The Gunns claimed descent from Olaf the Black, King of Man but the line has been discredited as an early mistake. The later Gunns claimed descent from Sweyn Asleifarson, a pirate who lived in the Orkney islands, but that line is also now known to be a fake.
The Gunns have been called the “MacGregors of the north”. They were not a large clan, but they were notably martial. The Gunn chiefs were powerful, although the clan was not numerous. At a very early date, they had acquired the character of being “bonnie fechters.”
The Gunn homeland was a rectangular area approximately 18 miles wide and nearly 40 miles long along the eastern Scottish coast in Caithness.
The common people of the clan were undoubtedly Picts, driven into the interior of Caithness by invading Gaels from Ireland. However, the chief’s family has a Norse origin, being descended from Sweyn Asleifsson, a 12th century pirate from Orkney. He was Norse governor of Gairsay. His exploits were recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga and, more recently, re-told by Eric Linklater in The Ultimate Viking (1955). Sweyn was killed in the Sack of Dublin in 1171.
The clan might take its name from “Sweyn’s grandson” Gunni Andresson. He acquired estates in Caithness and Sutherland by his marriage to Ragnhildr, sister Haraldr Ungi, Jarl of Orkney and Earl of Caithness. She was a granddaughter of St. Rognvaldr, Jarl of Orkney; and a descendant of Moddan, Mormaer of Caithness. Gunni’s son Snaekollr made an unsuccessful bid for the Orkney jarldom. He murdered his cousin John in 1231. In the ensuing wars, he lost his possessions in Orkney, transferred his base to Caithness, and is said to have built Castle Gunn on the coast of Wick. The family rose to prominence in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The territory of the clan lay on the border between the country of the Earls of Sutherland to the south and the Earls of Caithness to the north, while to the west of it lay Strathnaver, the territory of the MacKay Lords Reay. With all these neighbors, the Gunns from time to time had feuds and friendships. Notwithstanding feuds with their powerful neighbors, they extended their possessions in Caithness until about the middle of the 15th century. At the height of their power, they possessed virtually the whole of Caithness.
As well as holding substantial estates in Caithness and Sutherland during the 13th and 14th centuries, the Gunn chiefs also held the hereditary high office of Crowner or Coroner (Crown Lord) of Caithness. George Gunn of Ulbster, Crowner in the 15th century, transferred the family seat from Castle Gunn to Halberry, and kept great estate there. He was called Am Braisdeach Mor (Wearer of the Great Brooch) from his insignia of office. The Gunn chiefs’ Gaelic patronymic,MacSheumais Chataich, recalls their descent from James, son and heir of the Coroner.
About the beginning of the 15th century, the clan became embroiled in a running feud with their neighbors the Keiths, over the abduction of a daughter of the Braemor Gunns. In 1464, a meeting to resolve the differences was proposed, and the two clans agreed to attend with no more than 12 horsemen per side but, tradition relates, the devious Keiths turned up with two men to each horse and slaughtered the Gunns. Among the dead was their chief, George Gunn of Ulbster, Coroner of Caithness, from whose sons most “sept” families of the clan claim descent.
One of the reasons for the clan’s decline was the evolution of Scotland itself. The Norse vikings took the extreme north of Scotland — notably the eastern and northern shores, Caithness and Sutherland — along with the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and the Hebrides, from the original Pictish inhabitants in the 8th century and ruled there until the 13th century. In the 12th century, Caithness was still within the political orbit of the Jarls of Orkney. By the 13th century, primacy in Caithness was passing to the Scottish kings. Ragnhild’s brother Harald aligned himself with William “the Lion” of Scotland and profited thereby. In 1263 Alexander III of Scotland decisively defeated Haakon IV of Norway at the Battle of Largs, effectively ending Norse influence in the region. Unfortunately for families on the periphery of emerging Scotland, the Scottish kings, descended from the 11th century English princess St. Margaret, pursued a policy of stamping out Gaelic tribal culture and reorganizing the country along the lines of English feudalism.
Thereafter, the Gunns declined quickly. By the late 15th century, their strength was ebbing; estates were lost, and there was a shift to the highlands region of Caithness. In the 16th century, after their disastrous feud with the Keiths, the Gunns retreated to Sutherland. The chiefly family settled on the lands of Kildonan, where they became clients of the Earls of Sutherland. The Gunns were frequently embroiled in wars, being alternately on terms with the great rival families of Mackay, ancestors of the Lords Reay; the Earls of Sutherland; and of Sinclair, Earls of Caithness, to whom they were valuable allies or implacable foes. About 1586 the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland entered into a pact to destroy the Gunns, who then entered into an alliance with the MacKays. There were a number of indecisive battles, as well as great casualties on both sides, but the Gunns survived.
The chief’s family, the Gunns of Killearnan, lost their lands through debt after the house at Killernan was destroyed in a gunpowder accident. They obtained a new estate at Badenloch, where they tried to revive ancient splendor. In the Jacobite Rising of 1745 they fought for the government.
