The MacGregor Lands

Rob Roy MacGregor, from an 1820s engraving

I’ve already described how coming to Scotland was a bit of a pilgrimage for me, to see the land of so many of my ancestors—including the larger-than-life Rob Roy MacGregor (or Raibert Ruadh MacGhriogair in the Gaelic). But Scotland was divided between so many clans—which hills and glens did the MacGregors call home? It’s nearly impossible to find a definitive map from a reputable source. Borders were probably fuzzy at best, and there were few written records then, and fewer still that have survived.

And things were hardly static. Clans frequently fought turf wars, with help or hindrance from nobles and kings, losing and gaining lands. This was certainly true of the MacGregors, who were one of the most pugnacious, embattled and persecuted clans in Scotland, who had a tendency to end up on the bad side of important people:

History calls them the Children of the Mist. For nearly two centuries Clan MacGregor was a victim of Proscription. This meant that male MacGregors could not use their surname, own property or even, in the worst times, possess a knife. They were legally hunted down and tortured or beheaded, often by Campbells.

The Highland Titles website gives an fairly succinct and very readable description of the clan’s clashes and misfortunes, along with the fascinating story of Rob Roy, who became famous within his own lifetime as a sort of Scottish Robin Hood. (Or a thief and villain, depending upon who you talk to. It’s been said that in England, “such was his repute that mothers would often tell their children to behave or the ‘Red MacGregor’ would get them“!)

Anyway, it is beyond dispute that the area around Loch Katrine, some 35 miles north of Glasgow, is the heart of MacGregor country. Where it extended to from there is far less certain. I knew we had seen some of the westernmost MacGregor assets on our epic road trip, including Loch Awe & Kilchurn Castle—though both were later claimed by the Campbells. North of these, Glen Strae was acknowledged even by the Campbells as a MacGregor ancestral land, at least on the chancel stalls at St. Conan’s Kirk. Had I done some on-the-spot research, I might have turned off the highway to go find this remote glen…but I was already consumed with a full itinerary that day. But that itinerary did include a stop by the The Drovers Inn in Invernan, where Rob Roy famously overnighted.

But I had skipped over the heart of MacGregor country, including most of the sites associated with Rob Roy. It would have been an awful lot to try to add to an already rigorous road trip. I decided it made more sense to get ourselves to Glasgow and use it as a home base to do further exploration by car. This also meant that my mom, who was joining us in Glasgow, could be included, and allowed us flexibility to go when the weather was most accommodating…an elusive thing in Scotland!

We ended up making not one, but two trips to MacGregor country, which I’ve detailed below and on the map.

The heart of MacGregor Country

My mom finally arrived in Scotland fully 24 hours after she was scheduled to—thanks to Aer Lingus. But according to the forecast (unreliable as they were), the next day was the best all week for a road trip, so jet lag be damned—I got her up, and she, Griffin and I headed out to learn more about our Scottish ancestry. Amy stayed behind to catch up on life and work.

It didn’t take long for us to ascend from the flats around Glasgow into the gently rolling green hills north of it. Most of the MacGregor lands are contained within the sprawling Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, where the Lowlands of Scotland morph into the Highlands. It’s stunning country, lush and green year-round, riddled with lakes and pockets of dense forest. These lands are not nearly so inhospitable as many that we had just seen—the high mountains of the Cairngorms, the rocky west coast, or its windswept islands. Truly, the MacGregors enjoyed some of the finest country that Scotland has to offer…and therefore the world. No wonder that it was here Sir Walter Scott found inspiration for his famous poem The Lady of the Lake in 1810 and his romantic novel Rob Roy in 1817, both blockbusters of their time. Or that droves of tourists soon flocked to Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine to experience for themselves these idyllic lochs and glens—which have been called the Birthplace of Scottish Tourism. Even today, this is considered one of the top regions in Scotland for natural beauty and outdoor recreation. There are no cities there, only small towns and villages. There are also no multi-lane motorways; at best, you’ll travel on winding two-lane highways, and at worst, dirt tracks—as we did.

Our first stop, a half hour north of Glasgow, was probably not particularly relevant to my ancestors, though they likely would have known it. The Devil’s Pulpit in Finnich Glen just looked like a nice spot for a quick hike. Here a creek cuts a deep crevice through the forest. About the only way down into it is a small, unmarked ravine where rough steps have been cut into the rock and a rope has been tied to a tree. The descent was dodgy enough that my mom wouldn’t even try it, but Griffin and I were happy to leave her behind and plunge onward. Down by the creek, we found a beautiful little spot that we shared with a few others, where we jumped betwen rocks and snapped some photos before hauling ourselves back up.

