Many of the stories of Rob Roy’s exploits as an outlaw became Legends as the Scottish nation began to see him as a ‘hero of the common man’ who stood up against the land owners who had often been given the title to their lands in recognition of their assistance to monarchs who lived south of the border. The Macgregors, however, must have had more than their fair share of determination, for in circumstances, almost unparalleled in those savage times, they survived and the name of one of the most famous Scotsmen of all time, was a leader of their Clan – Rob Roy MacGregor, the notorious Scottish freebooter. Rob himself would have had no problem with this, for he was never one to hide the light of his countenance under a bushel. And the clan itself, the Griogair, ‘the Children of the Mist’, would think it only proper that their name should survive and be exalted while their most relentless persecutor, clan Cambell, should be for ever linked – however unfairly – with the Massacre of Glencoe.
Rob Roy has been likened to a Scottish Robin Hood, an outlaw who braved the redcoats, laughed at authority and made Glengyle a Sherwood Forest where only his own people felt secure. The reality is grander, for the MacGregors were more than mere outlaws. Is Rioghaid mo Dhream, they claim, ‘Royal is my race’, and boast descent from Griogair, son of Alpin, King of Scots in the early ninth centaury. Malcolm, chief of the clan, fought at Bruce’s side at Bannokburn and followed Edward Bruce on his Irish adventure, retiring wounded from the fatal encounter at Dundalk. The rise of the Campbells, who also supported Bruce meant lean times for MacGregor, although the clan endured for centuries.
The Persecuted MacGregors With Campbell prodding, the Crown ordered letters of ‘fire and sword’ – legal murder and pillage – against the MacGregors, and the Colquhouns of Luss helped in these raids. This led to MacGregor retaliation and the battle of Glen Fruin in 1603. Over a hundred Colquhouns were slain, but so were some luckless Lowlanders who had come to watch the fun. It is difficult to feel sympathy for them, for they left the security of their homes in the expectation of witnessing others being slaughtered, only to become victims themselves. The outcome, however, was equally grim for the MacGregors; by an act of the Privy Council, dated 3 April 1603, the very name of MacGregor was proscribed; all who had taken part in the battle were prohibited from carrying any weapon other than a knife with its point broken or rounded off and could not meet in groups of more than four. The penalty for breaking any of these rules was death.
Amongst themselves the MacGregors, no doubt, used their own names. To sign documents, or to appear to the world outside their own clan, they used the names of neighbouring peoples. Campbell, Graham, Drummond, Stewart. The clan remained united; some hundreds fought for King Charles I under Patrick MacGregor of Glenstrae. In gratitude, Charles II annulled the statutes of 1633 against them in 1661, but William of Orange reinstated them in 1693. It was in this new era of persecution that Rob Roy came into prominence.
The Birth of Rob Roy His mother a Campbell, his father Lieutenant – Colonel MacGregor of Glengyle, Rob Roy was the second son so was never chief of the clan, although he was its captain in time of war. Rob Roy was born around 1671 in Glengyle, and seemed to be fairly law-abiding in his youth – for a MacGregor – although this could be disputed. There is a story about the village of Kippen when Rob Roy was supposedly a lawful cattle-drover. This would be around 1691, when William would have just been made king.
Rob Roy was droving 200 cattle to the tryst (market) at Buchlyvie, crossing the fords of Frew on the way. How he came by the cattle is arguable, but perhaps he was working honestly for his living at the time. When he came to Kippen all that changed, for the temptation of the villagers’ cattle was difficult for any Highlander, brought up on tales of reiving and raiding, to resist. Rob Roy swept through the place, driving everything movable before him.
At the fords of Frew, one of the few places where the huge Flanders Moss was passable, Rob Roy was caught by a party of dragoons from Cardross but he used the land and his MacGregors to panic them. What the good folk of Kippen thought of all this romantic thievery is not mentioned in the legend. No doubt they laughed heartily at the antics of that jolly outlaw, Rob Roy, as they looked at a bleak and hungry future.
Shortly after, Rob Roy married Mary MacGregor of Cromar, his second cousin and a match for him in every way. Perhaps it was the responsibility of marriage which quietened the wild streak in him, for he seems to have returned to droving for some years, borrowing money from the Duke of Montrose to keep himself solvent. In this he made a mistake, for it was a major cause of subsequent events; this, the fact he was a Jacobite in an extremely disturbed Scotland, and the proud MacGregor blood which flowed through him.
