Rob Roy

views updated Jun 11 2018

Rob Roy

by Sir Walter Scott


A novel set in England and Scotland in 1715; first published in London in 1818.


Young Frank Osbaldistone journeys from London to Scotland, where he becomes embroiled in political intrigues with the Scottish outlaw Robert MacGregor, or Rob Roy.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Walter Scott (1771-1832) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of the Border, as the region joining southern Scotland and northern England is known. The Border tales of his childhood stayed with him as he abandoned an early legal career to pursue his real love, writing: in 1802-1803 he published a three-volume collection of Scottish Border ballads called Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Its success established his literary reputation, which was secured over the next decade by a series of highly popular narrative poems, the most successful of which was The Lady of the Lake (1810). The poems featured the colorful Scottish settings and romantic themes that would also distinguish his early novels, the first of which, Waverly, was published to immediate acclaim in 1814. Over the next 15 years, Scott wrote more than 20 historical novels, all of them, like Waverly, published anonymously. Starting with Ivanhoe (1820), set in medieval England and the most popular of all Scott’s books, Scott expanded his range to include a variety of locales and historical periods. Despite Ivanhoe’s continuing popularity, it is Scott’s earlier novels, which take their settings from Scottish history, that have had the greatest impact. Rob Roy takes place before and during an unsuccessful uprising in 1715. In this uprising, Scottish Highland leaders such as Rob Roy (a historical figure on whom Scott based his fictional character) supported James II’s Catholic son James Francis Edward Stuart in his bid for the British throne.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Union between Scotland and England

The Scottish unrest featured in Rob Roy and the other Waverly novels arose from the complex historical relationship between Scotland and England. The two kingdoms had been ruled by the same monarchs since 1603, when the Stuart monarch King James VI of Scotland had acceded to the English throne as James I of England. While this brought the Scots and English into closer contact, Scotland still retained legal and political independence from her more powerful southern neighbor. Before being removed from power in 1688, the Catholic James II (James I’s grandson) had tried and failed to effect a political union between his two kingdoms. By 1707, however, under his Protestant daughter Queen Anne (ruled 1702-14), circumstances had altered, and in that year an Act of Union merged the two kingdoms as Great Britain. The Scottish Parliament was abolished and Scottish representatives took their places in the English Parliament at Westminster in London, making a new British Parliament. However, this so-called “incorporation” of Scottish political representation into the English system was heavily weighted in favor of the English: only 45 Scottish representatives were added to the 558 members of the House of Commons, and only 16 Scottish peers were added to the nearly 200 English peers in the House of Lords. Scotland kept her own legal system and currency, the Scottish pound, which was worth about one-twelfth of the English pound sterling.

From the Scottish viewpoint, the incentive for union was mainly economic. England provided the largest market for Scotland’s major exports, which were cattle, linen, and coal; like the historical Rob Roy, Scott’s fictional character is a cattle drover who drives his Highland herds south for sale in either the Lowlands or in England. English colonies in America and elsewhere also represented a significant trading opportunity for Lowland Scottish merchants, like the Glasgow businessman Nicol Jarvie in Rob Roy. For the English, union offered political security, since one condition was that the Scots accept the English choice of a Protestant successor to the infirm and now childless Anne. Union, the English hoped, would make it more difficult for France—England’s enemy but the traditional ally of the Catholic Stuarts—to gain a strategic foothold in the north. The first test of the union came with Anne’s death in 1714.

Hanoverian succession and Jacobite resistance

Among other reasons, the Catholic James II had been removed because the predominantly Protestant English wished for a Protestant ruler; in the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the English Parliament had replaced him with his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange, both Protestants. William and Mary ruled jointly until Mary’s death in 1694, when William took over as sole ruler. With William’s death in 1702, James’s younger daughter Anne had come to the throne, also a Protestant. Anne, however, was the last Protestant Stuart with a direct claim to the throne. Rather than accept Anne’s Catholic younger brother, James Francis Edward Stuart, as king, the English Parliament settled the succession on a Protestant German prince, George (titled the Elector of Hanover), James I’s great-grandson and James II’s cousin.

