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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XIV. - Francie Mor Mac an Aba

THIS last Chief of the Macnabs, who possessed what fragment of the patrimony of his ancestors had escaped the vengeance of Robert Bruce, and sub- sequent forfeitures and disasters, died twelve years before I was born, and his property was sold at highest market value a few years after his death to his old and very helpful friend, the Earl of Breadalbane, who had at a former crisis in his financial affairs saved him by procuring a commission for him as major in the Perthshire and Local Militia, and later on in the Breadalbane Volunteers. Long after his death the country rang with stories of his doings and sayings. He was so eccentric that he was a law to himself. His word was his bond, but it was only the word on his honour which could really bind him, while he looked upon a written obligation as a thing to be discharged when it suited his convenience. He was tall, strong, handsome, and brave to excess, but withal too good-natured to be quarrelsome. He had his moral line of prohibition, but he looked on unmarried peasant girls as the natural prey or prizes of long descent chiefs like himself. He never married, but was the father of a baker's dozen of children. Rumour magnified the number of them so generously that a society lady in Edinburgh Plurnply asked him if it was true that he had twenty-six children. The answer she got was "Madam, I never could count aboon twenty-five."

That was mere banter, but as Janet, his house- keeper, bore eight children to him, and he had five or more by different servant girls before Janet took command of himself and his house, he was fairly well supplied with offspring. In his early roving days he was a thorn in the flesh to his worthy father, John Macnab of Bovain, and to the scholarly and sensitively religious minister of Kill in, the Rev. James Stewart, who translated the New Testament and a good portion of the Old Testament into the Gaelic of the Highlands. Father and minister, the one with his paternal lectures and the other with his Church censures, were such plagues to him that he bought the farm of Cruigruie, in Balquhidder, and went to live there. He paid an instalment of the price by money which had come to him probably from his grandmother, but he never completed the purchase. When his father died a lad was sent over the hill to tell him the news, which he received with gladness, being then botli without credit and money. As reported to me by Balquhidder men, these were the words which passed between him and the messenger, who came to him bonnet in hand outside the house and said,

"Mhic an Aba, tha ur n-athair marbh."

Macnab "Mata, 'ille, 's math do naigheachd. So dhuit tri sgilean. Rach a stigh's gheibh thu biadh's deoch."

Messenger "Macuab, your father is dead."

Macnab "Well lad, good is your news. Here's threepence for you. Go in and you'll get food and drink."

The three pennies were no doubt all the coins he had in his pocket then, for he was a liberal giver when he had anything to give. When he succeeded to his patrimony and brought Janet to be his house- keeper at Kinnell, he settled down to a life of comparative decency. His father provided for the proper bringing-up of the early crop of illegitimate grandchildren. He provided fairly well for Janet's brood himself. The daughters married honest countrymen and made good wives to them. Janet's two sons, who did not marry, were well provided "for by a property in Callander which their father bought for them at a low price, and promptly paid for, and which turned out to be a profitable investment. He was ready enough to admit paternity in every case of misconduct, but to profess penitence and to promise amendment was more than he could be induced to do. When he settled down in regular concubinage with Janet, he paid his "umhla" or fine to the poor box, got respectable people to hold his children for baptism, and was otherwise let off by more lax ministers than the first he had to deal with, as a half-reformed reprobate. His good qualities made him popular, and were supposed to out- balance his one notorious and incorrigible immorality. In another matter he took a slantendicular view of duty. He was a Justice of the Peace and a friend and patron of the smugglers. This friendship and sympathy suffered no interruption during the few years in which he was himself a licensed producer of whisky. It was shortly before 1796 that he set up a small distillery at Killin on his own side of the river Dochart. That speculation did not pay and had soon to be dropped. When he was residing in Balquidder, a smuggler whom he had befriended came to him in much distress to announce that two barrels full of whisky, which he had hidden in the hills till he could get them conveyed southward for sale, had been discovered by revenue men, who were then taking them with great difficulty (as they had no horses) down to the roadway, whence they were to be carried to Callander to be condemned. "Have they found out that the barrels belong to you?" asked Macnab. "No doubt," replied the man, "their base informant knew and told that they were mine." "You are a law-breaking rascal, and it would only be like you if you, with your accomplices, followed them to the place on the way where the revenue men, arriving late and tired, will certainly stop to rest, eat, and drink, and if, while they are doing so, you and the other fellows transferred under cloud of night the whisky into new barrels, and filled the old ones with water Lord ! if your trick succeeded what a joke it would be when the amazed revenue men, on being called upon to prove they had really seized smuggled whisky, found there was nothing of whisky about them except an old smell!!" The plan suggested was, with some help from the innkeeper of the half-way house of entertainment, easily carried out. The revenue men were covered with ridicule, for they could not swear that the barrels contained whisky when they had seized them, and whatever they might suspect regarding the transfer, they were far from anxious to confess how careless their guardianship had been.

