Abstract Nitrogen doped multi-walled carbon nanotubes (N-CNTs) and undoped multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) were synthesized by a chemical vapour deposition (CVD) floating catalyst method. The N-CNTs were synthesized by the decomposition of a ferrocene/N-source/toluene (N-source = triethylamine, dimethylamine, acetonitrile) mixture at 900 °C. The undoped MWCNTs were synthesized using a ferrocene–toluene mixture without a nitrogen source under similar reaction conditions. The structure of the N-CNTs and MWCNTs was ascertained using HRTEM, SEM and Raman spectroscopy. Systematic ESR measurements of the carbon products produced, in the temperature range of 293–400 K showed line widths that were in general very large ∼ kOe. Most importantly, a large g-factor shift in samples of N-CNTs from that of the free electron g-factor was observed. Further, the shift increased with increasing temperature. The large g shift has been analysed in terms of Elliott-Wagoner and Bottleneck models. The temperature dependence of the g shift in the N-CNT samples rules out the Elliott-Wagoner type spin–orbit coupling scenario. The large g shift and temperature dependence can be qualitatively explained in terms of the Bottleneck model.