Details of Neil McLean’s early life are not known. He has been wrongly identified with other people of the same name, and it should be noted that he was not an officer in the 84th Foot or the father of Archibald McLean*. He probably joined the commissariat department of the British army in 1759. At that time, except for a few on colonial establishments, commissaries were recruited from civilian life for particular campaigns and were usually men with commercial or financial experience. They ranked as officers but had no power of command, and were frequently suspected of enriching themselves at the expense of the government and the troops.
Since McLean later claimed that he had had continuous service in the department, he must have been kept on the establishment after the peace in 1763, perhaps in America. In 1776 he was ordered to Canada. There, according to his own statement, he was constantly employed on dangerous and disagreeable service and was the “drudge” of the department. Appointed assistant commissary general on 2 Jan. 1777, he served from 1778 in the “transport business” at Carleton Island (N.Y.). He forwarded supplies and reinforcements to the Upper Lakes posts and performed some duties connected with the distribution of gifts to the Indians. At times he had difficulty collecting his pay and allowances from the government.
In 1783, when the loyalist regiments were disbanded, McLean’s pay was reduced, but he was kept on as assistant commissary and storekeeper for the loyalist settlement at Cataraqui (Kingston, Ont.). As one of the first “Habitants,” he became a leader of the community, and in July 1784, along with John Ross, he was appointed justice of the peace. McLean became a deputy inspector of land surveys and of loyalists on 14 Jan. 1786, and on 10 Sept. 1788 was made inspector for loyalist land claims and a member of the land board for the District of Mecklenburg. On 14 June 1788 he had been appointed judge of the Court of Common Pleas along with James Clark*.
McLean prospered in Kingston. By 1788 he and his wife had received 700 acres from the government. His property included choice waterfront and other lots on both sides of the Cataraqui River. He maintained a house and farm staffed by two black servants. In 1789, along with other “principal inhabitants” of Kingston, he petitioned unsuccessfully for possession of the Kingston mills. By July 1793 he had received another 2,000 acres from the government, and he may have purchased land from other grantees.
In 1790 McLean was made a justice of the Court of Quarter Sessions and a trustee for the Kingston hospital. He was a benefactor of St George’s Church, and on his death in 1795 he was buried in its cemetery (now St Paul’s churchyard). His widow, who later married Robert Hamilton*, described as McLean’s “close friend and business partner,” inherited most of McLean’s property. The remainder of his estate went to his daughter by his first marriage, Harriet, who later married Allan MacLean*, Kingston’s first practising lawyer. She obtained more land in recognition of her father’s services, but in 1798 the Executive Council of Upper Canada struck Neil McLean’s name from the list of loyalists on the grounds that it had been inserted improperly.
BL, Add. mss 21661–892. PAC Report, 1884–89. PAC Report, 1905, 1917, 1928–29, 1931. The parish register of Kingston, Upper Canada, 1785–1811, ed. A. H. Young (Kingston, Ont., 1921), 25, 32, 37–38, 49, 54, 155. “The probated wills of men prominent in the public affairs of early Upper Canada,” ed. A. F. Hunter, OH, XXIII (1926), 328–59.