In Search of Mungo

In Search of Mungo

By Peter McNabb Melbourne, Australia

I have always been intrigued by my great-great grandfather Mungo Macnab (McNab). The name Mungo itself conjures up images of a prehistoric and formidable warrior. What was this Mungo Man really like? How does he fit into the wider story of Clan Macnab?

Over 40 years ago, a family elder told me that Mungo had two wives and at least 14 children. As the story went, he lived on the Cowal Peninsula in Argyllshire in Scotland, worked as a tenant on a farm called Kilail, and was buried in Kilfinan Cemetery on the south-west coast of the Peninsula. All of this was enough to stimulate my interest. In my spare time over many years, I have searched Scottish records, reference books and essays, and recently with my wife Gayle made a pilgrimage to Scotland to understand more. My account now is much fuller and different from the sketchy outline I was given all those years ago.

Map of the Cowal Peninsula - click to vew at full size

Map of the Cowel Peninsular - click to vew at full size

Although taking place over 160 years ago, Mungo’s life has some elements of a modern family story – the love of the place in which he was born; the moves to several different houses over the 77 years of his life; the break-up of his first marriage, his wife leaving with the children; a second marriage taking place almost immediately; the passing on of specialist skills to his children; a sense of authoritarian control over his family; a scandalous relationship involving his young 21 year old son resulting in the birth of an “illegitimate” daughter; and the departure of all the surviving children to a faraway place in Canada to experience a new life immediately after his death.

Mungo Macnab was born in 1770 as the youngest child of Donald Macnab and Christina Sinclair. He was baptised on 5th March 1770 at Kildaloain in the Glendaruel valley of Kilmodan Parish. From at least 1761 until 1793, his parents and over time his four siblings lived as tenants at Lephinkill farm at Glendaruel where his father Donald was the head tenant known as the tacksman.


Glendaruel is a beautifully green glaciated valley in a remote and secret part of Argyll, extending some 60-70 miles south-west of the Macnab stronghold at Killin in Perthshire. The area was full of Campbells and Lamonts at the time. How did Mungo’s family and the very few other Macnab families end up living here?


Family stories suggest that my ancestors were part of the Barachastalain Branch of the Macnabs, one of the two Argyll branches of the Clan. This branch claims to be descendants of Duncan, second son of Finlay who according to some accounts succeeded the first Macnab Chief, Gilbert of Bovain in the late 14th century.

Duncan chose to become a maker of swords, armour and jewellery and went to Italy to perfect his skills. When he returned to Scotland, he became a very accomplished craftsman for his fellow clansmen as well as the Campbells and even some Kings of Scotland. In 1440, he was commissioned to make the ironwork and supervise the building of the stronghold for the Campbells of Breadalbane at Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe in Argyll while Sir Duncan Campbell was in Spain fighting the Moors. To undertake this, Duncan built a house and forge at Barr a Chaistealain above the current village of Dalmaly, about 30 miles west of Killin and 50 miles north-west of my ancestors’ farms in Glendaruel.

For nearly 400 years, Duncan’s descendants developed their skills, handing the craft on from generation to generation. My great-great-great grandfather Donald had a ring made in about 1760 to celebrate his marriage. That ring has been passed down to family members over 250 years, and is now held by Charles (Chuck) MacNab in the St Louis area of the United States.

For my direct Macnab ancestors, the swords and armour probably became less significant as their involvement in fighting tapered off, particularly after sustained losses of the Macnabs and other Highland clans leading up to the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Through the connections with the Campbells with their expansive land holdings, they developed their skills particularly with cattle so that by the mid-18th century, key members of my family had established an agricultural base at the south- western end of the Cowal Peninsula.

Lephinkill is a lovely farm of 361 acres of meadow and hill, situated about a half a mile south of the Clachan (village) of Glendaruel. From our recent visit in September 2014 and discussions with the current owners Peter and Joy Kennedy, we could picture my great-great-great grandparents and their children along with several others in the small rustic stone farmhouse next to the barns, stable and sheds.

