Roy of the Drovers

I’m indebted to Ariel for sending me this link on a new book on Rob Roy. I actually read it in the papers this morning then promptly forgot by the end of work, so this was a handy reminder to come in to. David Stevenson has written a new history of the famous historical figure (who probably looked nothing like Liam Neeson) which brings up the negative aspects of his legend which has often been ignored in favour of the Walter Scott romanticised version (always one to fuck up the Scottish past by romanticising it, something we’re still dealing with today – see the earlier blog on Tom Devine).

His allegations that Rob Roy was not a heroic figure but was in fact a bit of a scoundrel aren’t actually new to those of us who know Scottish history. He was after all a man who did a fair bit of droving – a Highland cattle drive with tartan instead of stetsons – and was happy to indulge in cattle rustling as well. He also got in debt to a landowner then changed allegiances to another to avoid the debt (not the noble cause portrayed elsewhere). Some of his business documents till sruvive in the National Library of Scotland and they don’t make him look too good. If he’s been around in the 20th century he’d have been one of the Thatcher era wide-boy enterpreneurs in a stripey suit. No wonder one book on him is entitled Rob Roy – Highland Hero or Rogue?

However, Stevenson goes further and alleges Rob Roy was a traitor – proclaiming his allegiance to the Jacobite cause in 1715 then changing his mind when it suited him. I’m not overly convinced by the evidence of this myself, but it wouldn’t be out of character to be honest, given what I described above. Mind you, only half of Scotland – if that – ever supported the Jacobites. Again it’s been romanticised into the alst gasp of plucky, outnumbered Scots against the evil, Auld Enemy, England. Utter bollocsk of course, it was partly a political thing, partly economic and largely a Protestant-Catholic matter. As with William Wallace however, people will believe what they wish to believe. The difference of course is that Rob Roy is, at best and seen through rose-tints, merely a memorable character. Wallace is a towering, heroic figure (and almost certainly didn’t look like Mel Gibson and must have been much taller – hell his sword is bigger than Mel!). A mixture of romantic myth and historical fact (and farce), the legacy of the post-Scott history, now thankfully being addressed in a number of very fine Scottish history books. Still, the legend is fun, isn’t it? Anyone who isn’t sure should read Blind Harry’s WallaceSlaine in medieval Scotland.