The 1688 birth of Anne’s younger brother, James Francis, a male Catholic heir to the throne, had prompted the Glorious Revolution against his father, James II. In 1708, the year after the union, James Francis made a first attempt to raise a revolt in Scotland and take the throne, but he and the French fleet sent to aid the revolt were defeated by bad weather as well as the English Royal Navy. Now, with Anne’s death, James Francis’s supporters again rallied to his cause. These supporters (called Jacobites) had always been strongest in Scotland, and in the country’s Highlands, traditional loyalty to the Scottish Stuarts was reinforced by the survival of Catholicism among some of the clans.

The Jacobite standard was raised in September 1715 by John Erskine Earl of Mar, a frustrated politician with no military experience, who acted without the knowledge of James himself. Mar enjoyed wide support, much of which came from his pledge to repeal the union (by now highly unpopular in Scotland), but his poor tactical skills led to the complete defeat of his forces by the government’s general, John Campbell Duke of Argyll, at the battle of Sherrifmuir in November. By December, when James arrived in Scotland from France (where he lived in exile), the revolt was over; both he and Mar fled to France in February 1716.

Rob Roy MacGregor

No contemporary portraits exist of Robert MacGregor (1671-1734), but decades after MacGregor’s death Scott and other writers were able to get physical descriptions from men who, as youngsters, had seen him. These reports generally describe a man of no more than average height (that is, perhaps 5’4”, which was then average for a man in the Highlands), lean but muscular, with unusually broad shoulders and noticeably long, powerful arms. He had dark red hair (hence his nickname, anglicized from Raib Ruadh or “Rob the Red” in Gaelic) and later in life wore a beard and mustache. He is also described as direct and bluntly honest in his manner, deep voiced, and often eloquent in his speech. Like other Highland men, he wore as his main garment the plaid, a blan-ketlike rectangle of finely woven wool, folded and belted around the waist to leave the legs bare, then draped over the left shoulder (to leave the sword-arm free) and secured by a pin of deer bone. The plaid could be unwrapped and used as a blanket when sleeping on rugged terrain, which Highland men were accustomed to doing. Standard Highland men’s attire was completed by the dirk, a long daggerlike weapon, two pistols with engraved butts, and a broadsword with a basket-handle, all worn in the belt, plus at times a shield called a targaid.

Alone of all the Highland clans, the MacGregors over the seventeenth century had been deprived of their ancestral lands by the legal and extralegal maneuvers of powerful enemies, particularly the mighty Campbells. At times, the Campbells even successfully urged the crown to proscribe or outlaw the very name MacGregor; coincidentally, for much of his life Rob Roy signed the name Campbell, as his mother came from a branch of that large clan. (In Scott’s novel, Rob Roy is using the name Campbell when the reader first encounters him.) Despite the handicap of coming from a broken clan, Rob Roy managed by his thirties to acquire property and cattle, both of which he increased through shrewd and prudent management. He won a reputation for honesty and responsibility, so that wealthier men were willing to invest money in his cattle ventures. In 1712, however, one of his lieutenants absconded with £1,000, a substantial fortune, which Rob Roy had secured as a loan from the powerful James Graham, duke of Montrose. As Rob Roy struggled to pay back the loan honorably, the land-hungry Montrose had him declared an outlaw and seized his land.


Scotland’s most important boundary, that between the northern Highlands and the southern Lowlands, reflects both a geographical and a cultural division. Since the Middle Ages Scots in the Lowlands have been open to English cultural influence from across the border, while Scots in the rugged and inaccessible Highlands preserved more of their original Gaelic (or Celtic) ways. Lowlanders spoke Scots, for example, a blend of English and Gaelic with French influences, which Sir Walter Scott and the authors who followed him reproduced in a stylized form in their novels; Highlanders might speak Scots (as Rob Roy does in Scott’s novel) but would also speak pure Gaelic. By the early eighteenth century, the Lowlands had become, like England, heavily Protestant, while pockets of Catholicism remained in the Highlands. Highland life before the Industrial Revolution was dominated by about 90 clans, extended families that continually struggled among themselves for scarce resources. Such struggles often led to feuds between clans that spanned generations, the most famous feud being that between the Campbells and MacDonalds.

