In search of Rob Roy, the Scottish Robin Hood

TR1SCOTLAND10
Finlarig Castle, Killin, Scotland.

ABERFOYLE, Scotland — Two hundred years ago, Sir Walter Scott penned one of the world’s great tales, Rob Roy. Published in 1817, the book heaped fame on its title character, a man Scott described as “still remembered in his country as the Robin Hood of Scotland, the dread of the wealthy, but the friend of the poor.”

If Rob Roy was fiction, the man himself was assuredly not. Born near Loch Katrine in 1671, Robert MacGregor, the Jacobite sympathizer and eventual outlaw, lived his life mostly within the bounds of modern-day Scotland’s Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.

On a sunny morning in May, I set off in search of Rob Roy. I was looking for traces of the real man along the long-distance trail called the Rob Roy Way, stretching from the town of Drymen (about 20 miles from Glasgow) northeast to Pitlochry. The 78-mile route meanders along the border between the Scottish Lowlands and Highlands, traversing MacGregor’s chief stomping grounds: the glen where he raised his children, the town where he’s buried, and the countryside where he hid from an angry English crown.

I left the logistics — lodging, luggage transportation, etc. — to tour organizer Wilderness Scotland, which can customize a tour to any length. The Rob Roy Way typically takes five to seven days to complete.

From my starting point near Drymen in the town of Aberfoyle, the Rob Roy Way rose gradually, passing through varied topography, beneath stands of towering Scots pine trees, through pastures of skittish sheep, and across open heath that Scott described as “a happy interchange of bog and shingles [pebbly hillsides].” Through the Menteith Hills I trekked, glimpses of smooth Loch Venachar soon coming into view.

Over three days, the countryside grew more dramatic. As the path headed northeast, the 2,000-foot hills called grahams were gradually replaced by 2,500-foot corbetts, and corbetts by 3,000-foot munros. (The Scottish categorize their hills by elevation.) Butter-yellow gorse and purple rhododendrons bloomed in wide-open spaces. Carpets of delicate bluebells, columbines, and primroses brightened the forest.

“There is an abundance of wildflowers along these paths all year long,” said Mary Amos, who was hiking the trail with her husband and their four border collies from their home in Lochearnhead. “Soon, the wild orchids will appear,” Amos promised.

It was in this Scottish countryside that Robert MacGregor likely felt most at home. A man of property and a large-scale cattle dealer, MacGregor spent much time riding the Menteith Hills, checking on stock and selling cattle “protection” to fund the Jacobite cause of restoring deposed King James VII.

When, at age 40, Rob Roy defaulted on a debt, the duke of Montrose declared him an outlaw. MacGregor had a price on his head. His family was evicted. And a legal prohibition against using the family name forced him to go by his Gaelic nickname, Rob Ruadh. Pronounced “roy,” the word meant “redhead.”

Colin Adams, owner of the Airlie House B&B in Strathyre, told me about growing up in the countryside made famous by Rob Roy. “When I was a boy, we used to walk the mountains around Balquhidder,” the glen where Rob Roy eventually settled. “My father used to tell me the munros in that glen had caves. If there was anybody looking for Rob Roy, he could just vanish.”

The Scottish Robin Hood, a man on the run from the English and able to disappear into the forest, quickly became legend.

A two-mile detour from Strathyre took me to the churchyard at Balquhidder, the tiny town where Rob Roy lived his adult years and where his grave lies. A light rain picked up as I traced the bank of the River Balvag, past tiny crofts and pastures of grazing Highland cattle. It was a scene that likely hadn’t changed since Rob Roy’s time three centuries ago.

In the shadow of an old stone church, a low, steel fence frames the graves of the MacGregor family: Rob Roy; his wife, Mary Helen; and sons Coll and Robert. The headstone bears the clan crest — a roaring, crowned lion — and the words “MacGregor Despite Them,” an epitaph meant to defy the English.

Rob Roy’s life ended in Balquhidder, but the trail named for him does not. I continued eastward and upward, past the mirrored surface of Loch Earn, its banks dotted white with sheep. I continued over the stone arches of the Glen Ogle viaduct and through Glen Ogle itself, a steep gorge with a narrow stone footpath at its bottom — the remains of an old military road built around 1700, used by royal troops to search out Scottish Jacobites like Rob Roy.

From there, the route descended abruptly into Killin, a resort town famous for its waterfall. The River Dochart rushes over a tumble of rocks in the town center. I would have liked to linger, but I had a castle to check out first.

Just one mile from Killin’s center, Finlarig Castle stands nearly invisible, hidden by a century’s worth of birch and sycamore trees. They say  Rob Roy first took shelter there with the Campbell clan in 1713 not long after being declared an outlaw. The four-story stone sanctuary stood precariously, its time-worn edifice crumbling. A disintegrating spiral staircase led to nowhere, stopping abruptly at chest height. Ferns and ivy threatened to rip apart what remained of 300-year-old archways.

“This is absolutely my favorite part of Scotland,” said Suzie Queripel of East Lothian, her ancestors part of the Campbell clan that sheltered Rob Roy. “You’ve got a wee bit of everything here. You’ve got the lochs, you’ve got the mountains. It’s full of magic, atmosphere, and beauty.”

“I shall never forget the delightful sensation,” Scott wrote of Rob Roy country in his novel. “The refreshing fragrance of the morning air, and the glorious beams of the rising sun … high hills, rocks and banks, waving with natural forests of birch and oak. … Man alone seemed to be placed in a state of inferiority, in a scene where all the ordinary features of nature were raised and exalted.”

And so nature rises and Finlarig Castle falls into ruin. But in this corner of Scotland, the legacy of Rob Roy lives on.

Amy S. Eckert is a freelance writer.