George Gunn, Coroner of Caithness

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George Gunn, Coroner of Caithness

Also Known As: "Am Braisdeach Mor (Great Brooch Wearer)", "the Crowner", "Am Braisdeach Mor", "Big Broochy"
Birthdate:
Birthplace: Halberry Castle, Caithness, Scotland (United Kingdom)
Death: 1464 (79-89)
Saint Tair, Dirlot, Strathmore, Perthshire, Scotland (battle wounds)
Immediate Family:

Husband of N.N. Gunn
Father of Mary Gunn; James "Seamus" Gunn; Robert Gunn; John "Iain" Gunn; Alastair Gunn and 5 others
Brother of Lachlan Gunn of Braemore

Occupation: Clan Chief, and Coroner
Managed by: Rae Efroymson
Last Updated:

About George Gunn, Coroner of Caithness

George Gunn is said to have been 8th Chief of Clan Gunn, and Coroner of Caithness. He is the earliest proven ancestor of the family. Traditionally, he was said to be son of James Gunn of Ulbster.

By the 15th century, the chief of the Clan Gunn was George Gunn of Ulbster. He was "a great commander in Caithness, and one of the greatest in the countrie, because when he flourished there was no Errol." He was known as "Crowner Gunn" from his office of Hereditary Coroner (Crown Lord, Crowner, Chruner) of Caithness, which was then a high office of justice. His badge of office was a large brooch or plate of silver, from which he was known as Am Braisdeach Mor (also Fear a Bhraiste Mor, Fear a Bhuaisteach Mor, Fear N'm Braisteach-more), which means "Wearer of the Great Brooch." He lived in magnificent style in his castle at Clyth, with his main lands at Ulbster and Clyth on the rocky coast of Caithness. 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 early seat of the clan was Castle Gunn, but by the time of the George Gunn, the chiefs had moved their seat a short distance to Easter Clyth, where their stronghold was called Halbury (Halberry, Hallburg) or Clyth, situated on a precipitous rock, overhanging the sea. In its time, this stronghold was considered impregnable. It was here that George Gunn of Ulbster, Chief of the Clan and Crowner of Caithness resided, and from him, it was called Crowner Gunn's Castle.

The Battle of Alt-no-Gaun (1478)

Little is known of the history of the Clan during the 13th and 14th centuries. Caithness had been theirs, but during the 14th and 15th centuries the Gunns were gradually dispossessed of their lands in the fertile parts of Caithness by the Sutherlands, Sinclairs, Keiths, and others, the Gunns dug in to retain what few lands they held by sheer grit and tenacity.

Perhaps the most outstanding event in the history of the clan was the battle of Alt-no-gaun in 1478 (or 1464), in which the Coroner was slain by the treachery of the Keiths. The events that led to the battle began when the Keiths obtained a settlement beside the Gunns by marriage with the heir of the Cheynes of Ackergill. The Keiths were called Clann Cai', and were a branch of Clan Chattan; they were afterwards Earls Marischal of Scotland, The Gunns, joint heirs to the Cheynes, were unhappy to have such a powerful family obtain a footing on their borders. Rival land claims led to quarrels and skirmishes between the families. In 1426 at Harpsdale, south of Thurso, a particularly bloody but indecisive battle took place between the Gunns and Keiths, after which the Gunns withdrew to Sutherland.

The real problem began when Keith of Ackergill kidnapped Helen, daughter of the Crowner. She was imprisoned in the tower at Ackergill, but threw herself from the tower to her death rather than marry Keith.

In an effort to reach reconciliation after Helen's death, in 1478 (others say 1464) the clans agreed to meet at the chapel of Saint Tair (Saint Tayres, Saint Tam, Saint Tears), near Ackergill Tower and Wick, in a remote part of Strathmore. Each chief was to appear with his relations, a party of not more than 12 horses. However, when the Crowner and his 11 companions reached the spot, they found themselves greatly outnumbered - the Keiths had mounted two men on each horse. This treachery enraged the Gunns, who hurled themselves into battle. Both sides fought until they were so reduced they could fight no more. The Keiths killed the Crowner and seven of his clan, and took the Crowner's great brooch, but the Keiths themselves were barely able to carry their dead and wounded from the field.

