Rob Roy Macgregor: legendary outlaw, raider and cattle stealer.
A man who wasn’t averse to blackmail and whose notoriety made him the subject of several films and movies.
A man whose bloody past spawned an equally bloody cocktail.
Why do the Scottish love him?
He sounds like a miscreant to our domesticated modern ears. To comprehend Rob Roy one must learn the history of Clan Macgregor. It is a history of the worst kind, stained with prejudice, victimisation, and state-sanctioned genocide.
If any clan needed a fearless champion, one who would push back against the system, it was the Macgregors.
Close-up view of Rob Roy MacGregor’s statue. Photo by Alasdair McNeill / CC BY-SA 2.0
History of Clan Gregor
Recorded in the annals of antiquity is a Clan named Alpin, seat of King Alpin who reigned Scotland in the 9th century. Clan Alpin owned a large chunk of the Grampian Mountains, and were considered by many to be the oldest clan in existence. Over time Clan Alpin became known as Clan Gregor, then Clan Macgregor (meaning son of Gregor).
The Macgregors were a fierce people, unafraid, and valiant in battle, a clan of nobility. All who knew them respected them or had reason to fear them. They had supported Robert the Bruce on the battlefield and helped to secure Scottish independence in the 13th century.
They rose in prominence through the middle ages, building the castles of Kilchairn, Finlarig, and Ballach, among others, and their success brought the sting of jealousy to other clans. Eventually, a prejudice arose against them. This prejudice was largely due to a lie.
In 1426 an ambitious Campbell knight of Loch Awe, wanted to stir up a hornet’s nest and take the spoils. So he manipulated Clan Macnab into committing some outrages against the Macgregors. This had the desired effect. The incensed Macgregors engaged Clan Macnab in a bloody fray.
The Campbell knight, to serve his own ends, related the affair falsely to the young King James I of Scotland, to show both clans in the worst possible light. James I, short of money as Scottish kings were in the 15th century, had his own plans for acquisition, and decided on the strength of this Campbell complaint to give the knight letters of fire and sword against both clans. The knight raised a substantial army to attack them.
Both clans joined forces to defend themselves but they were unsuccessful and Clan Campbell seized some sizeable Macgregor and Macnab estates.
MacGregor Clan Proscription
The prejudice that began in 1426 continued with renewed force under Kings James III and IV. These penniless kings needed land and those proud, argumentative and independent Macgregors had so much of it. Both kings passed acts that sanctioned acts of cruelty against the Macgregors, and hostile clans took every opportunity of carrying them out.
Macnab who acted as heirlings for Clan Campbell, continued with their attacks, and other clans joined in, so that their tireless and combined actions chipped away at Macgregor lands over time. The Macgregors, impassioned defenders of their own interests, still remained loyal to the King, believing that sanctioned violence against them was the result of the cruel machinations of his courtiers.
James V Stuart, King of Scots, and Marie of Guise-Lorraine. Unidentified Painter.
During the disastrous reigns of James V and his daughter Mary Stuart, the Macgregors, still maintaining some power as a clan, were particularly supportive of the monarchs, putting down other clans who opposed the King. After Mary’s abdication in 1567 Scotland descended into civil war, and Stuart support only drew the enmity of the Regent, the 1st Earl of Moray.
Taking a large army, Moray rapaciously suppressed any defenders of Mary Stuart, including the Macgregors and other Northern Clans. Thankfully Moray’s regency was of short duration.
He was succeeded, after assassination, by James VI (soon to be James I of England). About this time an atrocity was committed by a Macdonald against an ally of the King. The chief of Clan Macgregor foolishly stood by the Macdonald, who had cut off the head of a cousin of someone close to the king for stealing a deer on their land. Clan Macdonald was somehow overlooked in the King’s rage, and he pinned the responsibility on the hated Macgregors.
