Gunn origin; a draft Chapter One
I am writing a new 'History of the Gunns' and thought people might like to see an early, draft version of the first chapter. 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;
Finally in 878 AD the Pictish king, Áed, was murdered and replaced by a Gael - Giric. Giric accelerated the Gaelic takeover of Pictish politics during his reign making the Gaelic language and traditions commonplace. Even after Giric was finally deposed in 889 AD future Pictish kings such as Donald and Constantine embraced Gaelic culture. By 900 AD Pictland ceased to exist. The reign of Donald is listed in the 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
[ix] http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/kingdom_of_the_picts/ accessed 17 December 2012
[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’…
[xv] http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/content/help/index.aspx?r=551&560 accessed 8 February 2015.
[xvi] http://www.scotsites.co.uk/ebooks/sagatimechapter3.htm accessed 18 December 2012
[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.