If there’s one character from Scotland’s long history who seems to split opinion, it’s Rob Roy MacGregor. We all think we know something about him: robber, thief, outlaw, hero, Highland legend, patriot. The list goes on. Sir Walter Scott immortalised him in his novel Rob Roy 200 years ago but who was he really? Wilderness Guide Gill McMillan gives us her take on both the man and the long distance trail named after him – the Rob Roy Way.
Named for him in 2002, the Rob Roy Way passes through country that Scotland’s most famous outlaw knew very well. You’ll get a real flavour of the rugged beauty of the land and see Highland cattle, trout-filled lochs and mountains a-plenty. Along the way you can pop into a café for tea and scones or take a leisurely pub lunch and have a blether with the friendly locals about their thoughts on the man. It’s a pleasant and fairly well signposted route that’s ideal for those new to long-distance walking and old hands alike.
From my own perspective I recently read W.H. Murray’s Rob Roy MacGregor: His Life and Times and the author takes every opportunity to defend Rob Roy. He notes that ‘thieving’ or ‘lifting’ in the form of cattle rustling wasn’t considered theft by Highlanders, but instead an accepted means of survival for many centuries.
It seems that Rob, if anything, was an honourable man, physically strong, quick-witted, an excellent swordsman and expert tracker. Rob quickly became one of the best. His strong track record put him in high demand from powerful landowners who needed skilled and trustworthy men to drive their cattle to market.
As you follow in his footsteps along the 126 km route from Drymen to Pitlochry you’ll walk the land he relied upon as he fell out of favour with the gentry. The walking is straightforward; the route makes use of cycle routes, paths, tracks and minor roads, and is hilly in sections.
“Rob’s old Highland values of honour and loyalty were at odds
with a political landscape that was shifting faster than a Highland rain shower.”
Roy Roy MacGregor’s great misfortunes were born with him. Firstly he was born into one of the most turbulent periods of Scottish history and secondly into clan McGregor. Known as the Wild MacGregors they earned their name and living through ‘cattle lifting’ – today we’d call this extortion. The MacGregor lands stretched from the NE shore of Loch Lomond eastwards, through the Trossachs and north to Strathfillan.
The Trossachs is a rich belt of land as the highlands meet the lowlands and two of Scotland’s most powerful men, the Duke of Argyll and the Duke of Atholl held the land either side. The two dukes were constantly at odds vying for power and status. Should they support William of Orange, or James the Jacobite? Rob Roy’s fortune changed after losing most of his capital and his former patron turned against him. Rob swore vengeance. In this turbulent period backstabbing and shenanigans were commonplace, especially so at the Privy Council in Edinburgh. No one was immune.
The Rob Roy Way passes through Killin and it’s worth visiting the ruined Finlarig Castle to see the beheading pit. This unique feature is claimed to be for despatching gentry – common folk were simply hanged. This route has a good variety of landscape to pass through, a mix of open vistas, woodland, hills and small towns, each with their history and stories. Rob would have made good use of them all as he swept through the landscape escaping the gentry. There are ancient stone circles en route too, it easy to forget that when Rob Roy fled by a few hundred years ago they were already over 3,000 years old.
In short, Rob’s old Highland values of honour and loyalty were at odds with a political landscape that was shifting faster than a Highland rain shower. He held fast to his principles, and paid a heavy price. He was portrayed by the establishment as a thief and traitor (Jacobite sympathiser) but held in affection and respect by the MacGregors and allied clans. Life tested him to the limit and he stayed true to his principles above all else.
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