Outraged and outcast, Rob Roy then took to the career that, in his eyes, Montrose had forced upon him. As an outlaw, his principle target was the wealthy Montrose himself. He avoided robbing the poor, and indeed was known for his generosity toward them, causing some to call him a Scottish Robin Hood. In one well-known incident, an old peasant Women was threatened with eviction if she could not pay the back rent she owed to Montrose. She appealed to Rob Roy, who lent her the money—with instructions to get a full receipt from Montrose’s men. After Montrose’s men collected the rent, Rob Roy and his men simply ambushed them and took the money back. Interrupted briefly by service with Mar’s army, Rob Roy’s career as an outlaw continued until 1725, when he obtained a royal pardon for his actions against Montrose.


One the most controversial episodes in the life of the real Rob Roy was his participation—or, more accurately, his lack of participation—on the Jacobite side in the battle of Sherrifmuir, the major conflict of the 1715 revolt. In his lengthy historical introduction to the 1829 edition of the novel, Scott writes that Rob Roy held his men back at the crucial moment despite Mar’s orders to charge: “Though it is said that his attack might have decided the day, he could not be prevailed upon to charge.… Rob did not, however, neglect his own private interest on the occasion. In the confusion … he enriched his followers by plundering the baggage and the dead on both sides” (Scott, Rob Roy, pp. 28-9). Yet later scholars (such as W. H. Murray, Rob Roy’s recent biographer) have concluded that Mar’s tactics had already failed, and that in following the order to charge, Rob Roy would have needlessly thrown away the lives of his men. Furthermore, there was no baggage or plunder to pick up—only arms and equipment, which (Murray points out) the poorly equipped men would have been foolish to leave behind. Generally a well-informed historian, Scott in this case relied on sources based on gossip that arose after the battle.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

While the colorful and dramatic Rob Roy dominates the novel, he does so from behind the scenes and under other names (among them, Campbell and MacGregor). He plays a relatively small part in the action itself. The narrator is an Englishman, Frank Osbaldistone, who tells the story from the perspective of an old man addressing a much younger man, his friend Tresham, who is the son of a business partner. Thus, Frank is looking back on events that took place in 1715, when he was about 20, from the vantage point of around the year 1765.

At the beginning of Frank’s story, his father has summoned him home to London from France, where the young man has been studying business practices under the tutelage of his father’s French business partners. Mr. Osbaldistone hopes that Frank will one day take over the prosperous trading firm of Osbaldistone and Tresham, of which Frank’s father is a founding partner. Frank, however, has been more interested in poetry than in business, and despite the kindly prompting of his father’s head clerk, Owen, he is unable to answer his father’s questions satisfactorily. He declares that he has no intention of going into business and instead wishes to devote himself to literature. His father gives him a month to think about it, but at the end of the month Frank has not changed his mind. His father, pointing out that Frank has no way of making a living, says that he will only support the youth if Frank will go visit the family estate in the north of England. Living there are Frank’s uncle and six male cousins, one of whom Mr. Osbaldistone plans to choose as a replacement for Frank to inherit the business. Frank, as Owen sadly says, has “ruined” himself (Rob Roy, p. 84).

Yet as he sets out on horseback the next morning for the long journey north, Frank feels exhilarated. Stopping at an inn near the Border country, he meets an enigmatic Scot named Mr. Campbell—the first Scotchman I chanced to meet in society,” as Frank puts it—whose self-confident manner and casual dominance of the conversation contrast with his coarse clothing and low occupation of cattle dealer (Rob Roy, p. 96).

