By Loraine Smith

The mystical, mythical, and oh so popular version of how Clan Macnab was formed goes something like this - there was this Abbott in Glendochart around, say, 1200 AD and he had a son (Mac’an’Abba) and then that son had a bunch of sons, and that’s us - the sons of the Abbott! Obviously, according to that nice little story, all McNabs all over the world should have matching DNA, right? Oops…..turns out, not so much. In fact, not at all. In fact, with an even 50 McNabb testers in the project now, we have just hit 19 entirely separate bloodlines; almost certainly none of them genetically connected within the era of surnames. Someone asked me recently what I think will happen when the next 50 Macnabbs test? Will we get another 19 new bloodlines, or will we start to fill up some of the groups we already have? I could only answer…...I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out!

I know that some people are disappointed by these findings. Many families held traditions that they were descended from the line of the Chiefs, or that they were of Innishewan (or whichever Cadet House) and for them, the fact that their DNA doesn't match may initially seem crushing. Others may have inherited, or treasured, a dream of a connection with a certain branch of the Clan; they may have walked on Clan lands or on Innis Bhuidhe and felt a stirring of their heart that made them know they were a true McNabb, and now they’re left thinking : Am I not? So I wanted to write a little bit about what a Clan really is, and how Clans were really formed - because no matter what DNA you carry, you ARE a Macnab, and I think that our varied and complex stories are something to be extremely proud of and excited about. I can’t wait to uncover more about them.

For starters, is Clan Macnab unique in discovering that we have a wide array of DNA? We sure are not. Pretty much every other Scottish Clan has made the same discovery. I’m not going to blather on with the details, but if anyone wants to check them out, here are a few examples:




There are, I think, two keys to understanding this phenomenon:

1) The Clan system predated the adoption of surnames in the Highlands by a considerable margin.

2) The Clan never consisted only of a family group - it always consisted of both ‘native men’ (some kin relationship to the Chief and to each other) and so-called ‘broken men’ (individuals who sought the protection of, and offered fealty to, the Chief - these might be from other clans or they might be freemen).

As late as the 1600 and 1700s, there are numerous records of men who clearly were McNabs, who were styled in legal records by some other name (either a patronymic - McGibbon, or a byname - McAgowin or the recently discovered and rather bizarre McNabgilbert, sometimes shortened to MaNagilbert). And that’s the 1700s, but it’s sufficient illustration that even at that late date, the concept of surnames was still rather lightly regarded.

In, say, the 1100s or the 1200s (or even earlier) when Clan Macnab as we know it now was first being formed, if anyone was using the surname Macnab at all (which is highly doubtful) it was perhaps the Chief. No clansman would have used it, but nonetheless, the clansmen were drawing around their chief - some of them kin, and some of them not - they weren’t, as you can see, ‘changing’ from some other surname to Macnab - they had never had a surname. They would have had a sloinneadh (a sort of genealogical shorthand that usually identified at least a man’s father and grandfather) and a byname (or two or three - often describing a unique physical feature), and that was all anyone had or needed. They pledged their fealty to their Chief, and he granted them some land; over the years, as they and their descendants proved their loyalty and valour, they perhaps became more valued members of the chief’s retinue, and gained more land and greater prestige. At some point many many years/decades/centuries down the line, when it became necessary to adopt a surname for legal reasons, they took the name Macnab, because that’s what they were, regardless of what DNA they carried.

So from the dawn of its existence, Clan Macnab was never one blood as far as DNA goes…..but that’s not the end of it. There are plenty more ways the DNA pool got added to over the years:

1) Fosterage - The custom of fosterage was common both within and between Clans. Without the Clan, it was in essence a form of voluntary hostage-taking to ensure good behaviour. Undoubtedly there were times when a fostered son was not returned, and ended up raised within the Clan he had been fostered to. Perhaps not a large incidence, but the reality is that one individual who has several sons can leave a marked impact on a relatively limited population.

2) Informal adoption - As there was no such thing as formal adoption, the informal version happened often, and for numerous reasons. A warrior husband died, leaving an infant son - his widow remarried and her new husband gave the child his name. An elder brother and his wife are unable to have children; his sister and her husband have a dozen, so she gives her brother 2 to raise as his own. Four young children’s parents die of smallpox; there is no blood family nearby, but a couple in the village take the children in and raise them as their own. In all of these cases, the male children have the yDNA of someone other than the father whose name they bear..

