
As mentioned in the Henderson sept ( #7) they were also of the Henderson Gunn stock and took their name from son of Magnus. At one time, St. Magnus was the patron saint of the Gunns.

9) Georgeson
Son of George, the Crowner. There is a small paragraph in Sinclair's "History of the Gunns" mentioning one Alexander Gunn who went by the alias Georgeson. This was near Dunrobin. This name was probably assumed by some members of the Clan because of the famous status of the George, the Crowner.

10) Gaunson, Ganson
Forms of 'Gunn's son'.

11) Nelson, Neilson
Sons of Neil - no connection to the MacNeill's of the West Coast.

12) Swan, Swann, Swanson
This sept name requires special definition and attention. It derives from "son of Sweyn", the probable progenitor of Clan Gunn, Svein Asleifarsson, the "Ultimate Viking". Actually this surname's inclusion as a sept under the Clan Gunn is unusual. If Mark Rugg Gunn is correct, that Svein (or Sweyn) is the parent line of the clan, then it is highly unusual that the Swans and Swansons have almost no history with the rest of the clan.

Mark Rugg Gunn writes (pp. 257-259):
"From the time of Sweyn (the Viking pirate of Freswick), and his immediate descendants we hear little of them until the 17th century. " He explains this as the result of the Swansons going into farming where for over 500 years, "they increased and multiplied that numbers made them poorer by division of patrimonies." Interestingly there is no mention of the Swans or Swansons in the "Acts of Parliament of Scotland".

We are told that the Clan Gunn then, takes its name from Sweyn's grandson, Gunni (Andresson?) - we have no written proof of Gunni's surname if indeed he had one. Mark Rugg Gunn states that the Swans remained more Norse than their Gunn relatives, and that whilst the Norse influence was in decline in Caithness, they became less and less influential. He also says that when Scotland gained lands of the far North, Orkney and some of the Western Isles back from Norway, this changed the primarily Norse Swans to the level of the native population.

As a historian I'm bound by my craft to question this. Weren't the Gunn's also the "native population?" If the Swans declined, they declined no worse than the Gunns, who were still very Norse themselves. It makes little sense that if indeed the Swans are the parent line, but had absolutely no history in common with the Gunn's until the late 17th century; the Swans should be their own separate clan.

Your lineage or descent isn't the only contingent in what makes a clan a clan. It is only a factor. Many Western clans have related progenitors (or the same progenitor) that evolved into separate and distinct, but related clans. Let me give some examples to make this clearer.

The sons of Somerled were Dougall and Ranald. Dougall became Clan MacDougall and Ranald's (Reginald) son Donald became Clan Donald (MacDonald). They shared an identical progenitor, Somerled, but evolved into two distinct clans with separate histories. Another example is the MacLeod's of Harris and the MacLeod's of Lewis whose progenitor was another Viking named Leod. His son Tormod became Siol (race of) Tormod (The MacLeods of Harris) and his other son, Torquil became Siol Torquil (MacLeods of Lewis). The two clans were obviously related but were distinctly different clans sharing a common progenitor. There is some controversy over whether Torquil was Tormod's brother, nephew or grandson, but the point remains the same: here are two examples of two very distinct clans from the same progenitor -- Leod for the Harris and Lewis MacLeods and Somerled for the MacDougalls and MacDonalds.

If the Swans had shared in Clan Gunn's history, there would be little question they would be Gunns. Mark Rugg Gunn goes on to say:
"We first hear of the Swansons in the 17th century at which time the appear to be confined to Thurso. The Wick burgh records of 1660-1712 have not a single Swanson."

There is also a possibility of some Swansons (and Swans one should assume) may be of Graham stock. This is due to the Swans having been loyal retainers of Montrose in 1650 when he made his northern headquarters in Thurso. It is believed he left a number of descendents (he was widowed at the time) in the local offspring of the Swansons.

What he doesn't mention is that Swan and Swanson are also of Clan MacQueen and to that clan it has the same meaning: 'son of Sweyn' or MacSween. The MacQueens claim similar descent to that of Clan Donald and Irish High kings. Like Clan Gunn, MacQueen is Armigerous but without a current chief.

The last of the Graham Swansons, Thomas Swanson, died in Canada in 1882, and maintained the story that the family was Graham by male descent, their ancestress being a Swanson from Thurso.

Getting back to the Gunn Swansons, Mark Rugg Gunn wrote:
"The Swansons played no direct role in Gunn history; their locality of residence and mode of life had long separated them from their kinsman (The Gunns)."

Though it seems clear the Swansons are descendants of Sweyn Asliefarsson, the connection from Sweyn to Gunni is less certain, or cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Mr. Gunn admits this although he is convinced of the connection.

