The Norse word gunnr means war. Living between Caithness and Sutherland, the Gunns were descended from the Norsemen, some think possibly from Olaf the Black himself, and their name foretold their destiny.
The ferocious Gunns were continually at enmity with neighbouring clans, especially the Keiths. Gunn lands were constantly being encroached upon from the North, South and West.
Helen, only daughter of Lachlan Gunn of Braemor, was celebrated for her great beauty and was due to marry her cousin Alexander. Dugald Keith, a retainer of Keith of Ackergill, had tried to woo her, been rejected, and responded jealously. On her wedding day, he paid a surprise visit to her father’s house, surrounding it with armed members of his own family, who then began slaying the unsuspecting Gunns.
Keith took Helen and imprisoned her in Ackergill. Eventually, to escape his sexual abuse, she went to the top of the tower and jumped to her death. The feud that ensued was very long and bloody, with continuing attacks upon each clan. One costly but indecisive battle was at Harpsdale, near Thurso, in 1426.
Eventually, in 1464, the war-weary chiefs of the two clans agreed to meet at the Chapel of St Tears to lay their grievances to rest. The chief of the Gunns was George. He held the important office of crowner, and wore the magnificent brooch of the post. He arrived at the chapel on horseback with eleven other riders, as agreed.
The Keiths arrived on twelve horses also, but with two men to a horse, and slaughtered the Gunns. The brooch of the crowner was taken from dead Gunn’s body. A century later, William MacKames, George’s grandson, avenged his kinsmen with the life of George Keith of Akergill, his son and twelve others in a bloodbath at Drummoy in Sutherland.
In other times the clan found themselves in conflict with the MacKays and the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland. In 1585, although outnumbered, they successfully held off a joint attack by the Earls, taking 140 enemy lives before darkness stemmed the slaughter.
The clan took a heavy defeat at Lochbroom from Sutherland but it was the Highland clearances by the Gordons which finally moved the Gunns off their long-held lands.
Motto: Aut Pax Aut Bellum (Either peace or war)