When Rob Roy discovered he was bankrupt in 1712, he slipped into the hills until the matter passed over. Montrose sent Graham of Killearn, his factor, with a body of men to Rob Roy’s house inInversnaid at the head of Loch Katrine (loch of the caterans, or thieves). Rob Roy was not there, but his lands were seized, his houses plundered and his wife and children evicted in midwinter. To any man this would lead to anger, but there would be little they could do. Rob Roy MacGregor was not just any man and his wife was as implacable as he.
From that day, Rob Roy and his clansmen waged an open war of attrition on the Duke of Montrose and Graham of Killearn, his factor. The duke’s estates spread to the Highland border, temptingly easy to raid, and Rob Roy vowed they would keep him in cattle until his last day. He kept his word. The raids began, and so did the legends. Graham of Killearn was Rob Roy’s principal target; once, Rob Roy found him at the inn at Chapel-darroch (then a township, now shrunk to a farm) and quietly kidnapped him. The factor was taken to the shores of Loch Katrine, thrown on a boat and rowed to Eilean Dubh at the head of the loch. Here killearn was held until Rob decided to let him go unharmed; for Rob Roy was no killer.
On another occasion, the factor was collecting rents at the same inn when Rob Roy looked through a window and observed him. Killearn was placing a bag of money in a cupboard, claiming he would give it all way for Rob Roy’s head. At this time Rob Roy had only one man with him, but he shouted commands to a score of imaginary followers and boldly entered the inn with his sole companion. After forcing Killearn to write a receipt to each tenant, Rob Roy used the factor’s money to buy food and drink for all his company, warned Killearn to sit still for an hour and left the inn.
Rob Roy, however, was more than just a taunter of Killearn. He was a blackmailer, of the original kind where blackmail meant payment to prevent cattle being taken, and any man of property or wealth could be a victim. The Campbells suffered: Sir Colin Campbell of Aberwehill and Kilbryde was blackmailed, although his son, James, was bold enough to refuse payment. Rob Roy waited until James was at dinner with a gathering of friends, rounded up the Kilbryde cattle and demanded payment or he would take the lot. The shamefaced laird had no option but to pay up.
In the middle of his career, Rob Roy had a diversion as the Jacobite rising of 1715 errupted. Captain of the clan, Rob Roy led his followers to the battle at Sheriffmuir, arrived late and halted at the Allan Water. Here he stayed, his MacGregors a disciplined guard as the Highlanders of the left wing withdrew from Argyll’s redcoats. Not a heroic part, but the battle was already lost and his first responsibility was to his clan, not to a man who might be king.
There were other brushes with the redcoats. For instance, the time when the Glasgow volunteers marched north to claim a 1000-pound reward Rob Roy had on his head – and fled at first sight of the MacGregors. There was the near-forgotten rising of 1719 and the battle in Glenshiel where 300 Spaniards surrendered. There was the encounter at Duchary Castle when Rob Roy slipped out the back door while Graham sistera kept dragoon officers amused at the front.
There was also the fort built at Inversnaid. Traces of this building still remain on a hillock overlooking the Snaid and Arklet Water, but it had a very difficult task. Twice before it was buit, Rob Roy destroyed it, and the redcoats stationed here, with wild MacGregors watching their movements, must never have let their hands stray from their muskets.
That fort was the only one built in the Highlands in this period; together with the roads designed by Wade it was intended to quell the Highlanders, of whom Wade had said, ‘and the MacGregors on the borders of Argyllshire. They go out in parties from 10 to 30 men, traverse large tracts of mountains until they arrive at the Lowlands … they drive the stolen cattle at the night time and in the day remain in the mountains or in the woods, with which the Highlands abound, and take the first occasion to sell then at the fairs and markets that are annually held.’
It could have been a job description for Rob Roy himself. A man of less than average height, solidly built and nimble of mind, Rob Roy’s spectre haunts the hills and Lowlands from Balquhidder to Kippen and beyond. It is pleasing to remember that he died in his bed, his wife Mary at his side, and on the land he claimed as his own.