Gunn-Cairns was born in Bonnyrigg near Edinburgh, and has been based in the capital since 1977. After taking a degree in German and Comparative Religion, she studied at Edinburgh College of Art. Gunn-Cairns began to exhibit in the late 1980s. Her paintings and drawings are intensely personal, exploring her own emotional and physical history and using her own body as a point of departure. She also produces portrait drawings, usually of friends, whom she likes to sit for her on a regular basis over a period of time.