My great-great grandfather Mungo grew up in this environment. He worked hard on the farm. But he was not removed from one of the local scandals that came before the Kilmodan Kirk Session. In 1789, his master Alexander Macallan, the Baron MacChanich, was found to have “travelled over the country with a hussy called Ann Nicglasan.” According to the records, “he slept with her in Greenock and Glasgow under the cloak of being married to her”. The session was scandalised when he told it he had “lain with twenty girls”. They said he behaved with utmost impudence and contempt to the Session.” In an effort to clear his master’s name, Mungo Macnab came forward, stating that he “lay in the middle of both (Alexander and Ann) in the same bed one night in the Clachan and nothing had happened”.

In January 1793, Mungo - almost at the age of 23 - married Ann Campbell at Kilmodan Church a short distance up the road from the farm. This was considered a prominent union for young Mungo. The Campbells of Glendaruel were the lairds of Lephinkill and other nearby farms.


Mungo and Ann had five children at Lephinkill between 1796 and 1804 – Catherine, John, Christina, Donald, and Colin. Mungo took on the role of tacksman from his father and his position at Lephinkill was recognised when he became a member of the Glendaruel Friendly Society on 11 December 1811.

However, family stories suggest that tensions at that time erupted between Mungo and Ann. There was a major disagreement over their religious affiliations. Ann wanted the family to convert to Roman Catholicism. She could not continue with Mungo in the Church of Scotland environment in Glendaruel. It is understood that with the support of her Campbell family, she left Mungo and took their children with her to the Glasgow area, never to return to the valley. At least one of the descendants of the four children moved to Northern England, settling and working at Hyde near Manchester.

The separation from Ann no doubt had a major effect on Mungo. His connection with the Campbells of Glendaruel was broken and he could no longer work at Lephinkill. Although there may have been relief for him that the religious issue had been settled, the departure of Ann and their children probably aroused in him feelings of humiliation and guilt within this closely knit community.

It is unclear what happened next. Did Ann die? Was the marriage annulled? Whatever transpired, Mungo quickly found a new partner in Janet McNeil who was almost 20 years younger. At age 41 and with Janet at 22, they married on 10 January 1812 in the Kilmodan Church, the same church where he married his first wife Ann. As he had to remove himself from Lephinkill, Mungo and his new wife became tenants of Evanachan farm in Stralachan Parish, about a mile north of Otter Ferry and eight miles to the west and over the hills on a narrow twisting road from Glendaruel.


Evanachan is a large cattle and sheep farm of about 1,295 acres with frontage of about two miles along Loch Fyne. The stone farmhouse and farm buildings occupy a beautiful position high up on a hill, commanding breathtaking sea views. It continues to operate as a working farm. The Barge family whom we met on our journey have been owners since the 1940’s and they have expanded their operation to include aquaculture through Otter Ferry Seafish Ltd, farming trout, salmon and halibut.

Mungo and Janet stayed at Evanachan for about five years. Four children were born on the farm – three daughters Anne, Elizabeth (Betsy) and Isabel in 1812, 1813 and 1817 respectively and their eldest son Duncan in 1815.

In about 1818, the family moved back to Glendaruel. They located some three to four miles north of the Clachan (village), settling first at Duiletter farm and then in about 1822, moving north to Conchra.

Duiletter was a good cattle pasture and hill farm of over 1,100 acres. It now contains a number of small houses used by timber workers on the adjacent forest lands. Conchra was a small settlement of farmhouses and buildings about a mile north of Duiletter. There is an attractive stone house remaining, immediately adjacent to the main road between Glendaruel and Strachur.


Eight children were born at these two farms between 1819 and 1830. Two sons John and Archibald (my great grandfather) were born at Duiletter in 1819 and 1821 respectively. The remaining six children – Mungo, Janet, Jane (Jean), Patrick, Mary and Peter were born at Conchra between 1823 and 1830.

