The Complete History of Clan Gunn: Origins, Castles and Stories

Article by: Aly Wight


Time to read 7 min

Looking for an introduction to the history of Clan Gunn? Want to see some stunning photography of the landscapes they inhabited? Then we've got you covered!

This post will guide you through the basics and set you on the path to understanding Clan Gunn's rich heritage.

Do You Belong To The Scottish Clan Gunn?

If your surname is Gunn or you know of a Gunn in your family tree, then you're in! But did you know there are also many other Scottish family names that are historic septs (families that associated themselves with a larger clan)? Below is a list of the names that are associated with Clan Gunn.

Septs (associated names) of Gunn

Gunn Identity

With admissions out of the way here are a few important features of Keith identity you'll want to know...

What Is The Clan Gunn Motto?

The Gunn motto is  "Aut pax aut bellum" which means "Either peace or war"

What Is The Clan Gunn Crest?

The Clan Gunn crest features a bold design with an arm holding a sword, a symbol of the clan's readiness for battle and defence. Encircling this is the motto "Aut Pax Aut Bellum," which translates to "Either Peace or War." This embodies the clan's fierce reputation and the tensions they lived with day to day with their neighbours. 

Clan Gunn
Image from Wikipedia

What Is The Clan Gunn Tartan?

The Gunn tartan, is known for its distinctive green, blue  and black check pattern, highlighted by a thin red line.

Clan Gunn Tartan

What Is The Clan Gunn Plant Badge?

The Clan Gunn plant badge is the juniper. It is a hardy plant native to the Scottish Highlands, symbolising protection and endurance. This choice of plant badge is particularly meaningful given the clan's tensions and fight for survival in the challenging far north. 

Plant badges like the juniper are traditionally worn by clan members as a mark of their identity and allegiance.

Clan Gunn

What Are Clan Gunn's Scottish Origins?

Clan Gunn has Viking origins. Named after the chieftain, Gunni, who was reputedly dubbed 'the peaceable'.

Where Are Clan Gunn's Lands In Scotland?

From the 12th century, Clan Gunn established themselves in the far northeast of Scotland, in the region of Caithness. They inherited lands here from Harold, Earl of Orkney, whose sister Gunni had married.

Clan Gunn Through History

15th Century Clan Conflicts

Clan Gunn’s history in the 15th century was fraught with intense rivalries and feuds, particularly in the harsh and rugged landscapes of northeast Scotland. The clan engaged in numerous skirmishes, notably the Battle of Harpsdale in 1426, a fierce but inconclusive encounter with Clan Mackay. More notorious, however, was the feud with Clan Keith, marked by a dramatic and tragic episode. Dugald Keith, inflamed by his desire for Helen, the daughter of Gunn of Braemor, kidnapped her upon learning of her betrothal to another. Overwhelmed by despair, Helen took her own life, a tragedy that ignited a series of brutal retaliations from Clan Gunn, leading to substantial losses on both sides and a long-standing animosity with Clan Keith.

This bitter feud reached its peak in the infamous "Battle of Champions." Initially intended as a noble resolution, both clans agreed to settle their differences through a combat between chosen champions. Each side was to bring twelve horsemen to the battlefield. However, deceit marred the proceedings as the Keiths arrived with two men on each horse, overwhelming the Gunns. This treachery resulted in the death of the Gunn chief and four of his sons, deepening the feud and the cycle of vengeance that followed.

16th Century Turmoil and Feuds

Throughout the 16th century, Clan Gunn found themselves embroiled in various conflicts. In 1517, they backed Clan Sutherland against Clan Mackay in the Battle of Torran Dubh, a clash over territorial disputes and power struggles.

In 1562, tragedy struck when Alistair Gunn met his end. He was executed following a personal feud with James Stewart, the 1st Earl of Moray.

They achieved a notable victory at the Battle of Allt Camhna, fought in 1586. The conflict stemmed from a meeting held in Elgin the previous year, where tensions between Clan Gunn, Clan Mackay, and Clan Sinclair were discussed. George Gordon, Marquess of Huntly, sought to repair relations between various clans, but disagreements arose over the handling of the Gunns. Eventually, George Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, aligned with Clan Gordon in a plan to attack the Gunns. The battle unfolded with Sinclair's forces, led by Henry Sinclair, engaging the Gunns and Mackays. Despite being outnumbered, the Gunns and Mackays fought fiercely and managed to defeat the Sinclairs, killing Henry Sinclair in the process.

