Clan Gunn


By Ned Buxton (of Clan Keith)

Source: Keith & Kin, Spring 2004, Volume XXV, No. 1

If we are to evaluate the evolution of the feud of the two clans, all we need to do is look at the geographic origins of the Keiths and Gunns to find what is a reasonable and very obvious explanation for their hostilities - as we say, a no-brainer.

Gunn Origins

The origin of the Gunns is linked to the Norse Vikings, though like the Keiths there is some controversy relative to their Scottish origins. There are at least three major theories though all seem to agree that the root name for the clan comes from Gun, Gunnar or Gunni.Some latter scholars speculate that the name may have evolved from Middle English. Calder's work relates that Gunni was brother to Sweyn Asleifson, The Pirate of Freswick, whose family ruled the Earldoms of Orkney and Caithness during the 9th, 10th and 11th Centuries. The most popular theory is that Gunni (Guin) was the second son of Olav the Black, the Norwegian King of Man and The Isles, who died in 1237.

The History of Clan Gunn by Mark Rugg Gunn chronicles a compelling tale of Gunn descent from Gunni (whose name itself meant "war") and what appears to be the most plausible theory that the name-father to the Gunn Clan was actually Gunni, the son of Andres and grandson to Svein (Sweyn) Asliefarsson of Orkneyinga Saga fame.

Even with all this controversy it is convincing that Gunni did exist, that the Gunns were/are of Norse-Viking descent and the name-father of the clan was one Gunni who must have been a powerful man in Caithness.

We are assured that Sigard and his Norsedrivennative Catti (Catti - ness?) tribes inland(again fitting the Buchan legend of the Catti).The Norwegians under brother of Ronald, to whom Harold had grantedOrkneys, had obtained possession of most of Caithness, Southerland and Ross, at least, the early 10th century. If we embrace M. R. Gunn, Gunni came to Caithness in the 12th Century. The principal Gunn lands were acquired through Ragnhild, who inherited great estates in Caithness and Sutherland on the death of her brother, Harold Ungi, Jarl in Orkney and Earl of Caithness in 1198.Gunni's son Snaekoll is reputed to have built Castle Gunn at Bruan, on the east coast of Caithness south of Wick which became the center of much attention.

At this time Clan Gunn was near the height of their power and understandably had only a few neighbors. Though the Gunns appeared to possess most of Caithness, the province was already starting to pass from the influence of the Norse Earldom to that of the King of Scots.

So, by the time that Gunni arrived in Scotland, the Norwegian decline was being realized though the Gunns and their immediate progenitors, nearly enculturated, remained in power in the Scottish Earldom of Caithness as created by Malcolm II. The great irony here is that the religious conversion effected on the Norse converts did draw after it many political and social ramifications, and contributed mightily to ultimately mix and amalgamate the two peoples.

The modern lineage and Sept Families of Clan Gunn rise from George Gunn, the Crowner (Crouner/Coroner or Warden) of Caithness, born in the first decade of the 15th century.Nonetheless, it is clear that during the 14th and 15th centuries the Gunns saw their holdings substantially diminished (dispossessed is a better word) in the fertile parts of Caithness by the Sinclairs, Keiths, MacKays and others, who obtained grants of land by marriage and from the Scottish kings (See Keith Origins later in this article), anxious to increase their influence over the fringes of their kingdom.

As an example, Sir Reginald Cheyne, the last male heir topart of Caithnessto the (Norse) family of Cheyne, died in 1350.was succeeded by his two daughters, who by marriage conveyed this land to the Sinclairs,and the Keiths, respectively.Sir John Keith of Ravenscraig, Marischal Edward's second son, married Mariotta Cheyne in 1360 and obtained Inverugie(Progenitor of the Inverugie Keiths), Ackergill Castle and the surroundinglands in Caithness, putting them in direct opposition to the Gunns (more later).To the Gunns this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Ackergill Tower on Sinclair Bay in Caithness, one of the oldest inhabited castles in Caithness, became the primary source of the feud.

