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The Time of Rob Roy & Wade

Rob Roy and General Wade

The Old Pretender's Jacobite rising in 1715 might have been a spectacular failure - but it taught the Hanoverian British government that they simply couldn't afford to take the Scots for granted.

One of the best ways to bring order to the rebellious north, they decided, was to tame the still-remote Highlands once and for all by bringing in tough new laws and by improving road communications.

One of their first attempts to restrict the unruly lifestyle of the Highlanders was to introduce the Disarming Act in 1725, banning them from carrying arms and ordering that they hand in their weapons.

Like many laws aimed at taming the wild and stubborn north, it had virtually no effect. However, a new policy was to be introduced which really would begin to subdue what was still the remotest part of Britain and finally start to bring the King's influence onto the clans.

In 1726, the government appointed an Irishman called General George Wade Commander in Scotland. Wade's task was made clear - he had to bring order to the Highlands by improving communication links and strengthening government defences there.

Until then, most people had travelled to and from the remote north either on foot or by horse on simple unfinished tracks. Alternatively, they may have gone by sea.

However, Wade took to his improvement task with vigour. He surveyed the area, and then built a network of 240 miles of new road and a total of 40 new bridges. These roads and bridges linked forts such as Fort Augustus - designed to increase the pressure on the Highlanders and remind them who was in charge - together.

Wade's workrate was prodigious. He built a proper road between Perth and Inverness for the first time in a mammoth project which took 600 men three years.

His workers came from the Black Watch - a regiment made up of Highlanders who were loyal to the Crown and who could be persuaded to act for it. They also policed the Highlands and helped regular British government solders to find their way among the forbidding hills and glens.

The Highlanders, however, would not easily be subdued. For hundreds of years, they had refused to succumb to the laws which governed the rest of the country, preferring instead to run their own lives in their own traditional way.

These tough, resilient men resented attempts to make them conform to a more mainstream lifestyle. Most famous of all the rebels of the time was Rob Roy MacGregor, whose exploits and bravery became legendary.

The MacGregors were one of the most rebellious of the Highland clans - they had been outlawed in 1590 and again in 1695 for persistent lawbreaking. Rob Roy - the name means "red haired" - MacGregor was born at Glengyle near Loch Katrine in 1671.

Rob Roy certainly did not come from the heart of the Highlands - the country around Balquidder and Loch Lomond where he lived and operated is on the very edge of the area, where it meets the lowlands - but he was steeped in their traditions and history.

Born as a Protestant, he was the younger son of the 15th chief of the MacGregors, Donald MacGregor, while his mother was a daughter of Campbell of Glenfalloch, so he was hardly an ordinary Highland clansman. He owned land around Inversnaid on Loch Lomondside, and appears to have become a cattle dealer.

Rob was regarded as good at his job - Highland cattle were sold in lowland markets at places like Falkirk, and he developed a reputation as a man who could get a fair price for his clients.

All apparently went well until 1712, when Rob was cheated by one of his partners and found himself staring bankruptcy in the face. However, he did have a stock of cash - his customers had given him £1000 in cash to buy cattle for them in the Highlands.

Choosing between insolvency and a life of crime, he apparently chose the latter and made off with the cash. Unfortunately, one of the men he had swindled out of their money was the Duke of Montrose, who was meant to be his protector.

Rob was declared bankrupt and a warrant was issued for his arrest. The enraged Montrose seized his property, driving Rob's wife out of her house. From then on, until a reconciliation in 1722, the two men became bitter enemies of each other.

For his own safety, Rob placed himself under the protection of the Duke of Argyll - a sensible move, since he was linked to the family through his mother, and the Argylls and Montroses were already enemies of each other.

Armed with this level of protection, he felt able to take revenge on Montrose. Rob raised his land whenever he could, stealing his cattle and running a protection racket among lowland cattle farmers.

Rob Roy's politics are unclear. He called himself a Jacobite, and was certainly with the Old Pretender's army during the indecisive battle against the Hanoverians at Sheriffmuir in 1715, though it is unlikely he played a major role in the fighting.

However, his protector Argyll was a Whig and so a backer of the government cause - in fact, he actually commanded the Hanoverian army at Sheriffmuir. The most likely scenario is that Rob Roy acted for both sides, working as a spy for whoever was prepared to pay him. It was a dangerous game, but he evidently got away with it.

When the rebellion fell to pieces, Rob Roy was accused of high treason for his part in the fighting. He wrote to General Wade, who had been involved on the government side, to explain his actions.

Rob said he had been forced to take part in the rebellion to avoid being imprisoned because of the action Montrose took against him. He said that he had really wanted to fight on the king's behalf and had supplied Argyll with as much intelligence about the rebels as he could find. Parts of this must almost certainly have been true, because yet again he managed to escape retribution.

After the fighting, his luck stayed with him. He continued his illegal dealing, but every time he was arrested, he managed to escape. On one famous occasion in 1726, he was sent to London to be transported to the colonies, but managed to win a pardon while in Newgate Prison.

On another occasion, he was taken prisoner near Stirling, but he escaped while being taken across the River Forth by slashing the belt that held him and swimming to freedom.

After a life on the run, Rob Roy ended his days peacefully. By this time, he had become something of a hero, and tales of his exploits impressed even the English, to the point where a biography was published during his own lifetime.

His daring exploits so impressed the authorities that he eventually received a King's Pardon, and he finally passed away in 1734, shortly after converting to Roman Catholicism, at the head of the Glen of Balquidder in Perthshire.

Rob Roy MacGregor was the last of a particular type of Highlander - proud, tough, fiercely independent and perfectly happy to shun the laws of the country and to live as an outlaw.

Wade's roads, however, had changed the area irrevocably. For the first time, it was possible to bring law and order in and to orchestrate a measure of control over Britain's and Scotland's wildest outpost.

Anyone who thought that the Highlands would be subjugated on the death of Rob Roy would, however, have been very much mistaken. The union with England may have been maturing, and government forces becoming more confident. But the Jacobites continued to promote the cause of the Stewart kings over the water.

Soon, they would have their glorious moment with a military campaign which would spread out from the Highlands until even London quaked in terror before it?.


  • 1712 The last execution for witchcraft in England
  • 1726 Jonathan Swift writes Gulliver's Travels
  • 1739 Camelias arrive in Europe from the Far East
  • 1739 David Hume publishes his, Treatise on Human Nature

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