Assuming it is true exactly as written: Sweyn begat Andres who begat Gunni, the simple fact that the Swans (the parent line) played no part in Clan Gunn's history (for over 500 years) surely must be taken into account. This means that there was no intermarriage between the Gunns and the Swansons, no common heritage (apart from Sweyn), no common history. What appears to have happened to the Swansons is that they lived overpopulated in poor conditions and of little influence until, at some point in the late 17th century they became a broken clan (or family). It is only then that they become dependents (septs) of the Gunns. To be completely fair to the Swansons then, they should be a clan of their own (Clan Swan) with a common progenitor with the Gunn's in Sweyn, although it is really Gunni that is the 'name-father' of the Gunns, not Sweyn. The Swans and Gunns are therefore really distant cousins.

Like the MacDougalls and MacDonalds; the Harris and Lewis MacLeods; the Swans and Swansons should, logically, be 'Clan Swan' with a separate history from that of Clan Gunn, but as the other examples, having a common progenitor.

As it stands now Swan and Swanson are septs of the Clan Gunn and therefore are included amongst the other members of the Gunns.

Part II - Modern Septs of Clan Gunn, including some questionable names.

In the previous section we have gone over the original sept names (not allowing for all variations in spelling) of Clan Gunn. Now it is time to take a serious and studious look at 10 or so additions and why some of them are problematic as legitimate septs of the Clan Gunn. This is the current list from the Clan Gunn Society of septs of the Clan Gunn today.

Allisterson, Anderson, Croner, Crownar, Crowner, Cruiner, Cruner, Eanrig, Enrick, Gailey, Galdie, Gallie, Ganson, Gauldie, Gaunson, George, Georgeson, Henderson, Inrig, Jameson, Jamieson, Jamison, Johnson, Kean, Keene, MacAllister, MacChruner, MacComas, MacCorkill, MacCorkle, MacCullie, MacDade, MacDhaidh, MacEnrick, MacGeorge, MacHamish, MacIan, Mackames, Mackeamis, Mackeamish, Mackean, Mackendrick, MacMains, MacManus, MacNeil, MacOmish, MacRob, MacRory, MacSheoras, MacWilliam, Magnus, Magnusson, Main(s), Maness, Mann, Manson, Manus, More, Neilson, Nelson, Robeson, Robinson, Robison, Robson, Rorieson, Sandison, Swan, Swann, Swanney, Swanson, Thomson, Tomson, Wiley, Will, Williamson, Wills, Wilson, Wiley, Wylie, Wyllie.

As you can see many names have been added to the list that were never there before. This happened within the past 15-20 years, possibly sooner. Now granted, some of the additions are simply spelling variations of existing sept names, such as:
MacOmish for MacHamish, MacNeil for Nelson; MacSheoras for Georgeson; Main and Maness as variations of Mann and Manus, and several versions of Wiley that weren't present on the original sept lists. Although it seems unnecessary to list every possible spelling variation to similar names, it does no harm and it isn't misleading.

However, there are nine names in this new listing that are highly questionable. Let's take them in alphabetical order.

1) Allisterson (and MacAllister)
This is a variant of 'son of Alexander', but there is no record of either of these two recent inclusions in Gunn history. Even M.R Gunn doesn't mention them in his chapter on septs. So where does this and other names appear in other clan books?

In Kith & Kin (Collins)- These names are listed as septs of Clan MacAlister. They didn't even list Allisterson as a sept of anyone.

In Scotland's Clans and Tartans by Bain - Lists only MacAlister as belonging to Clan MacAlister. No mention of Allisterson.

In Scottish Clan and Family Encyclopedia (George Way of Plean & Romilly Squire) - in this Lord Lyon approved book published in 1998, MacAlister is a clan with a chief and a member of the Standing Counsel of Scottish Chiefs. Again, no listing for a surname Allisterson.

I have a sneaking suspicion where this well established name comes from. Although Anderson is the same as MacAndrew and its own clan, it is also a recognised sept of clan Ross.

(Collins) - Anderson is listed as Ross and possibly MacDonald. No mention of Gunn
(Bain) - Mentions Anderson as Ross and MacAndrew.
( Plean, p 352) - mentions Anderson was a very common name but was often spelt MacAndrew. Clan Gunn's sept list offers no MacAndrew for Anderson, but they do offer MacIan for Johnson, MacHamish for Jameson. This is very inconsistent and misleading. Plean also mentions the way Clan Anderson was formed in 1973. I wonder if they know the Gunn's are claiming them?

My guess is that it was added to the Gunn septs because of Gunni's supposed last name of Andresson. That, is far too much supposition and too subjective to be credible. Anderson doesn't belong as a sept of Clan Gunn.

3) Crowner, Cruiner, MacChruner, Cronar, Crownar, Cruner

They don't miss a sure bet with these inclusions. Of course these septs are supposed to be a derivatives of the Crowner, George Gunn. I've never read or seen Crowner in any books sept listings or met anyone with that name. But since it is not borrowing from another clan's sept listing I can see no harm in these additions.
Collins, Bain or Way & Plean list none of these variations as surnames of Scotland.

