Golden Scots: James Macnabb, clan chief and gold medallist

The GB coxless fours hold off a challenge from Canada in the 1924 Olympic final
The GB coxless fours, including James Macnabb, hold off a challenge from Canada in the 1924 Olympic final

The Eton-educated son of a Yorkshire vicar, James Alexander Macnabb was 21st Chief of Clan Macnab and father of the present chief.

While Eric Liddell triumphed on the track at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, Macnabb's achievement on the water has been largely overlooked.

Early days

Macnabb's rowing career began in Eton. He is first recorded as competing at Henley in 1920 as part of an Eton crew which reached the semi-finals of the Ladies' Challenge Plate.

With his move to Trinity College, Cambridge, Macnabb formed a coxless fours team with other students he had known from Eton. Together they formed a strong team and won a variety of events in the next few years.

Macnabb also rowed for the winning Cambridge side in the 1924 Boat Race.

This was the first in what became a 13-year run of success for the Cambridge boats.

Paris 1924

The team of Third Trinity Cambridge coxless fours were chosen to represent Great Britain in the Paris Olympics of the same year.

Rowing events at the 1924 Olympics were held on the River Seine in the heart of the city.

In a stark contrast to today's organisation and planning, at the age of 87 Macnabb recalled for The Macnab website, "(But) the big question at this time was the whereabouts of our boat and oars. They had not arrived at the course nor had they been heard of. We made the journey each day to the Seine where we could do nothing but hang about."

Once the equipment arrived, Macnabb and the team "spent the day practising start and learnt to move off when the starter called 'Par...' without waiting for the '...ti'!!"

The practice paid off and Macnabb was one of the Third Trinity crew which triumphed against Canada in the final, winning the gold medal.

After Paris

Macnabb maintained his interest in rowing throughout his life. Despite never competing as a Leander athlete at any regatta, he served the club as Secretary 1950-51 and Treasurer 1951-57.

He also acted a long-standing President of the Amateur Rowing Association.

Macnabb enjoyed success as a coach with Cambridge in the early 1930s.

Following service in the Royal Artillery during World War Two, he coached the Oxford crew between 1949 to 1951, making him one of the few people to have coached both Universities.

Macnabb was a qualified accountant who became involved in raising awareness of charitable housing. He had a close association with The Peabody Trust and was awarded the OBE in 1972.

Chief of Clan Macnab

He was recognised as de jure 21st Chief of Clan Macnab and is father of the present chief.

After his death at the age of 89 in 1990, his family presented his 1924 Olympic gold medal to the Leander Club at Henley, where it remains on display.

Also part of the legacy held by Leander is the 'Macnabb megaphone', used by Macnabb at Dunkirk in 1940 and now put to good use in the coaching of modern-day crews on the Thames.

Golden Scots

Find the stories of Eric Liddell and other Golden Scots via this link.

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