The popular conception of Rob Roy MacGregor is of a wronged Highlander, a man of principle who triumphed over overwhelming odds to survive the machinations of his enemies, both personal and political. Yet research into his life has revealed a man who became an outlaw after a failed attempt at large-scale fraud, and whose Jacobite posturing went hand-in-hand in betraying that cause to the Government. So what was Rob Roy really like, how did he become perceived as a hero, and why has this admiration survived for so long in defiance of clear evidence to the contrary?


Which clan did Rob Roy belong to?

Robert MacGregor, nicknamed Rob Roy, was the son of a chieftain of the scattered Clan Gregor. The clan had once been a major force in the Highlands, but over the centuries, with the fluctuations of politics and clan warfare, it had lost most of its lands to rivals, and had even been outlawed by the Government.

Remnants of the clan had clung on to small pockets of land in remote areas, often reliant on cattle thieving to survive. Rob Roy’s birth in 1671 came in a period of respite, as the outlawry of the clan had been revoked, but as he reached adulthood the world changed.

John Erskine, Earl of Mar, was a Scottish Jacobite who raised the standard of rebellion against the Hanoverians after he was deprived of office by the new king, George I of Great Britain. His council of war is pictured here, raising their swords. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 drove the senior line of the Stuart dynasty from the throne, and replaced it with William and Mary. Supporters of the dethroned James II, the Jacobites, rose in rebellion in the Highlands in 1689 and Rob Roy fought with them. But the rising failed, and the Government repression that followed included re-imposing the outlawry of the MacGregors. With their name banned, clansmen had to take new ones, and Rob Roy chose that of his mother, Campbell.

Very little is known of Rob Roy’s activities in the 1690s, and it is probable that he, like many of his clansmen, was heavily involved in cattle raiding and extorting protection money from farmers. But after 1700, he emerged as a legitimate cattle trader, paid in advance by Lowland landowners to buy cattle deep in the Highlands and deliver them to Lowland markets. Rob Roy prospered and bought land. He gained respectability and trust as a peaceful businessman. There were suspicions of his politics, as the MacGregors were notorious Jacobites, but it is clear that he was well liked.

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This last point is the key to understanding the way in which stories about Rob Roy developed, even in his own lifetime. Most people who met him found him likeable and believable, and he was usually able to turn his natural charisma to his advantage.

Rob Roy the respectable businessman, however, was abruptly replaced in 1711–12 by Rob Roy the fraudster. He faced business failure and decided on a high-risk strategy for survival. First, he secretly transferred his lands to the hands of members of his family – a classic con-man’s move designed to protect assets from creditors. Then he continued trading, gathering as much money as he could from customers. But the cattle he was supposed to deliver never appeared. Neither did Rob Roy, who had disappeared deep into the Highlands with well over £1,000.

It was a clear case of deliberate fraud, and his plan was to bargain with his creditors. He was perfectly safe in the Highlands, so if they did not settle for a percentage of what was due to them, they would never see a penny. He boasted that he was so popular that no one would ever betray him. If creditors tried to use the law against him, they would simply waste more money paying lawyers.

Many of his creditors might have agreed to this, in spite of their outrage. Settling for a percentage rather than nothing was commonplace at the time. But Rob Roy had miscalculated. One creditor, the Duke of Montrose, was implacable. He was only owed a small amount, but he felt his honour was at stake. One of the greatest magnates in Scotland, he had shown the despised MacGregor friendship, and had been betrayed.

Rob Roy became a hunted outlaw. Legal processes to recover debt were put underway, and Montrose’s Chamberlain, Mungo Graham, even put an advert in an Edinburgh newspaper, offering a reward for his capture. Rob Roy wrote a stream of letters protesting innocence and goodwill, starting with one to a Glasgow lawyer James Graham in June 1712, claiming he was chasing two debtors to exact payment, ‘and with God’s assistance I will gett a grip of them for all the highlands has such a kindness for me in generall that they will assist me what ever place I will gett them taken’. This and subsequent letters are eloquent and full of righteous indignation. But his dishonesty is clear, as he tailors his version of events to suit his individual correspondents.

Rob Roy’s assertion that he was safe in the Highlands was true. Montrose’s desire for vengeance was countered by the patronage of the Earl of Breadalbane, who employed the outlaw in his service. Nonetheless, he remained an outlaw, his future uncertain. Perhaps he hoped that on the death of the ageing and childless Queen Anne, who had succeeded William in 1702, the main Stuart line would be restored, and the reputation of the MacGregors as staunch Jacobites would bring him pardon.

Instead, in 1714, the Hanoverian George I ascended the throne. Rebellion brewed once more in the Highlands, and Rob Roy was vociferous in support of the rising. But soon rumours circulated that he was supplying intelligence on Jacobite activities to the Hanoverian Commander- in-Chief in Scotland, the Duke of Argyll. This was true, but surprisingly, it did not entirely discredit him. There were many on both sides in the 1715 rebellion who kept a foot on each side of the fence as insurance against their side’s defeat, so there was a degree of understanding of Rob Roy’s actions. But during the rising there remained suspicion. The Jacobites accepted the services of Rob Roy and his men, but they were not fully trusted.

