Rob Roy

The Highland Robin Hood

Robert MacGregor, alias Robert Campbell, better known as Rob Roy, was born in 1671, the younger son of Donald MacGregor of Glengyle and his wife, a Campbell of Glenfalloch.

His pedigree is uncertain, but he claimed to be a descendant of Gregor MacGregor of Glenlyon, and therefore a kinsman of the Gregorie family of Aberdeen.

In the general unrest that followed the Revolution of 1688, many of the MacGregor clan took advantage of the confusion to settle old scores and indulge in a little private brigandage. In 1691 Rob Roy led a raid on the village of Kippen, which netted the raiders a fair amount of plunder.

After the re-imposition of anti-MacGregor laws in 1693, Rob Roy assumed his mother’s name of Campbell and became a drover, or a dealer in cattle. The shaggy, long-horned cattle, which were the economic mainstay of the Highlands, were taken down to the cattle fairs on the borders of the Lowlands by parties of Highlanders armed with broadswords, pistols and dirks. They looked fearsome in the extreme, but they nevertheless dealt with their southern customers with all honour and good faith. The occasional fracas was not allowed to interrupt trading for long.

Rob Roy was described by contemporary witnesses as being of medium height, strong and compact, with broad shoulders and exceptionally long arms. "His countenance was open, manly, stern at periods of danger, but frank and cheerful in his hours of festivity. His hair was dark red, thick, and frizzled, and curled short around the face."

He was an honest dealer, a skilful negotiator and a successful speculator, bringing good prices and prosperity to his Highland friends. This was the most prosperous period of his life. He was on very good terms with his nearest and most powerful neighbour, James Graham, first Duke of Montrose, who advanced him considerable sums of money for his speculations in the cattle trade.

A sudden depression in the market left Rob Roy totally insolvent, and he absconded with around £1000 sterling, which had been entrusted to him by several noblemen and gentlemen for the purchase of cattle in the Highlands. The Duke of Montrose had Rob Roy’s property sequestered so that he could recover his debt and, although it was the middle of winter, he evicted Rob Roy’s wife from their home.

Rob Roy determined on revenge—a campaign of plunder and depredation against the Duke of Montrose. He stole cattle, exacted protection money and confiscated rents from Montrose’s tenants and agents.

His schemes were skilfully planned and carried out with speed and secrecy. They were almost universally successful. Like Robin Hood, he was a gentle robber—while he took from the rich, he was liberal in relieving the poor.

He was a masterly swordsman, and had a "perfect and intimate knowledge of all the recesses of the wild country… and the character of the various individuals, whether friendly or hostile, with whom he might come in contact" — all qualities necessary for the success of his campaign.

In the first Jacobite rebellion of 1715 Rob Roy put aside his personal vendetta and recruited for the Jacobites, but took no other active part. During his recruitment drive he visited Aberdeen and stayed for some time with his kinsman Dr James Gregorie. This visit is described by Sir Walter Scott in his detailed history of Clan Gregor which forms the Introduction to his novel "Rob Roy":

While he was in the city of Aberdeen, Rob Roy met a relation of a very different class and character to those whom he was sent to summon to arms. This was Dr James Gregorie (by descent a MacGregor), the patriarch of a dynasty of professors distinguished for their literary and scientific talent… This gentleman was at the time Professor of Medicine in King’s College Aberdeen, and son of Dr James Gregorie, distinguished in science as the inventor of the reflecting telescope.

The professor had a son of about eight or nine years old — a lively, stout boy of his age — with whose appearance our Highland Robin Hood was much taken.

"My dear kinsman, (he said) I have been thinking what I could do to show my sense of your hospitality. Now, here you have a fine spirited boy of a son, whom you are ruining by cramming him with your useless book-learning, and I am determined, by way of manifesting my great good-will to you and yours, to take him with me, and make a man of him."

The learned professor was utterly overwhelmed when his warlike kinsman announced his kind purpose (which)… was, in the father’s eyes, the ready road to the gallows…

At length the perplexed professor pleaded that his son was very young, and in an infirm state of health, and not yet able to endure the hardships of a mountain life…

James Gregorie, who thus escaped being his kinsman’s recruit, and in all probability his henchman, was afterwards Professor of Medicine in the College, and, like most of his family, distinguished by his scientific acquirements. He was rather of an irritable and pertinacious disposition; and his friends were wont to remark, when he showed any symptom of these foibles, "Ah! this comes of not having been educated by Rob Roy."