Consequently, by the mid 15th century George Gunn, Chief of Clan Gunn and Crowner of Caithness, held his main lands at Ulbster and Clyth on the rocky coast of Caithness, and the majority of the Clan by then occupied the highland regions of Caithness in what are now the Parishes of Latheron, Halkirk and Reay.

The Gunns are historically referred to by an early chronicler in this period"Verie courageous, rather desperate than valiant; the Gunn family tree being thick with many lusty fighters, going into battle against the Keiths, Sinclares and the Makays."It fell to George Gunn, the Crowner, who after many skirmishes and several major bloody battles with Clan Keith over rival land claims, to seek a reconciliation in 1478 (or before).

After the death of George, the Crowner, and his sons at Ackergill, the Clan split into three distinct families -- James or Seumas, the Crowner's eldest son who survived the battle, moved with his family to Kildonan in Sutherland, subsequently known as Gleann na Guineach or Gunn's Glen, where he obtained lands from the Earls of Sutherland; Robert, the second surviving son established his line in Braemore, in the southern heights of Caithness as the Robson Gunns, and John, the third surviving son settled in Cattaig or Bregual in Strathmore, in the higher reaches of the River Thurso above Westerdale.

The Hendersons and Williamsons and Wilsons of Caithness are said to be descended from Henry and William, two of the Crowners' younger sons. Other Gunn families established themselves at Crosskirk, near Forss, on the North coast of Caithness and in Reay, Strathy and Strath Halladale in the MacKay country. The various chieftains later leased their lands from the Chiefs of Clan Sutherland and Clan MacKay and in turn sublet these to their immediate families who subdivided them among their families. There was, however, a surprising amount of movement from one part of the country to another and so it cannot be assumed that all Gunns in one area were necessarily of the same branch of the family.

The Mac Sheumais (or McHamish) Gunns continued to live in Strath Kildonan, first at Killearman and later at Badenloch at the top of the Strath, until the old line died out in 1782.

The Clan Gunn is presently led by Commander, Iain Alexander Gunn of Banniskirk, a descendant of the 17th century Caithness Laird, who was appointed under a commission from the Lord Lyon, King of Arms.

Keith Origins

The origins of the Keiths are no less storied and certainly not without intrigue and controversy.Needless to say, there are several theories that include the legend of The Catti (Clan of the Cat - Ceitach - See P. Buchan - 1820) a warring tribe that originated in Germania and refused surrender to the Romans.However, when the Roman legions continued their advance north on the continent, the Catti realized that their eventual extermination would be the result of any encounter with the Romans and made their way to the Isles of Batavia (what is now Holland). There they remained for some decades, until the great Roman General Germanicus (15 BC-9 AD) approached the region in about 10 AD.Germanicus was known for his brutality and raising any settlement that showed signs of resistance.

Neighboring tribes knew that the Catti would elect to fight, and ultimately risk annihilation for all. These neighbors had resolved to lay down before Germanicus, and by necessity arranged a deal, whereby the Catti were persuaded to depart the area -- intending to resettle, perhaps further west and along Europe's coast or in Scandinavia. The tribe was provided with boats, and thus made their way to the North Sea. After some time at sail, the boats became separated in a terrible storm. Some eventually made landfall in the north of Scotland, and settled among the Picts of that region now known as Caithness. The other boats have only been accounted for in other myriad sets of legends.

In what we now know as Scotland, the Catti shared territory with the Picts. Perhaps owing the fact that Picts had no written language, their early history and the first few centuries of Catti residence in their midst is not a matter of reliable record.Failing a written language, only scarce notations in writings by Roman conquerors of the island's southern parts, and by the people known as Scots (Dalriada), make up the only records one may consult in these matters. This theory of the Picts and the Catti cannot be readily proven (some say it's absurd) and continues to be the source of a great deal of controversy. For more detail please see the materials on Gillie Chattan Moir, the Prince of The Chatti at

