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    Scotland’s Robin Hood; Rob Roy MacGregor

    10 min read

    Rob Roy is now famous worldwide having been the character in a number of Hollywood films. But who was the real ROB ROY? He has often been compared to a Scottish Robin Hood, but this is not entirely true.

    By Cory Jones
    More by Cory

    A Short History of Rob Roy

    There are many stories and legends about the man who unlike Robin Hood was a real figure based in what is today the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. In fact, Rob Roy has now become so famous that one of Scotland’s long distances footpaths has been named after him and crosses many places which were important in his life.

    The MacGregor Clan

    Rob Roy came from the MacGregor clan at a time when the Jacobite rebellions were beginning to rumble. He was from Glen Gyle, which is a wide glen running between the mountains near Loch Katrine. It was an important place for cattle droving (driving).

    Born in 1671, Rob was the third son of Lieutenant-Colonel Donald MacGregor. As was the custom in the day, only the first son inherited his father’s land, so Rob was not due an inheritance. To make a living he became a cattle drover. Which was a tough but well-respected job. Highland cattle born and fattened in the glens needed taking to market. Drovers were paid to take the cattle to market. It was a difficult life; regularly sleeping in the open, protecting the cattle from thieves and rustlers, and carrying large sums of money back to the cattle owners which added to the risk of the job.

    Lieutenant-Colonel Donald MacGregor, Rob Roy’s father was a supporter of King James (a Jacobite). In 1689 he signed a bond of association to fight for the cause of James and gather a force of 100 men to fight with him. In 1690 Rob was part of his father’s group clansmen who fought at one of the first battles in the Jacobite rising at Killiecrankie. Rob was only 18 and part of a group of about 1800 men. Although the Jacobites won the battle after brutal fighting, their leader Viscount Dundee was killed and Donald was captured and put in prison.

    This would have had a devastating effect on Rob Roy and the rest of the family. After two years of being held on charges of treason, Donald was released. Unfortunately, after these two years, the family had suffered great hardship and his wife, Rob’s mother, had already died. Donald eventually died a year later in 1693 from sustained torture in the notorious Tolbooth in Edinburgh.

    And then…

    At the age of twenty-one in January 1693 Rob Roy married. He was developing a successful business droving highland cattle to the tryst (cattle market) in the town of Crieff. Mary Helen MacGregor was Rob’s wife (played by Jessica Lange in the 1995 film) and she lived not far from Glen Gyle at the farmstead of Comar. Mary was Rob Roy’s real-life cousin, which although frowned upon today, this practice was relatively common in order to preserve family wealth, particularly at a time of uncertainty.

    Rob became a respected, and also notorious cattleman. He would have been involved in the buying and selling of cattle. At this time it was common to be paid ‘protection money’ to guard other people’s cattle against theft or being stolen by the person being paid for protection. Cattle theft in the Highlands was common, cows being moved around for profit. Clans like the MacGregors, with homes in the Highland glens, raided into the Lowlands for cattle in order to survive.

    The ‘seven ill years’ in the 1690s formed part of a national famine in Scotland. A combination of a slump in cattle prices and a succession of hard winters brought near-starvation to many, and in some parts of the Highlands, up to 25% of the population died. Despite this Rob and Mary continued lived at Comar. They had four sons together.

    By the turn of the 18th-century things were looking up and for the next 10 years Rob Roy’s business grew, and he became the Laird of Inversnaid which is on the east side of Loch Lomond. That all changed in 1711 when he was outlawed after a business deal went sour. Following that he was involved in the 1715 Jacobite uprising. Rob lived life on the run till 1722 when he was imprisoned but later pardoned in 1727. Rob Roy then lived at Balquhidder, north of Callander, till 1734.

    What was Rob Roy Famous for?

    Late in 1711, the Duke of Montrose asked Rob Roy to buy cattle for him for fattening and resale. The Duke of Montrose was a powerful man and a supporter of the Hanoverians and King William, so was on the opposing side to the Jacobites. It is strange then that Montrose wanted to do business with Rob Roy. Was there an ulterior motive?