After his half-hearted part in the rebellion, Rob Roy retreated to his home at Craig Royston and resumed his private war against the Duke of Montrose. The duke made every effort to destroy his troublesome enemy. In 1716 he sent his agent to Craig Royston, accompanied by troops and a deputy sheriff, to surprise Rob Roy at home and take him into custody. But the outlaw had wind of their coming and fled. The troops set fire to his house and destroyed it, while Rob Roy’s followers sniped at them with muskets from the surrounding thickets.

Rob Roy got his revenge by surprising the agent, John Graham of Killearn, collecting rents from his tenants at Chapel Errock. Rob Roy entered the room at the head of an armed party, sat calmly down at the table and collected the rents himself, giving receipts on behalf of the duke. Then he kidnapped the agent and took him to an island in Loch Katrine, where he made Mr Graham write a letter to the duke demanding 3400 merks as a ransom.

There was no response from the duke, so Rob Roy let Mr Graham go, allowing him to take the account books with him, but taking good care to retain the cash.

Rob Roy organised a system of "black-mail", something between an insurance scam and a protection racket. He contracted with various landholders to recover cattle stolen from them, or to pay their value within six months of the theft being notified. Since the cattle had been stolen by Rob Roy’s henchmen in the first place, this was a very profitable undertaking.

Rob Roy eventually abandoned his quarrel with Montrose and spent the rest of his life quietly at Balquhidder. He died in 1734 and was buried in the Balquhidder churchyard.

Rob Roy had five sons — Coll, Ronald, James Mohr (big James), Duncan and Robert, known as Robin Oig, or Little Rob. In the second Jacobite rebellion of 1745, James Mohr took part in the Battle of Prestonpans, his company "doing great execution with their scythes" by "cutting the legs off the horses and cutting their riders in half."

James MacGregor, alias Drummond, was indicted for high treason but proceedings were apparently dropped and he returned to his old haunts.

Robin Oig MacGregor was a widower and very low in funds, and his brothers decided that he could set himself up by carrying off and marrying, by force if necessary, some woman of fortune from the Lowlands. On the night of December 3, 1750, they kidnapped Jean Key, a wealthy young widow. They threw her across the saddle of a horse and took her to Rowerdennan, where they found a priest who was unscrupulous enough to read the marriage service while James Mohr held the unfortunate woman at gunpoint. Over the next few days, Robin Oig repeatedly raped the young woman, asserting that he was "claiming his conjugal rights."

The Court of Session in Edinburgh took a different view and ordered that Jean Key be restored to her family. James Mohr was considered to be the instigator of the affair and he was committed for trial. His loyal wife and daughter organised his escape from Edinburgh Castle. They visited James in his cell disguised as a cobbler and his wife and exchanged clothes with him. James Mohr walked out of the castle under the noses of the guards and escaped to France.

Robin Oig was not so lucky. He was indicted under the name of Robert MacGregor, alias Campbell, alias Drummond, alias Robert Oig, and charged with the forcible abduction of Jean Key. The jury found him guilty and he was condemned to death. He was hanged on February 14, 1754.

Meanwhile, James Mohr MacGregor, alias Drummond, who was still in France, was offered a pardon by the British government and a lucrative appointment, if he could apprehend Allan breac Stewart, who was wanted for the murder of Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure, government agent for the confiscated Stewart estate of Ardsheil.

The story of this murder is told in exciting detail in R. L.Stevenson’s novel "Kidnapped". Stevenson maintains that Alan Brec Stewart, as he calls him, did not commit the murder but was covering for a kinsman, who may have done so.

At all events, James MacGregor undertook to capture Allan breac Stewart, but declined the government appointment as he was "born in the character of a gentleman, and never intended to accept of that which would be a disgrace to his family as well as a scourge to his country."

Stevenson gives a most unflattering portrait of James MacGregor in "Catriona", the sequel to "Kidnapped", describing him as cowardly and treacherous. He tells how Alan Brec outwitted the devious Highlander and escaped from the British marines who had secretly been landed in France with MacGregor’s connivance. Alan also contrived to arrange the marriage between MacGregor’s daughter, Catriona Drummond, and David Balfour, hero of both books.

James Mohr MacGregor failed to get any support from the exiled Prince Charles Edward Stewart, pretender to the British throne, or from his Chief, and died in Paris, utterly destitute.