The other major theory of the origin of the name Keith springs from a warrior whom Malcolm II dubbed "Marbhachair Chamuis" or Camus Slayer after the warrior slew the Danish General Camus at the Battle of Barrie in 1010. "Marbhachair Chamuis" later held the lands of Keth in Lothian for Malcolm II. This grant of estates is believed by many to represent the origin of the modern name Keith. course, the Teutonic-Celtic peoples that became the Keiths had to already be in place, thus serving the interests of the Scottish Kings. As far as theories go, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

So, The Keiths were also busy (essentially throughout much of Scotland) while the Gunns were gathering/defending their territories in Caithness.Witness: A Norman named Hervey married the heiress of Marbhachair and received charter for the lands of Keth from King David I in 1150. Hervey's son was made Marischal of the King of Scots in 1176.

Robert the Bruce bestowed Halforest in Aberdeenshire to Robert de Keth in 1308. Here the Keiths built their castle. As an aside, but of special significance in this line, Sir Robert's nephew was the one to return the Bruce's heart to Melrose abbey after the Douglas's death at the hands of the Moors in Spain. The Bruce also made the office of Marischal hereditary to the Keiths in 1324 in recognition of Sir Robert de Keth, cavalry commander at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Sir William the Marischal added estates in Buchan, Kincardine and Lothian to the family by marrying the daughter of Sir Alexander Fraser, the High Chamberlain. As mentioned previously, Sir William's brother married the Cheyne heiress bringing the massive estate of Inverugie into the family. The chief's seat was later to be a castle on Inverugie lands.

So the two clans were on an imminent collision course, with the feud reported by many historians' sources as arising in 1415 (probably before), "over territorial disputes, i.e. the claim of Ackergill Tower and surrounding lands."The attempted compact at the Chapel of St. Tears can be assumed to have occurred prior to 1478, though there is no hard substantiating evidence.

As our review relates primarily to that area of northeast Scotland known as Caithness, we will limit our inquiry to that area, though the Keiths continued to amass lands and influence throughout all of Scotland. Their transformation from the Catti was complete as the Clan of the Great Earls Marischal of Scotland.

The Keith Clan is currently under the leadership of the Hon. Michael Keith, 13th Earl of Kintore, now chief of the Name of Keith in residence at the Keith Hall estates in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that both the Norse Gunns and the Teutonic-Celtic Catti/Keiths were thrown by fate into close proximity and ultimate opposition in the same lands and subsequent conflict by their own sense of territorial imperatives and the ultimate goal to pursue their own agendas/cultures.Other players in this saga include the Sinclairs, Sutherlands and MacKays (sometimes) who more or less sided with the Keiths. The land claims only added fuel to the fire of an already smoldering cauldron of distrust, rivalry and hatred between the two clans.In a land characterized by lawlessness, the Keiths challenged the Gunns for both political superiority and the land itself. The Gunn's reputation for being aggressive and war-like seems quite understandable and can be directly attributed to their geographical situation - hemmed in by sometime (mostly) neighbors bent on occupying their lands.

The Gunn's perceived the Keiths as their traditional enemies, who from their castle at Ackergill, challenged the Gunn chiefs. As with most feuds which were truly fought for territory, wealth and power, a convenient personal and long-lasting insult was further provided to justify the constant bloodshed as an affair of honour when Dugald Keith, smitten by the fair Helen (Beauty of Braemore), daughter of Gunn of Braemore, in 1415 killed her fiancé Alexander Gunn the day before their marriage and then kidnapped her. Dugald took Helen to Ackergill Tower, where unlike another Helen (of Troy) she threw herself from the parapets of the Castle Tower rather than submit to her kidnapper. This incident is reputed to be the primary source of the blood feud between the Keiths and the Gunns, though it surely appears that there were many previous conflicts that would have warranted just such a designation.Surely from that point on there is little positive to report.

Caithness was the center of all the attention between the Keiths and the Gunns.Northern Caithness (Wick) demonstrates evidence of being one of the earliest settled areas in Scotland to include evidence of early stone age cultures with the area later occupied by Celtic tribes in that same region.One could, if he chooses to use his imagination without fear of historical contradiction, picture it as the region settled by the Catti of Buchan, i.e. our 1st century Keith ancestors.Wick is mentioned in saga as early as 1140.