At the time of the Highland clearances in Sutherland, many Gunns were forced to emigrate to New Zealand and Canada. The chiefship went into not long after. William Gunn of Badeloch, the 8th chief, was killed in action in India in 1780. His brother Morrison Gunn of Badenloch, 9th MacKeamish, who died at Gibralter in 1785, was the last undoubted chief. George Gunn of Rhives, descended from a brother of the 6th MacKeamish, claimed the chiefship, but failed to obtain recognition from Lord Lyon. He died in 1859 and his two sons not long after. Until recently, the heir has been unknown. In 1972 Lord Lyon appointed Iain Alexander Gunn of Banniskirk as Commander of the Clan. In 1978 Banniskirk and the Earl of Kintore signed a Treaty of Friendship, ending the ancient feud between the Gunns and Keiths. More recently, Lyon Court has identified William Sinclair Gunn, of Inverness, as heir to the chiefship of the clan, but he has not yet applied for official recognition.
The Gunns split into branches (septs) after the death of George Gunn in 1478. George’s oldest son Seamas (James) Gunn moved to obtained lands from the Earl of Sutherland, and moved to Killearnan in Kildonan. He was ancestor of the MacSheumais (MacKeamish, MacHamish) Gunns. Robert, the second son, established his line at Braemore in the southern heights of Caithness. He was ancestor of the Robson Gunns. John, the third son, settled at Cattaig or Bregual in Strathmore. The Henderson Gunns and Williamson Gunns descend from George Gunn’s youngest sons, Henry and William. Other descendants established themselves at Crosskirk, near Forss on the north coast of Caithness, and at Reay, Strathy and Strath Halladale in the Mackay country.
The Westford Knight
Outside Westford, Massachusetts the image of a knight is said to be chiseled into rock. His coat of arms supposedly shows that he was a Gunn. How the image of a medieval knight came to made in America is a mystery, but some enthusiasts believe that the rock might have been a memorial to Sir James Gunn, a fallen member of the semi-legendary expedition of Prince Henry Sinclair to America in the early 15th century. Skeptics point out that an investigation by Harvard’s Peabody Museum failed to confirm a medieval origin. Except for the sword handle, which is a punch carving, the figure consists of scratches made by glaciation. Moreover, contemporaneously with the discovery of the figure in the 19th century, the Town Historian claimed the t-shaped sword handle had been recently punched into the rock by local boys. It seems that the Westford Knight is a good story, but nothing more.
- Óláfr Hrólfson (c1075-1136), Gøding of Gairsay for Páll II, Jarl of Orkney. He married Ásleif (c1085-aft 1136). The Orkneyinga Saga says she was descended from a noble family. One source implies that she was daughter of Farquhar, Earl of Ross, and that it was through her that the family acquired lands in Caithness. Either she or her husband was a brother of Helgi of Tingwall.
- Sveinn Ásleifarson (c1110-1171), one of the heroes of the Orkneyinga Saga. He was immortalized by Eric Linklater asThe Last Viking. He married Ingrídr Þórkelsdóttir (c1115-?), who was related to Haraldr, Jarl of Orkney.
- Andres Sveinnson (c1140-?). He married Fríða Kolbeinsdóttir (c1150-?), daughter of Kolbeinn “Hruga” and Herbjörg.
- Gunni Andresson (c1170-?), 1st Chief of Clan Gunn. He was once thought to have been a son Oláfr the Black, the Norse King of Man and the Isles. He married Ragnhildr Staegbrellsdóttir (c1175-?), daughter of Eiríkr “Staegbrells” Eiríksson and Ingrídr Rögnvaldsdóttir.
- Snækollr Gunnason (c1200-aft 1231). 2nd Chief of Clan Gunn. He murdered his cousin Jon Haraldsson, the last Norwegian Jarl of Orkney, in a dispute over lands. By that murder, he lost the war and any hope of gaining the title himself. He is not known to have had children. He is last mentioned in Norway, taking part in a rebellion against the king. He probably died there.
The line breaks here.
- Óttarr Snækollsson (c1230-?), 3rd Chief of Clan Gunn. He is said to have married a daughter of Óláfr II Guðrøðsson, King of Man. He was a Sudreyan chief from the west coast of Scotland, not the Orkneys.
The line breaks here.
- James (Seumas) de Gunn (c1260-?), 4th Chief of Clan Gunn. He was an adherent of King Robert the Bruce. No evidence he was an historical person.
The line breaks here.
- Ingram Gunn (c1290-1340), 5th Chief of Clan Gunn. He married a daughter of Gilbert, Earl of Angus, and Elizabeth de Comyn. He wasn’t a Gunn. He was really Enguerrand de Guînes, lord of Coucy.
The line breaks here.
- Sir Donald Gunn (c1320-?), 6th Chief of Clan Gunn. No evidence he was an historical person.
The line breaks here.
- James (Seumas) II Gunn of Ulbster (c1345-?), 7th Chief of Clan Gunn. No evidence he was an historical person.
