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Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Gunn origin; a draft Chapter One

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...


1.      Origin of the Gunns


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]

1.1 Gunns were probably Picts


Ian Grimble[iii] writes -

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]

So 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.

Northern 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].

The Pictish influence though died out in the later 800s;

 Chronicle of the Kings of Alba as a king of Alba. Pictland and Dál Riata had gone and in their place Alba - a Gaelic word for Scotland - was created.[ix]

This means ‘Gunns’ spoke Pictish then Gaelic[x] and probably were also bilingual for a period.

Picts 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.

1.2 So how did these Picts become Gunns?


In 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 substantive, guin[xiii] 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]


The 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.

What 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.

So 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]

So 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.

I 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 related.

1.3 The Caithness comparison


The 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 Celtic-speaking neighbours[xviii] (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 origin.

Ptolemy 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 proto-Gunns?

*****

Overall 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 evidence.
[iv] Page 71, Ian Grimble, Clans and Chiefs.
[v] ‘The common people of the (Gunn) clan were undoubtedly Pictish’ http://www.swanstrom.org/gunn.html accessed 9 January 2013
[vi] Page 155, Neil M. Gunn, Selected Letters.
[vii] Page 4, Frank Adam (rev. Sir Thomas Innes Learney) The Clans, Septs & Regiments of the Scottish Highlands
[viii] Page 87,  John Haywood and Barry Cunliffe, The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World
[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 accessed 18 December 2012. One suspects Gunn lands in northern Scotland count as peripheral areas.
[xi] Page 155 W.F. H. Nicolaisen, Scottish Place Names
[xii] Paul 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’…
[xvii] Page 293 Frank Adam (rev. Sir Thomas Innes of Learney) The Clans Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands.
[xviii] Prof. Bill Nicolaisen in ed. J. R. Baldwin, Caithness – A Cultural Crossroads Edinburgh 1982 Scottish Society for Northern Studies.
[xix] See http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1Z48AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA1&dq=origin+of+name+caithness&hl=en&sa=X&ei=7RylUYGyBpTz0gXp2YGACw&ved=0CDoQ6AEwADgK#v=onepage&q=origin%20of%20name%20caithness&f=false accessed 30 April 2013. It is worth noting that at least one view of Clan Chattan descent is from the Catti; if one clan can descend from original inhabitants of an area so the Gunns could  also descend from the neighbouring tribal group in the next area.
[xx] ‘The small clans or tribes ... Gunn’, page 11, Col. David Stewart, Sketches of the Highlanders of Scotland, Volume 1. Clan Gunn is drawn high up in Kildonan on his Clan map.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Are Gunns a clan?

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...

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Ottar Snaekollson was never a Gunn; there is no Gunn Orkney Islands / Viking / Norse origin

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...

Saturday, 4 June 2016

More on why Gunns do not descend from the Orkney Islands and so have have no main Viking / Norse descent

Just some further reasons why the Gunns do not have any Orkney / Norse / Viking links, and note the real academic strength of the person making the points.. -

‘Chief' Snaekoll Gunn (from whom the Gunns are supposed to descend if you believe the fantasy history) ----

'Despite his part in the murder of the earl Snaekoll was not condemned to death at the trial in Bergen (Norway) but "remained long with earl Skuli and King Hacon (in Norway)" … and there is no evidence that he ever returned to Orkney or Caithness … Despite the claims of Clan Gunn to be descended from him…’[1]

Snaekollr Gunnison who went to Bergen (as said, Norway) in 1232 to claim Earl John's inheritance (but never seems to have come home again)'[2]

These quotes are by Barbara Crawford who ‘is Honorary Reader in History at the University of St. Andrews having spent over thirty years as a teacher in the Dept. of Mediaeval History… Dr. Crawford is a Member of the Norwegian Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She was a Commissioner of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland from 1991-2001, chaired The Treasure Trove Advisory Panel for Scotland from 1993-2001, and was President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland from 2008-2011. She was awarded an OBE in 2011 for services to history and archaeology, and has recently been awarded an Honorary Professorship at the University of the Highlands and Islands.’[3]

[1] Page 8, B.E. Crawford, The Earls of Orkney-Caithness and their Relations with Norway and Scotland:1158 – 1470, Ph.D. thesis submitted at the University of St. Andrews, 1971. http://hdl.handle.net/10023/2723
[2] Page 8, B. E. Crawford 'Medieval Strathnaver' in ed. John R. Baldwin, The Province of Strathnaver, The Scottish Society For Northern Studies, 2000.
[3] http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/hist…/staff/barbaracrawford.html accessed 4 December 2014.

It really is fiction to believe the Gunns have an Orkney / Viking origin..

Monday, 9 May 2016

'Clan Gunn castles'; more accurately Gunn fortalices

'Clan Gunn castles' are not castles - they are, at best, fortalices (fortified houses) due to their size.
Glensanda 'Castle' (Morvern) is classified as a Tower House by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland; NIgel Tranter page 178 in Volume 5 of his The Fortified House in Scotland which covers Caithness and Sutherland, views Glen Sanda as a fortalice. And the supposed 'Clan Gunn castles' are roughly the size (or smaller) of Glen Sanda... (The RCAHMS give measurements for the 'Clan Gunn castles'; Bulnacraig 'castle' is 37 feet by 23 feet and Halberry 'castle' 44 feet by 28 feet'.)
The word 'castle' has been lazily applied; its use supports a vainglorious view of Gunn history.

Nigel Tranter, Volume 5, The Fortified House in Scotland