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Issue 21 - In the footsteps in Scott part 3

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 21
July 2005

 

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In the footsteps in Scott part 3

In the latest chapter of Walter Scott's travels in Scotland we travel to Rob Roy country. Words and pictures: John Hannavy

Weaving historical facts and figures into his writing was one of Walter Scott’s recurrent strokes of genius – legend meets literature against that beautifully drawn landscape for which Scott’s writings are renowned. It was that marriage of fact and fiction which caught the Victorian imagination – and which later led to quite considerable criticism of his work by those who saw it as a deliberate distortion of Scotland’s heritage in order to tap into the Victorian love of the romantic.

Scott was openly critical of the submersion of Scotland’s unique heritage into a British rewriting of history, and may, in his endeavours to celebrate the uniqueness of Scotland’s past, have been just as inaccurate.

After Culloden, so many aspects of Scottish life were either banned or discouraged; the wearing of the kilt was proscribed, the legal power of clan chiefs was reduced to little more than any other landlord, and the London government sought to ensure that the traditional feudal nature of Highland life would never be restored.

But, seven decades later, public thirst for stories set in this exciting and – for most people at least – remote environment was apparently insatiable.

Scott’s romantic image of Scotland’s past was widely accepted and read as fact, and by the time of his death, with Queen Victoria’s love for the Highlands also widely publicised, Scott’s works were assumed to have been set within an historically accurate landscape and culture.

In the preface to an early edition of his Minstrelsy he made his motives manifestly clear when he wrote that “by such efforts, feeble as they are, I may contribute somewhat to the history of my country; the peculiar features of whose manners and character are daily melting and dissolving into those of her sister and ally.” Rob Roy – Scott’s sixth novel in four years was first published in 1817, seven years after he had celebrated the same Trossachs area of central Scotland in his epic poem The Lady of the Lake.

The novel was, in effect, the love story of one Francis Osbaldstone and Diana Vernon, and their turbulent relationship with a cousin, Rashleigh Osbaldstone. It is set in the time just before the Jacobite uprising of 1715 and, despite the book’s title, Rob Roy himself appears only in the second half of the novel, at the end of Francis and Diana’s long journey from Yorkshire to Glasgow and onwards into the southern reaches of the Scottish Highlands where they hope to enlist his support in their struggle against their kinsman.

Rob Roy – Robert MacGregor Campbell – was a cattle farmer and landowner, and sometime cattle and sheep rustler, declared an outlaw by the Hanoverian government for his endorsement of the Jacobite cause.

Rob Roy – the name literally means ‘Red Rob’, because of his head of fiery red hair – was born at the head of Loch Katrine, and the lands around lochs Lomond, Katrine, Ard and Lubnaig were known as ‘Rob Roy country’, or ‘MacGregor country’. He changed his surname to Campbell when the MacGregor name was banned by law in the late 17th century.

Rob Roy country embraces some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, and is a magnet for tourists today – those in search of Scott Country as well as Rob Roy, for the romantic associations evoked by Scott still appeal to a 21st century audience, although perhaps more through films and television dramas than actually reading Scott’s novels.

Despite his legendary status as an outlaw, a Highland chief, and a constant thorn in the side of the government, and despite having been charged in his absence with high treason, Rob Roy was actually granted a royal pardon in 1725 after throwing himself on the mercy of General Wade, and died nine years later in his house near Balquhidder.

His grave, in the churchyard of ruined Balquhidder church, is a surprisingly low key affair for someone who played such a powerful role in 18th century Scottish history.