It seems to me that Mungo and Janet had an authoritarian approach to their large family. They directed their sons to become skilled in specialist areas so they could continue working in the district rather than be encouraged to move elsewhere particularly overseas to Canada where many Cowal families emigrated in the 1820s and 1830s. The eldest son Duncan together with his brothers John and Mungo and later Peter were taught Mungo’s considerable skills with cattle, while Archibald became a stonemason.

Mungo and Ann also seemed to hold a tight rein over their daughters encouraging them to be good servants in their homes and for neighbouring families, but not to get married.

By 1833, the family, in need of larger accommodation, had moved again from Glendaruel over the mountains to the large Baronlongart estate in Kilfinan Parish. In the rather unexpected but very useful census undertaken by the Reverend Joseph Stark as part of his pastoral duties and recorded in the Kilfinan Register of Births and Marriages, 35 people were living at Baronlongart at this time. The Macnab family consisted of parents Mungo and Janet together with eight children – Ann, Duncan, John, Archy, Mungo, Janet, Jean and Patrick.

Daughters Elizabeth and Isabel were shown on the census document in brackets, suggesting that, although they were part of the family, they were working somewhere else when the minister visited. There was no reference to Mary or Peter, suggesting that one or both of them had died.

Mungo and his family stayed at Baronlongart for a few years until they moved north within the same parish along the coast road to their last home at Kilail, a farm on the road immediately north of Otter Ferry. Here again they became part of a community of 35 living on the farm and Mungo was designated as tacksman.
Kilail continues to be a beautiful farm of over 500 acres of rolling countryside. Now occupied by a professional couple, it has stunning views of Loch Fyne.

Things began to change by the early 1840’s. At the time of the official 1841 Census, only four children were living at Kilail with Mungo and Janet – the eldest son Duncan (25) and his brother Mungo (18) with whom he was very close, the second oldest daughter Betsy (27) to help with her mother who was getting on in age (now 50), and the youngest child Peter (now 11). Archibald was away probably in Glasgow working as a stonemason and his older brother John, the black sheep of the family had moved to a farm somewhere else. Three of the older daughters Annie (28), Isabel (23) and Janet (15) were no doubt working at nearby farms as female servants. But none of them was married. And most probably, the remaining three children – Jean, Mary and Patrick – had died sometime between 1833 and 1841, as there is no mention of them again in our family story.
Although there were several local moves over the 30 years from 1812 to 1841, it seems clear that Mungo and Janet were determined to stay in this south-west part of the Cowal Peninsula. They were not affected as many others were by the Highland Clearances. Mungo obviously was highly regarded for his agricultural skills, particularly in raising and managing cattle, even when he was over 70 at Kilail. The family was not persuaded by other local families or hard selling agents to emigrate to Australia or Canada, particularly to the newly established Cowal community in south- western Ontario where several of his neighbours had settled as early as the 1820s. By the 1841 Census, Mungo’s family was the only Macnab family living in KIlfinan Parish or the neighbouring Kilmodan Parish at Glendaruel. Family and clan ties seemed to be less important than the ties to his local community.


It seems that Mungo clearly loved this isolated part of the Cowal Peninsula and wanted to remain there until he died. Even as economic conditions deteriorated and it was more difficult for at least four of his sons to earn a decent living with him at Kilail, he was determined that no one was to leave the country. He wanted to have his family with him or close by.

Mungo’s wife Janet died on 22 August 1844 at age 55. Janet had been a strong support for Mungo. She had borne him 12 children in the 32 years they were married. She provided stability for the children, and watched closely over her daughters ensuring that none was married even though Annie, Betsy and Isabel were all over 25 when she died, well beyond the normal age of female wedlock.

Things started to change very shortly after Janet’s death. Five months later on 21 January 1845, daughter Betsy married John McFarlane a fisherman from Aughgoyle, a property further south on the Cowal Peninsula. Betsy had stayed at home for many years looking after her parents and particularly in the last years of her mother’s life. Now she was free to marry. Her younger sister Janet at 21 married John McFarlane’s younger brother Andrew two years later on 23 January 1847. The tight grip over the children appeared to be loosening.