The town of Wick certainly appears to be at or near the center of the area in question.The name 'Wick' is reportedly derived from 'Vic' the Norse word meaning bay.

There ensued much successive strife where both clans suffered considerable losses, to include the Battle of Tannach Moor (Blar Tannie - a bloody conflict in 1426 where the Keiths and the Gunns lost many men) and again at Mammistanes and then at Dirlot (1464) in Strathmore where the less numerous Gunns inflicted heavy losses on the Keiths.

These sanguinary conflicts birthed many legends one of which ironically includes the symbol of the Raven, the Norse symbol of battle but also the personification of the Celtic goddess Morrigan who could transform herself into Badb Catha, the carrion-devouring Raven of Battle who represented death. It was she who perched on the shoulder of the famous Ulster hero Cuchulain as he was dying.

This most unusual legend stemming from this feuding time insinuates that the Raven was the ally of the Keiths! Gunn legend states that Keiths surprised the Gunns at their ancient seat at Halberry (Hallburg) Castle, and a bloody fray ensued. The Gunns say that a huge Keith was in advance of the attack. Upon his shoulder was perched the devil in the form of a Raven, who plucked the eyes of the Gunns from their heads.

If true, this must have been disconcerting to the Gunns to see one of their most sacred icons being embraced by their enemies and in collusion against them. Whether they were aware of the Celtic pantheon of gods or out of fear, hatred and perhaps respect (?) for the Keiths, perhaps the legend was born to explain viscerally, the prowess of the Keiths and the Gunn's frustration over the conflicts? That aside, in the spirit of finally settling their differences (so thought the Gunns) both families in the persons of George Keith and George Gunn agreed to meet in July of 1478 (some say earlier) at St. Tear's (Tayre) Chapel, near Ackergill Tower, the seat of Keith of Ackergill in what was intended to be a parlay and/or a battle of champions. Their motivation was that manpower losses in both families had been so great that farms were going untended and there were not enough men to harvest what crops remained.

Each side was to bring 12 horses, but when the Keiths arrived, they rode two warriors to each horse and in this unequal battle, a slaughter ensued.The Gunn Chief, George Gunn, The Crowner, and 2 of his sons were killed and Gunn's great badge of office (his brooch) was stolen and has not been recovered to this day.

One of The Crowner's remaining sons, Henry, followed the Keiths to Dirlot Castle (a Sutherland stronghold) and killed George Keith, "A Gunn's compliment to a Keith" with an arrow to the neck.

This act of revenge did little to placate the Gunns who had seen their holdings diminish and their removal from their ancestral lands. The treachery of the Keiths was not soon forgotten by the Gunns.Many years later William MacKames, son of James Gunn and grandson of the Crowner, intercepted George Keith of Ackergill (the dead Keith chief's son), Keith's son and ten retainers, in Sutherland at Drummoy while on their way from Inverness to Caithness.In revenge for the massacre at St Tear's, MacKames slaughtered the whole party. The carnage and the old animosities continued.

With the dispersal of the Gunns, the intrigue subsided somewhat. But, while the old resentments continued, ultimately the English and the very survival of Scotland seemed to extinguish the flames of hatred between the two families though politically the Gunns, for example, fought on the government side in 1745 whilst the Keiths, though long attainted since the '15, remained staunch Jacobites.

Lest we get too enamored of the great conflicts between the two families, we need remind ourselves of the old truism that, "When the Scots were not fighting their enemies, they were fighting each other". That appears to also include their ain folks!

