Rob Roy MacGregor was born at Glengyle, in the Trossachs, in 1671. Rob is short for Robert and ‘Roy’ is a translation of the Gaelic word Ruaidh which means red. Our Rob was probably a red-head (perhaps red-faced) and had a colourful personality to match. He achieved that thing when your name becomes a by-word, like vacuum cleaner and Hoover, or Loxley and Robin Hood. Rob Roy the ‘Highland Rogue’ managed this feat in his own life-time but who was the man behind the myth?
The MacGregor was a proud clansman, husband, father, uncle, friend, cattle drover, businessman, bankrupt, outlaw, Jacobite rebel, Government spy. Everywhere he went he left a bewildering trail of blackmail, broken promises, daring deeds, raw courage and skulduggery - yet even his worst enemies couldn’t help liking him. Well, maybe not his sworn enemy the Duke of Montrose although eventually he just gave up.
King George I, in far away London, finally pardoned Rob Roy after the ageing outlaw made fulsome overtures of loyalty. Rob obligingly provided information (for hard cash) on Spanish-based Jacobite rebels. King George’s advisers probably knew the old rogue was only a step away from reverting to the Jacobite cause but it was just Rob being, well Rob. His former Jacobite compatriots probably guessed what he was up to but och….a man had to survive in uncertain times.
One thing we know about Rob Roy was that he could charm the birds - or a Hanoverian and Jacobite - off a tree. Long after he lost his lands at Craigrostan (which he never owned because he was a tenant) he continued to collect rents. And people paid him. He might be landless, not even MacGregor clan chief, but he was a man in his own kingdom. Where he went the Gregorach or ‘the children of the mist’ followed.
Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734) first burst upon the stage after a very public feud with the Duke of Montrose. Montrose, cast as the villain by Rob and pretty much every book and film on the subject since, was a creditor when our respected cattle drover and businessman found himself insolvent. Rob’s solution was to take money to buy cattle which never materialised. He - literally - headed for the hills hoping it would all blow over and he could negotiate a settlement which left him with something to spare.
As a MacGregor, Rob walked a fine line. He belonged to one of the most southerly, and from authority’s point of view most troublesome, Highland clans. Rich pickings were to be had in the lush lowlands not too far from its mountain fastness, which today is in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. Stolen cattle were trotted across rivers which swelled overnight and through narrow passes as fast as someone could say ‘where’s my cow?’ When Royal authority ran out of patience, at various times both sides of the Scottish/English border, the name MacGregor was banned. Thus, Rob Roy became Robert Campbell, the latter his mother’s family name.
Someone clearly hadn’t thought this out. MacGregors carried on doing what MacGregors did but now it was in the name of Campbell or Drummond. Everyone knew who they really were but they were harder to catch. The word blackmail might have been coined for Robert Campbell (MacGregor nudge nudge, wink wink). Well, it wasn’t. Blackmail means ‘black rent’ and it described a protection racket which was endemic in late 1600s Scotland. Highland cattle drovers by day moonlighted at night. Pay them and they wouldn’t pinch your cattle. Ignore them, and you might be buying your own prize bull back at the next cattle market at Crieff.
Countless attempts were made by a furious Duke of Montrose and others to capture the Highland Rogue who was blackmailer par excellence. Most failed or resulted in the wily MacGregor slipping the leash. When it came down to it, Rob and his lowland victims tended to revert to norm. The victims weren’t for handing him over, partly through fear but partly, one suspects, because they preferred the devil they knew. In his own way, Rob Roy operated rough justice. He is credited often enough with not taking from the poor for it to have a ring of truth and he even left ‘receipts.’ In his world, the ‘lifting’ of cattle was a gentleman’s game when times were lean.
In fact, if we are not careful we will have our Rob as a big softie. The great Highland warrior was a veteran of the 1689 and 1719 Jacobite insurgencies but many historians believe he wasn’t present at any significant fighting. MacGregors were useful but not entirely trusted. He and his kinsmen were certainly the scourge of landowners, lawyers, and the military. He had a reputation as a fearsome swordsman but the only duel he fought over farmland claimed by the MacLarens of Balquhidder he lost. In typical Rob style, he fought a much younger man but all agreed he did so with great honour (for a blackhearted, murdering MacGregor). The old rogue’s health declined after that, possibly exacerbated by his injuries.
Rob Roy MacGregor was 63 when he died in his own bed at Inverlochlarig Beg. A remarkable feat for someone hunted for more than a decade. The MacGregor was a consummate survivor. He belonged to a clan squeezed out of its ancestral lands by more successful neighbours. He lived during a tumultuous period when supporters of deposed Stewart kings plotted to seize back the three kingdoms. His uncle was Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, notorious for his involvement in the massacre of the MacDonalds of Glencoe in 1692. His sister’s father-in law was the MacDonald chief’s son. What a tightrope Rob had to walk.
But like most Highlanders he had a fierce pride and ‘a fine conceit.’ One suspects Rob would have been pleased to see himself portrayed in book and film. A rather stodgy autobiography called Highland Rogue was published in his lifetime. For a while people believed it was written by Daniel Defoe, English spy and author of Robinson Crusoe. In 1818, Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Rob Roy’ took London by storm. How delighted the MacGregor would have been to know he played a role in the birth of the anti-hero and the beginnings of historical fiction in the Western tradition. He would have been equally delighted with Hollywood’s Rob Roy (1998). After all, it was the kind of romantic fiction our hero might have produced himself.
Rob Roy was buried at the old Kirk of Balquhidder overlooking the scene of his last dual. Some say his body was actually returned to his ancestral lands on an island on Loch Lomond. Descriptions of his funeral are slight. It is said MacCrimmon's Lament, a haunting tribute to the dead, was played on the bagpipes. It was probably a notable affair, attended by the wild keening of women. But with the Highland Rogue not there to manage it, one wonders. He was, after all, the ultimate showman.