James VI commissioned, for a space of three years, the chiefs of other clans to hunt down the Macgregor Chief and all who might be culpable of the crime, and if they refused to be taken, to use fire and sword against them. Of course, this gave the jealous chiefs the perfect excuse to hunt down and kill any Macgregor they could lay their hands on.
Balquhidder Church. Photo by Alistair Reid / Public Domain
The unsuspicious Macgregors of Balquhidder were the first to be butchered, and for the following years an appalling genocide ensued that has never been seen before or since in the British Isles. Young and old, female and male were butchered without mercy. A reward was given for every Macgregor head, and heads in their thousands were carried to Edinburgh and presented to the Privy Council for payment. Even the newly dug graves of Macgregor family members were dug up and ransacked so the heads could be taken.
Macgregors were forced to flee to remote areas. Anyone who harboured them were fined or imprisoned. They were forced to bury their dead away from family plots, in secret, and unmarked, so the graves would not be disturbed.
Over time what was left of the clan was reduced to piracy in order to survive. Stealing cattle and other acts of thievery earned them only more condemnation, but the more they were oppressed the more they opposed.
The MacGregor Name
Edicts followed edicts. Macgregors were no longer allowed to carry that name. Church ministers were forbidden to christen any child Macgregor. Any person formerly of the name Macgregor was not allowed to carry arms, beyond a simple paring knife to eat with. People of the Macgregor race were not allowed to gather in groups of more than four.
After James VI’s death enforcement of the laws against them were somewhat relaxed and they were left alone, but the damage was done. The name Macgregor was imbued with a sense of horror. Many people believed they did not possess souls. They were treated as a vagabond race, as demons to scare children, and precluded from common rights. This proscription continued for two centuries.
MacGregor Red and Green, MacGregor Red and Black, MacGregor of Cardney, MacGregor of Glengyle and MacGregor Green Tartans. Photo by Celtus / CC BY-SA 3.0
Robert Roy “Rob Roy” MacGregor was the son of Donald Glas MacGregor and Margaret Campbell and he had 5 siblings: John MacGregor, Sarah MacGregor, Margaret MacGregor, John McGregor (half) and Duncan MacGregor.
He married Helen Mary MacGregor on 1 Jan 1693 in Glenarklet, Scotland and he was the father of James Mohr MacGregor, Coll MacGregor, Duncan McGregor, Ranald MacGregor and Robert Oig MacGregor.
Friends of Rob Roy MacGregor
Macgregors still had some allies. The Earl of Montrose was one. Macgregors had helped Montrose in the battle against the Roundheads when the English civil war encroached on Scottish politics. Forever grateful for their help and impressed with their bravery, Montrose campaigned for the restoration of their name and other basic rights.
The Earl of Moray was another ally. He was also a friend of Donald Macgregor, a chieftain of the family of Glengyle. Donald and his men helped Moray put down an insurrection, and for this aid, Moray gave Donald a farm at the head of scenic Loch Katrine in the Trossachs. Donald married a daughter of a Campbell family who gave him two sons. The second son, born in the spring of 1671, he named Robert. Rob was a large active boy who, because of his ruddy complexion and red hair earned the appellation Roy.
The remains of Rob Roy MacGregor’s house Glen Shira. Photo by 21st century pict / CC BY-SA 3.0
Rob Roy’s Early Life
Rob Roy, so the stories tell, soon surpassed other boys of his age with his dexterity in wielding a broadsword. He had long arms and superior strength in his upper body.
When he came of age he leased a tract of land near Balquhidder, and entered the trade of cattle farming. He prospered for the early years, but found himself prey to marauding bands who stole his cattle. He was obliged to keep a company of men to protect his land, and it is from this beginning that the annals say he took on his warlike habits.
Though we call him Rob Roy Macgregor he would sign his name Robert Campbell, after his mother’s name, because the name Macgregor was still under proscription. For more information on Scottish names, visit this page.
