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Issue 24 - On a historical Roller coaster (Clan MacNab)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 24
January 2006


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On a historical Roller coaster (Clan MacNab)

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of Clan MacNab

Land charters are the skeletons on which much Highland history is based. In them you can find out who owned what, from when and, usually, who your ancestors were.

The witnesses to such charters can also reveal who was up and who was down. Few clans have a more colourful story than the MacNabs but, on at least two occasions, their charters were destroyed, which obscures much of their early history.

They were rarely at the centre of the nation’s affairs but their history was punctuated by remarkable events and remarkable chiefs.

Their country was in the centre of Scotland, west of Loch Tay and along Glen Dochart. The name means ‘son of the Abbot’.

Like the Macphersons and Macfarlanes, their progenitor was a Celtic churchman, in their case this may have been a kinsman of St Fillan, the missionary who brought the gospel to this part of Perthshire some 15 centuries ago and whose memory remains remarkably green.

Aside from the customary attrition in battles against neighbouring clans and government soldiers, the clan suffered two great misfortunes: they backed the Red Comyn rather than Robert the Bruce in the fight for the crown and even defeated King Robert when he had the temerity to come into their territory in the battle of Dalrigh in 1306.

In consequence, they lost their lands when Bruce prevailed. These were restored in 1336 when Gilbert of Bovain, considered to be the first chief, received a charter from King David II.

They also found themselves in the eye of the storm when the Campbells of Glenorchy began their remarkable rise which brought them half a million acres and the earldom of Breadalbane.

Finlay was the chief in 1600. He married a daughter of Campbell of Glenorchy and is said to have had 12 sons ‘the weakest of whom could drive his dirk through a two-inch board.’

The eldest was Iain Min, otherwise known as Smooth John. The Gaels loved irony and Smooth John was likely as rough a man as could be found. The clan was troubled by the Macneishes, raiders based on a crannog – an artificial island – on Loch Earn. They had the only boat on the loch and, once it was tied up to their island, they could slumber securely without sentries.

Matters came to a head in 1612 when they stole the ponies carrying Finlay’s supplies for the New Year celebrations. This was serious.

“Tonight is the night – if the lads were the lads!” quoth the chief.

Iain Min took the hint, his brothers, and a boat, which they carried across the hills to Loch Earn.

The Macneishes were sound asleep after enjoying the stolen supplies – in those days it would have been mainly claret – and were slaughtered. The lads took their heads and carried them home in sacks. Iain Min placed that of the chief in front of his father at breakfast.

“The night was the night, and the lads were the lads,” was his comment.

Tradition says that an old woman and a boy survived the massacre by hiding, and the latter spawned all the Macneishes in the world today.

The route taken by Montrose’s army in December 1644 on its way to devastate Argyllshire ran through Glen Dochart. Without artillery, the royalists left the castles alone but the one on the island of Loch Dochart dominated the road and had to be captured.

The Campbells considered the MacNabs a client clan, which allowed Smooth John to inveigle his way into the castle and hold it for Montrose.

Once they had it, however, it proved to be the focus for all those in the area who resented the position and power of the Campbells.

The castle was ‘violently tak from then again in 1646, and burnt through their default.’

Smooth John was killed by government troops in 1653, the clan charters burnt and the clan lands handed over to the Campbells although grudgingly returned a few years later but on license from the family of Glenorchy.

The 16th chief Francis (1734-1816) inherited debts and spent his life adding to them whenever possible. He was famous as a monstrously eccentric and arrogant anachronism, beautifully captured in Raeburn’s famous portrait.

He seemed to regard the clan, its women anyway, to be for his personal exploitation. Thirty two is but one estimate of the number of illegitimate children he left behind.

He once came upon a couple of urchins brawling in the street in Killin.

On being told that they were fighting about which of them was MacNab’s son, he gave a wink and replied ‘you both are.’

He started a distillery in Killin and was said to have produced the best whisky in Scotland.

Just one of the many anecdotes that accumulated to him concerns a visit to a London cockpit. He was contemptuous of the quality of cocks he saw fight, declaring that he could bring down a Scots bird that would easily beat any put against it.

He accepted heavy bets that he could not prove his point. MacNab – he refused to acknowledge anyone who called him Mr MacNab – returned carrying a golden eagle on his arm.

MacNab never married. His heir was his nephew Archibald who was forced to flee the country to avoid being imprisoned for the debts piled up by his predecessor. He went to Canada in 1832 where he was feted as the clan chief.

Given a grant of 81,000 acres in the valley of the Ottawa river, he summoned his clansmen to join him. Alas, his intention was to reproduce the system he knew back home with his people labouring to keep him in comfort. In the New World this was not possible.

They soon objected and, after an inquiry, he was forced to refund the rents and make restitution to those he had wronged. He was ruined and died in obscurity back in Scotland in 1853.

• Badge: The head of a male savage
• Motto: Timor omnis abesto– “Let fear be far from all”
• Tartan: MacNab (current); MacNab (ancient); Chief’s Tartan
• Gaelic Name: Mac an Ab
• Plant Badge: Heath, Pine, Crowberry, Bramble
• Septs: Abbot, Abbotson, Abbott, Cleland, Clelland, Dewar, Gilfillan, Gillan, Gilland, Gilliland, MacAndeoir, MacClelland, MacLellan, MacLelland, MacNab, MacNabb, MacNail

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