Of the Gunns, the five who survived were all sons of the Chief, and all wounded. As night fell, they sat down by the bank of a stream, where Torquil, the one most slightly wounded, washed and dressed the injuries of the other four. As they talked over the disaster of the day the youngest of them, Eanruig Beag (Little Henry), burning to revenge defeat and the treachery of the Keiths, and to recover his father's brooch, sword, and armor, induced two of his brothers - the only two still able to fight - to go with him in pursuit of the victorious party. They followed the victors to the castle of Dairaid. By this time, it was night, and through the narrow window, Eanruig Gunn and his brothers looked in and saw the Keiths drinking ale and relating to their hosts, the Sutherlands, the incidents of the day's encounter. Eanruig watched his chance, and as the Chief of the Keiths raised the tankard to his lips Eanruig bent his bow and sent an arrow through his heart, at the same time calling out Beannachd na Guinnaich do 'n Chai! ("The compliments of the Gunns to Keith!") The company inside rushed for the door. As they came out, the Gunns, who were waiting for them, killed several. The match was unequal, however, and the exhausted Gunns made their escape under cover of the darkness. Making for the spot where they had left their brother, all five retreated in safety to their own country.

With their defeat at the Battle of Saint Tair, the Gunn's loss was considerable: they no longer had the strong authority they had enjoyed under the Crowner; Halberry Castle, the early seat of the clan, was eventually abandoned; and the clan found themselves serving under the self-same nobles who managed to obtain their homelands. It was a defeat of classic proportions.

Following the death of the Crowner and his sons, the clan moved into Sutherland and split into several five distinct septs. The various Gunn chieftains leased their lands from the Sutherland and MacKay chiefs, and in turn sublet these to their immediate families, who subdivided them among their families. Besides the families shown here, other Gunn families established themselves at Crosskirk near Forss on the north coast of Caithness, and in Reay, Strathy, Stratullie, Latheron, and Strath Halladale in the MacKay country. The Gallies are also Gunns, a party of whom settled in Ross-shire. They take their name from Gall'aobh, "those from the stranger's side."

Helen's death touched off one of the longest feuds in the Highlands, lasting over 500 years. Finally, in 1978, at the urging of Clans Gunn and Clan Keith of North America, the Earl of Kintore, Chief of Clan Keith, and Iain Gunn of Banniskirk, the Commander of Clan Gunn, signed a Treaty of Friendship between the two clans at the site of the chapel.

---

"The Gunns were a clan renowned for their bravery and the beauty of their womenfolk and claim descent from the Norsemen. How they rose to power in Caithness is not recorded, but, by the 11th centurytheir chief was "one of the greatest men of that country." Then like so many other clans, they were overtaken by the feudal system. Powerful barons acquired their land and they found themselves caught up in feudal rivalaries and struggling for their very existence.

"The Gunns were always a force to be reckoned with by the ambitious nobles although there is little about them in early State papers. The history of the Province of Cat puts it this way -- "The landless Gunns, knit together in the bonds of brotherhood and cherishing ill-concealed hostility towads those who had depossessed them of an ancient heritage, as their tradition maintains, were naturally a serious menace to charter holders. . ."

"Their history goes back to the 15th century when their chief was George Gunn, 'Am Braisdeach Mor' -- the Great Brooch wearer -- the Crowner or coroner of Caithness, similar in some respects to Lord Lieutenant. George had seven sons. James, his successor, was the progenitor of the MacHamish Gunns, associated mainly in Sutherland. Robert, the second son, was the ancestor of the militant Robson Guns in Berroedae and Reay District. John, the third son, fathered the Gunns of Strathmore, Henry the Caithness Hendersons, and William, the Williamsons and Wilsons who took root in the centre of the county.