During the Jacobite uprising of 1689 Rob Roy joined his father in fighting for the cause of James II (VII of Scotland) who had fled from Britain in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The highlanders under Bonnie Dundee were defeated in 1689, and Rob’s own father was imprisoned for two years. While he was in prison Rob’s mother grew sick and died. The Indemnity act of 1717 eventually pardoned all those highlanders who took part in the uprising, but not the Macgregors.
Protectionism: a Career Path
Rob Roy’s father was in the habit of collecting fees from neighbouring farms and estates in return for protection from marauders, and after his father died, Rob Roy took on this practise, some say with more force.
Today we would call this blackmail, or protectionism, but in old days it was common practise for those with the means to do so to fulfil the duties of protector of others and demand a charge for it.
The highlands were in those days an unconscionably difficult place to survive, and this state of affairs gave rise in the end to authorised protectionism in the form of the Black Watch, a land army, paid for by contributions from all estates. The Black Watch became the official protectors of the highlands, and private protectionism such as that practised by Rob Roy was discouraged and punished.
A Growing Reputation
Then something happened to prove Rob Roy’s mettle. A band of marauders from the West Coast of Ross came into the area and carried off 15 head of cattle from a farm in Finlarig, within the bounds of Rob Roy’s protection. A runner was sent to inform Rob and he immediately collected 12 of his men and set off in pursuit. It took two and a half days of tracking before they got lucky, but then they laid an ambush, stole back the cattle and soundly beat the marauders.
Fame of this success under difficult circumstances (no one believed he would get the cattle back) spread rapidly, and suddenly everyone was anxious to have Rob Roy’s very able protection, and were offering him terms. Then, as part of his punishment, the authorities drafted him in to collect the local tax for the Black Watch instead, something smacking of irony, for it was the very same ‘tax’ for which he had been sanctioned.
So he did not desist in collecting his own too, sometimes by strong measures, for he felt justified in giving the same service and collecting the same fees for it. The old practise still held firm in Rob’s mind. Payment was in money, meal or cattle according to agreement, but if you didn’t pay it, God help you.
Illustration by R. R. McIan. The Clans of the Scottish Highlands / Public Domain
Rob Roy had proved himself a valiant and reliable protector; he was received in the most respectable houses as a friend and ally, despite some criticism levelled against him that he could be cruel. The truth may be nuanced according to witnesses.
He married Mary Macgregor of Comer, and was left an estate by a friend, a departing Laird who had fallen on misfortune. Now Rob Roy could style himself Laird of Craigcrostan, or Baron of Inversnaid, and he often did.
The Two Feuding Earls
It was at this time that Rob Roy entered into a partnership with the Earl of Montrose that was to prove disastrous. The trade was to raise highland cattle and sell it into England. Montrose loaned Rob Roy some money to buy cattle.
At the same time the new Earl of Argyll, hearing of Rob Roy’s fame was anxious to secure his friendship. Argyll’s family had in the past been particularly vicious to Clan Macgregor, performing barbaric acts – beheading Macgregors for dinner party entertainment, collecting heads for ransom money – and this memory ran deep.
In no way would Rob Roy entertain the idea of Argyll’s friendship. But perhaps Argyll was conscious of this injustice and wished to make amends. Or perhaps he sought an ally against the Earl of Montrose who was a sworn enemy of Argyll. Or maybe it is because Rob Roy signed himself Campbell, the clan of which Argyll was chief. Whatever reason you choose, things changed when disaster struck.
Rob Roy entrusted an inferior partner in the business with the loan money from Montrose to buy cattle. The man (some say it was a Macdonald) absconded with the money, and despite giving chase, Rob Roy never found him and could not recover the funds. Montrose compelled Rob Roy to mortgage his lands to Montrose to cover the loan, until he could improve his finances. Rob Roy’s financial situation did improve over time, but Montrose changed the terms, saying that because of interest and expenses the amount had now increased.