A bit further on, we stopped at the village of Aberfoyle, home to less than 800 souls. Rumor has it there’s a tree there that Rob climbed and hid in to escape the clutches of the law (a frequent pasttime for the man). But I was there to visit Liz MacGregor’s cafe. I had hoped to find a little history there; instead, we just got coffee, snacks, and some blank looks from the staff. After admiring Aberfoyle’s main street, we wandered back to where we’d parked at some tourist attraction called the Scottish Wool Centre, where were tried (and mostly failed) to get the attention of some sheep and ducks in a small paddock.

Now that we were caffeinated, we continued north, following a river to a deep valley and the breathtaking Loch Lubnaig. I’m sure the cars behind me didn’t appreciate how I slowed to gawk and tried to pull over to photograph this pristine Highland lake. But I wasn’t the only one appreciating it; Lubnaig seemed to be a favorite summer spot for picnicking, swimming and kayaking. Just north of the lake, we passed through the tiny village of Strathyre, birthplace of Rob Roy’s beloved wife, Mary.

Here, we turned off the main road onto a narrow, quiet little lane that wound through the hills to a pair of more remote but equally gorgeous lakes: Loch Voil & Loch Doine. After being pardoned in 1727, Rob is said to have spent his final years at a place called Inverlochlarig at the far end of Doine. Best I can tell from Google Maps, there’s nothing there today but a farm. We stopped short at the old village of Balquhidder, though not much of it remains either, except an old church, a tiny town hall, a few houses, a little red phone booth, and a couple of graveyards. In the first of these, outside the church, Rob Roy, Mary, and two of their sons were laid to rest. Amongst the jumbled and overgrown tombstones, his is clearly the star attraction and easy to find; “MacGregor Despite Them” it boasts. (However, a sign here questions whether this is the actual grave, suggesting two other possible spots.) We spent a few minutes wandering into the church and amongst the graves, soaking in the peaceful atmosphere, and wondering what it might have been like to live in this valley almost three hundred years ago. Probably not much different. I drove another mile or so along the lake towards Inverlochlarig—though I was pretty sure the public road didn’t go that far—then thought better of it and turned around.

We backtracked to a charming town called Callender, pausing for a rushed lunch, then raced up through the hills to Loch Katrine. Considered one of the most beautiful lakes in Scotland (check a few top 10 lists), Katrine inspired Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake, an opera, and a great many tourists over the past couple of centuries—many of them traveling aboard the steamship Sir Walter Scott, a pleaure craft that has been plying this lake since 1900. Unfortunately, the steamship is presently out of commission (a fundraising drive aims to get her back on the water soon), but the company also has smaller, more modern vessels that do daily tours, and I had booked us on the 3:15 sailing.

View over Loch Katrine (and Ben A’an hill) from the east • Photo from Shutterstock

The Trossachs Pier was a surprisingly lively place, given how remote it is. There’s a small visitor’s center, a restaurant, a gift shop, a bike rental place, and a parking lot filled with at least a hundred cars. Most probably belonged to folks hiking or biking around the lakeside path, a very popular summertime activity.

With more time, I would have loved to have done that, but a guided boat tour seemed like a more efficient option. Plus, I hoped we might learn more about Rob, who is the biggest draw at Katrine besides the natural beauty—indeed, our boat was even named after him. Rob was born at the western end of the lake, at a place called Glengyle, and spent most of his life within a few miles’ radius. In one famous incident (included in the movie, with some historical liberties taken), he captured the Duke of Montrose’s factor (money manager) and imprisoned him on a tiny island on this lake, still known today as “Factor’s Island”. I had hoped we might see some of these places and learn more about the man. Sadly, the boat captain’s tour was less than inspiring—or even accurate, as he pointed out Glengyle at a location that was completely wrong.

Or so I heard, because I wasn’t there. This was a one-way cruise to Stronachlachar on the other side of the lake. While we could pay a little extra for a return trip, it seemed a better use of our limited time to put my mom and Griffin on the boat while I drove to meet them there. As the crow flies, Stronachlachar is 6 miles from the Trossachs Pier. But with no public roads along the lake, the shortest path for me was an 18-mile jaunt along some very curvy, hilly, narrow roads, back through Aberfoyle, past some palatial old hotel and two more heartbreakingly lovely lakes, Loch Ard and Loch Chon. How can one small region possess such a ridiculous amount of beauty? And where were the droves of tourists to ogle it? I couldn’t help pulling over to snap a few hurried photos. But I was already late to pick up my mom and son, who would be stranded if I didn’t turn up, and I couldn’t get enough reception to call or text them. Luckily, I eventually got there, without crashing the car, where I found them patiently waiting, the boat long gone. Whew!