The failure of the 1715 rising left 49 Scots attainted for high treason, including ‘Robert Campbell alias Macgregour commonly called Rob Roy’; and of course he was still an outlawed bankrupt. The hunt for Rob became intense as the result of political faction fighting. Montrose believed that Rob Roy could supply him with evidence that his rival, Argyll, had had treasonable contacts with the Jacobites. Rob Roy defused the plot with a written declaration, furiously denouncing those who wanted to force him to give false evidence, thanking providence for helping him to ‘escape the barbarity of these monstrous proposals’ and avoid ‘some stinking dungeon, where I must choose either to rot, dye, or be damn’d’. This took the heat off, but the fact that he took part in an abortive Jacobite rising in 1719 meant that he remained, in government eyes, a troublesome outlaw. He also stepped up his feud with Montrose by regularly raiding the Duke’s lands.

Rob Roy’s reputation spread widely. In political terms, he was a man discussed at court by the King himself. In the world of popular journalism and anecdote, Rob Roy’s version of events – that he was a man ruined by oppression by the great and corrupt – was becoming widely accepted. A rather fanciful biography, The Highland Rogue (thought to be by Elias Brockett) was published in London in 1723, which provided the basis of ‘biographies’ until the 20th century. It was the beginning of the Rob Roy legend, and the second edition in 1743 claimed that he had ‘lived in the manner of the ancient Robin Hood of England’.

However, as Rob’s fame as an active outlaw reached its height, an opportunity to end this phase of his career appeared. An offer of pardon for former rebels was announced, and Rob Roy hastened to disarm and submit. His letter of submission addressed to General Wade is a wonderful demonstration of his skill in manipulating facts to his advantage. In it, he boldly announces that he had never wanted to be a rebel. When the 1715 rebellion began he had been keen to join the Hanoverian army, but he couldn’t because he would have been arrested for debt by Montrose. But now at last, if granted a pardon, he would have a chance to serve King George, as he had longed to do all along.

Wade was, predictably, charmed by Rob Roy, even believing the Highlander’s story that whenever he had met lost soldiers in the hills, he had offered them a dram so they could drink a toast to King George together. Rob Roy got his pardon in 1725, and two years later showed that he would indeed serve the king. Jacobite agents from the Continent were known to be operating in the Highlands, trying to gain support for a new rebellion. Rob offered his services to the Government to spy on them – if he was paid. Offer accepted, he infiltrated the plot with such success that he was made trusted messenger, carrying letters between the agents and Highland chiefs. He opened them and sent copies to Wade. Most of the plotting chiefs were let off with a warning, but James Stirling of Keir was arrested, fingered by Rob Roy as one of the chief agents in Scotland of the exiled Stuarts.

From con-man to hero

Portrait of Thomas James Serle (c.1799-1889) as Rob Roy Macgregor (coloured engraving)
Portrait of Thomas James Serle (c.1799-1889) as Rob Roy Macgregor (coloured engraving) (Photo by Art Images via Getty Images)

There is no reason to doubt that Rob Roy would have preferred the Stuart cause to the Hanoverian. In that sense, he was a Jacobite. But political principles were not his priority. He battled for survival for himself and his family. If that necessitated fraud, deceit, double-dealing and betrayal, he was ready to act accordingly. In spite of this he maintained his reputation as a hero. He was talented at spinning his own image, and got Highlanders to see him as a victim who bravely fought against the odds for survival. He created his own myth of triumphantly overcoming oppression.

How did Rob Roy die?

In reality, Rob Roy failed to achieve what he had hoped for. He never got his lands back, and died in 1734 as a poor tenant farmer who was on the brink of eviction. But his deeds had won him immortality, and stories continued to be told and invented about his many exploits.

What is the legacy of Rob Roy?

At the end of the century, the romantic vision of old Highland life that was emerging gave the legends a fresh boost. This process culminated in 1818, when Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy appeared. This was an instant success, and inspired playwrights, poets, composers and artists throughout the western world. Rob Roy the honest man forced into outlawry was reborn, and has thrived ever since. Probably the most powerful influence on his image today is based on the Hollywood film of 1994, with Liam Neeson in the title role.

Jessica Lange is held by Liam Neeson on set of the film 'Rob Roy', 1995.
Jessica Lange is held by Liam Neeson on set of the film 'Rob Roy', 1995. (Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)

But why have modern historians not rumbled Rob Roy? The answer is partly that they have ignored him, because he did not play a significant role in Scottish history in his own lifetime, whatever cultural status he achieved. The written accounts of his life have generally been uncritical reworkings of old stories.

In 1982, there was a biography that used historical evidence, but WH Murray’s book has a fatal flaw; the author seemed committed to the belief that Rob Roy was heroic. In this book, the facts are interpreted to portray Rob Roy in a favourable light, and at one point, Murray omits to consider a key piece of evidence. The papers that prove that Rob Roy acted as a Hanoverian spy in 1727 were published (in Historical Records Relating to the Jacobite Period) as long ago as 1895. Murray uses this source in his biography, but he writes nothing about the 1727 papers. As always, Rob Roy has a knack of finding friends who prefer to turn a blind eye to many of his actions.

David Stevenson was formerly Professor of Scottish History at the University of St Andrews, and has written an article on Rob Roy for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


This article was first published in the August 2004 edition of BBC History Magazine