The Clan Gunn Heritage Centre & Museum is housed in the Old Latheron Parish Church, originally built in the years around 1730 and given a bellcote in 1822. The church can be found just to the east of the village of Latheron, which is where the A9 towards Thurso splits off the A99 towards Wick. You follow the A99 for a couple of hundred yards north-east from the junction and the access road leading down to the church is on the right, immediately beyond the war memorial.
The Heritage Centre & Museum is the public face of the Clan Gunn Society. Clan Gunn is one of the oldest and most northerly clans in Scotland. It claims descent from Gunni, the grandson of Sweyn Asleifsson, a hero of the Orkneyinga Saga who is often referred to as "the ultimate Viking". Meanwhile, Gunni's wife Ragnhild was grand-daughter and heiress of Jarl (or Earl) Rognvald, founder of the Jarldom of Orkney. As a result Clan Gunn claims direct descent from the Norse Jarls of Orkney.
Other links tied the Gunns into the lineage of Pictish kings and from the 1200s to the 1400s the Gunns appear to have possessed the whole of Caithness and been at the height of their powers. Later centuries saw clan rivalry and the Highland Clearances, and the result was that members of the clan found themselves scattered to all corners of the globe. A Clan Gunn Society was first founded in Thurso in 1821 as The Loyal and United Benevolent Society of the Clan Gunn. The present Clan Gunn Society formed in 1960 to "promote a spirit of kinship amongst members of the clan throughout the world". It now has a worldwide membership of over 300 families.
Clan Gunn is what is known as an armigerous clan, meaning it is without an established hereditary chief. To overcome this the Lord Lyon (the official in the Scottish government with responsibility for regulating heraldry in Scotland) has appointed a clan commander.
It goes without saying that the Clan Gunn Heritage Centre & Museum is a place of pilgrimage for Gunns from all over the world. It not only tells the story of the Gunns, but it also houses an excellent clan archive, using the fruits of many years' research by Clan Gunn's seannachaidh (or historian) and genealogist. It is worth adding that for everyone else the museum is an excellent introduction to the Norse heritage of an area that only securely became part of Scotland in medieval times, and the role of a fascinating clan. Don't simply pass on by because your name isn't Gunn or because you don't have family ties with the Gunns.
The translation of a church into a museum has been carried out very effectively indeed, and while most of the pews are gone, the pulpit remains as a centrepiece, centrally located against the longest wall. The conversion has resulted in a surprisingly large space, and the white paintwork and the lighting help emphasise this and bring the exhibits to life. You enter through a door at the foot of the leg of the "T" shaped church and make your way through to the welcoming reception area, which is also home to a gift shop. The main body of the church is nicely divided into a series of separate areas, each dealing with a theme which is brought to life by information boards, artefacts, and in a number of cases, life size models.
As you might expect, the Norse background to the clan is very well covered. The presence of a recreation of the Raven Banner, under which the Earls of Orkney would have fought, is a chilling reminder of the warlike origins of the clan: as is the modern copy of a Viking helmet. Meanwhile an excellent model of a Viking longship is a reminder of the seafaring exploits of the race from which Clan Gunn descended.
These exploits gave rise to one of the most intriguing stories to come from the early centuries of the clan. One of the exhibits on show in the museum is a cast of the glacial boulder on which appears a carving known as the Westford Knight. The original is in Westford, Massachusetts, and some have interpreted it as depicting a medieval Scottish knight in full armour carrying a sword and a shield bearing the crest of Clan Gunn. On this interpretation it is believed to mark the grave of Sir James Gunn. He is said to have accompanied Henry Sinclair, 1st Earl of Orkney, on a voyage of exploration which brought them ashore in North America in 1398, nearly a century before Columbus. It seems Sir James Gunn perished during the expedition and as a result could have been the first European to be buried in the New World.
Other aspects of the story of Clan Gunn are less speculative. The museum covers the clan's role in the 1745 uprising and the changes in agriculture and society which resulted from the Highland Clearances. Another section looks at the many notable Gunns down the centuries, while one corner of the museum is given over to the life and work of the author Neil M. Gunn.