At Stronachlachar, the only settlement this side of the lake, there is nothing but a pier, a cafe, a small lodge, and a couple of houses. Now we were really out there…and yet, strangely not. On a map, we were just 6 miles miles southeast of The Drover’s Inn, where we had stopped off the highway for a whisky on our road trip a few days earlier. Rob could have walked there in a couple of hours (and probably did many times). But the shortest driving route is a meandering 60 miles. Such inaccessbility has kept these hills and glens relatively unspoiled—and makes it much easier to imagine how it might have looked in Rob’s day.

Probably pretty much like this. Loch Katrine (interestingly, the name may come from the Gaelic ceathairne, meaning cattle thief) was spread out before us. It was pretty, but not quite as epic as other lakes we’d seen that day…though I’m sure the gloomy grey clouds that had gathered didn’t help. Hills of grass and rock rolled off in every direction, puctuated by forest. I tried to picture some stone & sod houses with thatched rooves, smoke wafting from the chimneys, clustered on the shore.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to Rob’s birthplace further round the lake, at least by car—and there’s not much there anyway. Instead, we followed the road west, past tiny Loch Arklet, a few scattered houses, and an old garrison built in 1718 by the Duke of Montrose to help control the surly MacGregors—now a guest house. Then an old church that is also now a guest house, and a schoolhouse that was recently shut down because it only had two students. Not exactly a booming place. Winding down a hillside through a forest, we finally popped out on the east shore of vast Loch Lomond. Rob was once laird of this place, called Inversnaid. But then he ran afoul of Montrose, was branded an outlaw, and evicted from his house there, which was burned down. The cave Rob and his family hid in was a short hike away. Adding insult to injury, a subsequent Duke of Montrose had his hunting lodge built at Inversnaid in 1790. Today it’s a hotel—which we had spotted from across the lake a few days earlier. About the only other thing there is a lovely waterfall amongst the tree, which we clambered around for a good half hour. Surely Rob and his kids once did the same.

It was almost six now, and while the sun was still high in the sky, it was time to start heading back. We had a close call with a tour bus (I guess tourists do come back here!), spending several minutes trying to inch past each other on the very narrow road. Back in Aberfolyle, we stopped at a large forest visitors center, where we stretched our legs hiking around some trails and admiring another waterfall.

Our last stop was at a village called Drymen, relevant to Rob Roy for a number of reasons. First, it was a common stopover point for Highland cattle drovers as they made their way to and from the market towns (such as Crieff). In Nigel Tranter’s historical fiction novels, The MacGregor Trilogy, which I started reading while in Scotland, the first scene involves Roy managing just such a cattle drive in Drymen. Second, the Duke of Montrose had his mansion just north of town (now a ruin). Third, on the village green begins the Rob Roy Way, an 80 mile modern walking trail which winds through many of the places we had just visited. And on that same village green is the Clachan Inn, which claims to be Scotland’s oldest (licensed) pub—first licensed by Rob’s sister. I had hoped to grab dinner and a pint at this wonderfully charming old establishment, but it hadn’t occurred to me to make a reservation. It’s a popular spot, and there wasn’t a single free chair in the bar, much less a table in the restaurant. So I had to settle for a peek in the door, before hopping back in the car to head home to Glasgow for the night.

Glasgow to Edinburgh

A few days later, when we finished our stay in Glasgow, we could have just headed straight to Edinburgh on the motorway, a relatively boring but quick one hour drive. But you know me—I decided to take the scenic route. So we crammed the four of us and all our luggage into our rental car and set off.

In the central belt of Scotland, between Glasgow and Edinburgh, long inlets from both sides nearly cleave the top of the island off from the rest. (The River Clyde at Glasgow and the Firth River north of Edinburgh…which runs all the way to Aberfoyle.) If you wish to travel to or from the Scottish Highlands, or invade it, you must pass through a narrow strip that (by my measurments) is about 22 miles wide. But with all the hills and peat bogs, it’s said there was really only one decent route through it, on which the Romans built a road. They also built a wall to seal off the rest of it—protecting the civilized Roman portion of the island from the wild north (sound familiar, Game of Thrones fans?). The wall didn’t last long, but the road did, which apparently has been used by every army to ever invade Scotland. To guard it, the Scots built a castle at Stirling. I believe this was from a sign I saw there:

Stirling Castle…is the brooch that binds Scotland together. [I]t was ideally situated to stop English armies from invading the Highlands. Some of Scotland’s most famous victories have come at Stirling, from William Wallace at Stirling Bridge to Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. “He who controls Stirling controls Scotland”, Robert the Bruce was supposed to have said when marching towards the castle for the fateful confrontation with Edward II; and it was true.