Meanwhile Argyll had not given up with Rob Roy. He sought his assurance of assistance in a conflict against William of Orange in case it should come to it. Relations were sour and Argyll feared another war. Rob Roy would be a good man to have on his side.
After Montrose proved himself dishonourable by breaking his original agreement over the mortgage, Rob Roy agreed to be Argyll’s ally.
This new alliance with his hated enemy gave Montrose another idea. He sent Rob Roy a letter telling him that if he would inform on Argyll’s treason to the Privy Council of Edinburgh (for treason could be construed out of seeking allies against King William), then Montrose, in gratitude, would not only tear up the mortgage, but pay Rob Roy a sum of money.
Whatever people said about Rob Roy, his sense of fair play was always intact. He was disgusted by this scheming and showed the letter to Argyll, upon which Argyll brought against Montrose a charge of Malevolence.
However, Rob Roy hadn’t thought through the consequences to himself of this action, which was the forcible eviction of his wife and sons from their home, undertaken while Rob Roy was out of town. The eviction was carried out by Montrose’s factor, Graham of Killearn, in a manner of particular barbarity. It transpired later that Killearn had raped Mary Macgregor, Rob Roy’s wife.
Rob Roy had his revenge. He began a campaign of banditry against Montrose and Killearn. He took rents from tenants declaring it was in the name of Montrose, so when the factor arrived at houses the rent was already paid. Strangely Montrose overlooked this practise for a while. Perhaps he felt he had been heavy handed and so allowed him some pay back. Or perhaps he feared the man.
Then Rob Roy ambushed Killearn and dragged him to an island in the middle of Loch Katrine. The island, called Eiliean Dharag, was ever after known as Factor’s Island. Rob Roy kept him prisoner there for 5 or 6 days with a ransom on his head. Montrose would not pay it.
So Rob Roy had to let Killearn go in the end, with a command to never again collect rent from the surrounding country. He declared that country originally belonged to Macgregors and had been taken by treacherous means, therefore he had a right to collect the rents himself.
The Robin Hood of Scotland
Over all this time Rob, his men, and surrounding families of Clan Macgregor had grown into a strong and united force which became the terror of the lowlands. They would make forays into the neighbouring lowlands to steal cattle and generally spread misery among those whom the Macgregors thought had it coming for past terrors inflicted on Macgregors.
The name Rob Roy was often used with impunity among other marauding bands as an excuse for more disgraceful crimes, and Rob Roy has his work cut out to reign in and chasten those who used his name imprudently. Even so, the name Rob Roy became synonymous with outlaw, robber, and monster. Gentle folks were afraid of the name. In contrast there are many stories of his generosity towards those less fortunate. He became in the eyes of some a Robin Hood figure who stole from the rich to give to the poor.
One such story relates to a law passed by James VI of Scotland, whereby all landowners had to prove their ownership of land by means of a charter, harsh on those landowners whose lands had been passed down to them through generations. Small farms especially felt the unfairness of it, as large landowners gleefully began expelling inferior lairds of their lands and property in the absence of paperwork.
The People’s Champion
Rob Roy was enraged at this practise and he, with his band of men, obstructed it as often as he could.A Campbell knight was commissioned to enforce the law on a neighbouring farm, but Rob Roy intercepted him and ducked him in Fillan’s pool near Tyndrum, saying the virtuous properties of the waters there may improve his sense of honour, so he might never again deprive poor men of their lands.
In the face of ruthless landlords and an indifferent government Rob Roy became the champion of the lowlier people against breaches of trust and the many nefarious ways that rich landowners would inveigle poorer ones out of their property, especially those who had fallen on misfortune.
Graham of Killearn, whom we have met already, was known to be an especially sadistic character. He once threatened a local widow who was struggling to pay her rent, with the forcible removal of her cattle and goods, which would have put her into terminal penury. Rob Roy gave her the rent money, and told her to get a receipt from Killearn when he came for payment. Then after Killearn had collected it, he ambushed him, took back the money, beat him soundly, and told him to be kinder to the widow in future.
