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Duncan McNab (1820–1896)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

Duncan McNab (1820-1896), Catholic missionary, was born on 11 May 1820 at Achrinich, parish of Morven, Argyllshire, Scotland, son of Patric McNab and his wife Cirsty. In 1832 he went to Blair College, a seminary near Aberdeen, and in June 1835 to the Scots College in Rome but left on 8 August 1840 before taking his oath as a missionary. He returned to Scotland and was ordained a priest on 8 March 1845. Inspired perhaps by his kinship with Mary MacKillop, he dreamed of a mission to the Australian Aborigines but was refused by a bishop perpetually short of priests, and spent twenty years in parish work. He dabbled in Gaelic literature and at Airdrie in 1862 fell foul of Irish parishioners, probably by arguing the Scottish birth of St Patrick.

Given leave to migrate McNab arrived at Melbourne in the Chariot of Fame on 29 July 1867. For eight years he was tied to parish work in Geelong, Portland and Bendigo. In March 1870 he was refused permission to join the New Norcia Benedictines in Western Australia, but in September 1875 he was permitted to start a personal mission in Queensland. At Mackay he began to see that the one hope for Aborigines was to treat them not as 'a problem'. He therefore sought for them the right to own land and to be treated as responsible adults by law and as individuals. His dour common sense did not appeal to either the government or his clerical superiors, while his fervent and mystical Catholicism made him suspect in the Protestant majority. In March 1876 he became ill and went south to recuperate. On his return he began raising money for work among tribes at Gympie, Kilcoy, Durundur and Bribie Island. He was gazetted a commissioner for Aborigines but became unpopular with other commissioners by advocating individual homesteads rather than reserves. He quarrelled with Bishop James Quinn who considered him a tool of government and refused help, while Tom Petrie believed that he was the dupe of supposed converts. In June 1878 he wrote a long appeal to Rome for help but received no reply and decided to appeal in person. In August 1879 he sailed in the Kent and next year induced Pope Leo XIII to authorize a Jesuit mission to the Aborigines, vainly importuned the Colonial Office in London, travelled through the United States and returned to Victoria. After persuading the South Australian Jesuits assigned to Aboriginal missions to select the Northern Territory rather than Queensland, he turned his attention to Western Australia.

McNab arrived at Perth early in 1883 and became a chaplain to Aboriginal prisoners on Rottnest Island. His recommendations on vocational training to the 1883 commission on Aboriginals were implemented half-heartedly. He then made a reconnaissance to the north and in April 1884 settled alone at Goodenough Bay, near Derby. For two years he laboured patiently with little success but in April 1886 he was joined by Fr William Treacy. In August he visited Derby and was diverted to the pastoral care of miners at Hall's Creek. In his absence Treacy had been struck down by fever and went south, and the mission buildings were destroyed by fire. This was the last straw. According to Aboriginal tradition, McNab, tired and old, rode from Derby to Albany accompanied by one faithful Aborigine. He took ship for Melbourne where he lived in a Jesuit house at Richmond and worked quietly as a parish priest until he died on 11 September 1896.

McNab's curious mixture of Celtic mysticism and Scottish common sense antagonized many but his proposals for native welfare would, if adopted, have saved much agony. His name is still revered in the tribal traditions of the north-west.

Select Bibliography

  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • J. E. Handley, The Irish in Modern Scotland (Cork, 1947)
  • M. Durack, The Rock and the Sand (Lond, 1971)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1876, 3, 161, 1878, 2, 66
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, Western Australia), 1883, 2nd S (16)
  • M. Durack, ‘The priest who rode away’, Westerly, Nov 1962
  • R. L. Evans, ‘Queensland's first Aboriginal reserve’, pt 2, Queensland Heritage, Nov 1971
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 19 Sept 1896
  • McNab to Propaganda, Rome, 10 July 1878 (Jesuit Provincial Archives, Hawthorn, Melbourne)
  • CO 234/40/579, 621
  • information from Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'McNab, Duncan (1820–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 May, 1820
Achrinich, Argyll, Scotland


11 September, 1896 (aged 76)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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