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Places Associated with the Orkney Jarldom

Kirkwall the capital of Orkney derives its name fromKirkjuvagr (church bay) after the church erected by Jarl Rognvald Brusison tothe memory of his friend King Olaf Haraldson, patron saint of Norway. Kirkwall was already a market town of some significance in 1486, eighteen years after Orkney was annexed to Scotland,being pledged from 50,000 florins by King Christian I of Norway as part of thedowry of 60,000 florins when his daughter married James III of Scotland.

St. Magnus Cathedral was started in 1137 by Jarl RognvaldKil's son in honour of his uncle Jarl Magnus who was martyred in the church ofEgilsay on 16th April, 1116 by his cousin Jarl Hakon. The main part of the Cathedral was completedin 1158 but a number of additions were made to it during the next fourcenturies, the 33foot tower having been built in 1525. The building which is 218 ft. long and 45ft. wide houses the relics of St. Magnus and Jarl Rognvald, who was himselfcanonized

Birsay is situated 10 miles northwest of Evie past CostaHead, the windiest place in Great Britain, on the bay of the same name. Here on the Brough of Birsay, a tidalisland, was the hall of Jarl Thorfinn and the cathedral church of Orkney beforeSt. Magnus Cathedral was built. It washere that St Magnus’ body was first buried before being moved to its presentresting place. Lying along the slope ofthe hill are a number of Viking longhouses. The ruined Palace of Birsay was rebuilt late in the 16thcentury by Earl Robert Stewart, illegitimate son of James V of Scotland.

Egilsay, a small island off the east coast of Rousay, ismainly notable as the site of the martyrdom of St. Magnus by his cousin JarlHakon. The 12th centurychurch with its lofty round tower forms a conspicuous landmark. The church is reputed to be the actualchurch in which Jarl Magnus spent the night in prayer before he was murdered on16th April, lll6.

Gairsay was the island home of Sweyn Asleif's son,grandfather of Gunni, the namefather of the Clan Gunn. It was from this island that Sweyn carriedout his Vikings described in the Okneyinga Saga. Langskaill House, which is said to have been built on the site ofSweyn's longhall is an excellent example of a 17th century fortifiedhouse. It was built by Sir WilliamCraigie of Gairsay who died in 1712.

Orphir Sweyn Asleif's son killed his namesake SweynBreastrope at the Jarl's drinking hall here in 1135 after which he fled toTiree for the winter. The round churchwas built by Jarl Hakon who killed Jarl Magnus having sought absolution in Romeand thence traveled in penitence to the Holy Land. The church is said to have been modeled on the Church of the HolySepulchre in Jerusalem.

Stromness, Hamnavoe to our Norse ancestors, is a shelteredport at the eastern end of the Mainland of Orkney. This little town with its picturesque houses and jetties is of fairly modern origin as a town. It developed during the 18th and 19th centuries as a port ofcall for Atlantic shipping.

 

Clan Gunn Sites in Caithness and Sutherland

Ackergill St. Tayre's Chapel at Ackergill was the site ofthe attempted reconciliation of the Clan Gunn and the Clan Keith in 1468 or1478. The chapel which was situated onthe coast roughly equidistant from Ackergill Tower and Girnigoe Castle was saidto have been pulled down about 1800. Nothing now remains. Others claim that the reconciliation meeting took place at Strathmore, in the interiorof the County.

Dirlot formerly a small keep, built about 1350 by Ronald Cheyneas a hunting Lodge. Later it passed to the Sutherlands and then to the Mackays but reputed at one time to have beenoccupied by the Gunns. Henry Gunn, one of the surviving sons of Crowner Gunn is said to have revenged his father'sdeath here by killing with an arrow the Keith chieftain who was celebrating his victory. Close by is a small graveyardwhich was the principal burial place of the Gunns of Cattaig and the Gunns inDalnaglaton.

Dalemore: Within a mile of Dirlot is the old farm house of Dalemorewhich was the home of Marcus Gunn the chieftain of the Gunns of Cattaig in the18th century. The farm isstill occupied by Gunns continuing 500 years of intermittent Gunn possession.

Freswick: The Caithness estate of Sweyn Aslief's son. His castle of Lambaborg is thought to have been on Ness Head, south of the present fortified House of Freswick, built bySinclair of Freswick in the 17th century.