The line breaks here.
- George Gunn of Ulbster (c1380-1464), 8th Chief of Clan Gunn, and Coroner of Caithness. In legend, he was killed by the Keiths at the Battle of St. Tears.
- Henry Gunn (c1410-aft 1468), ancestor of the Henderson Gunns.
- … Gunn (c1440-?).
- … Gunn (c1465-?).
- Roderick (Ruaridh) Henderson Gunn (c1490-?), ancestor of the Rorieson Gunns.
- … Gunn (c1520-?).
- Bessie Rorieson Gunn (c1550-?), mistress of John Sinclair, Master of Caithness (1543-1575).
Coat of Arms
The chiefship of Clan Gunn was adjudicated to be Iain Alexander Gunn of Banniskirk on Sept. 25, 2015. See “The Gunn Chiefship.” Clan Gunn Society <https://www.clangunnsociety.org>, Oct. 6, 2016.
Gunn of Banniskirk: Argent on a sea in base undy Azure, a three-masted ship Gules flagged of Scotland (Azure, a saltire Argent) sails furled Proper, on a chief Gules a buckle between two mullets pierced Or. Crest: A dexter cubit arm attired in the proper tartan of Clan Gunn, the hand Proper grasping a basket-hilted sword blade Gules hilted Argent. Motto: Aut pax aut bellum (Either peace or war).
Sir William Gun
William Gun belonged to the line of Robson Gunns, the Gunns of Braemore. They were descendants of Robert, a younger son of Am Braisdeach Mor. William was a younger brother of the Robson chief. In his mid-20s William Gun joined Lord Reay’s Regiment of Scots, later known as the Scots Brigade, and left his native Scotland in 1626. Although a Catholic, he went on to have a glittering career, serving as a mercenary under the banners of the Protestant kings Christian IV of Denmark and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, fighting against the Imperial forces of the Holy Roman Empire. Captured by the Imperial general Tilly at Neubrandenburg, he was ransomed and released and was present at the battle of Lutzen in 1632 when Gustavus Adolphus was killed. Fighting subsequently under the Protestant generals Horn and Bernard von Saxe-Weimar he was present at their disastrous defeat at Nordlingen in 1634, having himself organised the retreat which saved Count Bernard’s life. Promoted to the rank of Colonel, he returned to London where he was recommended by Charles I to the service of Ladislaus, King of Poland and to Duke Radziwill. William soon returned to Germany where he offered his services to General Banér. His next action seems to have been at the Pass of Fresdorpe in 1636 when he commanded the thousand musketeers and two regiments of horse which dislodged the Imperialist defenders. Less than two weeks later he was given command of the advance guard of the Swedish army at the Battle of Wittstock where he beat off no less than eight charges by the enemy and was reckoned by one of his contemporaries to have been the “chief instrument in obtaining this victorie”. He was probably the Col. Gunn, of whom Banér writing to Oxentierna said “an arch-Catholic, on whom there is no reliance” (10 August 1637).
Returning again to Britain he took up the cause of Charles I and was appointed second-in-command of the Scottish Royalist Army under Viscount Aboyne. He was present at the battle of the Brig’ o’Dee in 1639 where his advice to Aboyne was ignored with disastrous results. He later joined the King at Berwick, where he was knighted. Shortly after he returned to Germany where, after years fighting the Protestant cause, he joined the army of the Catholic Emperor. He married a German noblewoman and was created a Baron of the Holy Roman Empire in 1646. He purchased the castle of Staufeneck and became well known as a tolerant lord, his church being open to both Protestants and Catholics alike. The Emperor promoted him to the rank of Major-General of the Imperial Army. His descendants include three kings of the Belgians, two Princes of Lichtenstein, and a Grand-Duke of Luxembourg.
The arms of Sir William Gunn (1603-1661) as a Baron of the Holy Roman Empire. They show an arm embowed in armor holding a sword erect for Gunn, quartered with the arms of his German wife.
- Frank Adam, The Clans, Septs, and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands (1984).
- Clan Gunn Heritage Center, The Clan Gunn and Its Country.
- Alastair Gunn, Why Clan Gunn ‘Chiefs’ are not of Norse / Orkney Islands / Viking descent, visited Oct. 14, 2019.
- Mark R. Gunn, History of the Clan Gunn (1984).
- (Sir) Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, Highlanders: a history of the Scottish clans (rev. 1982).
- Clan Gunn.
- Clan Gunn Society of North America.
- Clan Gunn at MyClan.com.
- Clan Gunn at NationMaster.com.
- Alastair Gunn, Key issues for a Clan Gunn history (n.d.), visited Oct. 14, 2019.
- Michael J. Gunn, A Scottish Cavalier: The life, times and adventures of Sir William Gun (1603-1661).
Revised Oct. 14, 2019 to add links; revised Oct 30, 2019 to remove link; revised Dec. 12, 2020 to add additional genealogical information.