Every now and then it’s great to read a novel that has acted as a prototype for its very genre. Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott, certainly fits into that category, as it’s one of the first examples of what we now call the “historical novel”. Published in 1817, it’s actually set a century earlier, in 1715, in the north of England and in Scotland during the first Jacobite uprising.
It tells the story of Francis Osbaldistone, son of a rich merchant in London, who is expelled from his father’s home for the gross indecency of pursuing a career in poetry. Francis is sent to the house of his hard-drinking uncle Hildebrand in the north of England in the hopes that he will help the family business collect assets owed across the border in Scotland. While in Osbaldistone Hall, Francis runs afoul of his conniving cousin, Rashleigh, and falls in love with the beautiful Diana Vernon. After crossing into Scotland, Francis meets a wild medley of offbeat characters, not the least of which being the titular Rob Roy MacGregor. Roy is a kind of Scottish Robin Hood, gaining legend for helping the oppressed and downtrodden of the Scottish Highlands.
Rob Roy has a fairly straightforward structure, establishing a series of basic binaries that hold the themes of the novel together: England versus Scotland, poetry versus commerce, the poor versus the rich, etc. It also spends a bit too much of the early part of the novel focusing on Francis’ infatuation with the lovely Diana and their many instances of flirtatious jousting. But once the novel introduces the Scottish characters, it takes off with the kind of energy one would expect from a 19th-century romance or adventure novel. The story is full of a wonderful mythologizing of Scotland itself and a sense of the historical importance of the novel’s time and place.
If most people today know of the legend of Rob Roy, it’s probably because of the 1995 film staring Liam Neeson. This movie had the misfortune of being released in the same year as Mel Gibson’s much more popular (but entirely corny) Scottish epic, Braveheart. Rob Roy was a vastly superior film but was undermined by the infamous scene of a curt, brutal rape that kept audiences away. The Neeson film does not really follow the same story as the novel, but it actually does give a far more engaging look into the legend of Rob Roy MacGregor than Scott’s book does.