We made our first stop at the Bannockburn battlefield, where Robert famously defeated Edward in 1314—the rousing battle depicted (with a lot of liberties taken) in the final scenes of Braveheart. The family didn’t seem much interested in an old battlefield, so we only spent a few minutes in the visitors center, but it was fascinating to learn how the Scots trapped the English against the tidal Bannock Burn (stream) and routed them, despite being wildly outnumbered. Of course, it surely helped that the Bruce had some fierce MacGregors in his ranks. But this was on their doorstep—some of the sites we had visited earlier in the week were just 13 miles away.

Stirling Castle • Photo from Shutterstock

Naturally, our next stop was Stirling Castle, just a few minutes north. The castle is perched atop a steep hill commanding excellent views over the countryside, while the surprisingly charming old town of Stirling spills down the hillsides around it. We parked in the town and walked around for a bit, looking for a café and admiring the old stone buildings, before walking up to the castle. You’d think we’d be pretty castled-out after almost two weeks in Scotland, but Stirling is special. Not only is it probably the most strategically important castle in Scotland, it even has mythical links to King Arthur and his round table.

Stirling Castle was first mentioned around 1110, and many royal dramas unfolded here. Until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, almost every Scottish monarch had either lived in the castle, or been crowned or died here.

Historic Environment Scotland

So this was also the preferred residence of most of Scotland’s late medieval monarchs, and especially during the 16th century, they dropped a mint to make it fit for a king. More recently, Scotland has invested a lot to make this one of its most polished attractions. We were just in time for a guided tour of the grounds. But we were much more impressed with the interior, including the Great Hall, the largest in Scotland, and the sumptous Royal Palace, one of the best preserved Renaissance buildings in the country, complete with some very entertaining and chatty actors in period garb. Amy and my mom drooled over the gardens, bursting with roses and lavender.

There was much more to see and learn at the castle, and I wish we could have spent several more hours there. But I did take a few minutes to appreciate the fantastic view from the ramparts (and even from the men’s room!), which included a picturesque old graveyard just below the castle, the town of Stirling, the mysterious “King’s Knot” earth formation and old royal jousting ground down on the flats, and the meandering Firth River. (Roy Roy apparently once made a daring escape from custody while crossing the river en route to Stirling.) We could also see the National Wallace Monument—an impressive 19th century tower commemorating the great Scottish hero which crowns a hill opposite Stirling. Apparently, you can climb to the top, and it’s got some cool exhibitions inside…but we didn’t have time for that either.

Instead, we continued north through the countryside to the old market town of Crieff, where the MacGregors and many other Highlanders would have bought and sold cattle (either their own or those they stole!). Wikipedia notes that Rob Rob famously visited during the October cattle fair in 1714, where he and his followers “marched to Crieff Town Square and, in front of the gathering crowd, they sang Jacobite songs and drank a good many loyal toasts to their uncrowned King James VIII.” Today, the town is better known for its grand Victorian hot springs resort, Crieff Hydro, and as the hometown of (my very distant cousin?) Ewan McGregor. It’s a pretty little town, and we parked near the main square and grabbed lunch in a nice little café/grocery store. Afterwards, I drove us up for a quick look at the hot springs resort, where I had considered booking us a night…until I saw how much it was!

From there, we pressed further north, on increasingly narrow and remote roads—practically farm tracks—climbing higher and higher through some stunning countryside. All of a sudden, the road switchbacked down a forested hillside to Loch Tay. This lovely Highland lake was probably the most northern and eastern frontier of the MacGregor lands. It was here that the clan chief was beheaded in 1750 at Balloch Castle (now Taymouth Castle, which was gated off). Today, there’s a pretty little village called Kenmore at the foot of the lake, which looks like a popular place to spend a summer’s day boating or sunbathing on the lakeshore.

The lake is also home so something very interesting called the Scottish Crannog Center. Thousands of years before Venice was built, folks in Scotland and Ireland were building homes on the water, called crannogs. Sometimes small natural islands were used, sometimes artificial ones were created, and sometimes, as at Loch Tay, timber pilings were driven into the mud. Whatever the foundation, a large hut was then built on top, often connected to the shore with a wooden gangway. It’s still not clear to me why it was advantageous to live on the water; while it would help protect you from wild animals, being stuck on your own tiny island seems more like a liability with human aggressors. Some suggest it was a status symbol for chieftans. At any rate, almost 400 of these have been documented in Scotland, and more are still being discovered. They’re easy to miss; they often look simply like small, overgrown islets. The oldest date back as early as 3,500 BC, yet some were still being used as recently as the 18th century.

