« AnteriorContinuar »
NOTES ON CAITHNESS HISTORY.
Before concluding the subject of AulJwick Castle, it may be interesting to consider why the term Auld should have been applied to the name of the castle, in contradistinction to the name of its supposed more juvenile neighbour—Wick. Assuming that Auldwick had been inhabited some time before Wick, •why should the prefix Auld have been used? If Auldwick had been the older and original name, would it not have been more natural that the younger neighbour should have adopted some distinctive name to distinguish it from its more ancient rival t In any view it may be supposed that there would have been no occasion for the use of the prefix until some rival had started up ready to deprive the old keep of its good name; and was it at such a juncture that it assumed a name for the purpose of protecting its ancient character % There is no doubt that for centuries past it has been known as Auldwick or Oldwick, but on account of the situation of the castle, and for other reasons, some parties are inclined to believe that the original name was Altwick, and that in course of time it became converted into Auldwick. Mr Miller, the late Town-Clerk of Wick, had seen several writs dated at Altwick. But possibly Wick may claim as ancient a history as Auldwick, for we find in the pages of the Orkueyinga Saga and of Torfauus that between the years 1142 and 1149 Eoynvald, Earl of Orkney, arrived in Caithness, and was entertained at Wick by a husbandman "named Sveinn, the son of Harold, a very brave man." In connection with the point under consideration, it may be mentioned that several centuries ago Auld was a surname in the district Early in the fifteenth century a man named Auld had some property in Wiek, and the deed connected with the subjects is at present in the charter-chest of the Earl of Caithness at Barrogill Castle. A century or two aiterwards we find the name changed to Oal, but for many years back it has resumed the form in which it originally appeared.
And likewise before leaving the subject of Ackorgill Tower, it may be not out of place that the testimony of the Rev. Mr Pope of Eeay should be given as to the condition of that old tower. In his appendix to Pennant's Tour in Scotland, he writes :—" Not far from it"—Girnigo— "stood the Castle of Akergil, built by Keith, Earl Mareschal; but this place is now rendered a most bcautifull and convenient seat by Sir William Dunbar of Ilemprigs, the proprietor. In the old tower is the largest vault in the North of Scotland, beautified with elegant lights and plaistering by Sir William, so that it is now the grandest room in all this part of the country."
Having already referred to the Keiths of Ackergill, we must now narrate some of their actings in the county. In doing this it brings us at once into contact with the Clan Gunn. Skene scarcely puts the people of this name on a level with the Clans, but generally speaking they have always been recognised as such, though, perhaps, belonging to the minor class. Nevertheless, to all intents and purposes, they formed a clan, and one exceedingly well known in the counties of Sutherland and Caithness, It is of Norse origin, and descended from Gunnius, whose name it has all along borne. On the other hand, it has been maintained that Gunnius was descended from the Norwegian Kings of the Isle of Man, but the weight of authority leans to the account given by Torfaeus. However, it is not our intention in treating of the Gunns and their doings in Caithness to discuss the origin assigned to them, either in the Chronicles of the Isle of Man, or the writings of Torfaeus. Suffice it to say, that the Gunns played a very conspicuous part in early Caithness history, in so far as internal feuds and battles were concerned. Gunnius was the brother of the celebrated pirate named Sweyn or Suennius. Their father's name was Olaus Rolfi. He held the office called "Prefecture© de Dungaldsbus," under the Earl of Orkney, and was killed at Duncansbay by Aulver Rosti, a grandson of Frakirk, who lived at Kildonan, in the county of Sutheiv land. When the wife of Olaus heard of the murder of her husband she fled with her two sons, Sweyn and Gunnius, to Orkney. On the sons attaining manhood ample vengeance was taken on the murderers of their father. Sweyn led a very remarkable career, while Gunnius likewise became well known in the northern parts of Scotland. It would appear from Torfaeus that Gunnius married a grandchild of Earl Ronnald, and that their son Suekellus claimed the half of Orkney and the half of Caithness in right of his mother. Earl John would not, however, give him the lands to which he was entitled by succession, and in consequence a strong animosity existed between them. One night while in Thurso Earl John made up his mind to attack the party of which Suekellus formed one, but the latter taking time by the forelock attacked Earl John, with the result that on finding the Earl they dispatched him, having stabbed him nine times. This took place in the year 1231. The Earl led a very unprincipled life, and the writer of a foot-note in a translation of Torfaeus remarks—" He got a remission from the King of Scotland, but the King of the Universe punished him in this life." Suekellus appears to have been at the Court of King Hacon of Norway on account of the murder of Earl John; and