Archibald Macnab, 17th Chief – was he really that awful?

| May 9, 2016 | 0 Comments

 

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                               Archibald Macnab of Macnab, National Gallery of Scotland, artist unknown

 

If you’ve read any of the numerous books and articles written about Archibald McNab, 17th Chief of Clan McNab, you probably have a pretty bad impression of him. Vain, arrogant, unscrupulous, devious – just a few of the adjectives applied liberally to Archibald’s character. In the majority of histories – RA Jeffrey’s “Macnab”, Roland Wild’s “Macnab the Last Laird”, and Alexander Fraser’s “The Last Laird of McNab” he is universally painted as a heinous villain, treating his settlers as poorly as he treated his common-law wife Catherine Fisher, herself painted as a drunken harlot. But is that all there is to Archibald?

Rather than try to mount my own tentative defence of his character, I’m going to quote from several sources, and let you draw your own conclusions.

In a letter written to his son Allan Sept 20, 1849, from New York, Archibald talks of the possibility of taking up a Legacy left to him 23 years previously by a Mrs. Fairfull, in the form of a Wadset on a shooting lodge in Orkney. He says he is thinking of going to see it, for “if I had my foot upon the heather among the Muirfowl, it would renew my age like the Eagle”. He sends “warmest wishes to your mother” , and closes the letter with, “Accept the assurance that I am, Dear Allan, yours affectionately.”

In other letters to Allan, quoted in Peter Hessel’s “McNab – The Township”,

  •  Oct 30, 1845, from Montreal, to his son Allan regarding leasing the farm at White Lake, “It will save your     mother and Kitty (his daughter by Catherine Fisher) a great deal of drudgery and anxiety…”
  • Nov 19, 1845, from Montreal, to Allan, “I was sorry to perceive that your Mother is again beginning to feel her side…”. He had his Montreal physician prepare some pills for Catherine, and planned to send them along with some clothes and flannel for her.
  • Feb 1, 1851, from New York, to Allan, “Sir Allan (Sir Allan Napier McNab) has used me most shamefully – I have got no settlement whatever effected with him…; he has offered me land, but no money as yet, nothing but promises, promises….”
  • Dec 1, 1852, from Orkney, to Allan, “the property I made over to you is your mother’s so long as she lives. Give her…..my warmest regards.”

 

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Waba Cottage

 

In his Clan History, published in 1907, John McNab of Callander argues that, “Faults he certainly had, but at the same time it ought to be remembered that he had also many good qualities, and that his opponents were not wholly free from blame.”

In 1981, Garnet McDiarmid, Ph.D, undertook a study of the original emigrants to McNab County. He makes a number of comments worth noting:

  • “Unfortunately they (Wild and Fraser) differ so much on substantial matters between themselves, and fail to provide the kind of citations that historians and genealogists need that we cannot depend on their use of details or the validity of their many assumptions and conclusions…”
  • “When one comes to recognize that the terms under which the settlers were to receive their lots of one or two hundred acres of land were somewhat different from any other settlement in Upper Canada; that the degree to which these terms were known and understood by the settlers is problematic and, moreover, the fidelity to which they were interpreted by McNab is open to question, then one realizes the significance of the political-historical story.”
  • With regard to timber rights, McDiarmid says, “the chief negotiated an exchange of the grants of 1200 and 5000 acres to him personally, for the privilege of exclusive rights to all pine timber remaining upon the unlocated lots in said Township”. This request was formalized in a memorial from McNab to the Lieutenant Governor, dated July 20, 1836 and was approved for the second time on the 23rd of July 1836 (Executive Council Minute of 27 July 1839).

In an address given by Mrs. A.W. Morton (a grand-daughter to Archibald by his last wife, Elizabeth Marshall) to the London & Home Counties branch of the Clan McNab Society in 1953, she has a few things to say in defense of her Grandpa Archie:

  • That she lunched with one of the authors of an Archibald biography, and that he admitted on questioning that where he was unable to obtain facts, he drew upon his imagination.
  • She quotes from “An Historical and Descriptive Account of British America”, by Hugh Murray, F.R.S.E. “By indefatigable exertions he (Archibald McNab) has rendered his residence of Kinnell Lodge exceedingly comfortable and the traveller in those wild regions meets here a cordial welcome. Unluckily his example has not operated with sufficient force on his followers whose habits do not thoroughly fit them for the patient toil required to bring the wilderness under cultivation…”
  • She quotes a Canadian clansman who came to Canada with Archibald (without, unfortunately, naming him or giving her source), “The man wrought as he saw, and his vision was that o’ the past. Let us not forget this, that if it wasna for him we would yet be miserable crofters in Perthshire.”

The official programme of the Arnprior Centennial (Arnprior being the main town in McNab County) states, “The people of Arnprior and McNab Township can be proud of the fiery old reprobate who had the courage to cut a settlement out of a forest and they can admire his boldness to claim a township as his own and attempt to hold it in spite of what settler or government might do.”