However, their fortunes took a turn for the worse with a defeat at the Battle of Leckmelm, in 1586. The battle pitted Clan Gunn against Clan Sutherland, Mackays of Aberach, and MacLeods of Assynt. Following Clan Gunn's victory at Allt Camhna, tensions escalated as Lord Caithness turned against them, prompting a coalition led by Sutherland to seek their extermination. The battle ended with Clan Gunn defeated.

17th Century Civil War and Growth

The 17th century was a period of consolidation and alliance for the Gunns, particularly strengthening ties with Clan Mackay. Notable figures such as Sir William Gunn achieved prominence, even serving as a knight in the Swedish army, despite his Catholic faith.

18th Century and Jacobite Uprisings

The 1745 Jacobite uprising saw Clan Gunn mainly aligning with the British Government. Alexander Gunn, the clan chief, led an Independent Highland Company against the Jacobites. This stance, however, did not deter individual members from supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie, showing the complicated loyalties within the clan during this tumultuous period.

The Highland Clearances and Clan Gunn's Exodus

The late 18th and 19th centuries were defined by the Highland Clearances, drastically altering the traditional clan system. Many Gunns were forced to leave their ancestral lands due to evictions, pushing them to seek new lives in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Despite the hardships of the Clearances, the Gunns maintained their strong sense of community and identity, fostering new Gunn communities abroad that continued to celebrate their heritage and cultural ties to Scotland.

What Clan Gunn Castles Are In Scotland?

Castle Gunn

Castle Gunn, also known as Clyth Castle, once stood approximately eight miles south and west of Wick in Caithness. Perched on a sliver of clifftop land, it overlooked the North Sea, granting it a strategic position. 

While it served as a formidable stronghold for the Gunns, very little of it remains today. Despite not being a grand edifice, the castle played a pivotal role in the clan's history, providing a stronghold against their main rivals, the Clan Sinclair. Its location amidst the dramatic clifftop landscape is truly awe-inspiring.

Halberry Castle

Just south of Gunn's castle is the site of another significant Gunn landmark, Halberry Castle, situated near the village of Halkirk in Caithness. Although now almost nothing remains, it was once an imposing structure, vital in the clan's strategic defence system. Its location on this clifftop promontory provided safety and access to the coastline, facilitating both trade and military manoeuvres.

Dirlot Castle

Dirlot Castle, located in Caithness near Westerdale, was a strategic fortress for Clan Gunn. Nestled into a bend on the River Thurso, the castle offered panoramic surveillance and a fortified refuge. Its possession alternated between Clan Gunn and Clan Mackay, signifying its strategic importance in territorial disputes.

Today, only scant ruins of these three castles remain, but viewed from above as we did with our drone, each of the sites of these once proud castles make a stunning landscape photograph and tell an important part of Clan Gunn's story of survival in a harsh environment.

Other Gunn Castles

Kinbrace Castle: Found near Kinbrace in Caithness, the precise location of this castle remains uncertain. It gained notoriety around 1140 when an unfortunate incident occurred – Lady Frakark met a tragic end, reportedly burned to death by Svein Aliefson, a tale immortalized in the sagas. In later years, Kinbrace fell under the ownership of the Gunn clan.

Latheron Castle: Situated close to Dunbeath in Caithness, scant remnants are all that remain of this once imposing castle. Originally held by the Gunns, ownership eventually transferred to the Sinclairs during the seventeenth century. Today, Latheron House stands in its place, having been constructed in the eighteenth century and subsequently expanded upon.

Do Clan Gunn Exist Today?

Yes, Clan Gunn continues to exist today as a Scottish clan with members scattered across the world. Like other Scottish clans, Clan Gunn maintains a sense of community through various activities, events, and organisations dedicated to preserving its history and traditions.

To learn more about the history of Clan Gunn and to connect with the modern day clan, check out the following websites:

Clan Gunn Wall Prints By Clanscape

Did you know, here at Clanscape, you can  buy stunning wall prints of Clan Gunn Castles and landscapes  in Scotland? They make perfect gifts for Clan Gunn enthusiasts and are a beautifully visual way of celebrating your Scottish Heritage and immersing yourself in the history of Clan Gunn.

We also feature 100+ other Scottish clans and surnames in our collection of 200+ landscape photography wall prints, so check out  our print store  to see the full collection.

a woman holding a framed scottish art print of a Clan Gunn castle