Called the Scottish Robin Hood, Rob Roy’s story has been the subject of books and movies. Today, one of the most popular renditions of that is the 1995 film starring Liam Neeson. I’m joined by Moxie LaBouche on this episode to learn more about the real Rob Roy.
Enjoy this episode? Help support the next one.
About the movie Rob Roy
There were a lot of great movies that came out in the mid-90s, and Liam Neeson was in quite a few of them. In fact, he was in 17 movies in the 1990s, including Star Wars Episode I, Les Misérables, and one of the most popular World War II movies of all time and another movie we’ve already looked at on this podcast — Schindler’s List.
Today, we’re going to be learning all about the true story behind another of Liam Neeson’s masterpiece movies from the mid-90s. Joined by an all-star cast in Jessica Lange, John Hurt, and Tim Roth, 1995’s Rob Roy tells the story of a man who has been referred to as Scotland’s Robin Hood.
But, I won’t be telling today’s story alone.
I’m excited to be joined by Moxie LaBouche from the fantastic podcast called Your Brain on Facts as we dive into the true story behind the 1995 film Rob Roy.
Learn the true story behind Rob Roy
After a couple minutes of credits to open the movie, we see some text on screen that sets up the scene for us. According to the movie, at the beginning of the 1700s, Scotland was ravaged with famine, disease, and greed. People were emigrating to the Americas, causing Scotland’s clan system to die off. Then we’re given a date, 1713.
It is true that there were immigrants from Scotland coming to what we now know as America even before the United States was a country.
As is often the case when someone decides to pack up and leave their home, there were many factors that went into people crossing the Atlantic Ocean to find a new home. It started about a hundred years before the timeline in the movie, when thousands of Scottish fled their homelands and made their way to Ireland to escape all manner of calamities — religious conflicts, drought and battles with the English.
Things weren’t too much better there. Then, in 1707 when the Act of Union was signed, merging together Scotland and England into the United Kingdom. In the minds of some, that made things even worse.
So, that’s why, just like the movie says, Scottish and Irish started making their way to the Americas.
Although it’s worth pointing out that, as far as we know, there wasn’t ever any indication that Rob Roy or any of his men wanted to emigrate to the Americas. In other words, the movie didn’t really have any reason to mention the emigrations to the U.S. at all except, as some reviewers have indicated, to try to tie the movie to filmgoers in the U.S.
After this bit of setting to open the movie, we see a beautiful, green mountainside. Then, off in the distance we can see men approaching. There’s six of them, and as one of them gets close to the camera, he reaches down and picks at something in the ground.
He picks up a bit and sniffs it … then he puts it his mouth, chews it and spits it out — aww, gross! I don’t think that was grass.
It is true that trackers use animal droppings as one means of tracking animals — but, I wouldn’t recommend putting it in your mouth, though.
Finally, we’re introduced to Liam Neeson’s character, Rob Roy, and we see they’re tracking thieves who have stolen some cattle. They catch up to the thieves and, the next day, Rob kills their leader. The rest of the thieves can leave, and Rob returns home to his wife, Mary, and their two boys.
Mary is played by Jessica Lange.
All of that is made up, but it sets up a few facts that are true.
Let’s start with who the real Rob Roy was.
We don’t know a lot about his early life, only that Robert MacGregor was baptized on March 7th, 1671, meaning he was probably born in February. The “Roy” part of what we know today wasn’t his real name but rather a nickname that came from the Gaelic term for Red Rob, referring to his curly, red hair.
He was also called Red MacGregor, and other, more authentic Gaelic names that I won’t even try to pronounce.
So, he didn’t really look much like Liam Neeson in the movie. Although, to be fair, some historians believe Rob’s hair changed to more of an amber color as he aged.
Another bit the movie got right is when we see Rob tracking down cattle thieves.
But, that’s not something he started on his own. For centuries, the MacGregor clan was known for this. They became known in the area as the Wild MacGregors, and they’d offer their services protecting anyone who would hire them from thieves.
It was protection money. And, of course, if you were a farmer who didn’t pay, it’d be the Wild MacGregors who raided your farm.
Some historians have estimated that Rob would charge farmers about 5% of their annual costs just to ensure their cattle remained safe. Because his family had been doing it for centuries, Rob knew many of the raiders in the area and could guarantee the cattle could be returned.