    To purchase the cattle Rob borrowed £1000 from the Duke of Montrose. The plan was that once the cattle were fattened and sold at the market, the money would be returned to Montrose and Rob would keep the profit. Things did not go according to plan. The story goes that Rob Roy’s head drover who was sent to buy the cattle, purchased the cattle and immediately sold them and disappeared with the money.

    Rob went off to track down his head drover and after a fruitless search returned to his estate at Inversnaid. He came back to find out his house had been burned down by the Duke on Montrose. Montrose was very powerful and had Rob Roy and his family evicted from their lands and branded him an outlaw. Rob Roy MacGregor was now bankrupted and had not been given the opportunity to pay any of the money back.

    What happened next?

    Rob swore to gain revenge on Montrose and became an outlaw. He stole cattle from Montrose and also in one famous incident kidnapped Montrose’s factor, complete with over £3,000 of rent money he was carrying at the time. As Rob Roy was standing up to the perceived poor judgement of Montrose he became a local folk hero. The little man standing up for himself against the powerful man.

    Rob continued to raid Montrose cattle and forced other wealthy landowners to pay him not to steal their cattle. Rob Roy MacGregor was now an outlaw and was further vilified by the powerful Montrose when he became involved in the 1715 Jacobite uprisings against the king. The Jacobite clan leaders knew the people respected Rob Roy and he was used to recruit for the Jacobite cause. Rob was involved in a number of actions in the rebellion including the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715.

    The rebellion was unsuccessful and quite short-lived but the aftermath was bad for Rob Roy’s clan the MacGregors. In 1717 Clan MacGregor were specifically excluded from the benefits of the Indemnity Act 1717 and were not pardoned for their part in the rebellion supporting the ‘Old Pretender’. Rob specifically had a price on his head for treason.

    Maps still mark the site of his house at Inverlochlarig (private) where the public road ends at a carpark towards the west end of the glen.

    Rob Roy was still technically an outlaw at this time and the Duke of Montrose had not forgotten about him. Later in 1722, Rob was jailed. Famously Rob was sentenced to be transported to the colonies which would have been better than being hung, but still an ignominious end for the local hero. By a twist of fate, he was pardoned by King George I in 1727.

    Why was Rob Roy Considered a Hero?

    Rob Roy stood up to authority in a time of social unrest. People saw that he had been poorly treated and were sympathetic towards him.

    However, there were other factors which helped the legend of MacGregor grow. Daniel Defoe published the fictionalised biography “Highland Rogue” in 1723. This was the story of Rob Roy and transformed his life and deeds into the status of the Scottish Robin Hood.

    Defoe’s story of the “Highland Rogue” came out while MacGregor was still alive. Amazingly, after reading his story King George looked into Rob Roy’s life and issued a Royal Pardon in 1727. Instead of being transported, Rob returned home.

    In 1817 Sir Walter Scott published “Rob Roy” which added to his notoriety. Scott had interviewed people who had stories about what Rob Roy had done which he included in his book. The book became a novel describing the death of a way of life. The end of the ‘Highlander’ at the hand of economic change and the new governments that took hold of the Highlands after the final Jacobite rising of 1745.

    William Wordsworth wrote a poem called “Rob Roy’s Grave”; during a visit to Scotland in 1803. Adaptations of his story have also been told in film, including “Rob Roy” (1995) starring Liam Neeson.

    The Trossachs have become known as “Rob Roy Country”.

    Glengyle House

    Glengyle House is the place of Rob’s birth and which stands at the head of loch Katrine in Glen Gyle. Please note that this is a private house and can only be viewed from the nearby road.

    However, walking in this area is absolutely stunning and a good option if you are nearby Callander or Aberfoyle.

    Factor’s Island

    Factor’s Island, also known as Eilean Dharag, was where Rob once held the Duke of Montrose’s factor to ransom.

    The stone wall was built to protect the island when the water levels were raised various times by Scottish Water.

