Family echoes of the McNabs of Argyll

Clare's great grandmother, Grace McNab Bridge, pictured as a young woman in the early 20th century

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When Tees-side woman Clare Frith started looking into her family history, her research revealed deep Argyll roots mingled with family tragedy and sacrifice.

Clare first contacted our sister paper the Argyllshire Advertiser looking for help researching her maternal great, great grandfather Alexander McNab. Online records showed his birthplace as ‘Inchial Argileshire’, which turned out to be the parish of Glenorchy and Inishail at the head of Loch Awe.

Alexander McNab was born there to Alexander senior and Margaret McNab in 1863 – one of a family of three brothers and four sisters – and moved south to Burnley in Lancashire in the 1880s. In Lancashire in 1888, he married Janet Wardrope, who came from Milngavie outside Glasgow, and they went on to have 12 children.

Going back a few generations, Clare’s research has traced Alexander’s great grandfather, John McNab, born in Kilbrandon in the area around Loch Melfort in 1760.

His son Peter, born around 1780, went on to farm in Connel and is recorded in the 1861 census as an 80-year-old farming 75 acres at South Ledaig, though is described as a ‘smith’ in an earlier record.

Born in 1822, Peter’s son Alexander grew up to work in farming around Glenorchy. In the 1851 census he is recorded as a ploughman at Barbreck.

‘Our’ Alexander seems to have been a blacksmith when he moved from Argyll to Burnley to start a new life.

Sadly, two of Alexander and Janet’s family died as young children.

Later, however, they found themselves – like so many other families – caught up in the horrors of the First World War.

They lost three sons – Andrew, aged 25, missing in action, 1916; Alex, 27, missing in action 1917; and John, 23, missing in action 1918 – during the war.

The grief the family must have borne is unimagineable. The boys’ names are recorded on three separate First World War memorials in Belgium and France.

Clare said: ‘What a tragedy losing your sons. Andrew, Alex and John were brothers of my great grandma, Grace McNab Bridge.’

Alexander died in 1944 at the age of 81, after being hit by a tramcar in Blackpool during the blackout. He was living with daughter Grace and her family at the time. A short newspaper report from the time describes him as a ‘retired blacksmith’.

Clare was born in Blackpool and moved to Tees-side, via a spell in Dumfries, through her husband David’s employment.

Though her great grandmother Grace passed away in 1968, Clare believes she can detect echoes of the past in her own family today.

She explained: ‘My son, who is in army, has just trained in music and learnt the bagpipes.

‘Little bits keep popping up. My other son is into blacksmithing, which is also in the family.’

And while she has never visited Argyll, Clare would love to at some point once Covid restrictions have eased.

‘I had a look at images of Loch Awe and have been reading up about the area. It looks amazing.’

If you have any other information on this branch of the McNab family, please email editor@argyllshireadvertiser.co.uk and this will be passed on to Clare.
Tragedy on Loch Awe

It was while talking with a cousin about the family’s McNab heritage that Clare learned of a 19th century tragedy in the family.

Her cousin mentioned a drowning on Loch Awe involving Donald McNab, elder brother by four years of Alexander.

Parliamentary records reveal that Donald, a boatman, drowned on the morning of June 28 1886.

Hansard records that Sir Charles Cameron, Liberal MP for Glasgow College, asked the Lord Advocate Mr J H A MacDonald about the incident in the House of Commons during September that year.

He pointed out that Donald’s body was not found where his companions in the boat alleged he had fallen overboard and, when found floating weeks afterwards, it bore marks on the head and hand.

Given those circumstances and ‘considering the anxiety of McNab’s family to have the case investigated’, he asked the Lord Advocate whether he would direct the procurator fiscal ‘to order such post mortem examination as may show whether the marks referred to had been caused before or after death or, if such an examination has been made, he will allow MacNab’s family to inspect the medical report and any depositions in the case?’

The Lord Advocate replied that the people who were with him in the boat gave information at once to the police.

He added: ‘The body was not recovered until August 22 and was, of course, in an advanced state of decomposition and had been injured from being in that state.

‘It was examined by a competent medical man who reported there was no sign of any injury having been inflicted before death. It was not the practice to make public the particulars in cases where those responsible for criminal investigation were satisfied that no crime had been committed but he might mention, for the satisfaction of the honourable member and those on whose behalf the question was put, that on recovery of the body what was observed tended strongly to confirm the accuracy of the statements which had been made at the time by those who were with the deceased when the accident took place.’