Although, it’s worth pointing out that some believe Rob himself didn’t use the clan name MacGregor. The thought behind this was that in 1603, the MacGregors had orchestrated a horrible raid that had caused other clans to retaliate. As a result, James VI of Scotland— he would later be crowned King James I of England — issued an edict to abolish the clan name and use of their tartan.
As is often the case with history, there’s a lot we don’t know for sure.
What we do know, though, is that the real Rob Roy was married to a woman named Mary Helen.
Some historians refer to her as Mary, while others refer to her as Helen. On her grave, which you can find photos of online as it lies right beside Rob and two of their children, it says Helen.
But, because the movie calls her Mary, for the sake of simplicity that’s what we’ll call her throughout this episode as well.
She was also born in 1671, the same year as Rob, and she was Rob’s cousin. The two were married in January of 1693.
The movie’s timeline starts in 1713 and we can see two young boys when Rob returns home. In truth, Rob and Mary had three children by the time 1713 rolled around. They were all boys.
James was born in 1695, Colin in 1698, and Ranald MacGregor was born in 1706.
Going back to the movie, we’re soon introduced to a few more characters pivotal to the plot. First there’s John Campbell, the Duke of Argyll. He’s played by Andrew Keir in the film.
Then there’s the Marquis of Montrose. He’s played by John Hurt, and according to the movie we see Montrose and Argyll bet on the outcome of a duel between Gilbert Martin’s character, Guthrie, and Tim Roth’s character, Archie Cunningham.
That’s all made up, and this is the point where we learn that one of the major players in the movie’s storyline is completely fictional.
Some of the characters were real. John Campbell was the 2nd Duke of Argyll. James Graham was the 4th Marquess of Montrose, although historically James was elevated to dukedom in the year 1707 because of his support for the Act of Union that we learned about earlier.
So, technically, by the timeline of the film took place he was the Duke of Montrose and not a Marquess like the movie says.
Through much of the plot line, though, we see Tim Roth’s character, Archie Cunningham, as the primary villain. And he’s completely fictional. Which probably gives you an idea of how accurate the movie is from here on out.
Speaking of which, heading back to the movie, we see Liam Neeson’s version of Rob Roy coming up with a plan to borrow 1,000 guineas from the Duke of Montrose. His plan is to buy cattle with the money, raise them and sell them back at a profit.
Things don’t go as planned, though. According to the movie, it happens when Brian Cox’s character, who is the banker for Montrose, a character named Killearn, gives the money that Montrose was loaning to Rob Roy to Eric Stoltz’s character, MacDonald. It’s MacDonald’s job to deliver the money to Rob Roy.
But Killearn mentioned this little delivery to Tim Roth’s character, Archie, catches up with MacDonald and kills him — taking the money.
The money goes missing, with Rob Roy ending up in debt for money he never received.
That’s made up.
As we learned, Archie Cunningham is a fictional character. Although the character of Killearn was a real person. His full name was John Graham of Killearn, but for the sake of simplicity let’s follow the movie’s lead and call him Killearn.
It is true that Rob found himself between Argyll and Montrose and strapped in debt, and some say it was to the tune of about £1,000 in today’s money.
You might say that Argyll and Montrose were rivals, and Rob’s lands happened to be right between the two.
For much of his earlier adult years, Rob lived in relative peace as a cattle dealer. Basically, each year, the Duke of Montrose would give Rob £1,000 that he’d use to buy cattle, raise the cattle and then sell them at a higher price — paying back the investment and making some money for himself.
And it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some interest in there for Montrose. But then the next year would roll around, and the same thing would happen. That went on for about a decade, between 1702 or 1703 and 1712.
Things were going well.
There are some conflicting reports on exactly what happened, but as the story goes, in 1712, the cattle market tanked. In June of 1712, he was denounced for defaulting on his loans. We don’t really know if it was Rob himself who took the money, or if it was one of his men. But, Rob was held accountable for the £1,000 loan that disappeared.
Some reports suggest that it was Rob’s head cattle drover who was supposed to deliver money to Rob from the Duke of Montrose, but instead absconded with the money himself.
Still other versions of the story also suggest that maybe Rob took off with some of Montrose’s cattle, too.
In either case, Montrose wasn’t happy and set about trying to destroy Rob by mounting a campaign of police action against him. It probably didn’t help that Rob was able to stay hidden thanks to help from John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll, Montrose’s arch rival.