Macnab kept his Volunteer regiment, under excellent discipline, not so much by military severity as by terrible scoldings in barbed Gaelic. He was ordered to take his men to Stirling, and he took care that there should be no indiscretions by the way, as he was bent on making his regiment a model of military propriety. They were close on Stirling, and Macnab, looking like an old hera of romance, was riding in state at the head of his men, swollen with pride in their good conduct, splendid marching, and kilted and plaided picturesque appearance, when word came to him from the rear that gangers were trying to stop the waggons to search for smuggled whisky, which, they said, they had learned was concealed among the baggage. A wrathful burst of surprise and indignation proved that oji this occasion the smugglers had abused Macriab's confidence. Yet for all that he would do his best to cover their misconduct. He ordered the regiment to halt, and rode back to the rear, taking with him a sergeant and a dozen men. On coming to the waggons he found his quartermaster and the chief of the would-be searchers in hot altercation. He silenced the former by a wave of his hand, and turning to the latter, asked, "My pretty man, who are you and your people? And what do you want?" The latter explained that he was a revenue officer, and that on information received he wanted to search the waggons for smuggled whisky. "Well," replied Macnab, "the information you declare you have received has been kept from my knowledge, and without proof I'll not believe it. But produce your warrant and you may search away." The other, taken aback, said he had had no time to procure a warrant. "Not time to procure a war- rant? How dare you stop the King's waggons on the King's highway? Who are you? Show your commission." He acknowledged that he had not his commission with him. "No search warrant, no commission to be shown? How do I know that you are not impostors, thieves, and robbers" Then turning to the sergeant and his men, he said, "Lads, this is a serious matter. Load with ball." The, revenue men scampered off as fast as they could, thankful to escape with their lives. Then, reverting to Gaelic, Macnab first swore at the waggon men for abusing his confidence, and then told them to drive into Stirling as fast as if the deil were chasing them, and if they had whisky among the baggage, to get it out, and out of sight, before the revenue men could come on them with a search warrant. His orders were carried out, and when the search was made in Stirling nothing seizable was discovered.

Macnab was punctilious about being properly addressed. No mistake was ever made in Gaelic. Everybody addressed him as Mhic an Aba, "Son of the Abbot." But those who did not know Gaelic and Highland rules of precedence often made him angry by calling him "Mr Macnab." He could not bear that indignity, although he took no offence at all if he was called Laird of Macnab. One day as he was sitting in an upper room which had its windows open, in his house at Kinnell, he heard the bell of the front door below ring, and when Janet appeared, a stranger asked: "Is Mr Macnab at home?" The Chief, resenting the unconscious insult to his dignity, rushed to the open window of his room above, thrust out his head and roared like a bull of Bashan, "There is nae Mister Macnab here. There are mony Mister Macnabs, but deil tak me if there is but ae Macnab."

Macnab's always precarious financial business was managed by the Perth bank, where the officials, by knowing his peculiarities and how to humour him, always got back the money lent to him with full interest. Macnab never thought that it was incumbent on him to pay upon the dates mentioned in his bills. But by mischance one of his bills fell into the hands of a Stirling bank agent, who, when no reply was made to his note asking payment without delay, resorted to legal proceedings, which Macnab ignored, and having got decree against him the agent sent a Sheriff-officer and concurrent to Kihnell to poind goods and chattels, unless the debt with interest and expenses should be instantly paid. Macnab knew that these limbs of the law were coming forth- with to pounce on him, so he thought it best to pay at once a long visit to Taymouth, where he was always welcome, and to leave Janet to deal with the visitors. When he was away they came late in the evening. They were footsore, weary, hungry, and thirsty. When they told their errand, Janet assured them that the Laird had gold in his kist, and would readily pay them when he got back from visiting his friends, Lord and Lady Breadalbane, at Tay- mouth, which return, she hoped, would take place the next day. They got plenty to eat and drink, were elated with the hope of obtaining full payment promptly, and it was in a jubilant frame of mind that they followed Janet to the ground-floor room in which they were to sleep. The moon was shining bright; the bed was at the room's further end; while the window, which was near the door, was open; and Janet, while bidding them good-night, and holding the door half-open, advised them to shut the window. The one who went to do her bidding looked out, and seeing the figure of a man hanging to a tree outside, emitted a cry of consternation which drew his companion to his side. "What is that horrid thing?" they asked in one breath. "Oh," replied Janet, "that is only a poor body who has been hanged out of hand by the Laird, because he came bothering about the payment of a miserable debt." Having given her explanation, Janet quickly withdrew, and closed and locked the heavy door behind her. The trembling limbs of the law, believing Janet's tale, and fearing a similar fate for bothering the formidable Macnab about a debt, made their escape through the unbarred window and got far beyond the Breadalbane march before the sun rose. What so thoroughly frightened them were old clothes stuffed with straw and a round bag filled with chaff to represent a human head. Wherever he got the money perhaps it was lent to him at Taymouth this particular debt was paid without further delay, and nothing worse than fun sprang out of Janet's trickery.

All classes of his countrymen agreed in the opinion variously expressed that Francie Mor Mac an Aba was the most remarkable anachronism that could be found in the orderly-disposed Highlands of the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. His faults were counter- balanced by many good qualities. In grain he was noble and chivalrous. He made no enemies. He was a perpetual source of amusement and eccentric surprises. When in good old age he was buried with his ancestors in romantic Innis Buidhe, he had sincere mourners there, and thousands who were not there said with a sigh, "We shall never see his like again." His lineage probably went back to William the Lion's Abbot of Glendochart; and an ancestor of his, to the detriment of his descendants, for the most of his lands was taken from him to endow the new priory of Strathfillan, fought along with the Lome Chief against Bruce at Dalrigh, where the future hero of Bannockburn narrowly escaped death, or a capture which would end in death to him and to the independence of Scotland. Francie succeeded to a small estate which was encumbered by some family charges in favour of junior members of his father's family. At his death Francie's estate was quite hopelessly insolvent. It had, therefore, to be sold, and as the next legitimate heir, Erchie'n Doctair, could not re-purchase it, the Earl of Breadalbane became the purchaser. Thus the candle of an old lineage was removed from the place which had been lighted by it for four or five centuries.

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