Is the belief that Rob Roy lies buried in Balquhidder kirkyard merely another myth?
Despite being a relatively minor historical figure, Rob Roy MacGregor, perhaps more so than even Wallace or Bruce, has captured people’s imaginations both in Scotland and abroad. As well as a number of films, authors of the calibre of Defoe, Scott and Wordsworth were all moved to write about Rob Roy. Yet, while he might have inspired a prodigious quantity of material, MacGregor himself has been obscured by the legend. For reality has all too often been appropriated, romanticised or simply ignored by individuals intent on using him as an outlet for their own concept of life in the pre-industrial Highlands. And, until recently, idealism has triumphed over scholarship.
While historians are finally beginning to paint a more realistic picture of Rob Roy, each year thousands of people still make the pilgrimage to his gravestone outside Balquhidder Kirk. Although it is now widely accepted that their vision of MacGregor as a Robin Hood-like figure is misguided, what is less often questioned is whether the man behind the myths is interred in the kirkyard at all. But there are those who are convinced that, whether brigand or bandit, patriot or partisan, Rob Roy’s bones are buried elsewhere.
The case for
I meet Donald MacLaren, Chief of the Clan MacLaren, overlooking the very field where MacGregor was mortally wounded in 1734. MacLaren, who lives in the shadow of Balquhidder Kirk, finds it unlikely that the outlaw and his sons should be laid to rest in ‘such a prominent place in the traditional MacLaren kirkyard’. After all, he explains, Rob Roy had attempted to take land from John MacLaren, Baron Stob- Chon, and it was this very conflict of interests which led to MacGregor’s death – in order to avert a full-scale battle Rob Roy had fought and lost a duel against MacLaren’s ally, Stewart of Invernahyle.
Why the MacLarens should allow a sworn enemy to be buried in their kirkyard perplexes their current chief, especially as Balquhidder wasn’t even the MacGregors’ traditional land. But perhaps the most surprising element of all, he points out, is that Rob’s son Robert Oig is supposed to be buried there – despite shooting Stob-Chon in the back in an attempt to avenge his father and later being tried and executed for the murder of Jean Key. ‘Surely, as a common murderer, Oig would have been dumped in a pit and not taken back for burial on his enemy’s ground?’ MacLaren also points out that ‘there was a strong oral tradition in the glen right up to the late 20th century, which very firmly states that Rob Roy was buried elsewhere’.
He suggests that ‘logically Rob Roy would have been taken through Bealach nan Corp (the Pass of the Corpses) to one of the clan’s more traditional sites.’ He therefore believes it is ‘time to clear up the issue – especially as tourists are regularly bussed up to Balquhidder to gawp at his grave. They are being done a disservice’, he continues, ‘if they are being brought here on a mistaken assumption.’
The case against
Gregor Hutcheson, Chairman Emeritus of the Clan Gregor Society, doesn’t dismiss MacLaren’s beliefs completely, but he feels that Rob Roy was indeed laid to rest in the kirkyard. Perhaps the most convincing argument he has is that ‘a funeral service for MacGregor, that was both well attended and well documented, took place in Balquhidder Kirk.’ He does admit that there are ‘certain anomalies’ about the gravesite – such as the plaque’s claim that MacGregor reached the grand old age of 70, whereas he actually died at 63 – but he feels Rob Roy is there.
‘We’ve heard all about the idea that he’s buried elsewhere’, he explains, ‘but we think it’s just a story and are almost certain there is no evidence to back it up’. While he confesses that ‘oral tradition is very important, as it is handed down from an age in which most of the inhabitants could neither read nor write, when I was conducting research on the matter 30 or 40 years ago, even the Gaelic speakers were quite emphatic about it – the feeling was to let the poor man rest.’
Both MacLarens and MacGregors admit that, despite no personal enmity today, they have crossed swords over matters in Balquhidder for centuries. Consequently it is tempting to view this debate as a contemporary extension of an ancient feud – all the more so as Donald MacLaren will one day be buried within spitting distance of MacGregor’s alleged grave. Yet, at the same time, while evidence might be weighted in MacGregor’s favour, it is hard to dismiss MacLaren’s case out of hand.
Indeed, as the historian David Stevenson points out, Wordsworth was assured by locals that MacGregor was buried in a graveyard in Glengyle, not Balquhidder, and it was here that the poet penned ‘Rob Roy’s Grave’. As a result perhaps MacLaren is justified in his quest to reveal the true identity of the inhabitants of the gravesite. And, as MacGregor supposedly boasted arms long enough to tie his garters without stooping, identification should certainly be possible to make.