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Legends & Truth of Rob Roy MacGregor

The Legend and Truth of Rob Roy MacGregor

ere we to write the history of the Clan MacGregor after the classic manner, we should do it in somewhat of this fashion. We should relate how the Clan MacGregor were grievously pursued by their foes; how their land was taken from them, and they were threatened with absolute extinction; how, in this desperate strait, they sent messengers to the oracle, with many gifts of Lowland cattle which they had "lifted" for the special purpose, and that Pythia, being duly invoked, was graciously pleased to respond that " MacGregor, despite them, should flourish for ever.

Years passed; the clan was utterly "broke," and so was Pythia’s reputation, when a famous poet and teller of tales arose, and so wrote about the clan that it revived in more than its former splendour. Is it not true that MacGregor shall flourish for ever in the pages of Scott? The Wizard of the North was particularly fond of Loch Katrine, for whilst one part has all the memories of the Lady of the Lake, the other end is full of reminiscences of Rob Roy.

The little islands at the west end were once possessed by the MacGregor. To the north is Glengyle, the very centre of their country. Further north of this is Balquhidder, where is Rob Roy’s grave, whilst in Loch Lomond is his prison and cave. Now, as it is our intention to conduct the reader next to that queen of Scottish lochs—there are only five miles between it and Loch Katrine—we think it best to take Rob MacGregor in transitu, so to speak, and first, then, of the Clan MacGregor. ‘this clan is of fairly ancient lineage, if we are to believe its chroniclers, who trace it up to "Gregor, or Gregorious, third son of Alpin, King of Scots, who flourished about 787."

At one time it was very powerful, and the clansmen had large possessions, which they held ‘cair a glaive’ -by the right of the sword. But even in the Highlands the time came when it became the fashion to have title-deeds. According to the theory of the feudal system, all the land belonged to the king, by whom it was, under certain conditions, gifted out. This was utterly repugnant to Celtic notions, but Celtic notions were in the long run, to prevail in Scotland.

The neighbours of the MacGregors were the Earls of Argyle and Breadalbane. Their influence at court was very great, and they easily obtained grants of the lands of the MacGregor. They proceeded bit by bit to take possession. The clansmen vehemently resisted. This was represented at court as resistance to law, and so the whole force of the executive was turned to crush them. With that ferocious. brevity and directness which render the Acts of the old Scottish Parliaments and Privy Council so great a contrast to the complexity and verbiage of modern legal documents, it was enacted of the "wicked clan MacGregor, so long continuing in blood, slaughter, theft, and robbery," that commission should be granted to their foes "to pursue them with fire and sword,’’ whilst the " lieges were discharged from receiving or assisting them, or affording them, under any colour whatever, meat, drink, or clothes.’ And now began a sort of savage civil war, in which the law was cruelly outraged, and then brutally avenged.

To tell all the feuds between them and their opponents would be impossible, but the feud which was the cause of their final extinction may be noticed briefly. Colquhoun, the laird of Luss, had executed two of the MacGregors for " lifting" a sheep. Immediately a force of three or four hundred men was assembled, and marched on Colquhoun, who collected all his forces to meet them. The battle took place in Glenfruin the Vale of Sorrow "—and the MacGregors were encouraged by a seer who saw in a trance the death shroud wound round the bodies of the leaders of the other party.

The prediction proved successful, for the MacGregor was completely victorious. One event of strange ferocity marked the victory. A party of youths, "candidates for clerical orders," appeared in some inexplicable and mysterious way on the field of battle. They were only present, we are told, as spectators, but, nevertheless, were made prisoners by the MacGregor , and handed over to the custody of one Dugald Ciar Mhor, or the great Mouse-coloured Man, the foster- brother of the MacGregor-in-chief. This individual, if he resembled a mouse in colour, certainly did not in disposition, for he made short work of his unfortunate charges, and when interrogated as to what had become of them, he replied, ac he showed his bloody dirk, "Ask that, and God save me "—this last phrase having been used by his unfortunate victims in the agonies of death.

This individual was the ancestor of Rob Roy MacGregor, but it is only fair to him to mention that, according to some accounts, be died some years before the date of trio battle. And now the full vengeance of the law was anew decreed on the unfortunate MacGregors. The name was abolished, and those who had been called by it were ordered instantly to choose some other; they were forbidden to carry anything like a weapon, save a pointless knife to assist them at meals; they were forbidden to assemble in greater numbers than four, and the same provisions were afterwards applied to the children, for, notwithstanding all that had been done, these were said to be so numerous that their numbers threatened to make the clan more powerful than ever. The persecution thus commenced was carried out with intensest zeal by the Earls of Argyle and Athole.

At last Alaster MacGregor , chief of the clan from GlenStrae, their ancestral homelands, surrendered to Argyle on the promise that he should be sent out of Scotland. He was made the victim of a strange and cruel trick. The escort took him and the other prisoners a little way over the border, and then immediately marched them back to Edinburgh, where the whole lot were tried, found guilty, and hanged the same day. We are told that, "for distinctions sake, he was suspended higher by his own height than two of his kindred and friends." He was thus, " by merit, raised to this bad eminence," probably not with the intention of soothing his feelings, but to add additional insult to his last moments. And yet it seemed impossible to crush this people.

