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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Francis M'Nab, Esq., of M'Nab

Scotland, about the close of the eighteenth century, contained few men of greater local notoriety than the herculean Highlander, whom Mr. Kay has represented in the act of reeling along the North Bridge, a little declined from the perpendicular. "The Laird of M'Nab," as he was commonly called, represented his clan at a time when the ancient peculiarities of the manners and ideas of a Highland chief were melting into an union with those of a Lowland gentleman. A strong clash of the primitive character, joined to run a natural eccentricity, tended to make him a wonder in the midst of the cultivated society of his day. To complete the effect of his singular manners, his person was cast in one of nature's most gigantic moulds.

A volume, and that not a small one, might be filled with the curious sayings and doings of this singular gentleman; but unfortunately the greater part of them, for reasons which may be guessed, could not, with any degree of propriety, be laid before the public.

The Laird was remarkable, above all things, for his notions of the dignity of his chieftainship. A gentleman, who had come a great distance to pay him a visit, either ignorant of, or forgetting the etiquette to be observed in speaking to or of a Highland chieftain, inquired if Mr. M'Nab was within?—"Mr." being a contemptible Saxon prefix, applied to every one who wears a passable coat, and well enough probably in the case of those ignoble persons who earn their bread by a profession, but not at all fit to be attached to the name of a Highland chief. The consequence of this error of the Laird's visitor was, that he was refused admittance—a fact the more astonishing to himself, as he distinctly heard the Laird's voice in the lobby. In explanation of his blunder, he was told by a friend that he should have inquired, not for Mr. M'Nab, but for the Laird of M'Nab, or simply M'Nab, by way of eminence. Acting on this hint, he called on the following day, and was not only admitted, but received with a most cordial and hearty welcome.

Of the Laird's literary attainments, some anecdotes have found their way into the jest-books. In one of these he is represented as laying the blame of certain orthographical errors with which he was charged on one occasion to the badness of his pen, triumphantly asking his acciiser," "Wha could spell with sic a pen?"

Of a piece with this, and indicating a somewhat similar degree of intellectual culture, was his going to a jeweller to bespeak a ring, similar to one worn by a friend of his which had taken his fancy, and which was set either with the hair of Charles Edward or some other member of his family, the latter circumstance of course constituting its chief value. "But how soon," said the jeweller, whom he was for binding down to a day for the completion of the work, "will you send me the hair?"—"The hair, sir! " replied M'Nab fiercely; "Py Cot, sir, you must give me the hair to the pargain!"

In cases, however, where the Laird is exhibited in the exercise of his own native wit, he by no means cuts the ridiculous figure he is made to do in such stories as the above. The Laird was a regular attendant on the Leith races, at which he usually appeared in a rather flashy-looking gig. On one of these occasions he had the misfortune to lose his horse, which suddenly dropped down dead. At the races in the following year, a wag who had witnessed the catastrophe rode up to him and said, "M'Nab, is that the same horse you had last year?"

"No, py Cot!" replied the Laird, "but this is the same whip;" and he was about to apply it to the shoulders of the querist when he saved himself by a speedy retreat.

On the formation of the Local Militia in 1808, M'Nab being in Edinburgh, applied for arms for the Breadalbane corps of that force, but which he ought to have called the 4th Perthshire Local Militia. The storekeeper not recognising them by the name given by M'Nab, replied to his application that he did not know such a corps.

"My fine little storekeeper," rejoined the Laird, highly offended at the contempt implied in this answer, "that may be; but, take my word for it, we do not think a bit the less of ourselves by your not knowing us."

M'Nab was proceeding from the west, on one occasion, to Dunfermline, with a company of the Breadalbane Fencibles, of which he had the command. In those days the Highlanders were notorious for incurable smuggling propensities; and an excursion to the Lowlands, whatever might be its cause or import, was an opportunity by no means to be neglected. The Breadalbane men had accordingly contrived to stow a considerable quantity of the genuine "peat reek" into the baggage carts. All went well with the party for some time. On passing Alloa, however, the excisemen there having got a hint as to what the carts contained, hurried out by a shorter path to intercept them. In the meantime, M'Nab, accompanied by a gillie, in the true feudal style, was proceeding slowly at the head of his men, not far in the rear of the baggage. Soon after leaving Alloa, one of the party in charge of the carts came running back and informed their chief that they had all been seized by a posse of excisemen. This intelligence at once roused the blood of M'Nab. "Did the lousy villains dare to obstruct the march of the Breadalbane Highlanders!" he exclaimed, inspired with the wrath of a thousand heroes; and away he rushed to the scene of contention. There, sure enough, he found a party of excisemen in possession of the carts. "Who the devil are you?" demanded the angry chieftain. "Gentlemen of the excise," was the answer. "Robbers! thieves! you mean; how dare you lay hands on his Majesty's stores? If you be gangers, show me your commissions." Unfortunately for the excisemen, they had not deemed it necessary in their haste to bring such documents with them. In vain they asserted their authority, and declared they were well known in the neighbourhood. "Ay, just what I took ye for; a parcel of highway robbers and scoundrels. Come, my good fellows," (addressing the soldiers in charge of the baggage, and extending his voice with the lungs of a stentor,) "Prime!—load!—" The excisemen did not wait the completion of the sentence; away they fled at top speed towards Alloa, no doubt glad they had not caused the waste of his Majesty's ammunition. "Now, my lads," said M'Nab, "proceed—your whisky's safe."

This original character, but kind, single-minded man, died unmarried at Callendar, in Perthshire, on the 25th June, 1816, in the eighty-second year of his age.

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