Select Scots: Notable and Notorious
In history and folklore, Scots are quite the characters! Here are some notable—and a couple notorious—Scottish characters.
Rob Roy MacGregor
You’ve likely heard Rob Roy’s name but do you know his story? He was born near Stirling, Scotland in the late 17th century. At the age of eighteen, he joined his father, Donald MacGregor, in the Jacobite Rising. This was a military effort to help James II of England regain his throne after having been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 by William of Orange and James’ own daughter, Mary. Many Scots, mostly highlanders, as well as Irish, worked to return the Stuart king to his throne. The effort, however failed. Rob escaped capture but his father was jailed for treason.
Because Rob Roy’s mother had been a Campbell, Rob sought and gained the protection of John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll. The duke negotiated amnesty for Roy and gave him permission to build a house in the Argyll glen.
Rob married and set up a new life for himself as a cattleman. Though there are rumors that he obtained his first cattle by stealing them, in the early 1700s he borrowed money from James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose, in order to increase his herd. Sadly, Rob Roy’s chief herder absconded with the money and Roy was forced to default on the loan. Montrose seized the land, evicted Rob and his wife from their house, and branded Roy an outlaw. In response, Roy started a blood feud against the Duke.
In 1722, he was caught and imprisoned. A fictionalized account of his life, The Highland Rogue, was published in 1723. In 1727, Roy was pardoned and released from jail, reputedly because King George I had read The Highland Rogue and was moved by Roy’s story. In 1734, Rob Roy died, apparently peacefully, in his own home at the age of 63.
By the time he died, Roy had already become a legendary figure. Works about Roy by Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth added to his fame.
An operetta about Rob Roy’s life premiered in New York City in 1894. To mark the event, a bartender at the Waldorf Astoria created a new scotch-based cocktail in the Scotsman's honor. It was called—you guessed it—the Rob Roy.
You’ve likely never heard of Flora MacDonald but, like Rob Roy, she helped a Stuart in his bid for the English throne. Actually, she helped him after his attempt failed. James II’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, was born in exile in Rome, but he was raised and trained for the purpose of taking back his grandfather’s British throne. In 1745, he landed in Scotland and, after garnering support from the highlanders, took his army to England to overthrow King George II. He failed and retreated back to Scotland, chased by the English. The two armies met again in The Battle of Culloden. The Scots were defeated in forty minutes and fled. Charlie hid out for five months then attempted to escape to France.
In 1746, Flora MacDonald disguised him as a maid and smuggled him by boat from the Outer Hebrides to the mainland. From there, he managed to get transportation to France.
Poor Flora, though, was captured and imprisoned, first at Dunstaffnage Castle in Oban, then in the Tower of London. Her story ends happily though. In 1747, she was released and returned home to Scotland.
In the century before Rob Roy and Flora MacDonald helped their respective Stuarts, Jenny Geddes got involved in politics in a less deliberate way. She threw a stool and, some argue, started the English Civil War. Obviously, it wasn’t that simple. Her story and the history is complex and too long to detail in this post. It involves a century’s worth of politics, conflicts over religion, riots and outright wars. Here is the short version.
In 1533, Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and set himself up as head of the Church of England, later known as Anglican. The Tudor dynasty and rule ended in 1603 when Henry’s youngest child, Elizabeth I, died. She was succeeded by her cousin, James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. He became James I of England and began to rule both it and Scotland under what was called “the union of the crowns.” Under the Stuarts, the king in England became the head of the Church of Scotland as well as the Anglican Church.
Enter Charles I, son of James, who ascended to the dual thrones in 1625. He enjoyed high church Anglican services. However, Calvinist movements, such as Puritanism in England and Presbyterianism in Scotland, had moved many people to prefer simpler services. Many viewed the rituals of a high service as too Catholic. But Charles was the king and he did what he liked, despite grumbling from his ministers and people. To make matters worse, two months after becoming king, Charles married Henrietta Maria of France, a Catholic.
After a visit to Scotland, Charles decided the Church of Scotland needed to be more Anglican. He formed a commission and ordered its members to create a new Scottish prayer book which adhered to Charles’ preferred high church practices. The book was used for the first time on July 23, 1637 at a church service at St. Giles’ in Edinburgh.
Jenny Geddes happened to attend that service. As James Hannay, Dean of Edinburgh, read from the book, Jenny stood up and yelled at him for “daring to say Mass in my lug (ear).” Then she threw a stool at him. A riot ensued. The rioters were ejected from the church but the violence continued into the street. More riots broke out and grew as the lowland Scots increasingly became infuriated by Charles’ attempted reforms.
Scottish magistrates petitioned the king to withdraw the book but he refused. The Church of Scotland countered by ejecting all bishops and archbishops. Charles retaliated by sending an army of 20,000 men into Scotland to assert his authority. This escalated into The Bishops’ Wars, which went on for about two years.
Some argue that The Bishops’ Wars led to the English Civil War and, ultimately, to Charles I’s execution for treason on January 30, 1649. So, the English Civil War and downfall of a king came about because a veg vendor, Jenny Geddes, threw a stool. Well, that’s what they say, at any rate.
Honestly, I’d prefer not to talk about this guy but he is so famous in Scottish folklore that I’d be wrong to leave him out. Again, here is the short version (really, it is).
Alexander Sawney Bean lived in the sixteenth century. His father was a ditch digger but Sawney had no interest in following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he ran off with Black Agnes Douglas, who was rumored to be a witch.
The couple set up housekeeping in a cave in Bennane Head. The cave opened onto the Firth of Clyde. Sawney and Agnes made their living, such as it was, by robbing. But they didn’t stop at theft; they killed their victims then ate them.
Their family grew to over forty members and all of them—children and grandchildren—joined in committing atrocities. All the members lived in the cave and engaged in cannibalism as well as incest. Coming out only at night to do their evil deeds, the family managed to go on for twenty-three years without getting caught. According to legend, they killed over 1,000 people.
Then one night, they attacked the wrong people. A couple was riding home from a fair. The Beans ambushed them and killed the wife but the husband fought back hard. While he was struggling with them, another group of fair-goers came along and ran to his defense. The Beans fled back to their cave.
The husband and his rescuers told his story to the local magistrate and, by order of the king, 400 men plus dogs were sent to arrest the Beans. They entered the cave to find the family surrounded by human remains. Body parts were hanging from the wall. Pickled limbs were found stored in barrels. There were piles of stolen loot as well.
Punishment for the Beans was harsh. The men were drawn and quartered. The women and even the young grandchildren were hanged. A grisly end for a ghastly family.
The Brown Man of Muir
I can’t say this last tale ends happily either but it seems an appropriate counter to the Sawney Bean story. According to Scottish folklore, one day, a young man was out hunting in the woods when, suddenly, a dwarf dressed in brown, his red hair disheveled, and his eyes glowing fiercely, appeared before the hunter.
The dwarf reprimanded the hunter, “Stop what you’re doing! These animals are in my keep and who are you to be murdering them! I live off berries and nuts so you can as well, if you wish to go on living!”
Afraid for his life, the young man vowed to stop killing animals and the dwarf disappeared. On his way home, though, the young man hunted some more. He arrived home safely but, soon after, he died.
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Tioraidh a charaid! Slainte!
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