Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page


BADGE: Giuthas (Pinus sylvestris) pine

PIBROCH: Failte mhic an Abba

It is recorded by Lockhart in his Life of Sir Walter Scott that the great romancer once confessed that he found it difficult to tell over again a story which had caught his fancy without "giving it a hat and stick". Among the stories to which Sir Walter was no doubt wont to make such additions were more than one which had for their subject the somewhat fantastic figure of Francis MacNab, chief of that clan, whose portrait, painted by Raeburn, is one of the most famous achievements of that great Scottish artist, and who, after a warm-hearted and somewhat convival career, died at Callander on 25th May, 1816. It was one of these presumably partly true stories, fathered upon the Chief, which Scott was on one occasion telling at the breakfast table at Abbotsford when his wife, who did not always understand the point of the narrative, looked up from her coffee pot, and, with an attempt to show herself interested in the matter in hand, exclaimed "And is MacNab dead?" Struck of a heap by the innocent ineptitude of the remark, Scott, says Lockhart, looked quizzically at his wife, and with a smile replied, "Well, my dear, if he isn't dead they've done him a grave injustice, for they've buried him".

Another story of MacNab, told by Sir Walter, this time in print, had probably truth behind it, for it was in full agreement with the humour and shortcomings of the Chief. The latter, it is said, was somewhat in the habit of forgetting to pay all his outstanding debts before he left Edinburgh for his Highland residence at the western end of Loch Tay, and on one occasion a creditor had the temerity to send a Sheriff's officer into the Highlands to collect the amount. MacNab, who saw the messenger arrive at Kinnell, at once guessed his errand. With great show of Highland hospitality he made the man welcome, and would not allow any talk of business that night. In the morning, when the messenger awoke and looked from his bedroom window; he was horrified to see the figure of a man suspended from the branch of a tree in front of the house.

Making his way downstairs, he enquired of a servant the meaning of the fearful sight, and was answered by the man casually that it was "Just a bit tam messenger body that had the presumption to bring a bit o' paper frae Edinburgh to ta Laird". Needless to say, when breakfast time came the Sheriff's officer was nowhere to be found.

Many other stories not told by Sir Walter Scott, were wont to be fathered upon the picturesque figure of the MacNab Chief. One of these may be enough to show their character.

On one occasion, it is said, MacNab paid a visit to the new Saracen Head Inn in Glasgow, and, on being shown to his room for the night, found himself confronted with a great four-poster bed, a contrivance with which he had not hitherto made acquaintance. Looking at it for a moment he said to his man, "Donald, you go in there", pointing to the bed itself, "the MacNab must go aloft". And with his man's help he made his way to the higher place on the canopy. After an hour or two, it is said, he addressed his henchman. "Donald," he whispered; but the only reply was a snore from the happy individual ensconced upon the feathers below. "Donald, ye rascal", he repeated, and, having at last secured his man's attention, enquired, "Are ye comfortable doun there ?" Donald declared that he was comfortable, whereupon MacNab is said to have rejoined, "Man, if it werena for the honour of the thing I think I would come doun beside ye ! "

The little old mansion-house of Kinnell, in which Francis, Chief of MacNab, entertained his friends not wisely but too well, still stands in the pleasant meadows on the bank of the Dochart opposite Killin, not far from the spot where that river enters Loch Tay. It is now a possession of the Earl of Breadalbane, but it still contains many curious and interesting pieces of antique furniture and other household plenishing which belonged to the old chiefs of the clan. Among these, in the little old low-roofed dining-room, which has seen many a revel in days gone by, remains the quaint gate-legged oak table with folding wings and drawers, the little low sideboard, black with age, with spindle legs and brass mountings, the corner cupboard with carved doors, the fine old writing bureau with folding top arid drawers underneath, and the antique "wag at the wa'" clock still ticking away the time, between the two windows, which witnessed the hospitalities of the redoubtable Laird of MacNab himself. Among minor relics in a case in the drawing-room are his watch, dated 1787, his snuff-box, seal, spectacles, and shoe buckles, while above the dining-room door are some pewter flagons bearing the inscriptions, probably carved on them by some guest:

Here's beef on the board
And there's troot on the slab,
Here's welcome for a'
And a health to MacNab.


For warlocks and bogles
We're nae carin' a dab,
Syne safe for the night
Neath the roof o' MacNab.

