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Brief history of Clan Macnab

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

The Clan Macnab descend from one of the lay abbots of Strathfillan, and tradition has it that the founder was a son of King Kenneth Macalpine. The early chiefs are first mentioned in 1124 A.D., and in 1306 the then chief joined forces with McDougall of Lorn against Robert the Bruce. For this the Macnab lands were forfeited, but in 1336 Gilbert Macnab of Bovain received a Charter from David II, and Gilbert is recognized as the first proper chief of Clan Macnab.

During the next two centuries the Macnabs consolidated their lands until these stretched from Tyndrum to beyond Killin. Their castle stood at Ellanrayne, or Eillean Ran, an island commanding the strategic Port of Ran at the mouth of the River Lochay at Killin, and from here the Macnabs held power over Loch Tay and Glendochart. Their nearest neighbours to the south were the small Clan Neish.

They descended from Ness, son of one William, who was Sheriff of Perth and Lord of Math established a small, independent clan, and in 1250 A.D. their headquarters were in a keep on a crannog, or artificial islands, at St. Fillans on Loch Earn. They seem to have been an unruly and troublesome lot, for at a Council held at Linlithgow on January 9, 1490, James IV gave orders to Lord Drummond: "Whin 15 dias fra this dai furth to ger cast doon ye hoos of ye Easter Isle of Loch Earn, and distroy all ye strengthis of ye samen, and tak away ye bate, and put her to ye Wester Isle (at Locheranhead)."

However, the MacNesses. or Neishes, as they were now called, still inhabited the ruins of their tower, and continued their unlawful activities mainly at the expense of their northerly neighbours, the Macnabs. The enmity between the clans grew stronger, and there was always fighting whenever isolated groups of clansmen encountered each other. Then in the year 1522 the Neishes made a major raid on the Macnab herds.

Finlay Macnab, 8th chief of the House of Bovain, summoned all his clan, and they marched over the hills from Loch Tay to Glen Boltachan. The Neishes were alerted, and they, too, summoned all their men and advanced up the glen carrying their banner of a cupid armed with bow and arrow. The site of conflict was around a huge boulder on what is now Little Port Farm, and as the Macnabs rushed downhill they threw away their plaids and, naked apart from their brogues, flung themselves upon the Neishes. The Neishes threw off their plaids as well, and soon the glen was packed with naked, screaming warriors locked in mortal combat. The Neishes were no match for their adversaries and they fell Ikie ninepins. The aged chief saw his three sons killed before his eyes. He retreated until he stood against the boulder and fought off his attackers with his claymore, which had a remarkable accessory in the shape of an iron ball that slid on a chain along the blade to give added weight to his blows. But the attackers were too many, and the old man finally succumbed to a hail of stabs from dirks and claymores. It is said that the unusual red lichen that covers the stone is still stained with the blood of the Chief of Clan Neish.

The clan bard, and relation of the chief, MacCallum Glas, managed to drag away only twenty survivors to the island refuge on Loch Earn. During the next century their numbers increased little, and they were now nothing more than thieves and freebooters who preyed upon helpless travelers. However, they were no longer a major threat, and they might have continued their way of life but for a dreadful error in the year 1612. Just before Christmas of that year the chief of the Clan Macnab had dispatched his servants to Crieff to bring back food and drink for the festive season. The laden line of ponies was returning slowly by way of Comrie when the party was suddenly surprised and ambushed by the Neishes. There was great rejoicing when it discovered who the goods were destined for, and they gleefully carried them off to Loch Earn.

As they were nearing the shore they were suddenly confronted by an aged crone who lived nearby. She was reputed to be a witch, being wild of face and deformed, and the Neishes respectfully saluted her and offered her a share of the plunder. She rejected it, pointed her finger at the Neish's moored boat, then raised her arms to the sky and cried out, " beware, sons of Ness, beware of the time when there will be two boats on Loch Earn."

