Rob Roy MacGregor was baptised on the 7th of March, 1671. There are no records showing his birth date.
Rob Roy was of the Gregorach, the ‘Children of the Mist’, reputed to be one of the oldest clans in Scotland. The first Gregor in Scotland was said to have been a son of Alpin, a King of the Scotti; Irish immigrants settled on the west coast of Scotland. The clan motto, in English, means ‘My race is Royal’. Robert the Bruce granted a substantial part of the MacGregor lands to his close friend and supporter Neil Campbell. Henceforth, the expansionist Campbells and the MacGregors were in frequent conflict, but the MacGregors were often the losers and gradually lost title to their lands and became tenants of the more politically successful Campbells. In April, 1603, after the Clan Chief was hanged in Edinburgh, the name of MacGregor was proscribed and anyone continuing to use it could be sentenced to death.
That situation still prevailed in 1671, when Rob Roy MacGregor was born in a cottage at Glengyle, at the head of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs area of Stirlingshire. He was the third son of Donald Glas of Glengyle and Margaret Campbell and would later use his mother’s surname when the banning of the MacGregor name was reinforced. His baptism is recorded in the parish registers of Buchanan thus: “On the 7th day of March 1671, Donald M’Gregor in GlenGyle, ps. of Calendar, upon testificat from ye minister yrof. Margaret Campbell. Son baptised, called Robert. Witnesses, Mr. Wm. Anderson, Minister, and John Macgregor.”
By the time Robert had grown up, Highland Watches had been introduced as part of a scheme put forward by Lord Breadalbin. That scheme involved a payment of £12,000 to the Clan Chiefs, to form their restless fighting men into Watches. The Captain of a Highland Watch was responsible for the suppression of all robbery and violence within his district, and the practice of cattle-lifting in particular. Rob Roy was made captain of the Glengyle Watch, in his twenty-first year. These duties enabled him to swagger about the countryside with a band of armed men, whether on his own business or that of his clients, without question or interference. Many of the cattle rustling myths surrounding Rob Roy derive from this role of his. It certainly seems likely that there was more than a tendency to overlook the interests of the clients he professed to serve. It may have been a case of something like, “ten for you; one for me.” In any case, the Lowlanders depended upon the Highlanders’ mercenary skills in the specialised business of tracing vanished cattle. His escapades during that period provided his clansmen with a splendid semi-military training.
That training came in handy as Rob Roy fought on the Jacobite side on several occasions during his lifetime, in a conflict that was drawn out over half a century or more, until it petered out at Culloden. At the age of eighteen, he fought alongside his father under ‘Bonnie’ Dundee at the Battle of Killiecrankie, in July of 1689. However, on the morning of the Battle of Sheriffmuir in September, 1715, Rob Roy was elsewhere. Evidently, his fellow officers knew all about a ‘special mission’ he had been sent upon, but exactly what, has never been told. Nevertheless, later in the day, hastening back to join the Army, he arrived at the River Allan, where the remnants of the Jacobite left wing, under Young Lochiel, had been forced across the river. Lochiel recorded that, “I perceived Rob Roy MacGregor on his march towards me, coming from the Town of Doune, he not being at the engagement, with about two hundred and fifty, betwixt MacGregors and MacPhersons.” This statement was confirmed by Struan Robertson’s account stating, “…having met with a party of MacGregors going to join our army, they drew up, and the enemy thought it proper to leave them.”
Lochiel apparently wanted Rob Roy to cross the river to attack the King’s forces under Argyll, which request Rob initially refused. This incident has often been used to paint Rob Roy in a poor light, but there are sound military reasons for Rob’s declining to hurl his men across the river in Argyll’s teeth. The fact remains that Argyll’s dragoons were halted by the arrival of Rob’s reinforcements and it was Lochiel who “went off” leaving the MacGregors drawn up by the ford, where they served to cover his retreat. Later, Rob’s men did cross the Allan and proceeded to harry Argyll’s men. His calculated action may well have contributed to the Royal Army’s subsequent dispersal from the field. The eventual result of the Battle was effectively a score draw.
Rob Roy was also present at the Battle of Glen Shiel in 1719, which saw the defeat of a Spanish expedition aiming to restore the Stuart monarchy. He took part in an action against English and Dutch infantry established on the high ground on the side of SgurrOmran. The Earl Marischal flung the Highlanders at the redcoats, but could not dislodge them. MacKinnons, MacKenzies, MacGregors, MacDonalds, and Camerons in succession made the attempt, but all reeled back from the Dutchmen’s steady platoon firing. There is a story that, during the fighting, Rob Roy found himself thrust into the line next to some of the MacRaes, who recognised their old enemy and refused to fight beside him. Be that as it may, nobody has ever suggested that the MacGregors shrank from meeting the enemy this time.
After the Battle was over, Rob Roy and his men carried out another guerilla action, before vanishing southwards into the wilds of Glenelg. All the spare firearms and ammunition landed from the Spanish frigates still lay in the magazine at the Crow of Kintail and would have fallen into English hands. Rob Roy had other ideas, getting there before the soldiers and blowing the place sky high. Some of the enemy soldiers, coming over the hill while the cloud of black smoke still hung in the air, were in time to see them as they disappeared – into the mist.
Rob Roy died in his house at Inverlochlarig Beg, Balquhidder, in December, 1734.
Wordsworth’s description of him gives a fair if somewhat flattering portrait:
“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.”