Besides old toddy ladles of horn and silver, great cut-glass decanters, silver quaichs, and pewter salvers, and a set of rare old round-bowled pewter spoons, some or all of which were MacNab possessions, there is the Kinnell Bottle bearing the following inscription: "It is stated the Laird had a bottle that held nine gallons (nine bottles ?) which was the joy of his friends. This holds nine bottles, the gift of a friend". The late Laird of Kinnell, the Marquess of Breadalbane, took great pains to collect and retain within the walls of the little old mansion as many relics as possible of its bygone owners, and amid such suggestive relics as "the long gun" of the MacNabs, a primitive weapon of prodigious length and weight; the old Kinnell basting-spoon, known as Francis's Porridge Spoon - long enough to be used for supping with a certain personage; and the actual brass candlestick which belonged to the terrible Smooth John MacNab presently to be mentioned, it is not difficult to picture the life which was led here in the valley of the Dochart by the old lairds of MacNab and their households.

Kinnell is famous to-day for another possession, nothing less than the largest vine in the world. This is a black Hamburg of excellent quality, half as large again as that at Hampton Court. It has occupied its present position since 1837, and is capable of yielding a thousand bunches of grapes in the year, each weighing a pound and a half, though it is never allowed to ripen more than half that number.

Kinnell House of the present day, however, is not the original seat of the MacNab Chief. This was situated some hundreds of yards nearer the loch than the present mansion-house, and though no traces of it now exist, the spot is associated with not a few incidents which remain among the most dramatic and characteristic in Highland history.

Most famous of these incidents is that which terminated the feud of the MacNabs with Clan Neish, whose head- quarters were at St. Fillans on Lochearnside, some twelve miles away. The two clans had fought out their feud in a great battle in Glen Boltachan, above St.Fillans. In that battle the Neishes had been all but wiped out, and the remnant of them, retiring to the only island in Lochearn, took to a life of plunder, and secured themselves from reprisals by allowing no boats but their own on the loch. After a time, however, encouraged by immunity, they went so far as to plunder the messenger of MacNab himself, as he returned on one occasion from Crieff with the Chief's Christmas fare. On news of the affront reaching Kinnell, MacNab became red with wrath. Striding into the room where his twelve sons sat, he told them of what had occurred, and ended his harangue with the significant hint, "The night is the night, if the lads were the lads". At that, it is said, the twelve got up, filed out, and, headed by Smooth John, so called because he was the biggest and brawniest of the household, proceeded to vindicate the honour of their name. Taking a boat from Loch Tay, they carried it in relays across the hills and launched it on Loch Earn. When they reached the island fastness of their enemies in the middle of the night, all were asleep but old Neish himself, who called out in alarm to know who was there. "Whom do you least wish to see ?" was the answer, to which he replied, "There is no one I would fear if it were not Smooth John MacNab". "And Smooth John it is", returned that brawny individual, as he drove in the door. Next morning, as the twelve young men filed into their father's presence at Kinnell, Smooth John set the head of the Neish Chief on the table with the words, "The night was the night, and the lads were the lads". At that, it is said, old MacNab looked up and answered only "Dread nought !" And from that hour the Neish's head has remained the cognisance and "Dread nought" the motto of the MacNab Clan. A number of years ago, as if to corroborate the details of this narrative, the fragments of a boat were found far up on the hills between Loch Tay and Loch Earn, where it may be supposed Smooth John and his brothers had grown tired of carrying it, and abandoned their craft.

Many other warlike incidents are narrated of the clan. It has been claimed that the race were originally MacDonalds; but from its location and other facts it seems now to be admitted that the clan was a branch of the Sial Alpin, of which the MacGregors were the main stem. From the earliest time the chiefs possessed extensive lands in the lower part of Glendochart, at the western end of Loch Tay. A son of the chief who flourished during the reign of David I in the twelfth century, was abbot or prior of Glendochart, and from him the race took its subsequent name of Mac an Abba, or MacNab, "the son of the abbot". At the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, the MacNab Chief took part with his powerful neighbour, the Lord of Lorne, on the side of the Baliols and Comyns, and against King Robert the Bruce. The king's historian, John Barbour, records that Bruce's brother-in-law, Sir Christopher Seton, was betrayed to the English and a fearful death by his confidant and familiar friend MacNab, and it is said the MacNabs particularly distinguished themselves in the famous fight at Dal Righ, near Tyndrum, at the western end of Glendochart, in which John of Lorne nearly succeeded in cutting off and capturing Bruce himself. For this they came under Bruce's extreme displeasure, with the result that they lost a large part of their possessions. The principal messuage of the lands which remained to them was known as the Bowlain, and for this the chief received a crown charter from David II in 1336. This charter was renewed with additions in 1486, 1502, and at other dates.