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McNab County, Ontario

In a paper he wrote entitled “The Last Laird”, Cmdr. Stanley Nettle, a great-grandson of Archibald, rebuts many of the negative opinions of Archibald:

  • “The fact is that all his proposals and actions were legally done in 1823 with the approval of the then Governor and all were properly drawn up and witnessed. Sir Peregrine Maitland had been appointed Governor….and was severely criticized in John Galt’s writings as having been dishonest in many of his land dealings, yet when the Government saw fit to have an enquiry through pressure from quite other causes the Governor was never criticized but simply replaced. All the blame for troubles in that part of Canada was put on the Chief, and the records which remain were written at the time by those who were involved, or by the Government officials who would not be likely to admit any error, or even support the Chief in case it ruin their reputations.”
  •  “It is not without importance to realize that even in England in the 1830s there was growing unrest and there were riots against the rule by the privileged classes…. In protest against tithes and feudal conditions mobs rioted against the gentry and the Bishops, and had to be quelled by troops.”
  • In a letter to his cousin Buchanan of Leny, as they made plans to bring settlers to Canada, Archibald says, “I will not rest content until I see around me my people on their own land, under the control of their Chief.” (It is important here to consider the traditional holding of Clan lands in Scotland. In broadly general terms, the Clan Chief held the lands of the Crown – or latterly, in The Macnabs’ case, of the Campbells – but he considered that he held them FOR HIS CLAN. The Chief owned the lands, but shared them with his Clansmen by means of tacks, wadsets and rentals, for terms determined by the Chief.)
  • “The Deeds (of the settlers brought by McNab) have been variously described as harsh and vicious, but stripped of their legal verbiage, they virtually say that, having been brought out at the expense of the Chief to McNab Township and been assigned a plot of 100 acres for virtually nothing, the settler agrees to pay the Chief one half bushel of wheat (or other produce of equal value) for every acre cleared. This does not seem terribly crippling, particularly considered in relation to other clauses which said that the settlers would occupy, possess, and enjoy the plot free of any rent or duty whatsoever for the first three years, and that thereafter no rent, duty or any other exaction would be payable on any cultivation in excess of fifty acres.”
  • He also points out that “The Governor had agreed the terms of the Deeds, and also that Archibald should hold them all, taking half a bushel of wheat per year for every acre of ground cleared, and that he alone should be the arbiter as to when the Deeds were released to the clansmen. This was set out by an Order of Council in November 1823.”
  • In describing his ancestor, Cmdr. Nettle says, “…he was kind-hearted and generously hospitable, but at the same time he was obstinate with a determined temper when roused and he would not admit the existence of the gradually evolving changes taking place around him in the social structure of the time nor adjust his ideas to cope with them.”

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Upper Canada Land Petition

In a letter written in 1967 to Chief Archibald Corrie Macnab, Mr. Harry Hinchley of Renfrew Highland Games Inc. :

  • Miss Carrie Fisher, a direct descendant of Donald Fisher, an original McNab settler, used to listen to her father talk to old-timers about the early days. She wrote, “the Chief had many friends amongst the settlers. No traveller, rich or poor, was refused a lodging at Kinnell Lodge.”
  • Hinchley also stated that he had reviewed a History of Crown Timber Regulations and believed “Chief McNab could well have been within his legal rights in his agreement with his tenants.”

The 1907 Report of the Minister of Lands, Forests and Mines of the Province of Ontario discusses the common abuses of land grants at the time:

  • “The main abuse from which the country suffered during the period of maladministration was the granting of wild lands in large tracts, under one pretext or another, to individuals or companies…. The system of granting wild lands was so frequently altered, and the conditions as to settlement or payment of fees so various owing to the different classes of claimants, that it would be a profitless undertaking to attempt to follow the numerous changes in the regulations in Upper and Lower Canada, more especially as varying methods were often in operation at the same time.”
  • “In Lower Canada a method by which the law was ingeniously evaded and influential persons enabled to secure the title to very extensive areas swiftly came into operation. It was known as the system of leaders and associates. The individual who was to reap the benefit…undertook the settlement of a township…..he secured the signature of a number of….associates….when a sufficient number of names had been obtained, the…formalities were complied with and the patents issued. The associates then for a trifling money consideration conveyed their lands to the leader…..The system was introduced into Upper Canada but never fully established.”

It is interesting to note that the grant of land to Archibald McNab contains a clause stating, “A duplicate of the agreement entered into between the Leader and the settlers shall be lodged in the office of the Government.”

So, who was our Archibald, 17th Clan Chief? A villain or a victim? A rouge and a scoundrel, or a man misunderstood and mischaracterized in history written by his enemies? I suppose my answer would be that he was likely a bit of both, but almost certainly not as unredeemably awful as history has tended to paint him – what’s yours?

 

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Chief Archibald

Sources:

  1. Sept 20, 1849 letter from Archibald to Allan : from the papers of James Charles Macnab of Macnab
  2. McNab – The Township, by Peter Hessell published 1988 by Kichesippi Books
  3. The Clan Macnab, A Short Sketch, by John McNab, Callander, published 1907 by The Clan Macnab Association
  4. The Original Emigrants to McNab Township, Upper Canada – 1825, by Garnet McDiarmid, Ph.D., dated February 1981 – from the papers of the late James Charles Macnab of Macnab
  5. Address given by Mrs. A.W. Morton, Hon. Pres. of the London and Home Counties branch of the Clan McNab Society at their first Ceilidh in London Dec 1953 – from the papers of the late James Charles Macnab of Macnab
  6. “The Last Laird, Archibald XIIIth Macnab of Macnab” by Stanley Nettle F.R.S.A., undated – from the papers of the late James Charles Macnab of Macnab
  7. Harry Hinchley letters, dated 1967 – from the papers of the late James Charles Macnab of Macnab
  8. Report of the Minister of Lands, Forest and Mines for the Province of Ontario for the Year 1907, by order of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Printed and published by L.K. Cameron, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1908.

 

© 2014 Loraine Anne Smith All Rights Reserved

The reproduction or redistribution of part or all of the contents of this article, in any form, is prohibited. You may not, without the writer’s express written permission, copy, distribute or commercially exploit the content. The writer may be contacted at macnabhistory@gmail.com

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Category: Chief of MacNab, Clansmen and Clanswomen Around the World, History of Clan Macnab

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