"Gunns in search of the past might well pause in Strathfleet before following the ancestral trail northward. About 1517, when the Mackays of Strathnaver, with the Mathesons and Polsons, attacked the Morays at Torran Dhu, near Rogart, the Gunns arrived unexpectedly to help the defenders of the lower parts of the strath. William Gunn, grandson of the famous Crowner played a decisive part in that fight, and, until night fell, pursued the Mackays far into the hills. William, soon afterwards, paid off an old score by killing George Keith of Ackergill, his son, and 12 followers near Golspie as they were travelling from Inverugie in Aberdeenshire to their Caithness estate. It is said that that the Gunns ambushed the party and shot their arrows at close range with a polite "The compliments of the Gunns to theKeiths." . . .

"Strahullie, or Strath Kildonan, the valley of the Helmsdale river, provided a "soft landing" for the Gunns when decimented by their feud with the Keiths late in the 15th century. The young chief and many of his people left Caithness and found refuge in the Kildonan parish. Killearnan, across the winding river from the road which leads up to Kildonan, was the chief's home until it was destroyed by fire in 1600 when gunpowder exploded as he and some friends were preparing for a hunting expedition. This chief was Donald Crotach -- the Hunchback. The strength of his following can be judged by the fact that when Gordon of Kilgour obtained possession of Killearnan from the Earl of Sutherland and Donald was threatened with eviction 250 gathered to defend the house.

"Braemore, the home of the descendants of the Crowner's second son, (Robert) lies high up the Berriedale Water, and there, beneath the peaks of Morven and the Maiden Pap, a breed of men as deadly in war as their Norse forebears, was natured. Helen Gunn, "the beauty of Braemore," daughter ofLachlan Gunn, is said to have been the cause of the feud between the Gunns and the Keiths. Dugald Keith of Ackergill made advances to Helen, but she spurned him. On the day she was to marry her cousin Alexander Gunn, Keiths attacked Braemore, killed most of the Gunns and carried the bride off to Ackergill.Helen jumped to her death from the battlements of the tower.

"Robert Gunn of Braemore killed Sutherland of Langwell in 1520 with bow and arrow "for the love he had to his wife whom he married." (George Banks, "The Gunns" in The Highlander).


