'Clan Gunn' history or, more accurately, Gunn history
This blog is about real 'Clan Gunn' history and 'Clan Gunn genealogy', and challenging 'Clan Gunn' myths; one of these myths being the clan status of the Gunns. Please visit
or type clangunn.weebly.com
For a fascinating academic article on the Picts see www.clanntuirc.co.uk/JSNS/V9/Broderick%205.pdf which is George Broderick's article 'Pixti /Pexti, Picti? The name 'Picti' revisited' being from 'The Journal of Scottish Name Studies 9', 2015, 9-42.
Its key points are
1) Of the two most likely origins for the name Picts neither is based on what the Picts called themselves. That's just not known.
2) The most likely origin for the name Picts is that it came when assorted tribes joined together to 'deal' with the Romans and it's what they were then called by the Romans (and others).
1) The origin of the name Gunn is that Gunn was applied to a regional group / tribe from North East mainland Scotland by outsiders. See clangunn.weebly.com/real-origin-of-the-clan-gunn.html ; if it's good enough not to know what the Picts called themselves it's good enough for the Gunns at the same period.
2) It seems quite plausible that the group / tribe which became the Gunns could have been one of those which amalgamated and became Picts...
On the silliness which is the tartan see this article which originally appeared in 'The Times' but which was then copied in 'The Weekend Australian' in August 2016.
For a flavour of it consider 'The idea of ancient ownership of tartan is a myth, for the entire story of tartan is a glorious invention, cooked up by a couple of enterprising gay Victorian fashionistas from Egham in Surrey, popularised by a German prince and probably first worn by the Chinese.'
And 'Early travellers in the Scottish Highlands reported that while the locals wore clothing of different, and often intricately woven patterns, these did not necessarily denote allegiance to anyone or membership of any particular body, but depended on location, the availability of different dyes and above all personal taste. Some wore several different tartans at once.'
As is often said named tartan - such as the supposed Gunn tartan - is nothing more than tourist tat of the 19th century...
I am writing a new 'History of the Gunns' as I find the myths / legends accepted as 'Clan' Gunn history by 'Clan' Gunn societies and elsewhere to be so wrong. In consequence I thought people might like to see an early, draft copy of Chapter One. Obviously it's copyright and still requires more work...
Most writers on the
annals of the Scottish Highlanders do not reckon the CLAN GUNN as among the
septs entitled to a full or separate notice at all. It strikes us, however,
that they are among the very purest remnants of the Gael...[i]
Gunn … from the Gaelic
Guinneach signifying sharp, fierce or keen...[ii]
A typically mysterious tribe of the far
north is the one called Gunn. The Gunns inhabited the mountainous area which
contains Morven and the Scarabens. To the south the hills descend to a level
plain along the Moray Firth, which provided the Norsemen with their accessible
Sutherland. But north of the Helmsdale river the east coast consists of huge
cliffs, as intimidating as the hill country behind them. The entire area is
rich in pre-historic remains, proto-Pictish defensive structures and later
Pictish sculpture .... it was exactly the sort of refuge that the old
inhabitants were likely to have chosen when invaders arrived ... (the name)
Gunn might be so old that it belongs to a pre-Celtic language like the name Strathnaver near by, which has
been favoured with an unlikely Gaelic meaning. ... What seems most likely is
that the Gunns were a Pictish tribe[iv]
for Grimble the original Gunn inhabitants of parts of Strathnaver / Sutherland
/ Caithness were probably Picts[v]. I
note, as well, that the renowned writer Neil M. Gunn viewed himself as a
‘remnant of an ancient race among mere upstart Gaels ... and parvenu Norsemen.’[vi]
Both these points add to the idea that Gunn origin could be from the earliest
settlers of northern mainland Scotland – the Picts. Note neither writer uses
‘Clan’; they use ‘tribe’ and ‘ancient race’. This issue of whether Gunns are a
clan is explored in Chapter Three.
mainland Scotland was certainly Pictish; the Catti[vii]
(the people of Caithness) were Picts so it’s quite reasonable for the next door
people – Gunns or proto-Gunns if you prefer - to be so. There is also archaeological
evidence to show that Picts inhabited Gunn territory[viii].
Pictish influence though died out in the later 800s;
of the Kings of Albaas
a king of Alba. Pictland and Dál Riata had gone and in their place Alba - a
Gaelic word for Scotland - was created.[ix]
means ‘Gunns’ spoke Pictish then Gaelic[x]
and probably were also bilingual for a period.
also ‘generally did not favour the coastal zone and also avoided the floors of
river valleys[xi]’ which suggests that
traditional Gunn inland areas matches the idea that they were Pictish; there is
no logical reason for the Gunns to be where they were than being the original
Pictish settlers. This idea that the Gunns were an original Pictish non-kindred
tribe – but unimportant – also offers a solution as to why the Gunns do not
appear in historical records until late, and why there are no historic records
of ancestral lands.