3) Post-Bannockburn - We know that Angus Macnab, perhaps brother-in-law to The Red Comyn, fought against Robert the Bruce (not because he was against Scottish Independence - more because he was against the Bruce having murdered his brother-in-law in cold blood). We know that as a consequence, Angus lost his lands and was banished (perhaps to the highlands; perhaps to Ireland). This is supposed to have happened post-Bannockburn; the Battle of Bannockburn took place in 1314. Next, we know that in 1336, a charter of the lands of Bovain was granted to one Gilbert Macnab. The more recent histories of the Clan have made Gilbert out to be the grandson of Angus; as near as I can tell, this appears to be based on the 1467 manuscript. From my point of view, however, it has a major drawback, in the form of the strong and oft repeated oral tradition that “the chiefs of the clan prior to Bannockburn were of Innishewan”. What possible sense can be made of that statement if Angus and Gilbert were of the same line? To me, it quite strongly suggests that Gilbert was of a different lineage than Angus - Angus and the old line of the Chiefs were Innishewans; Gilbert and the new line of the chiefs were another color of Macnab. Of course, whether we’ll ever know the answer to this 700 year old mystery seems rather doubtful.

4) Independent occurrence of the name Macnab - When you look at the origins of most surnames, you see very few that arose from a single source. The vast majority of names, especially those with a common meaning, arise from multiple independent sources. For example, people who were tailors by trade took the name Taylor; the sons of men named Peter took the name Peterson. When you consider the sheer number of Abbots that would have populated Scotland during the period of formation of surnames, how likely does it really seem that only the descendants of the Abbot of Glendochart ever used the patronymic Mac’an’Abba? In fact, we know for certain, from the research of Prof. G.W.S. Barrow, that the descendants of Leod, Abbott of Brechin, also used the patronymic Mac’an’Abba.

When we start taking a close look at the many historians who have put in a word about the origin of the Clan Macnab, we find that different sources attribute the Macnabs to Abbots from all over - up to and including the first Abbot of Inchaffray. It has been traditional for Macnab historians to belittle all of these ideas, preferring the tradition that all Macnabs descend from the Abbott of Glendochart. I’m going to suggest that DNA results give us reason to stop and reconsider whether perhaps some or all of those old historians might have been on to something - perhaps, like the Abbotts of Brechin and the Abbotts of Glendochart, there were other families throughout Scotland who used the patronymic Mac’an’Abba, and who were descended from other Abbotts in other places. Perhaps some modern day Macnabs are descendants of those other Abbots.

1) Name Changes or Assumption of Name. People changed their names for a myriad of reasons. A “landed” family (whether the lands were held by writ, by tack or by lease) might have had only daughters; in order to keep the land in the family, when the eldest daughter married, her husband took the name Macnab, and their children were Macnabs. Outlaws (including those who simply chose the wrong side in a war or clan battle, and those whose own name was proscribed by law, such as McGregors) chose another name. Debtors facing prison or sometimes death opted for another identity instead (they weren’t necessarily dishonourable people - life was harsh; rents were high, crops failed, livestock died, options were few.) And yes, some were dishonourable - men abandoned their families for love or fortune or lust or greed or all manner of reasons. Some who weren’t originally Macnabs became Macnabs; some who started out as Macnabs took up some other surname.

2) Classic mis-attributed parentage - By this category, I mean primarily infidelity or rape. In these cases, again, the yDNA does not match the surname. In many of these cases, especially hundreds or thousands of years in the past, brothers grew up side by side, never knowing or suspecting they did not share the same yDNA. Envision for a moment the impact that just one such incident in, say, 900 AD could have had on the bloodline of a clan if both brothers went on to have ten sons whose lines multiplied fruitfully up to the present day. (Much as none of us like to think of OUR ancestors a having been involved in such things, human nature has not changed, and the fact of the matter is, someone’s ancestors were - it’s estimated that the overall incidence of mis-attributed parentage from all causes is somewhere around 25-30%.) There will also, of course, have been children born to Macnab women out of wedlock and raised with the Macnab name; conversely, we have project members whose ancestors were fathered by Macnabs but raised under another name, and we’re now delighted to welcome them home as Macnabs.

As you can easily see from all of that, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that we have such a wide array of yDNA in our midst. The central point that I’m trying to make here is this : just as the ways in which our ancestors became Macnabs/McNabs/McNabbs/MacNabbs, etc was varied, so our yDNA is varied. There is no one “RIGHT” Macnab yDNA. You are no less a McNab if you don’t match the Chief or the Cadet Houses; you are no more a McNabb if you do.

You are ALL MacNabbs, and Macnabs you will all remain, regardless of how you got here. The varied stories that we can uncover with our DNA make our shared history that much richer and more exciting, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of uncovering it and rewriting it with you.

As always, if you have questions about your DNA results or about your Macnab history, please feel free to email me.

Loraine Smith

Shennachie to the Chief of Clan Macnab