If a poor family was in need of food he would rob one of the grain stores belonging to Montrose. He stole cattle from Montrose and made himself a thorough nuisance on his estate through regular plundering. Eventually a reward was put on his head, of £1000. Rob Roy was obliged to hide in a cave at the base of Ben Lomond. He subsisted in the woods and became a true Robin Hood for a while.
Catch Him If You Can
Duke Athol, a powerful landowner, had never declared openly his enmity towards Rob Roy, so he set a trap. He invited Rob Roy to his castle saying he wanted to speak with him on a political matter. Rob Roy didn’t trust him and asked for honourable assurance that he would be dealt with fairly.
The snake-like Athol gave his assurance. The appointment was made. When Rob Roy arrived he was seized by soldiers and held at a nearby inn. A triumphant Athol sent word to the Privy Council that he needed help transporting the prisoner to Edinburgh. Meanwhile Rob Roy escaped the inn making Athol look rather foolish. Henceforth Rob Roy raided Athol’s land as well, carrying off cattle at every opportunity.
Rich landowning Privy Councillors hated him, but his clan people loved him. He fought for them and they in turn protected him from the many more times he was arrested or entrapped by Athol, Montrose or government officers, so that tales of his escapes became legendary fireside entertainments. During one arrest by government officers the guards themselves turned a blind eye so he could escape.
John Campbell 2nd Duke of Argyll / Public Domain
Through it all Argyll remained his one ally in the Privy Council. He gave Rob Roy some land and a farm and it was from there that sorties were made to the Athol and Montrose estates for rents, cattle and whatever else took his fancy.
In the Privy Council sessions Athol accused Argyll of harbouring an outlaw. Argyll is said to have replied: “My Lord, I only supply Rob Roy with wood and water, the common privileges of the deer; but you supply him with beef and meal; and withal, he is your factor, for he not long since took up your rents at Chapelaroch.”
Athol had to concede the truth of this. In the end Montrose dropped all opposition to Rob Roy. Montrose was heard to say that the cause was his, his actions had created the monster. Even the king (George I) pardoned him, after the publication in 1723 of an anonymous fictional account of his life called The Highland Rogue. (Some attributed this to the writer, Daniel Defoe, but this has since been discredited). Rob Roy had become a legend in his own lifetime. Stories were told in taverns around the country of this red giant of a man – charismatic, fearless, so impossible to catch – who had earned the right to be left alone.
Death of the Man and Birth of the Legend
Later in life Rob Roy settled down to a quiet life of cattle trading. Though he was born a protestant, he reverted to Catholicism. He said that it was a “convenient religion, which, for a little money, could put asleep the conscience and clear the soul from sin.” Maybe he did have a few sins to reprove himself for.
Rob Roy died peacefully on his farm in 1735, and was succeeded by 3 sons.
Rob Roy’s Grave
He is buried in the family plot in a churchyard at Balquhidder. A stone marked his original grave with a carved sword and the words: “Clan Alpin’s omen and her aid.” In 1920 some ironwork was added and a second stone erected with the inscription: “Macgregor despite them.”
Many books and films have been made about his life. Walter Scott wrote a best seller in 1817, entitled Rob Roy, which cemented his fame further afield. The legend of Rob Roy continues to inspire and fire the imagination. Three biopics have come out of Hollywood, the most recent being in 1995, starring Liam Neeson in the title role. Berlioz wrote an overture to him based on Walter Scott’s novel and there is even a Rob Roy cocktail. It contains whisky, of course.
In these modern proscribed times with many freedoms in short supply, we could learn a thing or two from the uncompromising Rob Roy Macgregor. Perhaps Wordsworth sums him up best in his 1803 poem, ‘Rob Roy’s Grave’, with these lines:
For Thou, although with some wild thoughts,
Wild Chieftain of a savage Clan!
Hadst this to boast of; thou didst love
The liberty of man.