The next day, Frank leaves the northern road to finish his journey to Osbaldistone Hall. As he approaches the “large and antiquated edifice,” he comes across a group of “tall, stout young men” engaged in a fox hunt on horseback, a typical sporting activity for upper-class young men in the English countryside, but one with which Frank has had no experience (Rob Roy, pp. 100, 101). With them is a beautiful young lady, whose horse briefly seems to falter, giving Frank an excuse to approach as if to help her. Thus Frank meets Diana Vernon, called Die, and his cousins, the young men he saw hunting. The sparkling Die Vernon, whose unusual personality appears to Frank as a fascinating “mixture of boldness, satire, and simplicity,” contrasts sharply with his loutish cousins, who seem to live only for the pleasures of sport and drinking (Rob Roy, p. 103). In this they take after their father, Sir Hildebrand Osbaldistone, a gruff but goodhearted country squire who, unlike his sons, “retained much of the exterior of a gentleman” (Rob Roy, p. 109). Frank is pleased to learn that Die Vernon, the niece of Sir Hildebrand’s deceased wife, lives with the family at Osbaldistone Hall.

Only one of Frank’s cousins stands out from the others, and that is Rashleigh Osbaldistone, the young man Frank’s father has chosen to be his successor at the firm of Osbaldistone and Tresham. Die, who befriends Frank, informs him of Rashleigh’s impending departure for London, and warns him as well to be careful of Rashleigh. She also hints that Rashleigh may know more than he should about the robbery of a government tax excise officer. Frank, who had crossed paths with the officer on his journey north, had been accused but cleared of the robbery, in which Campbell, the enigmatic Scot whom Frank encountered, also seems involved.

During his extended stay at Osbaldistone Hall, Frank finds his feelings for Diana deepening into love, and he learns as well that Die’s warnings about Rashleigh were justified. Left in charge of Osbaldistone and Tresham when Mr. Osbaldistone travels to France, Rashleigh plunders the company and absconds to Scotland with the missing funds. When Frank finds out, he realizes that he must go to Glasgow to meet his father’s clerk, Owen, and attempt to recover his father’s fortune. He says goodbye to Die Vernon and sets out for Scotland, with Osbaldistone Hall’s Scottish gardener, Andrew Fairservice, as his guide.

Arriving in Glasgow, Frank attends church with Fairservice. Suddenly a voice in his ear warns him that he is in danger in Glasgow and tells him to meet the speaker on the old bridge over the River Clyde at midnight. When Frank does so, the stranger escorts him to the infamous prison called the Tolbooth. The guard recognizes Frank’s escort and greets him warmly but nervously, and they all go inside the prison, where, to Frank’s amazement, he finds Owen in one of the cells. Owen recounts how he had approached one of the firm’s two Glasgow trading partners, who had turned him over to the authorities when they learned that the firm could not immediately honor its debt to them. Owen had then been imprisoned under a Scottish law that allowed creditors to detain a debtor whom they believe has reason to flee the country. Owen’s only recourse had been to the firm’s other Glasgow partner, Mr. Nicol Jarvie, whom he had written to that morning. Though Owen has little hope of help from Mr. Jarvie—whom Owen calls a “cross-grained crab-stock—Jarvie himself soon appears at Owen’s cell and offers his assistance by putting up Owen’s bail (Rob Roy, p. 263). The firm owes Jarvie money as well, but the shrewd businessman doesn’t see how he can be paid back if Owen is left in the Tolbooth. Jarvie then recognizes Frank’s mysterious escort, who turns out to be a distant relative of his—and who reveals himself a few moments later to Frank as none other than Campbell. (Frank had not recognized Campbell until Jarvie identified him.) Frank, Jarvie, and Campbell leave the prison, and Campbell disappears across the darkened street.


The historical Rob Roy was a cattle thief and a blackmailer—and that was before he became an outlaw. Cattle theft, called reiving, was a perfectly honorable practice according to Highland custom. So was blackmail, which originally meant offering protection against such theft (black referred to the color of the cattle; mail was Scots for “tribute” or “rent”). Cattle were the main form of wealth in the Highlands, and as a landless and often proscribed clan, the MacGregors became especially adept at both reiving and blackmail. Like their father before them, Rob Roy and his brothers operated a “Watch,” a legally sanctioned blackmail system that offered protection to cattle drovers, complete with signed contracts and written receipts. Outside the Watch, however, blackmail was technically illegal, though not uncommon. The skills required for reiving and blackmail—stealth, swordsmanship, and the handling of cattle, primarily—later stood the outlaw Rob Roy in good stead when he turned these skills on the herds of his enemy, Montrose.