And the famous likeness of Rob Roy on the header of this post? It is not really him - it is based on someone completely different. Of course.
The renovation of James V and Mary of Guise’s Palace at Stirling Castlewas controversial and divided Scots opinion. Several years after the completion of the £12m project the palace interiors still look startlingly new. Here, we do not find a romantic ruin but a reminder that in the 1500s this royal palace was strikingly modern. It might have emerged from the chrysalis of an ancient Scottish fort but every stone and wood carving, every room, every bright colour, was a statement and had much to say about how the Scottish Crown wanted to be seen at home and abroad.
James V of Scotland married Mary of Guise in 1538. The marriage was approved by the king of France, a powerful Catholic ally and opponent of Henry VIII of England. The marriage dowry brought James V wealth, a not inconsiderable benefit to the king of a small country. Mary of Guise arrived in Scotland accompanied by masons, miners, an armourer, and a French painter. Thus, a long tradition was encapsulated in the marriage - power (and the defence of it) re-enforced by conspicuous display.
The Royal Palace was also a Scottish interpretation of the Renaissance. It was designed to accommodate a monarch who travelled the country to establish his authority and who arrived with courtiers, churchmen, entertainers and servants. The King and Queen had separate courts and access was strictly controlled but the lay-out was traditional and less private than other European courts. After her husband’s death, Mary of Guise is recorded as dining with ‘men and women, Scots and French, nobles and commoners, bishops and ambassadors.’
Scottish kings were expected to remain accessible and this coincided with new Continental concepts of an ideal monarch. The palace at Stirling incorporated earlier buildings and there was a deliberate attempt to reference the past. This emphasised the ancient authority of the Scottish Crown and showed confidence in a wider Renaissance world. Historian Jenny Wormald suggested that architecture of this period reflected “the double-vision of early modern Scotland, the desire to combine things Scottish with European.”
Scottish masters of works supervised local tradesmen but there was a long tradition of continental craftsmen working on royal projects. The 200 sculptures and busts which adorn palace façades display a French influence. Armed stone figures or ‘garitours' face away from the royal household as if defending it. There is a statue of James V with a lion holding a crown above his head and he is joined by classical deities Venus (love/fertility) and Saturn (plenty/peace). Orpheus (poetry/music) is a reminder that the King, a fine lute player, was a patron of music.
Scots poets had long explored kingly behaviour. Gavin Douglas described a ‘garitour' as ‘Lawtie' or loyalty in his dream allegory Palice of Honour (1501). To modern eyes, classical statues at Stirling lack the subtlety of Greek or Roman sculpture. In fact, this reflected a contemporary desire to challenge over-sentimentality.
Sir David Lindsay, tutor, herald, diplomat, and poet at the court of James V addressed the moral responsibility of good governance in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (1552). Lindsay’s literary models were drawn from native and classical ‘makars' or poets. The Royal Palace, therefore, was settled in European and Scottish courtly tradition and bang up to date.
Interior decorations were intended to impress. It is likely these also reflected the taste of Mary of Guise and her courtiers. James V had a collection of 200 hangings and tapestries from the Low Countries which travelled with him. The couple also possessed two ‘unicorn sets.’ The unicorn was believed to have magical powers and supported the royal arms of Scotland.
The famous Stirling Heads decorated the ceiling above James V’s chair of estate. Dendrochronology of those that survive shows that these were made of wood cut in Poland in 1529, and were possibly imported as barrel staves. The heads celebrate James V’s pedigree. The king himself is shown, hair cut short in modern style. Others depicted James I and IV, the king’s mother Margaret Tudor (and a possible claim to the English throne) and his French wives and relatives.
As one historian put it, the Stirling Heads show “a king with his court, his ancestors and his European contemporaries” in a setting of “astonishing modernity.” While elements such as thistles provide local flavour, noblewomen wear Italian and French headdresses and costumes, men slashed doublets, a poet recites his work. Clothes are the latest fashion and heads stare full-gaze - something only commonplace ten years after James V’s death.
For all its magnificence, the Royal Palace should also be considered in the context of domestic realities. Medieval Scotland was rural, hierarchical and feudal and coloured by the remains of a kindred-based society. Power was regional - strong local lords dispensed justice and this was an issue for any ambitious king. James V had a long and difficult minority. When it ended, he ruthlessly pursued noble houses which had controlled him and exploited the country’s finances. He sought to restore royal supremacy and crown coffers and capitalised on the weakness of the Catholic church in the face of growing pressure for reform.
The splendour of the Royal Palace was testament to the threat of insecurity and an attempt to counter it. This was no esoteric question. Work began in 1538 and by 1542 war resumed with England and James V was dead, leaving behind the 6-day old Mary, the future Queen of Scots.
Royal marriages arose out of political necessity and brought Continental and English fashions to court. However, this is a simplistic view of medieval Scottish monarchs. Any reduction of international connections to the political sphere alone ignores, and in the instance of Mary of Guise all but extinguishes, individual agency. Political marriages these might be but it leaves little room for the richness of individual experience, the sharing of ideas, albeit within a restricted elite, or any sense of moving forward in an ever-expanding world. Nor was it entirely one-way traffic.
James V did not live to see the completion of his ambitious plans for a Renaissance palace at Stirling. That his court - and the court of his foreign queen - carved a place in a wider cultural space, while retaining a distinct if ‘modern’ Scottish interpretation of it, provides a richer seam of history than battles and royal marriages of old.
It allows others - painters, craftsmen, writers, poets, diplomats, and merchants - to emerge into the light.
James V disguised as a commoner the ‘gudeman [good man] of Ballengeich’