Girnigoe and Castle Sinclair were the principal seats ofthe Earls of Caithness. Girnigoe whose spectacular ruin stands north of the county town of Wick was erected between1476 and 1496 by William, Earl of Caithness. Castle Sinclair which was built adjacent in 1606 is also in a ruinouscondition having been attacked and partially destroyed by the rightful heir tothe Earldom when it was in the possession of Lord Glenorchy who had bought theEarldom from the previous Earls of Caithness. In 1586 John Gunn, the Chief of the Gunns of Braemore was hanged at the castleby the then Earl of Caithness in revenge for the defeat of the Caithness men atAltgown by Clan Gunn. In 1612 William Angus Rory Gunn escaped from the castle by jumping into the sea.

Halberry: Halberry Castle was built by the Gunn chiefs inthe latter part of the 13th century as their principal stronghold toreplace Castle Gunn. It was formerlyprotected by a ditch 150 ft long and 9-12 ft deep with a drawbridge and a guardhouses. The Crowner lived here in somesplendour until his death at St. Tayre's after which the castle was abandoned. Nearby is the Hill of Mannistanes, a BronzeAge stone alignment dating from about 1500 BC. It was also the site of a battle between the Gunns and the Keiths in1460.

Helmsdale, a village at the mouth of the River Helmsdalewhich was created by the Countess/Duchess of Sutherland to house those clearedfrom the interior of the County of Sutherland at the beginning of the 19thcentury.

Kildonan: Named after St. Donan who established hismonastery at Suisgill; in the middle of the glen was the home of the McHamishGunns from the 15th century up to the Clearances in 1819. The original church of Kildonan probablydated from about 1100 and contained the mortuary chapel of the Gunn chiefs atits western end. This was replaced bythe present church built in 1788. Downthe river from the church is Killearnan the seat of the McHamish Gunns for over200 years until it was destroyed by fire in 1690. Nothing remains of the original house.

Kinbrace, at the top of Kildonan is said to have been namedafter the Crowner's brooch. The Crowneris reputed to have had a fortress north west of the township where he spent thesummer. An important cadet family had awadset of the mill at Kinbrace for many generations.

Navidale, on the coast of Sutherland north of Helmsdale isthe township of Navidale which was held by several generations of the McHamishchiefs.

Sandside: The site of a skirmish between the Mackays andthe Gunns in 1437, in which the latter were outnumbered, and defeated. In 1615 the corn fields at Sandside wereburnt by John Robson, chieftain of the Clan Gunn in Caithness at theinstigation of the Earl of Caithness who had a vendetta with Lord Forbes whothen owned the Sandside estate.

Spittal: On the slopes of Spittal Hill below theMybster-Georgemas road are the remains of St. Magnus Chapel, which probablydates from the 12th century. This was the most ancient burial place of the Gunn chiefs who werecarried over the hills from Kildonan for burial after the chiefly line moved toSutherland. The burial ground was used until the early part of this century. Further up the hill was held the annual Jamesmas Fair which providedlocal farm servants with an opportunity of changing their employment.

Tannach, was the site of a battle between the Gunns and theKeiths and Mackays in 1438. The Gunns withdrew, some moving to Braemore and others to Kildonan.

Thurso: Snaekol Gunni's son killed Jarl John here in1231. Thurso East the home of Viscount Thurso of Ulbster was formerly a seat of the Earls of Caithness, Chiefs of ClanSinclair.

Ulbster was associated with the Gunns from a very earlydate. After the Battle of St. Tayre'sit passed to the Keiths, then to the Oliphants, and in 1606 to the Earl ofCaithness. It was subsequently acquiredby a cadet Sinclair family of whom Lord Thurso is the present head.

Westerdale has a long association with the Clan Gunn andwith the Hendersons, an important sept of the Clan. The later chiefs of the Cattaig family resided at Dale House,which is close by.

Westgarty, on the east cost of Sutherland south ofHelmsdale was the birthplace of Sir William Gunn who made his name fighting asa soldier of fortune on the Continent first in the Swedish Service and then forthe Holy Roman Emperor. He fought for King Charles I at Bridge of Dee who knighted him in 1639.

Published by the Clan Gunn Heritage Trust, Clan Gunn Heritage Centre, Latheron, Caithness