The next day Frank walks through Glasgow and is startled to see Rashleigh, whom he follows and eventually approaches. After exchanging insults, they draw their swords and begin to duel but are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Campbell, who interposes himself between them and allows Rashleigh to flee. Campbell then restrains the angry Frank, explaining that to follow Rashleigh now would be to walk into a trap, for Rashleigh has prepared to have Frank charged once again with the earlier robbery of the government tax excise officer.

Up to this point, Jarvie has evaded Frank’s questions about Campbell. That evening, as Frank and Owen eat dinner at Jarvie’s house, Frank insists on an explanation. Campbell seems to be helping Frank. But can he be relied upon? Is he honest? “Ay,” Jarvie answers in his Lowland Scots brogue, “he has a kind o’ Hieland honesty” (Rob Roy, p. 298). Highlanders, he goes on, “are clean anither set frae the like o’ huz” (clean another set from the like of us; Rob Roy, p. 298). There is very little law in the Highlands, Jarvie continues: usually the sword acts as prosecutor and the shield as defender. Overpopulation has left too many men with no way of making a living that a Lowlander like Jarvie would think of as honest—and all these men are armed and used to the ways of violence. Rob Campbell, however, was once a respectable drover, until his creditors seized his land and home, turning his wife out onto the hillside and, the story goes, abusing her as well. When he came home he found only desolation. That was when he took up his broadsword “and became a broken-man,” turning to blackmail and reiving on a large scale (Rob Roy, p. 303).


Donald MacGregor, leader of the clan MacGregor and father of the historical Rob Roy, served two years in this notorious Glasgow prison for his continued support of King James II after the Revolution of 1688. By the time he returned to his family in 1691, the prison’s harsh and unsanitary conditions had broken his once robust health.

There is a political angle as well, for now that Queen Anne is dead, dissatisfaction will cause the Jacobites to rise in the Highlands and “come down on the Low Country like a flood” (Rob Roy, p. 305). Campbell can raise 500 men to follow him, and Jarvie suspects that he has been active in establishing communications between the Highland chiefs and the Jacobites in the Border country, including northern England. In fact, Jarvie discloses, it was Campbell, along with Rashleigh or one of Frank’s other cousins, who had robbed the government tax excise officer. The cousins are all Jacobites and Catholics, and would consider the hated excise officers legitimate targets for robbery.

The funds stolen from Osbaldistone and Tresham can also aid the Jacobite cause, Jarvie explains, though less directly: they are in the form of bills of exchange. Like other companies, Frank’s father’s has bought forest land in the Highlands, paying with these bills, which are made out (like checks) to the sellers. With the bills missing, the Highland landowners will suffer financially, which Rashleigh hopes will drive them to join the rebellion. If Campbell is a Jacobite, Frank asks Jarvie, why would he want to help restore the missing bills? Jarvie isn’t sure, but he knows that Campbell has been friendly with the Argyll family, supporters of George I, and he also knows that Campbell and the Jacobite leadership distrust each other. “The truth is,” Jarvie tells Frank, “that Rob [Campbell] is for his ain [sic] hand … he’ll take the side that suits him best” (Rob Roy, p. 307).

After Frank promises him a generous reward, Jarvie agrees to accompany him into the Highlands to seek Campbell out and enlist the outlaw’s aid in recovering the missing bills of exchange. By this time, Campbell might even have the bills himself. The two set off from Glasgow in the morning, along with Fairservice, who has by now comically insinuated himself into a position as Frank’s servant. At the end of a day’s ride they cross the River Forth, which forms part of the line between the Lowlands and the Highlands, and stop at an inn for the night, where a sword fight ensues. When Frank steps outside to find Fairservice—who has fled the swordplay—the inn’s landlady hands Frank a secret note from Campbell warning him against trusting the men inside the inn.

