The name ‘Rob Roy’ is one that epitomises our image of the Scottish Highlands as a place free-spirited, strong, and brave. Already a folk hero his exploits were immortalised in the 1817 novel by Sir Walter Scott, and much-like the heroes of the American West or the legend that is Robin Hood romanticised in history.
But the truth was very different.
Robert Roy MacGregor was born on 7 March 1671, at Glengyle on the banks of Loch Katrine in Stirlingshire.
His father was Donald Glas, a leading figure within the MacGregor Clan, notorious reivers, or thieves, much feared for their violence and who would demand satisfaction for the slightest slur on their honour. Indeed, so hated did the MacGregor’s become that by the time of Robert’s birth the mere mention of their name had been banned.
His father made his money from cattle rustling and as a dutiful son Robert supported his father in his criminal endeavours but also as the son of a leading Clan member he received an education, and we know he could both read and write in English as well as his native Gaelic and never less than articulate in his correspondence it was evident that he could have made his living within the law if he had chosen to do so.
At the age of eighteen he joined his father in the Jacobite Rebellion against King William of Orange and on 27 July 1689, fought at the Battle of Killicrankie, a bloody affair that despite being a Jacobite victory was to leave more than 600 Highlanders dead including their leader, the Bonnie Dundee.
Without Dundee to lead them the rebellion soon lost its way and many Highlanders simply returned home despondent that not for the first time, and certainly not the last, their sacrifice had been in vain.
A few months later Robert’s father was captured whilst on a cattle rustling raid and imprisoned for two years with a charge of High Treason hanging over his head. Whilst he was in prison his wife died and this seemed to break the spirit of the older MacGregor and upon his release he agreed to sign the Oath of Allegiance to King William.
Even so, the Privy Council in Edinburgh still demanded that he cover the costs of his captivity but not having the money it came down to Robert to steal the cattle to pay for it, and on one such raid he killed a man who refused to hand over his livestock.
On 1 January 1693, Robert married his cousin Helen Mary MacGregor who was to bear him four children, all of whom lived into adulthood.
Having attained some land near Loch Lomond which he merely occupied or stole from its previous owner he continued to augment his income by rustling the cattle of his neighbours and running a protection racket known as the “Lennox Watch.” Local farmers who did not want their cattle stolen and be beaten up or worse paid him rent. By these means he assiduously built up his cattle herd, few if any of which had been paid for.
A tall, heavily built man with unusually long arms and a fiery temper who saw a violent response as the solution to any problem or dispute over the next few years he acquired the reputation of a respected businessman, though the respect was grudging and borne out of fear not admiration.
His mane of unkempt red hair which earned him the name Red Robert, the wild look in his eye, and his violent reputation saw few men were willing to argue with him.
His life began to unravel in 1712, however, when he decided to increase his cattle herd by borrowing £1,000, from James Graham, the 1st Duke of Montrose.
Highlanders were ill-thought of by the majority of their fellow Scots, they spoke an alien tongue (Gaelic) were wedded to the old Catholic religion, and lived within a system of Clan loyalty based upon blood ties.
Lowland Scotland, the commercial hub of the country, in particular viewed with scorn the violent men of the North who were little better than savages. They had more in common with their Protestant English neighbours to the South with whom they did business. This did not prevent them from trying to exploit their Highland brethren.
Loans for example would often be made available at rates of interest difficult to sustain and thereby provided the opportunity to seize both their land and property with the full weight of the law.
In the case of Rob Roy when his Chief Cattle Herder absconded with the money, he was forced to default on the loan.
The Duke of Montrose was typical of a Scottish Nobility that were considered even more haughty and out of touch with the common people that their counterparts across the border. He was a Scot no doubt, but also an Englishman once removed. He was arrogant, unsympathetic, and in response to Rob Roy defaulting on his debt he charged him with embezzlement and had the Law of Sword and Fire passed on him.
It is likely that Rob Roy never intended to repay the loan anyway given the vast amount that he had borrowed, and it is equally as likely Montrose never expected him to for he had frequently expressed the view that Robert MacGregor was a scoundrel and a rogue but had loaned him the money nonetheless.
They were playing a game of bluff, one with his property the other with his life.
Montrose had his men evict Robert’s family from their home at Inversnaid which was then burned to the ground and it was rumoured that his wife had also been raped and branded. His land was then seized and his livestock sold.
Rob Roy was now a man on the run, but he would not run far and instead embarked upon a campaign of vengeance against the hated Montrose that was relentless, effective, and at times brutal.
His properties were attacked, his goods destroyed, his money-men robbed and killed, his cattle stolen, and it drove the ever more desperate Montrose, by now fearing for his own life, to place a price on Rob Roy’s head and he was to spend a small fortune to those who promised to bring him in either dead or alive.
But even when he was captured, as at Balquhidder in 1722, he promptly escaped. Likewise, when he was tricked into surrendering himself to the Duke of Atholl on the promise of pardon he bribed his guards and escaped before he could be handed over to Montrose.
It was also during this period that he fought and killed a number of those in Montrose’s pay in duels that were both public and well attended.
Montrose’s desire for recompense could never compete with the Highland code of honour and as a leading proponent of the Act of Union of 1707, for which he had been elevated to the Dukedom, he had better things to do than pursue a Highland rebel with blood on his hands and murderous intent in mind.
The two men were never reconciled but Montrose poured water on the fires of revenge by feigning indifference as to the loan and allowing Rob Roy to remain at liberty.
Always an unrepentant Jacobite Rob Roy participated in the uprising of 1715, and was duly placed on a list of those wanted for High Treason. He later accepted the amnesty that was on offer pledging his loyalty to the Hanoverian Monarchyr but this didn’t prevent him from again fighting for the Jacobite cause at the Battle of Glen Shiel in 1719, where he very nearly died from wounds.
Captured once again, in 1722 he was taken to and imprisoned in London for five years before being pardoned by King George II.
Rob Roy was a thief, a liar, a braggart, and a bully but his courage was never in doubt, neither was his loyalty to his Clan, his Catholic faith, or his commitment to the Jacobite cause. He had also stood up to and humiliated the hated Montrose.
When he returned to Scotland in 1727, it was as a hero of his Clan, and he was able at last to settle down to a quiet life enjoying both his wealth and his fame.
He died peacefully in his bed at Inverlochlarig Beg on 28 December 1743, aged 63 – but the legend of Rob Roy lives on.