Albert Einstein’s view ‘A theory is the more impressive the greater is the
simplicity of its premises...’[xii]
and the simplest premised theory for the origin of the name Gunn was offered by
Thomas Smibert in 1850;
‘The (Gunn) name seems to be Gaelic or
Celtic ... The word in the Erse tongue has certain meanings, rendering it not
inappropriate as a name for a wild tribe of mountaineers in the old days. As a
signifies “fierceness,” and also “pain,” “a wound,” “a sting,” “a dart;” while,
as a verb, it means “to wound, pierce or sting;” and, as an adjective, framed from the same
root it has the sense of “sharp, keen, bitterly malicious.” So say Drs Norman
Macleod and Daniel Dewar in their Gaelic dictionary. It therefore seems likely
that guin was a generic term applied to some of the rudest and most northerly
of the Scottish Highlanders in very early times ... In short, we repeat our
belief that the name of Gunn had a generic origin, indicating a “fierce” tribe;
and that they had been so christened by those around them ... Such native
stories as that of ‘Gunn the Dane’’ cannot stand, in our eyes, against the more
common-sense view of the subject ... [xiv]’
idea that the name Gunn was applied to the original inhabitants of the Gunn
area in the Scottish Highlands seems reasonable not least due to there being no
viable alternative. As well, ‘Many of the first
permanent (Scottish) surnames are territorial in origin[xv]’
which matches Smibert’s idea in that it applied to a group of people in an
area, and which allows for the Gunn surname to have been around from a very
early time; see Chapter Two for the many problems associated with the ‘Orkney / Norse / Viking’ Gunn origin
option including the problem of a patronymic based surname which it requires. Why were they called Gunn? Gunns were probably not
loved by those on the coast who had more settled needs than an inland tribe –
and perhaps because the Gunns were more lawless and raided the coastal
villages. A generic ‘nasty’ name for the Gunns by those in the more settled
coastal towns is quite logical.
adds to this idea of the surname being from Guin is on page ‘much later’ which shows
a 1652 document signed by Alexander Gun Mackeamish b 1625 and co-signed (as
it’s a bond with the Earl of Sutherland) by (presumably) his brother. Alexander
signs using ‘Gun’ as his name but his brother signs as Gῡne. This is the
earliest document of which I am aware showing the surname of what is now Gunn
signed by Gunns. The spelling of Gun as an early version of the Gunn surname is
known but Gῡne is of interest as it is very close to Smibert’s Guin in sound
and suggests – no more – a support for the Guin origin. It is interesting that
in 1652 both versions of the surname were used.
the population of Gunn territory at the time the Vikings were in Caithness /
Sutherland were Gaelicised Picts, and these ‘Gunns’ did not just disappear;
When the Norse Vikings first attacked Cat and
succeeded in conquering the Picts there, they conquered by no means the whole
province. They subdued and held only that part of Ness or modern Caithness,
which lies next its north and east coasts, and the rest of the seaboard of
Ness, Strathnavern and Sudrland, forcing their way up the lower parts of the
valleys ... but they never conquered, so as to occupy and hold them, the upper
parts of the river basins or the hills above them which remained in possession
of Picts and Gaels throughout the whole period of Norse occupation[xvi]
Norse control was mainly of bays and borders and inland Caithness / Strathnaver
/ Sutherland was not high on their list; a Pictish / Celtic tribe which lived
inland – the Gunns - which was already there, may well have been left alone due
to their ‘prickly’ qualities and the lack of need by the Norse for their lands.
note, also, that one version for the origin of Clan Sutherland has ‘that they
are descended from the Celtic population who retreated before the Norsemen into
the mountainous and inaccessible regions of their district’[xvii];
if it’s good enough for Clan Sutherland it would also be good enough for the
Gunns to live in the mountains and inaccessible regions. And also be not Norse
idea that the origin of the Gunns was that of an indigenous tribal group is
supported by Prof. Nicoliasen’s view that ‘The name Caithness is derived
primarily from a tribal rather than a place name and appears to have been given
to the tribal indigenous people in questions, ‘the Cats’ by their
(the ‘Gunns’?). If a name ‘Cats’ applied for the indigeneous people of
Caithness it is quite possible that a neighbouring non-kindred tribe – the ‘Gunns’ – could also have a generic name
in the second century identified the – later called – Caithness area as
populated by the Catti[xix] so
a pre-Norse and pre-Celtic name for the Cat inhabitants lasted a very long time
time and that certainly means it is possible to consider that a tribal[xx]
name for the ‘Gunns’ may have existed from a similar time given the ‘Gunns’
proximity to Caithness. Various small
tribal names are also given by Ptolemy and he gives the Caereni as living in
Strathnaver[xxi]; were Caerens
Gunn origin is best viewed as that of a non-kindred tribal group of the
original inhabitants of Strathnaver / Sutherland / Caithness; fairly certainly Gunns
were Picts and perhaps were pre-Pictish.
