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The Scottish Nation

GUNN, the name of a Celtic clan, from the Gaelic word Guinneach, signifying sharp, fierce, or keen. The clan, the badge of which was the juniper bush, a martial and hardy, though not a numerous race, originally belonged to Caithness, but in the sixteenth century they settled in Sutherland. They are said to have been descended from Gun, or Gunn, or Guin, second son of Olaus, or Olav, the Black, one of the Norwegian kings of Man and the Isles, who died 18th June 1237. One tradition gives them a settlement in Caithness more than a century earlier, deducing their descent from Gun, the second of three sons of Olaf, described as a man of great bravery, who, in 1100, dwelt in the Orcadian isle of Graemsay. The above-mentioned Gun or Guin is said to have received from his grandfather on the mother’s side, Farquhar, earl of Ross, the possessions in Caithness which long formed the patrimony of his descendants; the earliest stronghold of the chief in that county being Halbury castle, or Easter Clythe, situated on a precipitous rock, overhanging the sea. From a subsequent chief who held the office of coroner, it was called Crowner Gun’s castle. It may be mentioned here that the name Gun is the same as the Welsh Gwynn, and the Manx Cawne, It was originally Gun, but is now spelled with two ens.

      The clan Gunn continued to extend their possessions in Caithness till about the middle of the fifteenth century, when in consequence of their deadly feuds with the Keiths (see KEITH, surname of), and other neighbouring clans, they found it necessary to remove into Sutherland, when they settled on the lands of Kildonan, under the protection of the earls of Sutherland, from whom they had obtained them. Mixed up as they were with the clan feuds of Caithness and Sutherland, and at war with the Mackays as well as the Keiths, the history of the clan up to this time is full of incidents which have more the character of romance than reality. [See Browne’s Highlands, vol. I.] sir Robert Gordon, in his ‘Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland,’ written up to 1630, and continued by another party to 1651, has several incidental notices regarding the clan Gunn and the battles in which they were engaged. In one place, alluding to “the inveterat deidlie feud betuein the clan Gun and the Slaightean-Aberigh,” – a branch of the Mackays, – he says: “The long, the many, the horrible encounters which happened between these two trybes, with the bloodshed and infinit spoils committed in every part of the diocy of Catteynes by them and their associats, are of so disordered and troublesome memorie,” that he declines to give details.

      Previous to their removal into Sutherland, George Gun, commonly called the Chruner, or Coroner, and by the Highlanders, Feat N’m Braisteach-more, from the great brooch which he wore as the badge of his office of coroner, was killed by the Keiths of Caithness, under the following circumstance: A long feud had existed between the Keiths and the clan Gun, to reconcile which, a meeting was appointed at the chapel of St. Tayr in Caithness, of twelve horsemen on each side. The “Crowner,” with some of his sons and principal kinsmen, to the number of twelve, arrived at the appointed time, and entering the chapel, prostrated themselves in prayer before the altar. On his side George Keith of Aikregell also came with his party, but had perfidiously brought with him two men on each horse, making his number twenty-four. On dismounting, the whole of the Keiths rushed into the chapel, and attacked the kneeling Guns unawares. The latter defended themselves with great intrepidity, but the chief and seven of his party, some accounts say the whole of them, were slain. According to Sir Robert Gordon (History of the Earldom of Sutherland, page 92), the Chruner was “a great commander in Catteynes in his tyme, and wes one of the greatest men in that countrey; because, when he flourished, there wes no earle of Catteynes, that earldom being yit in the king’s hands, and wes thereafter given to William Sinkler, the second son of William earl of Orkney, by his second wife.” He had therefore been appointed to the high office of coroner, that is, justiciary, or representative of the king, in that district.

      Another version of the fray between the Guns and the Keiths states that five of the former, sons of the chief, retired from the fight to the banks of a stream, where they washed and dressed their wounds, and where Eanruig, or Henry, the youngest, prevailed on two of his brothers, the slightest wounded amongst them, to follow the victors, to recover if possible his father’s sword, mail, and brooch of office. The Keiths had gone to the castle of Dalraid, and approaching the narrow window, Henry observed them carousing with a party of Sutherlands, to whom they were relating the result of the battle. Singling out the chief, he bent his bow, and shot him through the heart, exclaiming in Gaelic, “The compliments of the Guns to Keith.”