A detachment of English soldiers arrives at the inn, and the Highlanders are revealed to have been waiting for them. These Highlanders are men with grudges against Rob Roy and have been brought in to help hunt him down. The soldiers search Frank, find the letter from Rob Roy, and arrest him, Jarvie, and Fairservice. That night the Highlanders depart to seek Rob Roy; the next morning, the soldiers press on in another direction with Frank and his companions. But as they pass on a narrow track between a lake and a steep mountain, they are ambushed from front and rear. The ambushers, commanded by Helen Campbell, Rob Roy’s wife, a stern and harshly beautiful Women wearing a man’s plaid, do violent battle until the soldiers surrender. News comes that Rob Roy was captured that morning by the Highlander collaborators and is now being held by the English nearby, under the command of the duke of Montrose. At this point Helen Campbell cold-bloodedly executes a captive, the excise officer whom her husband had earlier robbed. She orders Frank to deliver a message to her husband’s captors: free Rob Roy or she will proceed to execute her English soldier prisoners.

The duke refuses to yield and declares that the outlaw must die. Rob Roy, however, makes a daring escape. When he learns that he is suspected of helping in the escape, Frank flees too. A chance encounter on the road with Die Vernon, who is traveling with an older man, results in the recovery of the missing bills, which Die has obtained from Rashleigh—but Frank, believing that she has wed her older companion, is heartbroken. Reunited later with Rob Roy and Jarvie, Frank learns that Die has now fled the country and that a Jacobite rebellion is about to erupt. Rashleigh, bitter because Rob Roy forced him to give Die Vernon the bills, has betrayed the Jacobites and gone over to the English. Jarvie and Frank return to Glasgow, where Frank’s father has joined Owen to await Frank’s safe return with the bills.

The revolt breaks out the day that Frank and his father leave Glasgow for London, where Mr. Osbaldistone joins with other companies in offering credit to the government to help prosecute the war against the Jacobite rebels. While Frank enlists in the government army, Sir Hildebrand and his sons (except for Rashleigh) fight on the Jacobite side. After his boys are killed in the failed revolt, Sir Hildebrand falls ill and, about to die himself, disinherits Rashleigh and leaves Osbaldistone Hall to Frank. When Frank arrives to take possession, he finds Die Vernon and the older man she had been traveling with hiding out in the semiabandoned house. The man, it turns out, is her father, a Jacobite aristocrat wanted by the authorities. Rashleigh learns of their presence and appears with law officers, hoping to have them all arrested as Jacobites and reclaim his inheritance. His plan is foiled by the appearance of Rob Roy, who slays Rashleigh in the ensuing fight, leaving Frank and Die free to marry and move into Osbaldistone Hall.


The early decades of the nineteenth century brought an end to the Highland way of life even as Scott was romanticizing it. The old feudal system of “lairds” and “crofters” (lords and tenant farmers) had begun breaking down in the previous century as the population surged beyond the capacity of the land to support it. In Rob Roy, Jarvie complains about Highland overpopulation, though it would later become a much more serious problem than in the early eighteenth century. As with other historical issues, Scott borders on anachronism in the views that he has Jarvie espouse. It was later in the eighteenth century that emigration to colonial settlements—such as those in North America—surged, and landowning lairds, facing ruin from decreased rents, began evicting the remaining crofter families in order to devote the land to livestock. Significant numbers also began leaving the Highlands to seek jobs in Glasgow and other urban industrial centers.

“Honour” vs. “credit: Scott’s two Scotlands

Like many of Scott’s other novels, Rob Roy contrasts the older, feudal world of the Highlands with the newer, highly ordered commercial prosperity of the Lowlands. Both the historical Rob Roy and Scott’s fictional character are motivated largely by the ancient concept of honor, which had a central role in Highland society, particularly in the feuds between clans; in the character of Nicol Jarvie, Scott creates a spokesman for an opposing, economically based code of social behavior. “Honour,” Jarvie asserts, “is a homicide and a bloodspiller, that gangs about [goes about] making frays in the street; but Credit is a decent honest man, that sits at home and makes the pat play [the pot boil]” (Rob Roy, p. 297).