having been deprived of his Orkney possessions by that King, he came to his Caithness estate, and resided at Ulb8ter, in the parish of Wick. He was afterwards known as "the Great Gunn of Ulbster." In the course of time the Gunns increased in numbers, and held lands in the Highlands of the parishes of Latheron and Halkirk, as well as along the Caithness coast at Mid-Clyth and Eruan, The Gunns had the name of being a powerful and hardy race, while there is an old tradition to the effect that they were "the bravest, most handsome, and best looking men in the North of Scotland." They were by no means very particular about holding their lands by parchment, so long as they could retain them by the sword. Hence the reason that there is very little trace of them in old deeds or registers. A chief on his deathbed at Braemore presented his sword to his son as the titledeed to the estate, remarking that when the son failed to retain the estate by the sword he did not deserve to have any. Another chief boasted that on the top of Morven he would cause his voice to be heard in Sutherland and Caithness, as well as in the Reay country. In Robertson's Index it appears from a charter of the reign of King David I, that "Inghram Guyn " was a witness along with Eenold Cheyne,
Eariy in the history of the clan, their stronghold was evidently at Clyth; and it has been repeatedly stated by different -writers that the Clan Gunn had a castle at Clyth called Haberry, or the Crowner Gunn's Castle; but the fact is there were two castles in the Clyth district belonging to the Gunns—one at Mid-Clyth, called Haberry, or the Crowner Gunn's Castle; and the other at East Clyth, called Castle Gunn, the distance between them being about a mile and a half. The situation of Haberry is somewhat like that of Auldwick Castle. None of its walls are now standing, although traces of the foundations may be easily seen. The castle was built on a tongue of land, as in the case of Auldwick, while an artificial ditch cut in the rock protected the castle on the land side. There were small outlying buildings to the north of the castle, no doubt for the use of retainers and dependants. A small portion of the walls of Castle Gunn is still standing, but this building was apparently not so extensive as the former, but it no doubt proved of advantage to such a warlike race as the Gunns were in former times.
The proximity of the lands of the Gunns to those of the Keiths was not the cause of the long and bitter feuds that continued between them, but a love matter seems to have been the origin of their quarrels, which resulted in revenge, then so customary that it required time and blood to efface. Dugald Keith of Ackergill, who superintended the Caithness possessions of the Earl Mareschal, in one of his journeys either going from or returning to the county, happened to meet Helen Gunn, the only daughter of Lachlan Gunn, a small proprietor in Braemore. He became so captivated with her that he made proposals not of a very honourable character, which she at once spurned, as she had a sweetheart of her own whom she loved from infancy, and whom she had vowed to wed, in the person of Alexanler Gunn, a kinsman of her own. But the spirit of the time was dark and cruel, and what Keith could not accomplish by fair means he resolved to carry out by those of a foul character. In short, he made up his mind to carry away the "Beauty of Braemore" against her own will and that of her lover and relatives. The following verses on the subject by Mr Calder, the Caithness poet, are written with great taste :—
The harp that has rung with the strains of the fight,
Tho' here we are all full of joy and delight,
There are hearts in the glen that are breaking to-night,
And many a sigh, from the sad bosom wrung,
Is heaving for Helen, the charming and young.
The Keith in the Lowlands, that dastard abhored,
May the choicest of blessings descend from above
Keith being void of all principle, mustered his men, surrounded the house of Lachkn Gunn on the wedding-night, took violent possession of Helen, killed her lover and her friends, and thereafter carried away the fair Helen to Ackergill Tower. The site of Lachlan's house is still pointed out, and there is little doubt that a dastardly act such as we have described roused the wrath of the Gunns to such an extent that many an innocent kinsman lost his life in avenging the wrongs of Helen Gunn. But Helen could not tolerate the company of the unscrupulous scoundrel who had murdered all that was near and dear to her, and who had disgraced herself; and pining under a misery that made life unsufferable, she ended her existence by hurling herself from the battlements of Ackergill tower to the ground below. Mr Calder, after describing the scene on the battlements, winds up the story of " Helen of Braemore" in the following lines :—
On came the gale, impetuous and rude,
Howling in hollow giwts where Helen stood.
She gazed around her on the troubled scene—
There was a calm composure in her mein,
And on her lips a faint smile seemed to play,
A moment's space, and then it died away.
She raised her hands on high, and prayed to Heaven,
That all her youthful sins might be forgiven,
And this, a greater than them all combined,
The last sad crime of an unhappy mind;
Then from the top she sprang in frantic woe,
And instant fell a lifeless corse below.