At the Crannog Center, they had their own impressive crannog you could explore…until it burnt down last year. The pilings remain, and they’re rebuilding it, but in the meantime, there’s still plenty to see and learn there. Plus, I had timed our visit to coincide with their annual “The Celts are Coming” event, which “brings together some of the most talented and most inspiring crafts people from across the UK and beyond, to share their knowledge of the traditional crafts that have been a part of life for thousands of years. From spectacular metalworking to skilled woodworking and spoon carving, to creating beautiful natural dyes and coloured thread ready to be woven…” You get the idea. It’s a quaint little affair, with a small village of makeshift huts built amongst the trees on the lakeshore, and everyone dressed in period costume (though exactly which period wasn’t clear). We spent a good long time there, learning about (and trying) various traditional crafts, listening to storytellers, and chatting with some of the participants. Griffin loved rolling wool, firing clay bowls in a firepit, and creating natural pigments out of plants. When the place shut down at 5:30, we were some of the only ones left, immersed in an fascinating conversation about the lesser known languages and dialects spoken in Scotland…with some people who spoke them.

We piled back into the car and drove through Kenmore, following the River Tay. A few miles later, we passed through what may very well be the cutest Scottish village we had yet seen, Aberfeldy. I would have loved to have stayed the night there, if only I could have found a room. Particularly because, just outside the village, one finds Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery, the home of my go-to Scotch brand and frequently ranked as one of the best distillery tours in Scotland. But (stop me if you’ve heard this one)…it was already closed for the day, and I had not been able to book a tour anyway. Thwarted again!

So we followed the River Tay to the only place in the region where I could find accommodations for the night: an old Victorian mansion called Erigmore House. I told Amy we were staying in a castle, and that’s almost what it looked like! But this is not the home of a duke or marquess (and never was); strangely, its current owner is a company specializing in holiday cottages and leisure parks, which is what they’ve converted the Erigmore Estate into. Small cottages dot the property, an enclosed pool and spa sit behind the manor house, and the house itself has become a reception desk, a restaurant and bar, and a couple of rambling holiday apartments. We were staying in one of these, which I had found on Airbnb. I can’t say that it was as luxurious inside as it looked from the outside. But hey, our toilet was inside one the building’s turrets—how cool is that?

We didn’t stick around to do much exploring. This time, I had made a dinner reservation, at the only decent restaurant I could find in the adjacent village of Dunkeld. After an excellent meal, we wandered around the village and admired the…14th century cathedral? Apparently, Dunkeld was once an important place: the cathedral’s website claims the first Scottish king, Kenneth I, made it the center of the Celtic church and the capital of his newly formed nation in the 9th century. Later on, it was a market town and important stop for cattle drovers, very likely including the MacGregors—and in fact, Rob Roy was once captured here by the Duke of Atholl. But there’s little hint of the town’s former glory, except the crumbling cathedral. But it’s a pretty little place, and we enjoyed exploring it and walking along the river in the nice evening light…even though it was after 9pm!

The next morning, the weather had turned cold and grey. We spent the morning playing in the heated pool and packing up. It was only an hour from here to Edinburgh on the motorway. But that’s not really my style. Though we’ ha’d already been this way on our road trip two weeks earlier, there were still some spots I wanted to see. A few minutes south of Dunkeld, the motorway widened and straigtened as we left the hills and forest behind. We had re-entered the Scottish Lowlands—and left the MacGregor lands.

As it started to rain, we stopped off in the city of Perth, the capital of this region. Scottish kings were once crowned here at Scone Palace, but today, it’s probably better known for the Black Watch Castle & Museum dedicated to the famous Scottish Black Watch regiment (ahem, GOT fans?). But we were more interested in lunch. As the clouds cleared, we wandered around the town, the River Tay (the same one we had been following since Loch Tay), and the riverside park, but we found it all fairly forgettable.

The weather was even more pleasant by the time we got to Kinross, a considerably more endearing little town. Here we grabbed a coffee at a delightful little coffee roaster, tried to glimpse the palatial Kinross House Estate, and then played at a nice little public park just outside its gates. The mansion and park overlook Loch Leven and something surprising: a castle on an island. Lochleven Castle is one of Scotland’s oldest, but it’s mostly in ruins now. The most famous resident was Mary Queen of Scots, who was betrayed and imprisoned in 1567 and forced to abdicate to her son, James, before fleeing Scotland forever.

With such lovely weather, it was hard to get back in the car, but it was time to go—we had to meet friends in Edinburgh.

And that wraps up our adventures in Scotland (in not-very-chronological order). Next stop: Ireland!