According to Jarvie, the catalyst for the economic expansion that he celebrates so enthusiastically throughout the novel was the union of 1707. He notes, for example, the prosperity brought by the sugar and tobacco trade from the British colonies, which the union opened to Scottish merchants: “What was ever like to gar [make] us flourish like the sugar and tobacco-trade? Will ony body tell me that, and grumble at the treaty that opened us a road westawa’ yonder?” (Rob Roy, p. 312). As historians point out, however, “it was only in the period after the 1740s that the direct economic benefits of union came to fruition” (Devine and Young, p. 25). Jarvie’s attitudes thus verge on being anachronistic, insofar as they anticipate a Scotland that was only just beginning to come into being at the time in which the novel is set. But in putting these views into Jarvie’s mouth, Scott is able to foreshadow historical developments with which his nineteenth-century audience would have been familiar.

Sources and literary context

Scott used a variety of historical sources for details of Rob Roy’s life, including eyewitness accounts, ballads, oral traditions, and the written records of the MacGregor family. For the rebellion and the war, he drew on similar sources and on the memoirs and letters of participants, as well as on later histories, such as A History of the Rebellion raised against his Majesty by the friends of the Popish Pretender, by Reverend Peter Rae, of which Scott had the second edition (1746). Although he visited some of the settings in the novel, Scott spent most of his time in Edinburgh, and his familiarity with the Highlands was not extensive. His descriptions of Glasgow and of the Highlands owe much to books, especially Daniel Defoe’s popular Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-27), Edward Burt’s Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to His Friend in London (1730), and Rev. Patrick Graham’s Sketches of Perthshire (1806). Scott also peppers the novel with colorful Scottish proverbs, many of which he found in A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs (1721), by James Kelly. Earlier literary treatments of Rob Roy included a pamphlet once attributed to Defoe called The Highland Rogue (1723) and William Wordsworth’s poem Rob Roy’s Grave (1807), which Scott quotes from in his introduction to the 1829 edition and in the epigraph to the novel.

Like Wordsworth, Scott stands firmly within the Romantic movement in literature, which began in the 1790s and in which ethnic and national mythology had begun to play a major role by the 1810s. Scott is credited with inventing the historical novel, which is also sometimes called a “romance,” a term that recalls the medieval “romances” from which the Romantic period derives its name. Like Rob Roy and Scott’s other novels, these medieval poems of chivalric adventure featured exotic settings and heroic deeds.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Economic expansion

In the century between the novel’s setting (1715) and its composition (1817), Scotland, and especially Glasgow, had moved from the dawn of an era dominated by colonial trade to the dawn of an era that would be dominated by the industrial revolution, which was already underway when Scott wrote Rob Roy. During this century, developments in economic practice were accompanied by advances in economic theory, most notably in the work of Glasgow political economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-90). Smith’s 1776 work The Wealth of Nations, perhaps the most influential economic treatise ever published, laid the theoretical underpinnings of modern capitalism: free trade, easy credit, a national debt, and minimal government interference in economic competition. At the time from which Frank Osbaldistone looks back on the novel’s events (c. 1765), the era of colonial trade was reaching its climax. As critics have pointed out, Smith was composing his work in Glasgow at the very time that Scott portrays Frank Osbaldistone recording the events of his youth; in the novel, Osbaldistone puts Smith’s economic ideas into Jarvie’s mouth, but nearly a decade before Smith’s birth.

Jarvie praises the civic blessings he believes the new economic practices have secured, but Scott seems to see a darker side to the forces at work in this era of expansion. Rob Roy, for example, is driven to the outlaw’s life by the very economic phenomenon that Jarvie celebrates as more “honest” than honor: credit. Such concerns were highly topical in Scott’s day because of an intense public debate over returning the British pound to the gold standard. It was feared that such a measure (which in fact occurred the year after the novel’s publication) would result in less credit being extended. Furthermore, the missing bills of exchange that drive the novel’s plot have a historical parallel not in Rob Roy’s life but in Scott’s. Scott himself was in financial trouble over bills of exchange in the years immediately before he wrote Rob Roy, and parts of the novel echo letters in which he described his troubles.