The Gunns were a clan renowned for their bravery, and for the beauty of their womenfolk. They claim descent from the Norsemen, and the high stewards of Caithness. How they rose to power in Caithness is not recorded, but, by the 11th century their chief was "one of the greatest men of that country." Then like so many other clans, they were overtaken by the feudal system. Powerful barons acquired their land, and they found themselves caught up in feudal rivalries and struggling for their very existence. "The Gunns were always a force to be reckoned with by the ambitious nobles, although, there is little about them in early State papers. The history of the Province of Cat puts it this way "The landless Gunns, knit together in the bonds of brotherhood and cherishing ill-concealed hostility towards those who had dispossessed them of an ancient heritage, as their tradition maintains, were naturally a serious menace to charter holders." "Their history goes back to the l5 th century when their chief was George Gunn, 'Am Braisdeach Mor' --the Great Brooch wearer --the Crowner or coroner of Caithness, similar in some respects to Lord Lieutenant. George had seven sons. James, his successor, was the progenitor of the MacHamish Gunns, associated mainly in Sutherland. Robert, the second son, was the ancestor of the militant Robson Guns in Berroeda; and Reay District. John, the third son, fathered the Gunn of Strathmore, Henry the Cathness Hendersons, and William, the Williamsons and Wilsons who took root in the centre of the county. Gunns in search of the past might well pause in Strath fleet before following the ancestral trail northward. About 1517, when the Mackays of Strathnaver, with the Mathesons and Polsons, attacked the Morays at Torran Dhu, near Rogart, the Gunns arrived unexpectedly to help the defenders of the lower parts of the strath. William Gunn, grandson of the famous Crowner played a decisive part in that fight, and, until night fell, pursued the Mackays far into the hills. William, soon afterwards, paid off an old score by killing George Keith of Ackergill, his son, and 12 followers near Golspie as they were travelling from Inverugie in Aberdeenshire to their Caithness estate. It is said that that the Gunns ambushed the party and shot their arrows at close range with a polite "The compliments of the Gunns to the Keiths." Strahullie, or Strath Kildonan, the valley of the Helmsdale river, provided a "soft landing" for the Gunns when decimented by their feud with the Keiths late in the 15th century. The young chief and many of hispeople left Caithness and found refuge in the Kildonan parish. Killearnan, across the winding river from the road which leads up to Kildonan, was the chief's home until it was destroyed by fire in 1600 when gunpowder exploded as he and some friends were preparing for a hunting expedition. This chief was Donald Crotach, the Hunchback. The strength of his following can be judged by the fact that when Gordon of Kilgour obtained possession of Killearnan from the Earl of Sutherland and Donald was threatened with eviction 250 gathered to defend the house. Braemore, the home of the descendants of the Crowner's second son, (Robert) lies high up the Berriedale Water, and there, beneath the peaks of Morven and the Maiden Pap, a breed of men as deadly in war as their Norse forebears, was natured. Helen Gunn, "the beauty of Braemore," daughter of Lachlan Gunn, is said to have been the cause of the feud between the Gunns and the Keiths. Dugald Keith of Ackergill made advances to Helen, but she spurned him. On the day she was to marry her cousin Alexander Gunn, Keiths attacked Braemore, killed most of the Gunns and carried the bride off to Ackergill. Helen jumped to her death from the battlements of the tower. Robert Gunn of Braemore killed Sutherland of Langwell in 1520 with bow and arrow "for the love he had to his wife whom he married."
"The Battle of Champions", 1464/1478; It is recorded that the feud began when Dugald, Chieftain of the Keiths, abducted Helen of Braemore, daughter of Lachlan Gunn, when he discovered the she was betrothed to Alexander Gunn. The attack occurred on the night before the wedding, and Alexander was one of those slain by the Keiths. Helen subsequently committed suicide by throwing herself off Ackergill Castle's tower. The following conflicts between the two clans were for the most part indecisive, and losses were numerous on both sides. It is thought that the two chieftains of the clans, George Keith and George Gunn, called the Crowner, agreed to a 'battle of champions', between twelve of the best Gunns and twelve of the best Keiths. George Gunn holds the distinction of being the first of the Gunn chieftains to be definitively recorded, as he was somewhat renowned in Scotland at the time, hence his title of 'the Crowner' as well as the traditional Gunn title of 'MacSheumais Chataich'. He was more widely known, however, as 'Fear Am Braisdeach Mor', the 'great brooch-wearer', so named for the insigia he wore as his badge of office. The Battle of 'Allt Nan Gamnha' or the 'Battle of St. Tears' for the small chapel it took place in and around, began when the Keiths caught the Gunns unawares, with not twelve men but twenty-four. George Gunn was slain, as were a number, most probably four, of his sons. The Keiths were eventually forced to retreat, barely able to carry their own dead, but not before they had stolen the Crowner's brooch, armour and claymore . His death was later avenged, in one account by one of his sons, most probably Henry, the youngest, who together with a small number of others followed the Keiths back to Dirlot Castle, where they lay an ambush. Henry killed George Keith with through an open window with an arrow. He is reported to have shouted 'Beannachd na Guinnich do 'n Chai', or 'A Gunn's compliments to a Keith', although translations vary. Henry supposedly recovered his father's possessions and escaped back to Gunn territory. He fell out with James, the eldest brother, who claimed that the items were his by right. Henry eventually submitted to James, but became estranged from his own clan, stating that his descendants would not carry the name of Gunn. Whilst, along with much of the Gunns' early history, there is little to back up this version of events, and it could very well be apocryphal, the Hendersons of Caithness, to this day, have limited contact with the Gunns. There were also other Hendersons in Scotland, and one family in particular, the Hendersons of Glencoe, have no connection with the Henderson branch of Clan Gunn.


http://www.archive.org/stream/caithnessfamilyh00hend/caithnessfamilyh00hend_djvu.txt

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George Gunn, Coroner of Caithness's Timeline

1380
1380
Caithness, Scotland
1414
1414
1420
1420
Cathness, Scotland
1422
1422
Scotland, United Kingdom
1424
1424
Scotland, United Kingdom
1426
1426
1428
1428
1430
1430
1432
1432
Scotland
1434
1434