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Issue 29 - Child of the Mist (Rob Roy MacGregor)

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 29
October 2006


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Child of the Mist (Rob Roy MacGregor)

In the latest part of our series looking at Scottish characters, Mark Nicholls sets off on the trail of Rob Roy MacGregor

Rob Roy MacGregor emerges from the pages of history – and of popular literature – as a vivid Scottish character. His name, and reputation, has been embellished by the attentions of authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) as well as shrouded in a little myth.

The fact is that Rob Roy was an outlaw.

Yet he has often been romanticised in the way Robin Hood and his Merry Men of Sherwood Forest near Nottingham have been; robbing from the rich and going to the aid of the poor. He also managed to make some powerful enemies over several years.

Rob Roy’s life was set against the backdrop of the Jacobite Uprisings in support of James VII of Scotland and II of England who was deposed in 1689 in favour of William of Orange and his wife Mary (James's daughter), after ascending the throne four years earlier.

He lived much of his life in the Southern Highlands, the area of Loch Lomond, Callander and The Trossachs National Park.

There are a number of places in the area associated with his name: his birthplace, his grave, statues, and information centres.

More importantly, time spent in this area is an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the region that Rob Roy made his own more than three centuries ago.

The Rob Roy Way is a perfect way to get close to the myths, a seven-day walk across the Southern Highlands. More than 80 miles long, it takes in some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery – wonderful lochs and mountain vistas, and it links together many places associated with Rob Roy. Of course, you do not have to take it all in at once. You can follow various stretches of a route that takes in Drymen, Aberfoyle, Callander, Strathyre or Aberfeldy and encompassing lochs Venachar, Lubnaig and Tay.

Callander, the eastern gateway to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, is a particularly good spot to find out more about the famous Highlander at the Rob Roy Centre where there is an exhibition of his life and times with displays on life in the Trossachs in the 1700s, souvenirs, gifts and a bookshop.

Audiovisual displays talk through the life and times of Rob Roy and offer useful information for touring the area. There are also displays on how Rob Roy has been romanticised in films and literature.

The Rob Roy Way continues on to Strathyre and Killin with a two-mile detour off the route to Balquhidder to view his grave which is situated in a beautiful spot at the foot of Kirkton Glen. His wife and two of his sons were later buried in the same grave, which has a sword carved on it.

The path from Killin to Ardtalnaig ascends of 1900 feet on hills overlooking Loch Tay and then continues to Aberfeldy.

The final stretch to Pitlochry follows paths and tracks and crosses two stunning bridges. On the outskirts of Aberfeldy is the Tay Bridge built for General Wade after the 1715 Jacobite uprising, and the final entry into Pitlochry is across the suspension bridge over the River Tummel.

John Henderson, who was involved in the development of the Rob Roy Way, said: “From Drymen, right through the Trossachs area and up to Balquhidder, you are absolutely in the countryside that he was both brought up in and ultimately died in.

“You are passing his grave at Balquhidder and the area where he was going back and forth to his home on the side of Loch Katrine. There are caves he would have hidden out in, and this is the area where he made his name protecting the cattle. As a Jacobite, these are the paths and routes that he would undoubtedly have used as he went to fight, and to escape.

“There are many stopping points and side trips on the Rob Roy Way where there are opportunities to know much more about him.” Rob Roy was of the MacGregor clan, which like many other clans, often had to resort to raids on neighbouring land, stealing cattle in order to survive. It was a brutal and warlike period in Scottish history, often with clan pitted against clan, notably the MacGregor against the Colquhouns.

With the Colquhouns currying favour with the monarch, the matter reached the Privy Council in Edinburgh and in April 1603 the name of MacGregor was banned.

Anyone continuing to use it could be sentenced to death and the clan chief was hanged in Edinburgh. Thereafter, MacGregor clansfolk became widely known as “the children of the mist.” It was against this backdrop that Rob Roy was born in 1671, at Glengyle in a cottage at the head of Loch Katrine. As the son of Donald McGregor of Glengyle, he fought alongside his father and became war chief of his clan.

The name “Rob Roy” derives from the Gaelic Raibert Ruadh, or Red Robert because of his red hair. Married to Helen Mary MacGregor (a cousin from Comer) on January 1, 1693 at Corryarklet, between Loch Katrine and Loch Lomond, they had at least five sons.

As the son of a senior member of the clan, Rob Roy was well educated in reading, writing, and in the crafts of fighting. His reputation as an unmatched swordsman and recognisable figure due to his red hair and pale complexion soon spread through Scotland and beyond.

Whether he was a notorious cattle thief, or a Highland hero, depends on which account of Rob Roy’s life you prefer. The writer Sir Walter Scott, for example, much exaggerated his fame, painting him as a defender of the Highland way of life.

His life as an outlaw started when he was unable to repay money that he had borrowed from the Duke of Montrose to fund his growing cattle trade. The Duke seized his lands and property, and Rob Roy fled with his debt unpaid.

From this time onwards, he became a thorn in the Duke’s side, raiding his lands and that of his neighbours. While he profited from this, the story says that he never stole from the poor.

The Duke finally captured Rob Roy, but he made a famous escape with the aid of a friend in the Duke’s employ at the ford in the river near Balquhidder.

The MacGregors, including Rob Roy, continued to support the deposed King James VII against William of Orange and fought at the Battle of Killiecrankie on July 27, 1689. Later, Rob Roy led his clan in support of the Jacobites in 1715 and escaped prison once again having been charged with treason.

In 1723, Daniel Defoe was in Scotland as an English Government spy and wrote an embellished account of Rob’s adventures entitled Highland Rogue, further enhancing his reputation. While still an outlaw, the last 10 years of his life were relatively peaceful.

He died in his home after a short illness on December 28, 1734 and was buried in the small churchyard in Balquhidder on New Year’s Day, 1735.

The Rob Roy Way: Tel: +44 (0)1896 822 079
Rob Roy Centre and Trossachs Visitor Centre: Tel: +44 (0)1877 330 342
Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park: Tel: +44 (0) 1389 722 600 Rob