      The Crowner’s eldest son, James, succeeded as chief, and he it was who, with his family and the greater portion of his clan, removed into Sutherland. The principal dwelling-house of the chiefs was, thereafter, Killernan, in the parish of Kildonan, until the house was accidentally destroyed by fire about 1690. From this chief, the patronymic of Mac-Sheumais, or MacKeamish, (that is, the son of James) which then became the Gaelic sept-name of the chief, is derived. From one of the sons of the Crowner, named William, are descended the Wilsons of Caithness (as from a subsequent chief of the same name, the Williamsons), and from another, Henry, the Hendersons. Another son, Robert, who was killed with his father, was the progenitor of the Gun Robsons; and another son, John, also slain by the Keiths, of the Gun MacEans, or MacIans, that is Johnsons, of Caithness. The Gallies are also of this clan, a party of whom settling in Ross-shire being designated as coming from Gall-‘aobh, the stranger’s side. A lady of the clan Gun, supposed to have been the daughter of the Crowner, married Hugh Macdonald of Sleat, third son of Alexander earl of Ross. By this lady “he had a son, Donald, (called Gallach, from being fostered by his mother’s relations in Caithness), who afterwards became the heir of the family, and from whom the present Lord Macdonald is descended.” (Gregory’s Western Highlands and Isles, page 60.)

      James Gun was succeeded as chief by his won William, called Uilleam-Mac-Sheumais-Mhic-chruner, and also Cattigh, who distinguished himself at the battle of Torran-Dubh against the Mackays, and shortly after he killed George Keith of Aikregell, ver likely the son of the former George Keith, with his son and twelve of their followers, at Drummoy, in Sutherland, as they were travelling from Inverugie to Caithness, in revenge of the slaughter of his grandfather, the Crowner. The fame of the first MacKeamish, as a brave and successful leader of his clan, has, we are told, been celebrated in some Gaelic verses and songs which still exist. In the year 1565, Alastair or Alexander Gun, who is said to have been a very able and strong man, endowed with many good qualities (Sir Robert Gordon’s Hist., p. 144), the son of John Robson, chief of the clan Gun, was put to death through the means of the earl f Moray, afterwards regent, from the following cause. On one occasion when the earls of Sutherland and Huntly happened to meet the earl of Moray in the High Street of Aberdeen, Alexander Gun, then in the service of the earl of Sutherland, and walking in front of his master, declined to give Moray the middle of the street, and forced him and his company to give way. To punish him for his contempt, the earl of Moray, on the earl of Sutherland’s absence in Flanders, by means of Monroe of Miltoun, entrapped Gun, and made him a prisoner at a place near Nairn, whence he was taken to Inverness, and after a mock trial, executed. His father at this time acted as the chief factor of the earl of Sutherland, in collecting the rents and duties of the bishop’s lands within Caithness which belonged to him.

      As the clan Gun were accounted the principal authors of the troubles and commotions which disturbed that district of the country where they resided, at a meeting held at Elgin between the rival earls of Sutherland and Caithness, in 1585, their extermination, and particularly of that portion of them who dwelt in Caithness and Strathnaver, was resolved upon. For this purpose, two companies were to be sent against them, which were to surround them in such a way as to prevent escape. Reinforced by a party of Strathnaver men, under the command of William Mackay, the Guns took up a strong position on a hill, and although much inferior in force, resolutely attacked the Sinclairs, the first that came against them. After pouring upon them a flight of arrows which did great execution, they rushed down the hill, and put them to flight, slaying 140 of their party, with their leader, Henry Sinclair, cousin of the earl of Caithness. Had not the darkness of the night favoured their flight they would all have been destroyed. The earl of Caithness immediately hanged John Robson, the chief of the clan Gun, whom he had kept captive for some time. A new confederacy was formed against the devoted clan, who, under George MacIan-MacRob, the brother of the deceased chief, were pursued by the Sutherland men to Lochbroom in Ross-shire, where, after a sharp skirmish, they were overthrown, and thirty-two of them killed. George, their leader, was severely wounded, and taken prisoner, after an unsuccessful attempt to escape by swimming across a loch near the field of battle. After a short imprisonment he was released, and ever after remained faithful to the earl of Sutherland.

      William Gunn, the eighth MacKeamish, an officer in the army, was killed in battle in India, without leaving issue, when the chiefship devolved on Hector, great-grandson of George, second son fo Alexander, the fifth MacKeamish, to whom he was served nearest male heir, on 31st May 1803, and George Gunn, Esq. of Rhives, county of Sutherland, his only son, became, on his death, chief of the clan Gunn, and the tenth MacKeamish.

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