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.
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.