HE was a clan chief who fought for his name and his tribe, as well as a soldier for his king, a superb swordsman, a blackmailer, and a cattle thief, who was nevertheless an honourable man of his word, his story immortalised in books and films so that he is famed around the world.

Ask most Scots who exemplifies the archetypal lovable Scottish rogue and there’s a good chance they will say Rob Roy MacGregor, the most famous outlaw this country has ever produced and a fitting choice to start The National’s series that we’ve called A Parcel of Rogues.

In one respect, Rob Roy MacGregor is the original rogue of Scotland. For not many people know that the first partly-fictionalised biography ever written about him was a large pamphlet penned by the English spy Daniel Defoe, who in 1723 published The Highland Rogue or The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-gregor, Commonly Called Rob-Roy: Containing a Genuine Account of His Education, Grandeur, and Sudden Misfortune; His Commencing Robber, and Being Elected Captain of a Formidable Gang; His Exploits on the Highway, Breaking Open Houses, Taking Prisoners, Commencing Judge, and Levying Taxes; His Defence of His Manner of Living; His Dispute with a Scotch Parson Upon Predestination; His Joining with the Earl of Marr in the Rebellion; His Being Decoy’d and Imprison’d by the Duke of --------, with the Manner of His Escape, &c.

All of which just about sums up Rob Roy’s life to that date.

The problem with such a figure in Scottish history is that we are reduced to viewing men like Rob Roy, and for that matter Bonnie Prince Charlie and others, through the eyes of writers like Defoe, Sir Walter Scott and the moviemakers – there have been three films made about him. Defoe had his reasons to boost the image of the outlaw while Scott’s often-romanticised view of Scottish historical figures has been passed down to us via his seminal work, Tales of a Grandfather, and is given full rein in his book about Rob Roy.

The makers of films about Scotland often sacrifice accuracy for romanticism – Braveheart, anyone? – yet Walt Disney in 1954 and producer Peter Broughan in his epic Rob Roy of 1995 actually got a lot of the history correct, though the astonishing swordfight in the latter between Liam Neeson and Tim Roth as Rob Roy and the dangerous “fop” Archibald Cunningham never took place as the character of Cunningham was an invention of the late screenwriter Alan Sharp who was raised in Greenock. Funnily enough, the full title of the 1954 Walt Disney film is Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue.

We know a lot of certain things about Rob Roy. Born in February, 1671, he was the third son of Donald Glas MacGregor of Glengyle, chief of clan Gregor, and Margaret or Mary Campbell. MacGregor territory was roughly the Trossachs, that outstanding area of natural beauty to the north east of Loch Lomond which includes Loch Katrine.

His clan was already infamous, largely because they were the southernmost of the Highland clans and preyed upon their douce neighbours on Loch Lomondside and in west Stirlingshire and Perthshire. In the 16th century their activities had seen various commissions given to the nobility to suppress the “wicked Clan Gregour (sic) and divers other broken men.”

A similar commission was given to the Colquhoun clan in 1602 after some of their number were allegedly murdered by raiding MacGregors. Battle became inevitable.

In February 1603, at the Battle of Glen Fruin, 400 of the MacGregors and their allies the MacFarlanes attacked a much larger and well armed force of Clan Colquhoun, led by the Laird of Luss and their allies the Grahams, Napiers and Buchanans, killing up to 200 men.

As many as 40 people from Dumbarton, including pupils from Dumbarton Academy travelled the dozen miles from the ancient capital of Strathclyde to view the sport of the forces of law and order putting the savage Highlanders to the sword. Traditions in the area hold that the schoolboys got caught up in the slaughter and were also killed.

On receiving an indictment against the MacGregor chief, whose brother Iain was one of the few casualties on their side, King James VI, as he then was, ordered that the clan be proscribed and their very name was made illegal. Clan chief Allaster was executed and his quartered body was displayed in Dumbarton.

It was against that background that Rob Roy entered a harsh world where he had to take the name Robert Campbell because he couldn’t be identified as a MacGregor. The Roy came later as he developed a fine head of ginger hair – Roy is the English version of the Gaelic ruadh meaning red.