Centuries have come and gone, and the sad tale of Helen Gunn is still talked of in the county. From tradition we learn that she was buried near the tower, and the following paragraph is taken from an early number of the John C?Groat Journal:—"Not many years ago a tombstone was to be seen in the North Burial Ground, near the sea shore, a little to the west of Ackergill Towor, on whtch the name of Helen Gunn was with some difficulty deciphered by the passer by. It has now sunk into the sand or been carried away, although the remembrance of the heroic courage and virtue of her whose dust it covers—' The Beauty of Braemore' and 'The Lucretia of Caithness'—will not easily be forgotten."
It is difficult to trace with any degree of accuracy the different battles that took place between the rival clans, in consequence of the ignorance of the inhabitants at the time. Besides, tradition is not in all instances to be relied on, on account of its having been magnified or confused in such a manner as to render it not an easy task to follow the main thread of a story. In the year 1438 the two clans fought a desperate battle at Tannach Moor. Great preparations were made for this contest, and as the Gunns had received considerable aid, the Keiths, afraid of the issue, appealed for assistance to Angus Mackay, son of Neil Wasse, who forthwith marched to their support. Sir Bobert Gordon, in his History of the House of Sutherland, writes :—" There ensued a cruel feight, with great slaughter on either syd. In end the Kaiths had the victorie by the meanes chieflie of John More Mack Ean Eeawigh, who is very famous in these countries for his valor and manhood shewen at this conflict." Mr Bobert Mackay, the historian of the Clan Mackay, thinks it probable that some of these battles may have been occasioned by disputes about land betwixt the Oliphants and the Keiths; from which it may be readily inferred that the Gunns would have assisted the former. Taking into account the history of the county at the time, there cannot certainly he a more truthful old couplet than the following:—
Sinclair, Sutherland, Keith, and Clan Gunn,
The conflict at Tannoch Moor did not terminate hostilities, as each member of their respective clans did what he could to waylay and slay any member of the opposing clan. But in order that all disputes might he adjusted, the Crowner, George Gunn of Haherry Castle, and the Chief of the Clan Keith, entered into an arrangement hy which they agreed to settle all their diiferances at the Chapel of St Aire, each chief to have twelve horsemen, and in the event of their not being able to come to terms, they were to end the business by a fight on equal terms—man to man. Accordingly to fulfil their paction the Crowner and his men were the first to arrive at the Chapel of St Aire, and immediately on their arrival they engaged in religious devotions. Shortly thereafter Keith arrived with twelve horses, and two men on each horse. The Gunns saw that they had been grossly deceived, and they made up their minds to sell their lives aa dearly as possible. The conflict at once began, and ended in the death of all the Gunns, while very few of the Keiths escaped. • Further, it may be stated that there is another version of the matter, for it is said, that while the agreement was made at the Chapel of St Aire for the purpose of adding some sanctity to the business on hand, that the conflict was to take place, and, in point of fact, did take place at Strathmore. It is alleged that after the event at Strathmore, the Keiths retired to Dirlot Castle, and were followed there in the darkness of the night by Henry Gunn, one of the Crowner's sons. Henry watched very carefully ■what was going on within, while those inside had no suspicion of any danger. As the Keiths were quaffing their ale, Henry watched a favourable opportunity, and as the Chief of the Keiths came near the arrow-slit aperture, Henry discharged his arrow, which pierced to the heart of the Keith—the result being that he fell lifeless on the floor. As Henry nsed his bow, he exclaimed in Gaelic "The Gunns' compliments to Keith." Judging from all the circumstances connected with the affair, it is to be presumed that the former version is the correct one, although an incident of much the same description might possibly have taken place at Strathmore, and which may have got mixed up with the conflict at St Aire's Chapel. In proof of the former view the authority of Sir Eobert Gordon may be quoted. After referring to the appointed meeting at " St Tayr in Caitteyness, not farr from Girnigoe," he narrates—" The Cruner then Chieftan of the Clan Gun with the most pairt of his sones and principal kinsmen, came at the appoynted tyme to this Chappoll to the number of twelve; and as they were within the Cheappell at ther prayers, the laird of Innerugie and Ackrigell arryved ther, with twelve hors, and two men upon everie hors. So these twentie-four men rushed in at the door of the Chappell and invaded the Cruner, and his company at unaivars, who nevertheless made groat resistance. In end the Clan Gun wes slain, and the most pairt of the Kaithes also. Ther blood may be seen at this day upon the walls within the Chappell wher they wer killed." It will be observed that Sir Eobert makes no reference to the Strathmore edition, and as his history was written about two centuries