On December 28th, 1734, Rob Roy MacGregor, the real-life original of Sir Walter Scott’s eponymous hero, died peacefully in his bed at Inverlochlarig Beg, Balquhidder, after a lifetime of reaving and rebellion that won him folk hero status in his own lifetime, and also a royal pardon from King George I which just saved him from transportation out of Scotland. Rob Roy had the distinction of being a Jacobite from the word go, fighting in the 1689 Jacobite rising on behalf of the recently deposed James II Stuart and the “Fifteen” rising in 1715, plus its aftermath in the Battle of Glen Shiel. He also had the more dubious honor of being a highly successful cattle rustler, prosecuting a long feud with James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose, whose events inspired the script for the 1995 film Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, John Hurt, and Tim Roth.
A fictionalized account of Rob Roy’s life, The Highland Rogue, was published during his own lifetime in 1723, so Walter Scott had much of his material already prepared for him when he sat down to write Rob Roy in 1817. It also gave him the chance to revisit much of the subject matter and plot structure of his breakthrough success Waverley, recently published in 1814 with a similar theme of an English runaway who becomes involved in the Jacobite risings. Few doubted that Scott made a better job on the second pass, though, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who grew up with the novel (“I shall never forget the pleasure and surprise with which, lying on the floor one summer evening, I struck of a sudden into the first scene with Andrew Fairservice”), stated that: “I dare be known to think it the best of Sir Walter’s by nearly as much as Sir Walter is the best of novelists.”
Ironically, Rob Roy may have done more for Scottish nationalism as a legend and a literary figure than he ever did as an active outlaw and Jacobite fighter. Rob Roy typifies the Highland versus Lowland schism in Scottish history and the kind of divided identity summed up in the term “Caledonian Antisyzygy,” and Scotland might have done a better job of staving off English domination had it not been for the lure of law and order under English hegemony versus the lawless and violent tradition that he represented. Also, Scott’s Rob Roy gave later generations a chance for romantic participation by proxy in the outlaw independent Highland spirit that their forebears fought and feared.