Under Charles i , in 1633, there is an Act of Parliament setting forth "that the clan Gregor, which had been suppressed and reduced to quietness (a fine illustration of the line ‘To make a wilderness and call it peace’) by the great care of the late King James, of eternal memory, had, nevertheless, broken out again in the counties of Perth, Stirling, Clackmannan, Monteith, Lennox, Angus, and the Mearns;" and then a new commission is granted for the further crushing or that wicked and rebellious race." During the civil war the MacGregor proved loyal adherents of the Stewarts. Their admirers have cited this as a touching instance of their fidelity "to the Crown of Scotland, which their ancestors once wore." Others, however, have thought that the opportunity of unlimited and legalised forays on the Lowlands had something to do with this. How- ever this may be, King Charles did not prove ungrateful and in the first Scottish parliament after the Restoration the attainder was reversed, though it was reimposed after the Revolution, and not finally removed till after the Union.

We now come to the individual who (thanks to the genius of Scott) has made the name MacGregor illustrious. According to Sir Walter, he was born about the middle of the17th century, and had some sort of right over Craig Royston, a domain of rock and forest lying on the east side of Loch Lomond, where that beautiful lake stretches into the dusky mountains of Glenfalloch. At one time he was fairly prosperous. He carried on a perfectly legitimate trade in cattle, and had powerful friends and patrons, chief of whom was no less a person than the Duke of Montrose. From some cause or other he got into difficulties, and was charged with absconding with as much as £i.ooo sterling, which had been in- trusted to him for the purchase of cattle. Montrose was exceedingly wrath at what he considered a breach of trust, and at what he afterwards called "the insolence of that very notorious rogue, Rob Roy."

The MacGregor were evicted from their dwelling, and Rob keys wife is said to have been brutally insulted. He avenged this by carrying on a system of regular warfare against the duke, and, indeed, against the Lowlanders in general, or as many of them as refused to pay "black mail" to him. "The country," says Sir Walter Scott, in words which are well worthy of quotation for the excellent picture they give of the Highlands, ‘.in which this private warfare, or system of depredation, was to be carried on, was, until opened up by roads, in the highest degree favourable for his purpose. It was broken up into narrow valleys, the habitable part of which bore no pro- portion to the huge wilderness of forest, rocks, and precipices by which they were encircled, and which was, moreover, full of inextricable passes, morasses, and natural strengths, unknown to any but the inhabitants themselves, where a few men, acquainted with the ground, were capable, with ordinary address, of baffling the pursuit of numbers."

From these fastnesses, then, Rob Roy MacGregor was wont to issue forth on his predatory excursions, and for years he was so successful in them that his name became a terror to the adjacent Lowlands.

It is not at all to be supposed that Rob Roy was a mere vulgar robber. He was kind and generous to the poor, and believed himself to be justified in the revenge which he took on the rich. Then, though brave himself, and daring, he was by no means of a cruel or sanguinary disposition. Nor was he without a certain grace and dignity of manner which impressed those who came in contact with him. Personally, he is described as being very strong, with very broad shoulders, and very long arms.

Wordsworth’s description of him must be accepted as a fair if somewhat flattering portrait.

Rob Roy The MacGregor

Heaven gave Rob Roy a dauntless heart, And wondrous length and strength of era, Nor craved he more to quell his foes, Or keep his friends from harm.

Yet was Rob Roy as wise as brave Forgive me if the phrase he strong A poet worthy of Rob Roy Must scorn a timid song.

Bear witness many a pensive sigh Of thoughtful herdsman when he strays Alone upon Loch Veol’s heights, And by Loch Lomond’s braes!

Balquhidder, besides being celebrated for its braes (which, like "The Bush Aboon Traquair," and "The Birks of Aberfeldy," and "The Haughs of Yar- row," make no small figure in Scottish literature), is also the burial-place of Rob Roy. A more elaborate monument near it was erected to the memory of one of his sons, who died before him. The stone over Rob Roy MacGregor’s grave is a very old one, much older, indeed, than the period which that famous individual graced. It is covered all over with fanciful devices, the real meaning of which can only be conjecture. His wife, Helen MacGregor, is said to be buried near him, and another stone, also of very great antiquity, is pointed out as her monument. Popular legends have a great tendency to get mixed with one another. And it may be that because the stones were old and curious, and Rob Roy MacGregor was remarkable, that the two got connected.

By the side of Loch Lomond is Rob’s cave, where he is said occasionally to have put up. In 1306, Robert the Bruce, when his fortunes were at a very low ebb, also took refuge here.

Before taking leave of Rob Roy MacGregor we may just mention the Clachan of Aberfoil, where, according to Scott, young Osbaldstone received the note from the outlaw which justified the officer in detaining him; where the inimitable Bailee Nicole Jarvie defended himself so ably with the poker; and from whence the expedition proceeded on the way to Loch Lomond. We may quote the few words in which Scott describes the village. After re- marking on the beauty of the scenery, he says: "Man alone seemed to be placed in a state of inferiority, in a scene where all the ordinary features of nature were varied and exalted, the miserable little bourachs, as the Bailie termed them, of which about a dozen formed the village called the Clachan of Aberfoil, were composed of loose stones, cemented by clay instead of mortar, and thatched by turfs, laid rudely upon rafters formed of native and unknown birches and oaks from the woods around.

The roofs approached the ground so nearly, that Andrew Fairservice observed, we might have ridden over the village the night before, and never found out we were near it, unless our horses’ feet had ‘gone through the riggin. 'Well, all this is very much changed now, and we must give Rob Roy a little of the credit due for the improvement'.

In poetry and romance his figure appears moving over the hills, and giving an additional charm to many a fair spot. As each Highland tout, or guide, or innkeeper plunders the Sassenach with a zeal and industry which Rob Roy MacGregor himself never surpassed, we may imagine him invoking thy hallowed me- mory, Rob Roy MacGregor , oh!

The above text is extracted from the book "Picturesque Scotland" by Francis Watt and Andrew Carter.

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Last Updated: Dec. 1st, 2021

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