    It should be noted that the road all the way round Loch Katrine that goes west of Stronachlachar is only open to pedestrians and cyclists.

    factor island

    Photo Credit: VisitScotland

    Rob Roy’s Putting Stone

    This is a boulder he supposedly used for stone putting (shot putting). It is said that Rob and his men hid behind the stone in preparation to raid passing by cattle drovers.

    You will find it near Lochan an Eireannaich at the head of Kirkton Glen where the pass leads from Balquhidder to Glen Dochart.

    A walk to the stone can easily be combined with a visit to Rob’s grave as the walk starts just beyond the kirkyard.


    Rob Roy’s Grave

    You will find MacGregor’s grave in the churchyard of an old Victorian parish church in Balquhidder.

    The gravestone reads , “MacGregor despite them”, a nod to the clan name MacGregor being banned during their lifetime.

    The grave is shared with his wife Mary Helen MacGregor, and his sons Coll and Robert.

    Statue of Rob Roy MacGregor

    It is found below the old town wall of Stirling near the castle.

    Worth a visit if you are in Stirling, the statue was erected by a descendant of Rob Roy.

    Why Should You Walk the Rob Roy Way

    The Rob Roy Way is a long-distance footpath from Drymen on the northern edge of Glasgow to Pitlochry. It was opened in 2002 and passes through the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. This is a landscape that Rob would have known like the back of his hand from his life as a cattle drover and outlaw.

    Much of the route follows a disused railway line so the gradients are not too challenging even though you are walking through mountainous terrain.

    Along the 127kms / 79 miles  route, there are plenty of cafes and pubs for refreshments and accommodation.

    Planning to walk the Rob Roy Way? Have a look at our Self-Guided Holiday. More information on the way can also be found here.

    Rob Roy FAQ

    Where did Rob Roy live? Read More

    Although he moved around during his life Rob Roy lived in the Trossachs, the mountain and lake area north of Glasgow. This area became a Scottish National Park in 2015 and the Rob Roy long distance path is based in the area he lived.

    How did Rob Roy get his nickname? Read More

    Rob’s mother had red hair which he inherited. “Ruadh” is Gaelic for red. This would have been anglicised into Rob Roy. Legend has it he was a giant of a man with red hair and arms so long that it was said he could tie his garters without even stooping.

    What if Rob Roy had been transported? Read More

    Rob Roy was nearly transported in 1727. He would have been in good company as many Scots had a great influence on the development of the colonies. Although the first transports to Australia didn’t take place till later on in the 17th century, a map of the antipodes reads like Scotland, with place names like Dundee in New South Wales, Dunbar in Queensland, and three Aberdeens.

    Scottish belief in hard work and education led to them filling positions of authority in just about every enterprise they put their minds to. Australia’s first Scotsman, for example, Captain John Hunter was appointed Governor of New South Wales in 1795. Lachlan Macquarie from Mull was put in charge of the penal settlement of Botany Bay. Undoubtedly Rob Roy would have made his mark too.

    How did Rob Roy die? Read More

    Rob Roy died peacefully at his home in at Inverlochlarig Beg in Balquhidder.

    When did Rob Roy die? Read More

    Rob Roy MacGregor died on 28 December 1734, aged 63 (although his gravestone in the church states he was 70).

    Where is Rob Roy buried? Read More

    Rob Roy was buried in Balquhidder churchyard. At his funeral hundreds of people came to see the great outlaw laid to rest. The people by now saw him as a hero standing up against unfair landlords and of course, the stories by Defoe helped too. The gravestones of Rob Roy, his wife and two of his four sons have been surrounded by a metal rail.

    What’s a ‘Rob Roy’ cocktail? Read More

    In 1894, a bartender at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City created the Rob Roy Cocktail. The cocktail is a mix of Scotch whisky and vermouth with a dash of Angostura bitters for colour. It is served in a cocktail glass with two cherries. It is said to have been created in honour of the premiere of the operetta “Rob Roy”.

    Further Reading

    Meet the Author: Cory Jones

    “Wildlife fanatic and first-aid expert makes Cory a good guy to have around in the hills!”

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