The Neishes looked at each other uneasily, then remembered that they owned the only boat on the loch, and burst out laughing. They conveyed the goods across to their island in the boat, while remainder used the secret causeway of boulders that can still be seen in line with the islet and the villa called "Portmore" at St. Fillans. Meanwhile the Macnab servants had reached Ellanrayne Castle and gasped out the story to Finlay Macnab, 12th chief of the clan, Finlay had married twice. His first wife was Katherine Campbell, the natural daughter of Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy, and she had borne him two sons and a daughter.

The name of his second wife is unknown, but she gave him ten sons. This lady, on hearing the story, suddenly saw an opportunity of removing her two stepsons, and making her own children the heirs. She looked at the eldest, Iain Min ("Smooth John") and sneeringly remarked, "Tonight is the night - if the lads were the lads!" She knew the fierce pride of Iain Min-a giant of a man who was nicknamed Smooth because he was anything but that-and knew that her words would goad him into hasty action. They did, Iain Min leapt to his feet shouting for his brother Duncan to arm himself. His two eldest half-brothers, John Roy and Patrick also demanded to go, and, their mother bit her lip but dare not refuse. Iain Min brushed aside his father's protests that the entire clan should be called out, and the brothers hurried to the lochside and unmoored their skiff. From here they rowed down Loch Tay to Cloichran where the hoisted the boat from the water on to their shoulders, and began the long trek up the side of Alt Breaclaich to the lochan at the top. Gasping and staggering in the deep snow, they climbed over the saddle and sown across the desolate plateau that leads to Glen Tarken. The descent down the steep, boulder-strewn glen was severe, but by the middle of the night they had launched their boat on Loch Earn. The moon shone fitfully from behind scudding clouds as they rowed stealthily toward the island. Quietly they steered their craft into a tiny creek from where they could see a glimmer of light from the ruin. They crept up to a straw-filled window and peered inside. There lay the entire gang, gorged and drunk, and on a chair, snoring, the uncouth elderly chief. The four sons of Macnab made their way round the ruin to the makeshift door where Iain Min drew his dirk, and hammered in the wood. "Who knocks?" called out the sleepy voice of the MacNeish chief. Iain Min replied in true Highland manner with another question: "Who would you least like to see?" There was a drunken laugh from inside. "Smooth John Macnab!" "Smooth John it is, but you'll find him a rough man tonight!" shouted Iain Min as he kicked the door open. The brothers rushed inside and began slaughtering all that were there - except for a boy and girl who cowered in terror under the table and were overlooked. Iain Min cut off the head of the chief of Clan Neish and instructed his brothers to cut off several others. With the heads stuffed in a sack, they set on the long journey home. They rowed back up Loch Earn, and pulling the boat fro the water, struggled up Glen Tarken, probably stopping to rest at the giant monolith that lies a short distance up the glen. From here it was a lung-wracking climb to the head of the glen. Eventually they could carry the boat no farther and left it in the heather. Then they hurried on and down to Loch Tayside, to make their way along the shore to Ellanrayne Castle. About mid-morning they arrived back, to be greeted by their anxious father. "Dread nought!" cried out Iain Min - an expression that is now part of the clan slogan. His stepmother appeared, looking disappointed, and the chief turned to her and said in delight, "Tonight was the night - and the lads were the lads!" She inquired what was in the sack, and Iain Min gave her a cold stare. "Bowls for your brains!" he said, and opened the bag and rolled out the heads at her feet. The girl who had hidden under the table during the massacre was the daughter of the Neish chief, and she eventually married the Laird of Torwood in Stirlingshire. The boy made his way to South Perthshire where he settled. The MacIlciowie families in this area are descended from him - their name meaning " Son of the Black-haired Lad." The Macnab's boat lay rotting in the heather high up on the watershed between Loch Tay and Loch Earn, and is said to have been still visible around 1900. All traces of it were destroyed in a peat fire early this century, although a walking-stick made from the keel is supposed to be still in existence. Iain Min later fought for Montrose and was captured while defending Kincardine Castle. He was condemned to death, but escaped from Edinburgh Castle. In 1651 he fought for Charles I at the battle of Worcester along with three hundred of the clan. He returned home, but was killed in 1653 in a skirmish with Cromwellian troops who were raiding his cattle. The following year Ellanrayne Castle was burnt to the ground and the chiefs moved residence to Kinnell House on the other side of the River Lochay. From that time the fortunes of the clan went into decline.