[i] Page 170, ed. Thomas Smibert The clans of the Highlands of Scotland; being an account of their
Annals, Separately & Collectively with delineations of Their Tartans, and
Family Arms. 1850 James Hogg, Glasgow
[ii] Pages 384-385, William Anderson, The Scottish Nation
Volume II, 1867
[iii] I thank Sir Charles Fraser for pointing out this
[x] Mark Rugg Gunn writes, page 10 ‘The Scots spoke
Gaelic, a tongue unintelligible to the Picts, and this language now spread
along the paths of missionary endeavour, slowly displacing the Pictish
dialects, so that by the time the Norsemen arrived in Scotland it had become
the universal language of the people.’ This is questionable. To imply that it
was all due to missionary endeavour is not supported by evidence. It is more
useful to point out that the Scots of Dal Riata (western Scotland / Northern
Ireland) absorbed the Pictish kingdom and Christianity was but a part of Dal
Riata influence; the language of power and everyday life was Gaelic, not just
the Church. The issue is when the Picts ‘lost’ their language and that’s just
not clear. Normally bilingualism occurs for some generations; ‘Forsyth (1995a)
speculates that a period of bilingualism may have outlasted the Pictish kingdom
in peripheral areas by several generations’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highland_games
18 December 2012. One suspects Gunn lands in northern Scotland count
as peripheral areas.
[xi] Page 155 W.F. H. Nicolaisen, Scottish Place Names
Arthur, Schilpp (editor). Autobiographical Notes. A Centennial Edition. Open
Court Publishing Company. 1979. p. 31 [As quoted by Don Howard, John Stachel.
Einstein: The Formative Years, 1879-1909 (Einstein Studies, vol. 8). Birkhäuser
Boston. 2000. p. 1
[xiii]‘Campbells – In Gaelic they are called Clan
Guin...’ Page V of the Appendix, Col.
David Stewart, Sketches of the
Highlanders of Scotland Volume 2. The idea is also picked up in Scottish Studies, Volumes 17-19, page
11. So Campbells could be seen as a tribal group whose name originally was that
which became Gunn. Sinclair, page 10, quotes the Rev. William Findlater
observation that the Campbells and Gunns look the same with ‘dark eyes and dark complexion’;
certainly not Scandinavian.
[xiv] Pages 170-171, ed. Thomas Smibert, The clans of the Highlands of Scotland; being an Account of their
Annals, Separately & Collectively with Delineations of Their Tartans and
Family Arms, Edinburgh , James Hogg, 1850. Again I note the word ‘tribe’…
I note David Sellar - an ex Lord Lyon - has written about clans that
'By way of definition, it has been suggested that, ‘Clann was used to describe a patrilineal kindred the members of which descended in known steps from a named ancestor’(From David Sellar’s, ‘Clans, origin of’ in Derrick S Thomson (ed.) Companion to Gaelic Scotland Oxford 1983) This definition underlines two points believed to be true of the clan in Scotland and in Ireland: namely that the members of the true clan were related to one another through the male line, and that the eponym or name father of the clan was a historical, and not a mythical, character. '
(Page 92 David Sellar, Chapter 4 The Family, in ed. E. J. Cowan and L. Henderson A History of of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland, 1000 to 1600, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2011.)
In other words clans require a central, historically real, male founder to be an historic / traditional clan. Given Gunns do not have such descent - note earlier entries showing that Gunn descent from a supposed Orkney Islands founder is ridiculous (Gunn is a 'regional name' for very early - and non kindred - inhabitants of Strathnaver / Sutherland / Caithness) then on historic / academic definitions Gunns are not a clan...
Some believe that there was a 'Chief Ottar Snaekollsson Gunn' (see Mark Rugg Gunn's book pages 31- 32) who was the supposed son of 'Chief Snaekoll Gunn'. This Ottar is by inference the proof that somehow Snaekoll made it back to Scotland and so the Gunn Orkney origin idea is true. The Gunn Orkney origin myth fails all the tests including this Ottar Snaekollson test.
It fails because we know about when Snaekoll was born (roughly 1200) as his mother's first husband (not the 'Gunn') is well known and he died in the Battle of Wick in 1198. The academic reference to an 'Ottar Snaekollson' meeting King Hakon in Bergen is certainly correct. But the meeting is in 1224. That's right, 1224, so any son of Snaekoll would be lucky to be four years old and would certainly not be sent to negotiate with a King! And Snaekoll's marriage / children would have been mentioned in the 'Orkneyinga Saga' as his life is very much detailed in that text and it is not so mentioned.
The Hebrideans who went to Bergen to negotiate with the King in 1224 did take an Ottar Snaekollson but he was an important Sudreyan Chief living on the west coast of Scotland and the right sort of man to negotiate with a King.
So there goes 'Ottar Snaekollson supposed Chief Gunn'; he has no role in any Gunn history. And it's another nail in the ridiculous Gunn Orkney origin idea...