The Notorious Chief

This article originally appeared on Clan Macnab’s website, which has just undergone a revamp. You can visit the website by clicking here.


The Macnab, by Sir Henry Raeburn (1802)

The striking and imposing character glaring down from Sir Henry Raeburn’s celebrated portrait The Macnab seems to be the perfect figure of an eighteenth century highland chief. This giant of a man stands dressed in the uniform of Lieutenant Colonel of the Breadalbane Fencibles – a green jacket with silver braid, a red tartan vest, a kilt in Macnab tartan, tartan stockings, a badger-head sporran and a bonnet of tall black and white feathers on his head. Armed with a dirk, broadsword and pistol, the chief stands pictured against the backdrop of a lonely highland pass, right hand poised at his pistol.

The man in the portrait is Francis Macnab (1734-1816), landowner and 16th chief of Clan Macnab. Known to those around him as Francis More (Big Francis), he was a giant of a man, measuring six foot three in height and of immense strength. Over his 82 years, Francis drank, gambled and womanised his way through what was left of the Macnab fortunes and estate, fathering at least 32 children and eventually passing away hugely in debt (£35,000 in the red to be precise). While Francis is most well-known as the subject of Raeburn’s portrait, a reputation for excessively eccentric and uninhibited ways have ensured that he remains remembered as one of Scotland’s most notorious chiefs.

Francis was born in 1734 to John Macnab (15th chief) and Jean Buchanan, where they lived just outside of Killin in Kinnell House – the heart of Clan Macnab territory. At the time Kinnell House was the seat of the clan following the destruction of Eilean Ran Castle by Cromwellian forces in 1654. Francis would have been 11 years old at the time of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, and it seems as though the clan, like many at the time, were divided in their loyalties.

John Macnab was an ardent Hanoverian supporter and Major in the British Army. His military history has been rather muddled over time, with some reports suggesting he served in the Hanoverian Army during the Rising. His brother Archibald Macnab had an impressive military career, which included serving as a captain in the Loudoun Highlanders during the Rising. He was captured and taken prisoner by the Jacobites during the Battle of Prestonpans.

Despite the chief’s loyalties, some Macnab clansmen were listed as Jacobite supporters, serving with the Duke of Perth. On Francis’ maternal side of the family the leanings were well and truly Jacobite – Jean Buchannan’s brother was Francis Buchanan of Arnprior, a notable Jacobite supporter who was beheaded at Carlisle in October 1746. Prince Charles gifted to him a ruby ring which is on display in the National Museum in Edinburgh, and his sword (also a gift from Charles) is in possession of the current Chief. His lands at Arnprior were confiscated following the Rising, but eventually restored to his sister.


The Macnab inherited the chieftainship in 1778 at the age of 44 and lived the life of an old-fashioned feudal chief, admired and reverenced by all around him. For his entire life, the Macnab battled against the rising levels of an inherited debt that had financially crippled past generations of Macnabs. His father had provided a large amount of debt as a result of lengthy and unsuccessful litigation against his powerful cousin and neighbour, the Earl of Bredalbane. The Macnab’s extravagant lifestyle sure didn’t relieve any of the financial pressure – even inheriting his mother’s lands at Arnprior and the successful foundation of the Dreadnought Hotel in Callander could not support the weight of his excesses.

One particular evening, a bailiff who had come to serve a writ was seen approaching Kinnell House. The Macnab hid and gave orders that the bailiff be told the Laird would return in the morning, and in the meantime was to be lavishly entertained with as much whisky as he could handle overnight. When the bailiff awoke in the morning with an immense hangover, he looked at the window of Kinnell House and saw what looked like a city-clad gentlemen hanging by his neck from the branch of a great wych elm hear the house. When he asked Macnab’s housekeeper what the grisly sight was, she replied “Oh, that’s just a wee bit Baillie boy who angered the Laird. Now will you no’ tell us whit your ain business is, sir, for the Macnab is due back soon.” The bailiff fled shortly after, not daring to serve the writ, and the dummy was taken down from the tree.

Innis Bhuide - Burial Island of the Chiefs of Macnab)

Innis Bhuide – Burial Island of the Chiefs of Macnab)

The Macnab was also notable as a substantial producer and consumer of whisky. Heron, who toured Perthshire in 1792, wrote: “The Macnab produced the best whisky to be found in Scotland.” He is also said to have established his own illicit distillery in Killin, drinking the whisky produced there from a nine gallon jug called ‘The Bachelor’. He had an immense dislike of the government, who involved itself in what he regarded as his affairs, and had a particular hatred of excisemen in search of illegal whisky produced by his clansmen.

The Macnab never married but certainly kept busy during his lifetime, fathering at least 32 illegitimate offspring. One particular legend tells of a day he saw two boys fighting in the main street of Killin. Upon asking them why, one of the boys replied: “I said I was the Chief’s son, and he said he was as well.” Francis winked at the boys’ mothers as he replied: “Ah boys, dinnae fight over that, ye both are.” It is also said that the Macnab once proposed to a woman by offering as enticement the chance to have her final resting place in the most beautiful burial ground in Scotland, Innis Bhuide (the burial island of the Chiefs of Macnab). There is even a tablet in memory of one of his numerous progeny who acquitted themselves nobly on the battlefield, located on the wall of the burial enclosure on the island.

Plenty of other tales exist that are testament to the Macnab’s larger than life character. He once greeted a visitor to Killin from Edinburgh with: “The Highlands are no place for a man with breeches on!” And on 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. The MacNab – he refused to acknowledge anyone who called him Mr MacNab – returned carrying a golden eagle on his arm.

The Macnab was also present at a banquet held for George IV in Edinburgh, where he was allegedly banned from subsequent festivities for defending the right of MacDonnell of Glen Garry to place his arms in sight while the guests were dining. It was said that the Macnab threatened the safety of the King, if Glen Garry was harmed.

In 1812, with no legitimate hier, the Macnab made a disposition of the clan lands to his nephew Archibald Macnab (1778-1860). The mounting debts had forced the necessity to mortgage most of the property at Killin, although it wasn’t until the Macnab died at Callander in 1814 that Archibald realised just how encumbered the estate was. He made desperate efforts to extricate the estate, but in 1823 a writ of forclosure was issued. Archibald disappeared, fleeing to London then Canada, where eventually he received a grant of 81,000 acres in the Valley of the Ottawa River. 85 Macnabs joined him in 1825, however Archibald had promised more than he could provide, as the early years of establishing the estate were filled with immense difficulties and discomfort.


Archibald’s goal was to recover his ancestral lands at Killin (including Kinnell House and Innis Bhuide), however in 1828 the lands were sold to the fourth Earl of Breadalbane, the principal creditor of the debt. The contents of Kinnell House were included in the sale, where they were kept as objects of interest to visitors to the house until they were auctioned off in 1935. In 1838 an inquiry was launched into excessive rents being charged at the Macnab settlement in Ottawa. Archibald was made to refund the money and was left a ruined man, leaving Canada for good in 1853. After some time spent in Orkney and London, he died in relative obscurity in France in 1860.

Sarah Anne, the eldest of Archibald’s children, was recognised as the eighteenth chief. She died unmarried in Italy in 1894, ending the line of the old chiefs, and beginning much discussion and argument within the clan as to who should succeed. Today Raeburn’s portrait of Francis Macnab hangs on permanent display in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, ensuring the legacy the Macnab’s extravagant life lives on.


About Nadine Lee

Originally from New Zealand, Nadine is a documentary researcher now based in the north east of Scotland.

View all posts by Nadine Lee →

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