Rob Roy: A legend in his own lifetime - Scotland Magazine
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Rob Roy: A legend in his own lifetime

We examine whether the Scottish folk hero, Rob Roy, lives up to his romanticised literary reputation as the Scottish Robin Hood

We examine whether the Scottish folk hero, Rob Roy, lives up to his romanticised literary reputation as the Scottish Robin Hood

While on a walking tour of Scotland in 1803, William Wordsworth penned some of the most famous lines about Scotland’s Rob Roy:

“Heaven gave Rob Roy a dauntless heart
And wondrous length and strength of arm:
Nor craved he more to quell his foes,
Or keep his friends from harm.”

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Rob Roy intervenes between Rashleigh and Francis Osbaldstone. An illustration of a scene from Scott’s 1817 novel, Rob Roy. Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library 2022

The title of Wordsworth’s poem, Rob Roy’s Grave, refers to the final resting place of Rob Roy MacGregor in Balquhidder churchyard, in the Trossachs (which now forms part of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park).

Surrounded by mountains in the Kirkton Glen, the grave is a popular attraction for visitors who come to pay their respects to one of Scotland’s most famous characters, immortalised in fiction, poetry, and film, who gives his name to hotels, tourist centres, and even a whisky-based cocktail.

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The grave of former outlaw and folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor at Balquhidder. Credit: Simon Price / Alamy

But are we to believe that the dashing, chivalrous, kilt-clad, long-haired hero of the people, portrayed by Liam Neeson in the 1995  film Rob Roy, based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1817 novel of the same name, is true to form?

It isn’t hard to believe that this version of the man has been exaggerated. The truth, it seems, though still fascinating, and eventful, was a little less glamorous. Born in 1671 in Buchanan, Stirlingshire, Rob Roy MacGregor was the third son of Lieutenant Colonel Donald MacGregor, brother of the chief of Clan MacGregor, who had earned his title in the army of King Charles II. For centuries the ‘Wild MacGregors’ were the plague of the Trossachs, earning their name and living through ‘cattle lifting’ and extracting money from people in exchange for offering them protection from thieves: an old and, at the time, still honourable, Highland practice.

By the early 18th century, young Rob Roy had established a flourishing business in ‘cattle protection’, some of which was official and government approved. However, other activities were not so legitimate. Rob’s watches charged farmers an average of 5% of their annual rent to ensure that their cattle remained safe.

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The Rob Roy statue in Stirling. Credit: Mark Sunderland Photography / Alamy

Those who did not pay regretted it – as he had them stripped of all they possessed. His image as a Scottish Robin Hood perhaps had its roots in the succession of hard winters that hit Highlanders between 1696 and 1699. With many brought to near starvation in Scotland, clans like the MacGregors, with homelands near the Highland edge, raided into the Lowlands for cattle to survive. Roy was an expert at ‘lifting’ cattle and moving them quickly back into MacGregor territory. Though he made himself the enemy of many wealthy Lowland families, he was the hero of the poor and starving in the Highlands.

In time though, Roy’s legitimate cattle activities prospered enough to give him a reputation as a trustworthy businessman. This 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 year 1712, however, turned into an annus horribilis for Rob , when his assistant absconded with the funds the duke had given him to buy the animals.

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Rob Roy and his men draw their swords and ambush the invading English troops. Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library 2015

In great haste, Montrose declared Rob Roy an outlaw, burned his house status of a Robin Hood-esque hero with the local tenantry. Rob Roy also happened to be a skilled swordsman, with, apparently, exceptionally long arms (hence Wordsworth’s line “And wondrous length and strength of arm”) and was an expert in hill craft – standard skills in the job description of cattle dealing in those days.

Rob continued his exploits against Montrose until 1717, when the Duke of Argyll finally brought about a reconciliation. He was captured by the Duke at Balquhidder but managed to escape on the way to Stirling. After being captured and imprisoned again several more times, eventually in 1722, he was caught and imprisoned and seized his lands. Between in London. But, thanks to Daniel Defoe’s 1713 and 1720, having sworn revenge on the duke,

Rob frequently raided his properties for cattle, securing him the fictionalised biography of his life, Highland Rogue, which proved hugely popular with the public, Rob was given a royal pardon from King George I in 1727, days before he was due to be shipped off to Barbados. Upon release, Rob returned to the Highlands to live his final years quietly, already a legend in his own lifetime.

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An illustration of the art of cattle stealing, for which Rob Roy became famous. Mary Evans Picture Library 2015

However, it was Sir Walter Scott’s novel, published in 1817, long after his death, that really paved the way for Rob’s posthumous heroism to take heed. Speaking to Highlanders whose ancestors had known Rob or who had heard stories passed down about him, Scott used Rob Roy as a symbol for a vanishing way of life, under threat from the Lowland-based government and the threat of industry and commerce.

Romanticised, glamorised and with a few of the utterly unlawful bits conveniently forgotten, Rob Roy was immortalised as a literary legend. But, thanks to his activities, both legal and illegal, Rob had created as much of a reputation for himself to warrant a biography and a royal pardon.

Even without the literary exaggeration of a swashbuckling, kilt-wearing, hero of the poor, with the backdrop of stunning Scottish scenery, it is clear to see that Rob’s legendary status among the Highlanders was real – a hero for the hardworking, hard-done-by Scots, who took from the rich to give to the poor. As Wordsworth’s beloved poem concludes:

“And, far and near, through vale and hill,
Are faces that attest the same;
The proud heart flashing through the eyes,
At sound of Rob Roy’s name.”

Read more:

The real Macbeth and the House of Dunkeld: Early Kings of Scotland

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