Second only to Ivanhoe in popularity among Scott’s novels, Rob Roy sold out its large print run of 10,000 copies within a few weeks of publication. It has been repeatedly adapted for the stage, with a version by Isaac Pocock opening in March 1819 and becoming one of the most influential theatrical productions of the era. In general, critics have praised the novel for its characterization but expressed reservations about its plot. The part of the plot that hinges on the bills of exchange has been singled out as particularly implausible. Perhaps because the bills themselves have no historical basis, it is doubted that they would have incited the Highlanders to revolt, even had such bills played a part in their affairs.

Frank’s long sojourn at Osbaldistone Hall has also been condemned as aimless and uninteresting for the reader. Yet, as the twentieth-century Scottish author John Buchan writes in his biography of Scott, once Frank crosses into Scotland, “we are in the grip of epic narrative” (Buchan, p. 183). The often comic portrayals of Andrew Fairservice and Nicol Jarvie have been compared to characters in the later novels of Charles Dickens. In their evocation of Highland mystery and romance, Rob Roy and the other Waverly novels had an impact on outsiders’ perceptions of Scotland that has lasted to the present day. Indeed, it has been said that Walter Scott single-handedly created the Scottish tourist industry.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Anderson, James. Sir Walter Scott and History. Edinburgh: Edina Press, 1981.

Buchan, John. Sir Walter Scott. London: Cassell, 1932.

Cadbury, William. “The Two Structures of Rob Roy.” Modern Language Quarterly 29 (1968): 42-60.

Devine, T. M., and J. R. Young, eds. Eighteenth Century Scotland: New Perspectives. East Lothian, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 1999.

Lauber, John. Sir Walter Scott. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Lenman, Bruce. The Jacobite Risings in Britain, 1689-1746. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980.

Macinnes, Allan I. Clanship, Commerce and the House of Stuart, 1603-1788. East Lothian, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 1996.

Murray, W. H. Rob Roy MacGregor: His Life and Times. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1993.

Scott, Sir Walter. Rob Roy. Ed. Ian Duncan. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Rob Roy

views updated May 23 2018

Rob Roy ★★★ 1995 (R)

Kiltraising though overlong tale of legendary Scot Robert Roy MacGregor mixes love and honor with bloodlust and revenge. Neeson's rugged clan leader fends off a band of dastardly nobles led by Cunningham (Roth), a foppish twit with an evil bent. Misty highland scenery and intense romantic interplay between Neeson and Lange as the spirited Mary MacGregor lend a passionate twist to an otherwise earthy, robust adventure of lore capped by one of the best sword fights in years. Both Neeson and Lange provide a gutsy substance to their characters: Neeson's Celtic hero is sexy and steadfast (and generally sports an Irish accent), while Lange inhabits a soulful and tenacious Mary. Roth's delightfully hammy performance as MacGregor's loathsome, bewigged nemesis delivers zip amid the highminded speeches, plot lulls, and separated body parts. Visually stunning, with on-location shooting in the Scottish Highlands. More ambience is provided by Buswell's evocative score. 144m/C VHS, DVD . Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth, John Hurt, Eric Stoltz, Andrew Keir, Brian Cox, Brian McCardie, Gilbert Martin, Vicki Masson, David Hayman, Jason Flemyng, Shirley Henderson, Gilly Gilchrist, John Murtagh, Ewan Stewart; D: Michael Caton-Jones; W: Alan Sharp; C: Karl Walter Lindenlaub, Roger Deakins; M: Carter Burwell. British Acad. '95: Support. Actor (Roth).

Rob Roy

views updated May 21 2018

Rob Roy (1671–1734) Scottish outlaw, b. Robert MacGregor. He took to banditry after the Duke of Montrose confiscated his lands. Rob Roy took part in the Jacobite rising of 1715. Sir Walter Scott's novel Rob Roy (1817) romanticized his exploits.

Rob Roy

views updated Jun 11 2018

Rob Roy (1671–1734), Scottish outlaw and member of the proscribed Macgregor family, whose reputation as a Scottish Robin Hood was coloured by Sir Walter Scott' novel Rob Roy (1817).