He was sympathetic to Rob as a fellow Jacobite supporter.
Back in the movie, we see Archie and Killearn show up at Rob’s house with a detachment of soldiers. Rob isn’t there, he’s already gone into hiding, but under Archie’s leadership the soldiers kill cattle and burn the house — but not before Archie brutally rapes Mary.
That didn’t happen.
At least, not the way the movie says.
As we already learned, Archie Cunningham is a made-up character, so obviously he didn’t rape Mary. But, there is a legend that tells the story of how John Graham of Killearn raped Mary.
Of course, as the movie shows, Mary tries to keep it hidden from Rob. He eventually finds out, though.
However, most historians discount this story because Rob at one point in the disputes with Montrose, Rob managed to capture Killearn and held him hostage. But, history tells us that Rob treated Killearn well during that time, something that wouldn’t have happened if he had raped Mary.
Oh, and the movie also was incorrect in showing that Mary ended up pregnant from the rape. Even if it did happen, we know from history that the only time Mary was pregnant after the timeline of the movie in 1713 was when Rob and Mary’s fourth and final child was born in 1716. So, unless Mary was pregnant for a really long time — it didn’t happen as a result of being raped back in 1713 like the movie suggests.
But, we’ll learn a little more about the baby later on.
So, then what did happen if Mary wasn’t raped?
After Rob disappeared with Montrose’s money, it was John Graham of Killearn who was sent by Montrose to take Rob’s lands and home. They kicked out Mary and their children, leaving them homeless in the Scottish wilderness.
Back in the movie, we see the results of the plotline between the fictional Archie and Rob. The tension escalates when Rob’s brother, Alasdair, is killed by Archie’s men. Just before dying, he tells Rob about how Mary was raped by Archie — causing Rob’s blood to boil.
That didn’t happen.
We already learned about Archie and Mary’s rape, but the real Rob Roy MacGregor never had a brother named Alasdair like the movie shows. His siblings were John, Sarah, Margaret, a half-brother named John, and Duncan.
In the movie, we see Liam Neeson’s version of Rob leave Mary to go deal with Archie. When he does, he tells Mary that if their baby is a boy, name it after him. If it’s a girl, name it after her.
And, according to the movie, it turns out to be a boy, so they name him Robert.
The name is true, although as we learned earlier the timeline and circumstances surrounding his birth that we see in the movie is way off. Robert MacGregor was Rob and Mary’s last child when he was born in 1716.
As the movie comes to an end, we see a duel between Rob Roy and Archie Cunningham. The duel is sponsored by the archrivals, Argyll and Montrose. After being beaten by Archie, Rob is about to be killed when he grabs Archie’s blade with his bare hand, catching Archie off guard.
Rob jumps up, fatally cutting Archie. A shocked Archie stumbles, and drops to the ground, dead.
Then, settling his affairs with Argyll and Montrose, Rob heads home to Mary and, in true Hollywood fashion, the two live happily ever after.
At this point, you can probably guess how accurate that is.
Since there’s no way Rob could’ve had a duel with a fictional character like Archie Cunningham, that begs the question: How does Rob Roy MacGregor’s story end?
Well, it wasn’t quite the Hollywood ending like the movie.
It also wasn’t wrapped up into a single duel like the movie.
As we touched on earlier, the real Rob Roy MacGregor’s beef was with the Duke of Montrose. Or, maybe it was the other way around. Neither side was innocent, especially because Rob sided with John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll in the feud against Montrose.
That began in the year 1712.
Three years later, Rob was involved in the Jacobite rising of 1715. If you’re not familiar with what the Jacobite risings were, those were a series of rebellions that took place between 1689 and around 1746. The purpose behind the rebellions were attempts to put the Stuart house back on the throne in Scotland.
If that name rings a bell, it’s because you’ve probably heard of Mary Stuart. Or, as she’s more commonly known, Mary, Queen of Scots. You can learn more about her story in the episodes where we learned about the movie Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
It was in 1716 when Rob and his family moved to Glen Shira in the lands of the Duke of Argyll. There are still ruins from the MacGregor household that you can find photos of online. I’ll make sure to include a link to those in the show notes for this episode over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.