4) MacAlister - See Allisterson

5) MacDade, MacDhaidh

This name is not in the original septs and is described as such in these books:
(Collins) - MacDade and MacDaid is a sept of Clan Davidson.
(Bain) - Belongs to the Clan Davidson.
(Plean) - as septs of Davidson, all spellings. Not one mention of Gunn anywhere. This name does not belong in the Gunn sept listings.

6) Main and Mains
Although not among the original sept listings, but probably added as a variation of Mann. No argument here if it is being listed as a spelling variation of Mann (although I can't see how Mann could be so badly misspelled), but probably misleading to some.
(Collins) - Listed as septs of Gunn
(Bain) - Not listed
(Plean) - Not listed as a sept of Gunn.

7) More
Never listed as a sept of Gunn, nor is this a spelling variation.
(Collins) - from Moir, also Muir; Clan Leslie
(Bain) - Listed as Clan Leslie
(Plean) - from Muir (not More) listed as Gordon.
This one is cut and dry. Like Anderson, MacDade, Allisterson, MacAlister, is not a sept of Clan Gunn.

If the clan was going to list the surname More, why not spelling variants such as Moor, Moore, Mor, Mhor? Illogical and again inconsistent.

And last but certainly not least -
8) Thomson, Tomson
This extremely common British name has never been listed in Gunn. But it is now. I suppose the reasoning will be that the clan had several important Thomas's in the clan! But that doesn't make a sept name. This name is being claimed by so many clans, it is astonishing the Gunns have added it to their own sept list.
(Collins) - belonging to MacThomas and Argyll
(Bain) - Campbell of Argyll
(Plean) Not listed due to controversy and confusion amongst claims made by clans Campbell, MacThomas, and most recently the newly reformed Clan of MacTavish, which literally translates to Thomson .
(Whyte) - MacTavish

There are clearly new surnames added to the Clan Gunn sept list that do not belong as septs of this clan. Before I go on to list those names in summary, it should be in all fairness to Clan Gunn that they are not the only clan involved in this wrongful act. Many modern clans have been in recent years adding new names to their listings that seem to have no connection to that clan. One can only assume it is either a contagious mistake or a deliberate attempt to swell the ranks of the clans.

Those names that this writer and historian disputes as belonging to Gunn are:
Allisterson, MacAllister, Anderson, MacDade, MacDhaidh, More, Thomson and Tomson to this revised sept listing. None of these septs have now or in the past any connection to Clan Gunn. Why then are they added? I can only speculate on this, but one thing is certain: more names mean more members and more members mean more income for the Society. Otherwise it must be an error that should be amended.

Now I've heard the argument that it is "ok" to have people that are not actual blood members enrolled in the Society. This is why I consider the clans' today nothing more than social clubs and having less and less relevance to real blood heritage. It was even mentioned on this forum once, not long ago, that a Chinese man was allowed entry into the clan simply because he had an interest in it. Then what is the point of the clan? If we simply want to further interest in Scotland then have non-members join a St. Andrews or Caledonian Society. Or create a web site for people interested in learning all about clan Gunn, but not joining. Is this snobbery? I don't see it that way. The Clan societies are not being used as they should be - for Scots of that bloodline to gather with people who are actually related to them, even if in a very distant way. This taking-all-members-who-apply-policy is degrading the value of all clans systems into dues paying social clubs.

I've also heard the argument that good things are done with that extra money…like restoring sites in Scotland. This is fine, but is that the purpose of a clan society dedicated to the name of one clan? Furthering the history of the clan and supporting those who actually should belong to it are much more valid reasons to have a society. If it is a social club of interested parties you want, form a charitable Scottish club, but don't degrade whatever value might be left of a 'pure' clan. If it keeps going at this rate, in 25-30 years we will have a sept list over 130 and only a small fraction of the members will actually be Gunns!

But perhaps it is a legitimate mistake and someone will address the problem. Perhaps someone can prove to this historian why those names are on this list. I certainly hope so. I'd be very interested to hear the reasoning.

I've done some researching on just who is allowed to assign names to be made septs of the clan. Although my research is murky, it seems only a Chief of a clan can admit sept names for eligibility as new septs of the clan. Since the Gunns have had no chief since 1821, when George Gunn, the 10th Mac-Sheumais, died. Who has approved these names to be added?

No doubt this last section of questionable clan sept names will ruffle some feathers and elicit some terse responses. That isn't my intention. As an historian and a Gunn by blood, I find some of these new inclusions of septs of other clans very intrusive and irresponsible. I'm sure the other clans aren't keen on it either.

Next: Back to the history of Clan Gunn from the Battle of Torran Dubh and the Clan's struggle for existence among the MacKays, Sutherland (Gordons), Sinclairs and MacIvors.

All sources not already included in the text will be given consideration only by email.

Robert M Gunn, MA
Editor, ScotWeb history
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