A MacGregor Miscellany: The Real Rob Roy

March 30th, 2020 by admin

Scottish Highlanders differed from Lowlanders in that they routinely carried arms, and indeed were militarised from birth. They used to say in the Highlands: ‘When a male is born they put a sword or a knife in his hand’. They were further distinguished by their language (most spoke only Gaelic); their dress (shirt, plaid, stockings, brogues and bonnets); and their modest dwellings, generally of unmortared stone, with turf roofs. Even the mighty Lochiel, chief of Clan Cameron, lived until 1746 in a wooden house with two stone gable ends (Moncreiffe and Hicks, The Highland Clans, pp.15-16).

Baby girls were not given arms at birth but a spindle to grasp. To the great convenience of genealogists, married women retained their maiden names. Thus the baptismal records of my ancestors Alexander McEwen and Catherine Campbell reveal that their mothers were MacGregors, where no other trace of them exists.

They were a tough breed, adept at negotiating the mountainous terrain. It has been pointed out that Rob Roy MacGregor would have made the nine-mile journey from Glengyle, where he was born, to Inverlochlarig Beg in Balquhidder, where he died, on foot. Today it is a 49-mile journey by road (David Stevenson, The Hunt for Rob Roy, Edinburgh, 2004, pp.1-4, 12, 34).

Rose Bonheur, ‘Highland Raid’ (1860)

The tradition in the family is that my ancestors were ‘caterans’ or cattle-raiders. This was by no means a shameful secret, as cattle-raiding was a way of life until the eighteenth century and was not considered a crime like murder or stealing money. They generally spoke of cattle having been ‘lifted’ rather ‘stolen’.

Though men of many other clans were involved at one time or another, raids were almost invariably blamed on the men of Clan Gregor, who were thought of as a race of cattle thieves. The defiant, marginalised MacGregors, described in 1745 as ‘a hardy, rough people, but noted for pilfering’, had been forced into such activity for their survival and, intensely proud of their lineage, regarded it as an occupation worthy of them as gentlemen.

Both the raiders and their victims complied with a well-established code. Only one or two cattle would be ‘lifted’ at a time, and the drovers were usually unmolested, their trade being vital to the Highland economy. Some farmers would tether a few cattle in places from which they could be easily ‘lifted’, for to cause trouble to the raiders was ‘against the rules of Highland politicks. Amongst these people a quarrel is easily begun but not forgott for many generations’.

Other tenants employed ‘watchers’ to keep guard, paying for them by means of a levy known as ‘blackmail’. The raiders themselves often took on the role, in effect being paid to protect the cattle by not stealing them (Stevenson, pp.7-9, 32, 110, 117).

This genuinely old tartan, worn by the Earl of Wemyss in a portrait of 1740, was later ascribed to Rob Roy to help market it

The father of Rob Roy, Donald Glas (‘the Pale’) MacGregor of Glengyle, who died in 1693, was a professional organiser of watches, earning his living by blackmail. Strictly speaking, Donald was ‘in’, rather than ‘of’ Glengyle, as the holding was not a feudal barony; but as de facto chief of the clan – in default of any strong leadership from the rightful claimant, Gregor MacGregor ‘in Stucharoy’ – he was felt to merit the distinction. Rob Roy was to follow him into the ‘profession’ and used to send his wife Mary out on horseback to collect the blackmail, clad in laced riding cloths and accompanied by a couple of bodyguards. They were described as ‘unwelcome visitants’.

Rob Roy’s sons carried on the family tradition and also turned their hand to horse-theft. On one occasion a woman whom they had robbed of her horses went bravely to confront Rob at his house in Balquhidder and was handsomely compensated by the old rogue, who liked to pose as a Robin Hood figure (Stevenson, pp.11-13, 196, 215).

The theft of sheep, however, was for some reason frowned upon. As an Englishman, Edmund Burt, observed in the 1720s, ‘the Highlander thinks it less shameful to steal a hundred cattle than one single sheep, for a sheep-stealer is infamous even among them’ (Stevenson, p.7). Desperate men would no doubt steal anything.

John Ramsay of Ochertyre says Rob was ‘a gentleman by birth, in a clan where every man, however poor, finds no difficulty in making out a long and honourable pedigree’ (Stevenson, p.269). During the centuries of persecution, the MacGregors clung doggedly to their name. As the law was often loosely enforced, many even dared to use it in official contexts, though it would have been unwise to include it on deeds of any import as they would have had no legal validity.

Most unhelpfully for genealogists, MacGregors tended to switch their legal pseudonyms at will, often as a mark of allegiance to their latest protector. Rob Roy originally called himself Campbell, but became a Drummond when their chief, the (Jacobite) Duke of Perth, dealt favourably with him. To flatter him further, he became a rather insincere Catholic (Stevenson, pp.22, 34, 214, 243).

In 1745 the MacGregors were said to be ‘dispersed through the Duke of Perth’s estate’, which included a considerable part of Perthshire. It is perhaps significant that Stobhall, the ancestral seat of the Drummonds, is a mere bend in the Tay from Kinclaven, where my McEwens were settled. It is conceivable that we descend from the branch of the MacGregor chiefly line calling themselves ‘MacEwin’. Documented in her two-volume Clan Gregor by the family historian, Amelia MacGregor of MacGregor, until the seventeenth century, these ‘MacEwins’ are said to have ‘disappeared without trace’.