Of later chiefs, probably the most famous was Francis, born in 1734, whose celebrated picture by Raeburn now hangs in the London offices of the Dewars whisky firm. It epitomises the proud arrogance of a Highland chief, even if Francis conducted himself in a manner more appropriate to an earlier age while his debts steadily increased.

His nephew, Archibald, who succeeded him in 1816, inherited impossible debts, and a writ of foreclosure was served in 1823. Archibald fled to Canada where he obtained a grant of 80,000 acres in the valley of the River Ottawa. He named his estate Macnab, and his house Kinnell. Many clansmen were persuaded to leave Scotland and join him, although he continued his feudal jurisdiction. Some clansmen objected to this when they learnt the land was free, and the chief had to repay all the rents. His intentions were not altogether dishonourable - he was hoping to recover the ancestral lands.

Alas, these were sold in 1828 to the fourth Earl of Breadalbane, even the beautiful burial ground of Inch Buie on the Falls of Dochart. Nothing was left, and curiously at this time the prophecy of the Lady of Lawers came true - that when a fir tree fell against another in Inch Buie, and grafted on to it, then that would be the end of the Macnabs.

Archibald died in poverty in France, and his Canadian house of Kinnell was burnt to the ground in 1938 by a clanswomen to prevent it being turned into a museum. The clansfolk are scattered to Canada, Australia, British Honduras (where they became celebrated pirates), United States and to almost every corner of the globe. However, in 1949 the late Archibald Corrie Macnab, 22nd chief, repurchased Kinnell House, and about 7000 acres of the old clan land from the Breadalbane estates.

Strange to relate, the tree graft on Inch Buie which had marked the fall of the clan, withered and died shortly after. While researching for this article I visited Kinnell House and was welcomed by the present chief J.P. Macnab. The house is little changed and contains much of its 17th century nucleus, while attached is the long conservatory containing the celebrated Black Hamburgh vine, planted in 1832.

The macnab supplied me with much helpful information, then took me up a hill road by Land-Rover to point out the only possible route his ancestors could have taken on their epic overland raid.

The present chief is descended from John Roy, the third son who followed Iain Min on the raid on the Neishes. Just before Christmas of 1976 I followed the path of Iain Min and his brothers, almost 364 years to the day since they annihilated the clan Neish. With three companions I first visited the site of Ellanrayne Castle at Killin, now marked only by a grassy mound on a swampy peninsula. From here we drove to Cloichran on the south side of Loch Tay, just past the Edinburgh University Field Station, and climbed uphill through deep snow to the Hydro Electric dam which engulfs Lochan Breaclaich. From there it was uphill again, and over the saddle to the desolate plateau that is the watershed between Loch Tay and Loch Earn. It was beautifully clear, crisp winter's day, and the only signs of life in the white wilderness were the deer and mountain hares that bounded away at our approach as we headed to the top of Glen Tarken.

The descent of the glen was heavy going, but eventually we were at Loch Earn, and the comfort of a roaring log fire in a St. Fillans hotel. We agreed that an overnight crossing by this route was quite feasible, even if a boat were being carried, and our time for the crossing of just over four hours would certainly have allowed a return trip the same night. Back at Killin, we visited Inch Buie on the Falls of Dochart, where all the tombstones bear the head of the Neish chief.

On this wooded island, justifiably described as the most beautiful burial ground in the world, lie Iain Min and his brothers, whose daring exploit gave the Clan Macnab its crest, its slogan, and who created a legend that has passed into immortality.

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mike mcnabb
mike mcnabb
Nov 04, 2023

For myself traveling thousands of miles to stand on land that had Ancient relatives buried in such a magnificent setting made the hair on my neck stand up. Truly a life changing experience for me.


John S. Batts
John S. Batts
Sep 19, 2021

Fascinating collection of exploits, instructive and geographicallt detailed -- well told even in the gruesome parts.

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