Robert Campbell alias MacGregor alias Rob Roy
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.