We have to take descriptions of his early life on trust, but we do know that Rob Roy was a strong young man with long arms and exceptional skill with the broadsword. He was soon involved in the family business of cattle droving and occasional rustling, and by his mid-teens he was already a commanding figure within the clan.

One major aspect of MacGregor’s life which is often overlooked is that he was a confirmed Jacobite who fought for the cause of the deposed King James VIII and II and his son James Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, in at least three battles over 20 years.

The first of these was at Killiecrankie in 1689 where the 18-year-old Rob Roy charged with the rest of the Highland army and destroyed the Government force under General Hugh Mackay of Scourie. With the death of Bonnie Dundee in the battle that rising all but collapsed and the MacGregor name was proscribed again, Rob Roy’s father being held in jail on treason charges for two years during which time his wife died.

In 1693, Rob Roy married Mary Helen MacGregor. They would go on to have four sons. His cattle droving business thrived – he would take the cattle from the Highland to the southern markets, and his reliability and honesty won him many clients. By then, Rob Roy was also clan chief, and though technically still proscribed, Clan Gregor was living peaceably.

In 1712, one of Rob Roy’s drovers absconded with cattle and the massive sum of £1,000, part of the £2,800 which MacGregor had been given by the Duke of Montrose, one of his regular clients, to buy 200 Highland cows and bulls – the contract singed by “Ro Campbell” can still be seen.

Being unable to repay the money, Rob Roy was made bankrupt, and thus began a long feud with the Duke whose factor, Graham of Killearn, evicted Mary and their four sons from their home at Craigroyston. Perhaps because of a family connection, Rob Roy sought and received protection from John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll and the chief of Clan Campbell, who hated Montrose with a passion. Rob Roy’s commitment to the Jacobite cause did not waver, until the Earl of Mar at Sheriffmuir fought the most indecisive battle in Scottish history which the Jacobites won in terms of numbers killed, but lost because the were forced to stop their march south, the rising duly collapsing.

The Government side was led by the Duke of Argyll, giving rise to the story that Rob Roy didn’t actually take part in the battle but watched to see who would win.

In any case Rob Roy was tainted as a Jacobite and in 1716 his house at Craigroyston was burned down and his cattle seized by Swiss mercenaries under the command of a Colonel Russell – the receipt for the sale of the castle to another MacGregor is still extant.

Rob Roy definitely did fight for the Jacobites on the losing side at the Battle of Glenshiel in 1719, as he was seriously wounded. He recovered and privately considered that the failure of this third rising meant the Jacobite cause was dead.

Charged with treason, Rob Roy went on the run, though the Campbells kept him a “safe house” in Glen Shira while the Duke tried to get him a pardon.

It was in this period that his legend took off. He really did become a Robin Hood figure, robbing the wealthy and the nobility and dispensing the ill-gotten gains to his clansfolk.

The Duke of Montrose’s property and that of his allies became his favourite target, and Rob Roy soon began a protection racket and blackmailed cattle owners into paying him not to steal their beasts. Even though he was captured several times, Rob Roy always managed to escape.

With his family under siege in their new home at Balquhidder, Rob Roy eventually surrendered to the Duke in 1722 and he was put in prison, albeit for a short time as he escaped again.

Perhaps Montrose had satisfied his own honour, or perhaps he saw the way the political wind was blowing – Argyll was by then Lord Steward of the United Kingdom – because the pursuit of Rob Roy appears to have died down after that.

Following the publication of Defoe’s pamphlet, King George I became an admirer of his one time enemy, and pardoned Rob Roy the year before he died in 1727.

Rob Roy was able to live out the rest of his life in relative peace and died in his bed on December 28, 1734 at the age of 63.

The funeral of this folk hero, truly a legend in his own lifetime, was attended by nobles, clan chiefs, most of Clan Gregor and others who were just curious to learn about this remarkable character.

Rob Roy MacGregor is buried in Balqhuidder Old Kirk’s cemetery, where his grave is well tended and often adorned with flowers in tribute to a man who was one of a kind. The headstone reads “MacGregor Despite Them”, which says a great deal about the clan and their chief whose name has never died, and never will.