Scandal also rocked Mungo’s life shortly after Janet passed away. His fourth eldest son Mungo, perhaps unable to cope with his mother’s death, had a relationship at age 21 with Christina McPherson, leading to the birth on 7 August 1845 of what the Kilfinan Kirk Session in its records called an “illegitimate” daughter Mary. It is significant that the baby was born at Mungo’s home at Kilail. Mungo senior and junior steadfastly bore the shame of the birth, particularly as the Church refused to christen the child immediately after its birth, as was the normal custom. It took until 11 October 1847, two years later, before the baby was baptised.

Sadly, Mary’s baptism occurred only a few weeks before her grandfather and my great-great grandfather died on 5 November 1847 at the age of 77. Mungo was buried as his wife Janet had been – not at the KIlfinan churchyard close to his home at Kilail (where my family elders told me he was buried) - but just outside the Kilmodan Church over the mountains where he and his two wives had been married and next to Lephinkill farm where he was born and brought up by his parents and where he had worked for several years. Mungo clearly had a strong attachment to Glendaruel.


The last three years of Mungo’s life brought mixed blessings. He experienced the marriage of two daughters to the McFarlane boys and the developing closeness between the two families. Daughter Betsy gave birth to a son Alexander McFarlane on 4 May 1846 and a daughter Janet on 23 August 1847 who was baptised on 11 October 1847 - the same day as her disgraced cousin Mary. However, there was sadness as well. His first grandson Alexander did not live for very long. And then there was the ongoing hardship of missing his wife Janet and enduring the ongoing scandal of granddaughter Mary’s birth.

The death of Mungo had an immediate impact on his children. Freed from their father’s controlling influence and convinced of the new opportunities overseas, the nine surviving children decided to leave Scotland almost immediately and emigrate to the Cowal community in south-western Ontario. For family and probably financial reasons, the children travelled in two different ships from Glasgow to New York in the summers of 1848 and 1849 before going inland to Canada.

The two oldest children Anne and Duncan (both over 32), younger brother Mungo with two-year-old daughter Mary, and sister Janet with husband Andrew McFarlane travelled on the Ship Brooksby. Interestingly, 17-year-old Mungo McDonald, a grandson from Mungo’s first marriage, accompanied them on the voyage. They arrived in New York on 27 July 1848, less than nine months after Mungo’s death.

The second ship, Hyndeford, arrived in New York about a year later on 11 August 1849. It contained a much larger group of the McNabs and McFarlanes. The were five McNab children on board – Isabel, John, Archibald, Peter and sister Betsy with her husband John McFarlane and their two children Janet (2) and Isabella (less than a year old). John’s parents Duncan and Janet McFarlane and brother George came on the voyage as well.

Mungo McNab left an enduring legacy for our family. He clearly was recognised over many years as a highly skilled man on the various farms where he was tacksman. He was fiercely independent, determined to stay on the Cowal Peninsula that he loved deeply when all other McNab relatives left for other places. In that sense, he was a loner. His connection with that isolated community at the south- west corner of the Scottish Highlands was much stronger than his ties to family relatives and other members of Clan Macnab.

Mungo also was a man of principle and conviction. He held firm to his faith in the Church of Scotland even though it meant a separation from his first wife Ann Campbell. Her departure with their five children no doubt caused a stir in Glendaruel. But Mungo survived the break-up and his removal from Lephinkill farm where he and his father had been tacksman. His determination to stay on and work in the Cowal area together with his second marriage and the subsequent birth and rearing of so many children showed a feisty spirit that was an essential part of his character.

In all of its richness, diversity and struggle, Mungo’s story adds an important dimension to the narrative of Clan Macnab.

If you are connected in any way to our family or would like to know more about my ancestors and current family, please contact me on Further family contributions to the Clan Macnab website also would be greatly appreciated.

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