During the rebellion, Rob was a Jacobite supporter. We didn’t really talk about this earlier because the movie doesn’t mention it at all, but as a teenager, Rob fought in the Jacobite uprising of 1689.
For the uprising in 1715, there are reports that he plundered both sides equally. It was around this time that he earned a name for himself for kidnapping, ransoming, and doing all the things that boosted his legend to become what we now know as the Scottish Robin Hood.
On June 30th, 1716, Rob Roy MacGregor was officially declared an outlaw.
Rob apparently decided if he was an outlaw, so he might as well act like it. Even more so than he already was, that is.
It was around this time that he captured the Duke of Montrose’s man, John Graham of Killearn. We learned about this earlier when we talked about the movie’s depiction of Rob’s home being destroyed and Mary getting raped. That kidnapping took place in November of 1716.
Rob held Killearn prisoner and had him write a letter to the Duke of Montrose that he’d be released for a sum of 34,000 marks. That’s about £113,330, or roughly $145,500 in today’s U.S. dollars.
By the time 1717 rolled around, the Jacobite uprising was suppressed. In July of that year, the Indemnity Act of 1717 was passed by the Parliament in Great Britain. As a part of this act, many of the Jacobite rebels were pardoned for their participation.
However, the MacGregor clan, including Rob Roy, was specifically excluded from this act — he was still an outlaw.
In the spring of 1719, there was a royal proclamation calling for Rob’s capture. Seemingly unphased by this, Rob led troops as a part of yet another Jacobite uprising. Like the rebellions before, it failed.
Then, in 1722 he was finally captured and imprisoned for his crimes.
Meanwhile, English author Daniel Defoe had found success writing what many today consider to be the first-ever English novel. I’m speaking, of course, about Robinson Crusoe, which was published for the first time on April 25th, 1719.
As a fun little side note, the first edition of Robinson Crusoe listed the author as being a man named Robinson Crusoe. As a result, a lot of people thought it was a true story. It wasn’t until later that it was revealed to be a work of fiction written by Daniel Defoe.
That’s important to our story today, because it was in 1723 that a fictional account of Rob Roy’s life was published. That book was entitled, The Highland rogue: or, the memorable actions of the celebrated Robert Mac-gregor, commonly called Rob-Roy, and it’s a book commonly attributed to Daniel Defoe.
When he wrote his own novel simply called Rob Roy that bolstered the story, author Sir Walter Scott said he thought Defoe should have written it — but he never really confirmed Defoe as the author. In more recent years, some have rejected the idea that Defoe wrote the 1723 book, and rather leave the book’s author as being anonymous.
Sir Walter Scott’s book, by the way, was published in 1817.
But, for our story today, who the author of the 1723 novel was is irrelevant — it was published while the real Robert MacGregor was in prison and almost immediately saw his legend begin to grow.
We don’t really know for sure, but some historians believe the popularity of the 1723 novel about Rob Roy’s life made its way to the Royal Court. Perhaps it was this popular opinion that led to swaying King George I in Rob’s favor. We don’t know, but what we do know is that in 1727, King George I issued a pardon for Rob Roy.
After five years in prison, Rob was released.
For the rest of his life, Rob lived in peace with Mary and their children until, on December 28th, 1734, Robert Roy MacGregor passed away in his bed at home at the age of 63.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- Rob Roy Macgregor, the Scottish Robin Hood
- Rob Roy (1995) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- Rob Roy MacGregor – Wikipedia
- Rob Roy Macgregor, the Scottish Robin Hood
- Rob Roy (1995 film) – Wikipedia
- Rob Roy | Scottish outlaw | Britannica.com
- Rob Roy — Complete by Walter Scott – Free Ebook
- Amazon.com: Rob Roy MacGregor: His Life and Times (9780862415389): W H Murray: Books
- Rob Roy MacGregor | Wiki & Bio | Everipedia
- Rob Roy – Folk Hero – Biography
- Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734) – Find A Grave Memorial
- Chronology of Scottish History – 1600 to 1899
- 1713 in Scotland – Wikipedia
- Timeline of Scottish history – Wikipedia
- Act of Union | Great Britain  | Britannica.com
- Migration to America in the 1700s – Ancestry Blog
- Reel history | Rob Roy: a Highland fling where they’ve flung out the history | Film | The Guardian
- Cinema / Och aye, such noble derring-do! | The Independent