About a thousand years ago, I wrote a little book about Rob Roy. I happened to give a copy to an entrepreneurial friend. He read it and commented ‘Tell you something. It would make a great film. You should write a script.’ Well, coincidentally, the movie with Liam Neeson was made a few years later – but I never wrote the script. My friend became a millionaire but had no connection with the movie either. The moral is pretty obvious. Pay attention when business people make a creative suggestion. I’m sure that Rob himself would have agreed.
Anyway, here are some of the things I learned about the most famous of the Clan Gregor. (You can call them the Macgregors or the Clan Gregor. That’s just how they prefer it.)
(Above) Loch Voil and the Braes of Balquhidder. (Yes, it can be sunny there, too. Just not on the day I took this atmospheric pic.) This is where Rob Roy Macgregor spent the last years of his eventful life. Below (right) is another view of Balquhidder Glen.
Life of Rob Roy
Rob Roy Macgregor was a real person, not a fictional character, although the many stories of his days as an outlaw made him into a kind of Scottish Robin Hood. He was a son of Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Glas (‘Pale Donald’ or Donald Macgregor of Glengyle) who had earned his title for services in the army of King Charles II. As a loyal supporter of the Stuart dynasty, he would have instilled this allegiance in his son Rob. He was born in 1671 in Glen Gyle at the west end of Loch Katrine. This glen was then a main cattle droving road from the west.
Rob was brought up in the cattle business and took part in cattle droving in Scotland. This involved both legitimate dealing and other activities which were, uhmm, unofficial. He eventually became the head of a watch or squad that was paid to protect other owners’ cattle. Sometimes these activities received approval from the authorities – for example, the Scottish regiment, the Black Watch, was raised in 1725 as a government approved militia to combat cattle stealing. However, in Rob’s day the watches provided security guards for other people’s cattle if they paid protection money. OK – you’re right – it was a protection racket. I was trying to make it sound more romantic.
Rob was a skilled swordsman and expert in hill craft – these were in the standard job descriptions for cattle dealing in those days. He was also sympathetic to the Jacobite cause, that is, to those who wished the return of the exiled Catholic king of the House of Stuart. Rob’s expertise with weapons, his knowledge of terrain and his leadership qualities were of great interest to the Jacobite plotters.
In 1693, Rob Roy married Mary of Comar, who was also a Macgregor. Comar was a farm on one of the Clan Gregor land holdings near today’s Loch Arklet,(pictured below) in the Trossachs. The site is still marked on today’s maps, at the back of Ben Lomond. A succession of hard winters 1696-9 brought near-starvation to many in Scotland. Clans like the Macgregors, with homelands near the Highland edge, raided into the Lowlands for cattle in order to survive.
This, naturally, did not exactly endear Rob Roy to several well-to-do Lowland families, particularly as he was so expert at ‘lifting’ cattle and moving them quickly back into Macgregor territory.
Gradually, though, Rob’s legitimate cattle enterprises also prospered and he acquired a reputation as a trustworthy businessman. This, in turn, led to a business deal in 1712 with the Duke of Montrose who asked Rob to buy cattle for him for fattening and resale. The Duke gave Rob funds to buy the animals. However, it all went horribly wrong. Rob’s assistant absconded with the funds.
Montrose, in great haste, declared Rob Roy Macgregor an outlaw, burned his house and seized his lands, without giving Rob any opportunity of repaying. Some commentators find this episode puzzling: as a government supporter, did the Duke of Montrose have a political motive, fearing that Rob could become useful to the Jacobites? Alternatively, was it simply the typical greed of the Scottish aristocracy? Was the Duke simply after Rob’s lands, which were then quite extensive, around Craigrostan on the east bank of Loch Lomond?
Rob Roy, the outlaw
In the period 1713-20 Rob Roy lived beyond the law. Having sworn revenge on the Duke, he frequently raided his properties, consequently becoming a kind of folk hero with the local tenantry. Most of the stories of Rob’s derring-do come from this period. Rob was also active in the Jacobite rebellions around this time.
In the confrontation between the government and the Jacobites, the main fighting took place at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715, when some historians believe he was sent off on a special mission by the Earl of Mar, who was in charge of the Jacobite forces. Rob returned too late to the field to have any effect on the outcome of this indecisive battle.
His activity (or lack of it) on the day has been a cause for historical controversy – with even Sir Walter Scott suggesting in a historically suspect introduction to his own novel Rob Roy that Rob was only interested in plunder and keeping clear of the action.
Rob also took a part in the less well known episode in Glen Shiel in 1719. This is one of Scotland’s most scenically spectacular glens. Amid the soaring peaks and bolstered by the landing of a party of Spanish mercenaries (of all people!), several Jacobite leaders had gathered their men and had intended to march on Inverness. Before they could proceed, they were attacked by a government force whose superior fire power dispersed them. There’s an Eilean Donan Castle connection that will have to wait for another day.
Kirkton Glen, above Balquhidder, has changed greatly since Rob Roy’s day. Then it was quite an important through-way to the north. More on the Kirkton Glen walk, Balquhidder here.
After these episodes, Rob gradually returned to living openly amongst his own people in Balquhidder, north of the Trossachs. Having, in his day, successfully evaded all the efforts of the British army to capture and hold him, he restarted his cattle business around 1720. A formal pardon was arranged through General Wade in 1725.
Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, meanwhile wrote Adventures of a Highland Rogue featuring the wily Macgregor whose folk-hero reputation was thereby further enhanced – even the King enjoyed the story! Rob eventually died peacefully at home in Balquhidder.
Here is a list of places of interest associated with Rob Roy.