Already, however, in the fifteenth century, the MacNabs had begun to suffer from the schemes and encroachments of the great house of Campbell, which was then extending its possessions in all directions from its original stronghold of Inch Connell amid the waters of Loch Awe. Among other enterprises the MacNabs were instigated by Campbell of Loch Awe to attack their own kinsman, the MacGregors. The upshot was a stiff fight near Crianlarich, in which the MacNabs were almost exterminated. After the fight, when both clans were considerably weakened, the Knight of Lochow proceeded to vindicate the law upon both of them, not without considerable advantage to himself.

In 1645, when the Marquess of Montrose raised the standard of Charles I in Scotland, he was joined by the Chief of MacNab, who, with his clansmen, fought bravely in Montrose's crowning victory at Kilsyth. He was then appointed to garrison Montrose's own castle of Kincardine, near Auchterarder in Strathearn. The stronghold, however, was besieged presently by a Convenanting force under General Leslie, and MacNab found that it would be impossible to maintain the defence. Accordingly, in the middle of the night, he sallied forth, sword in hand, at the head of his three hundred clansmen, when all managed to cut their way through the beseiging force, except the Chief himself and one follower. These were made captive and sent to Edinburgh, where MacNab, though a prisoner of war, was accorded at the hands of Covenanters the same treatment as they meted out at Newark Castle and elsewhere to the other adherents of Montrose, who had been captured at the battle of Philiphaugh. MacNab was condemned to death, but on the night before his execution he contrived to escape, and afterwards, joining the young King Charles II, he followed him into England, and fell at the battle of Worcester in 1651.

Meanwhile his house had been burnt, his charters destroyed, and his property given to Campbell of Glenurchy, kinsman of the Marquess of Argyll, then at the head of the Covenanting party and the Government of Scotland. So reduced was the state of the house that MacNab's widow was forced to apply for relief to General Monk, Cromwell's plenipotentiary in Scotland. That General ordered Glenurchy, one of whose chief strongholds was Finlarig Castle, close to Kinnell on Loch Tay side, to restore the MacNab possessions to the widow and her son. The order, however, had little effect, and after the Restoration only a portion of the ancient lands were restored to them by the Scottish Parliament.

These lands might still have belonged to the MacNabs but for the extraordinary character and exuberant hospitality of Francis, the twelfth Chief, already referred to. Two more stories of this redoubtable personage may be repeated. He was deputed on one occasion to go to Edinburgh to secure from the military authorities clothing and accoutrements for the Breadalbane Fencibles, then being raised. The General in Command ventured to express some doubt as to the existence of the force, and MacNab proceeded to further his case with the high military authority by addressing him again and again as "My little man". MacNab himself, it may be mentioned, was a personage of towering height, and, with his lofty bonnet, belted plaid, and other appurtenances, made a truly formidable figure. The Fencibles being raised, he marched them to Edinburgh, and was much mortified on being stopped by an excise party, who took them for a party of smugglers carrying a quantity of whisky, of whom they had received intimation. MacNab, it is said, indignantly refused to stop, and on the excisemen insisting in the name of His Majesty, the Chief haughtily replied, "I also am on His Majesty's service. Halt! This, my lads, is a serious affair, load - with ball". At this, it is said, the officers perceived the sort of personage they had to do with, and prudently gave up their attempt.

By reason of the burdens accumulated on the estate by the twelfth Chief the greater part of the possessions' of the family passed into the hands of the House of Breadalbane.

Then the last Chief who had his home at Kinnell betook himself to Canada. At a later day he returned and sold the last of his possessions in this country, the Dreadnought Hotel in Callander. When he died he bequeathed all his heirlooms to Sir Allan MacNab, Baronet, Prime Minister of Canada, whom he considered the next Chief. But Sir Allan's son was killed by a gun accident when shooting in the Dominion, and since then the chiefship has been claimed by more than one person. Sir Allan MacNab's second daughter, Sophia Mary, married the seventh Earl of Albemarle.

The chief memorial of the old MacNab family in Glendochart to-day is their romantic burying-place among the trees on the rocky islet of Inch Buidhe in the Dochart, a little way above Kinnell. There, with the Dochart in its rocky bed singing its great old song for ever around their dust, rest in peace the once fierce beating hearts of these old descendants of the Abbot of Glendochart and the royal race of Alpin.


Abbotson Abbot Dewar Gilfillan Macandeoir

Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page