It surely seems Keiths have often not gotten along too well with each other (let alone the Gunns and other clans). As reported by Henriette Hodge in the 1st Quarter Keith & Kin in 1996 as, "In 1592-93, a complaint was filed by George, 5th Earl Marischalthe Privy Council, that his brother Robert had taken his house of Ackergill with the intention of molesting the neighborhood, with the result that Keith (Robert) was pronounced a rebel.This, of course, would have been during the time that George was ousting Robert, by force, from the Abby of the Deer."Henriette further noted that "In 1598 the Earl again laid a complaint before the Lords that John Keith in Subster and his sons, with other persons, 'came by night and ladderit the walls of his place at Ackergill, entered and spoiled the castle, wounded his servants, and now keeps the place." So much for Family harmony. The subsequent development of the conscience of a "modern" society (and a lot of history in between) and the friendships strongly developed within and between the two clans, especially in the United States, helped build bridges and till fertile ground for peace between the two families, within and without!

Reconciliation - Finally!

In 1978 The Rt. Hon. Sir James Ian Keith, 12th Earl of Kintore, Chief of Clan Keith and Iain Alexander Gunn of Banniskirk, the Commander of Clan Gunn, signed a Treaty of Friendship between the two clans at the site of St. Tears Chapel, bringing a formal end to the 500 year old feud. In attendance were men and women of good faith of both families who cemented the bonds of friendship between the families.

Ever since then there has been a spirit of great friendship and, indeed, a continuing close bond between our two Families.The Keiths and the Gunns live on in a spirit of harmony that sees friendship and widespread cooperation throughout the world.It surely would appear that the evolution of the American-Scots movement provided great impetus to this reconciliation though preliminary meetings between Kintore and Commander Gunn were even reputed to have been promulgated by The Crown, not unlike James III re. St. Tears.

Today, many Keiths proudly proclaim friendships with the Gunns, to especially include the late Donald Williamson of Clan Gunn who befriended George Newberry and this writer many years ago. Can we forget Bob and Jeanette Swanson of Clan Gunn who befriended many Keiths and were instrumental in the perpetuation of the Scots movement in the US?Yes, it was Bob in his infamous role as the Norse King Hagar of the Kingdome of Raknar that allowed us to laugh at ourselves, further cement our bonds of friendship and perpetuate our Scottish heritage.

If you have not yet heard the Ballad of the Keiths and the Gunns, authored by Sandy Marshall and sung by his beautiful bride Susan Palmer Marshall, then you have missed an important piece of Keith/Gunn history.

George Newberry, Sandy Marshall and Ned Buxton have all been honored as lifetime members of the Clan Gunn while Bob Swanson and other eminent members of Clan Gunn have likewise received their Keith pedigrees.

Every day finds a new opportunity for the Keiths and the Gunns to celebrate their close friendship and cordial relations.Why we even have members who have legitimate genealogy to the Gunns, witness Michael Wilson of Tennessee - a Keith and a Gunn! Among many other such connections we can report include Historian Robert M. Gunn, a Keith on his Mother's side!

So, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Keith Clan, recognizing the cessation of hostilities and celebrating the great and continuing friendship between our two clans, please be upstanding and raise your glasses high, "Schlange Mohr, Aye to the Keiths and the Gunns, one day longer!"

Any piece on the Feud between the Keiths and the Gunns needs to be prefaced with sincere apologies to Larry Keith and Robert Gunn, both more eminently qualified to offer a perspective on any aspect of the relationship between our two great clans and JT Calder the great Caithness chronicler whose 1887 compilation is a basis for this simplistic (and very general) piece.In deference to their great scholarship & research on this subject, I have included passages from their respective offerings about our clans as well as those from other un-attributed internet sources.We thank them, and profusely so, for keeping our attention focused on Family and Scotland, one day longer. I can also assure Keith & Kin readers that my own personal biases are contained in this missal to include my preference on the theory on the origins of our clan and my statement on the spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that now exist between our two families as witnessed by my own personal experiences. My sincere and heartfelt thanks to George Newberry for his continued support and encouragement....

This writer/author would like to acknowledge and thank Historian Robert M. Gunn for his assistance, scholarship, and review of this article. We highly recommend your visit to his website at for further information on the Gunn Clan and Historian Gunn's works. Please do not hesitate to find your way to for further, more comprehensive information on The Keiths. * Aye!*



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