The Highlanders were greatly attached to their traditional burial-places. The Balquhidder MacGregors favoured the island of Inchailloch on Loch Lomond. Bodies used to be carried over the pass still known as Bealach nam Corp (Stevenson, p.12). The Macnab chiefs were likewise buried on an island, similarly picturesque, that of Inchbuie in the River Dochart. The Macnab in the late eighteenth-century used his possession of ‘the most beautiful burying-ground in the world’ as a chat-up line. It failed to procure him a wife, though he managed to beget thirty-two bastards and it was rumoured that several lasses in the district got ‘the bad disorder’ from him (Moncreiffe and Hicks, The Highland Clans, p.14).

Reluctant Jacobites

Highland funerals were occasions for great gatherings and involved the traditional coronach or ‘keening’ when the assembled women wailed their lament. This would be followed by a ‘compleat narration of the descent of the dead person’. As Rob Roy’s body was carried to his grave, the pipers struck up the haunting MacCrimmon’s Lament (Stevenson, pp.220-1). As late as 1879, the funeral procession for Sir Malcolm MacGregor of MacGregor at Balquhidder was several miles long. A drunken wake would traditionally ensue (Moncreiffe and Hicks, The Highland Clans, p.15).

It is not surprising that the persecuted MacGregors lived permanently on the qui vive. Iain Moncreiffe wrote that his MacGregor cousins ‘taught me as a boy to eat the old staple diet porridge standing up, ready to run for it lest they be raided by Campbells’ (Lord of the Dance, p.194). Others hold that porridge should be eaten standing up in any case, merely out of respect for the dish.

Ancestors of mine would have been ‘out’ in the Fifteen and the Forty-Five. The MacGregors were said in 1711 to be dispersed over a wide area, but ready on their ‘watchword’ to assemble and follow their chief. The Pretender offered the promise of restoring their name. MacGregors who refused to join the rising in 1715 were threatened with death. There were many reluctant recruits, from all clans, in the Jacobite rebellions.

Rob Roy, his nephew Glengyle and MacGregor of Balhaldie led their forces south and launched an expedition to capture the boats on Loch Lomond, but were thwarted by the Royal Navy. The MacGregors under the slippery Rob Roy stood aloof at Sheriffmuir, as if ready to switch sides, and thus contributed to the Jacobite defeat. In January 1716 Glengyle led 134 MacGregors into Fife in quest of forage. For a few weeks they occupied Falkland Palace, which Cromwell had left half-derelict, with Rob serving as deputy governor (Stevenson, pp.74, 102-4, 110, 118-19).

The Real Rob Roy

Liam Neeson: not the real Rob Roy

Rob Roy had less to lose than most in these ventures, as he was already an outlaw. Having by his early thirties built up a successful, and entirely legitimate cattle-dealing business, he had been faced by 1711 with bankruptcy. In an attempt to recover his finances, he had defrauded his customers, including the powerful Duke of Montrose, his overlord for Glengyle. Protected by the rival Clan Campbell, Rob was able to escape justice and live openly in their country, first at Auch, then at Brackley, with forty or fifty men, including a personal piper, in his service (Stevenson, pp.33-44, 62-3). The MacGregors, incidentally, are described as a leading piping family, with many individual tunes to their name (https://www.musicscotland.com/cd/Clan-Gregor-Collection-Book.html).

A vengeful Montrose has ever since been represented as the villain of Rob Roy’s story. In the 1995 film, Rob Roy, which gullible viewers may mistake for a factual account, he is played with sneering relish by John Hurt. But the betrayal of trust had been Rob’s, and the real Montrose was far from being an oppressive landlord, many having ‘tenures of kindness’ on his lands. He appears to have been a gentle, courteous man, much like his descendant, the present duke, who still lives on Lomond-side. Yet Rob set out purposefully to humiliate his former patron, even stealing 32 of his best cows in a raid on Buchanan Castle in 1717, and returning later to steal his grain. By the 1720s Rob Roy’s daring exploits had made him a legend throughout Scotland (Stevenson, pp.53-6, 154-6, 184).

James Graham, First Duke of Montrose: not the John Hurt caricature

Rob Roy is described as a huge, hairy redhead, with such long arms that he could tie his garters without stooping, like a human orang-utan. If so he would have been noticeably deformed, the account being clearly an exaggeration. Sources agree that he was remarkably affable and ‘jolly’, a most beguiling individual, with an aversion to gratuitous violence. In 1725 he prevailed upon General Wade to procure him the King’s pardon, and was cheerfully prepared to betray his fellow Jacobites for money (Stevenson, pp.53, 199, 203, 230).

Rob’s intelligence led to the arrest of James Stirling of Keir who was one of the Pretender’s leading agents in Scotland, a blatant act of treachery which his admirers have chosen to ignore. Aged nearly sixty, he supplemented his income with the proceeds of cattle raids. Many of the best stories about him are garbled or unverified. He is said to have made his famous ‘leap’ over the Leuchars Burn in full spate at Peterculter, but the entire story – immortalised in the 1953 Disney version of his life – was probably an invention for the benefit of tourists. He died of an injury sustained in a duel – the details are uncertain – at Inverlochlarig Beg on 28 December 1734 (Stevenson, pp.206-8, 219). An unprincipled rogue, he at least had charm and a degree of humanity, which is more than could be said for his psychopathic sons, one of whom was hanged for rape and murder.

In The Braes of Balquhidder (1914), F. Watson summed up Rob with refreshing common sense: ‘it must be admitted that he was not overly scrupulous nor truthful, and the long and the short of it is that it is wiser not to look for public school ideas in a Highland cateran’ (quoted in Stevenson, p.286). My considerable debt to another wise and indefatigable author, David Stevenson, for his brilliant biography of Rob Roy, will be evident from the many citations above.