John Macgregor

Birth: 1825


John MacGregor (1825-1892), commonly known as Rob Roy, philanthropist and traveller, horn on 24 Jan. 1825, was son of General Sir Duncan MacGregor, K.C.B. His mother was the youngest daughter of Sir William Dick, bart., of Prestonfield, near Edinburgh. Adventures came to him early: as a baby he was outward bound on the Kent, East Indiaman, which took fire in the Bay of Biscay. An account of the disaster was published by his father in 1825, and republished by him in 1880. As a boy he was apt at mechanics, read hard, was a good climber, boxer, and horseman, and passionately fond of boating. His mind early took a strong religious bent, and he was with some difficulty dissuaded from becoming a missionary.

His schooling was interrupted by his father's constant changes of station, and he is said to have been at seven schools in all, among them at King's School, Canterbury. In 1839 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he remained a year, taking a high position in mathematics. Thence he went to a tutor's, and in 1844 proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating as thirty-fourth wrangler in 1847 (M.A. in 1850). He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1851, and devoted himself for a time to 'patent' law; but, being possessed of ample means, threw aside the chances of a good practice and devoted the rest of his life chiefly to foreign travel or to active philanthropic work at home, with occasional diversions into literary and mechanical investigations.

MacGregor was in Paris during the revolution of 1848. In July 1849 he started overland across Europe to the Levant, and on to Egypt and to Palestine: his tour occupied nine months. In 1851 he went to Russia, and worked southward to Algeria and Tunis ; afterwards crossing to Canada and the United States. Between 1853 and 1868 he largely occupied himself with a study of modes of marine propulsion, which his mathematical attainments fitted him to pursue. In order to determine the alleged validity of the claim made on behalf of Blasco de Garay to have employed steam for purposes of marine propulsion in 1543, he, in the autumn of 1857, journeyed to Simancas and examined the Spanish archives. He found the usual difficulty of obtaining full information from this source, but his journal shows that he was fairly satisfied that. De Garay made no such pretension.

During the summer of 1865 MacGregor launched his canoe the Rob Roy, and started on the first of those solitary cruises by which he is best known. This first Rob Roy was built of oak and covered fore and aft with cedar ; she was 15 feet in length by 2 feet 4 inches ; 9 inches deep, drew 3 inches of water, and weighed 80 lbs. The paddle was 7 feet long ; she carried a bamboo mast, lugsail and jib, and took baggage for three months. Starting down the Thames, and round the coast to Dover, MacGregor crossed the Channel by steamer and navigated a network of rivers, canals, and lakes, the chief of which were the Sambre, Meuse, Rhine, Main, Danube, Aar, Moselle, and Seine ; besides the lakes Constance, Zurich, and Lucerne. Lord Aberdeen, in another canoe, joined MacGregor for some part of the distance.

The voyage was practically 'one of discovery.' The log was published in 1866 in the little book 'A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe,' which was perhaps the most popular work of the year. Up to that time the canoe had hardly been known in England, and MacGregor may be considered the patron saint of canoeing and canoe clubs. In 1866 he made a second summer holiday trip in a new and smaller canoe through part of Norway and Sweden ; then by the Baltic to Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein, and so to the North Sea and Heligoland. In 1867 he varied his craft and took his holiday in a small yawl, built to his own design, also christened Rob Roy. He started down the Thames and crossed the Channel to France ; thence, after some sailing on the rivers, he came back to the Isle of Wight and eastward along the south coast to London. In November 1868 he once more took to the canoe, and, traveling by steamer to Alexandria, started on the most adventurous and perilous of his voyages, through the Suez Canal and down the Red Sea, and thence to Palestine, navigating the Jordan and Lake Gennesareth.

Meanwhile MacGregor had actively promoted many hilanthropic schemes in London. In 1851 he helped to found the Shoeblack Brigade, and supported Lord Shaftesbury's efforts in behalf of destitute children, becoming vice-president of the Ragged School Union. In 1853 he took an active part in the work of the Open-Air Mission, and of that undertaking, as well as of the Pure Literature Society and of the Protestant Alliance, he was for several years an honorary secretary. He was also an active member of the British and Foreign Bible Society and of the Reformatory and Refuge Union. The entire profits of all his works were devoted to these and other charities, and with the same object, after his return from his last trip in 1869, he frequently lectured about his travels, illustrating his lectures with diagrams and sketches of his own. He was twice elected member for Greenwich on the London School Board (in 1870 and 1873), and was for some time the chairman of the industrial schools committee of the board.

MacGregor was an enthusiastic volunteer, and on 15 May 1861, in the early days of the movement, read a paper before the Society of Arts (Journal, p. 474) on the 'Hythe School of Musketry. During the latter years of his life, owing to failing health, he resided at Boscombe, near Bournemouth, where he died at his residence, 'Lochiel,' on 16 July 1892. He married in 18/3 the daughter of Admiral Sir C. Caffin, who survives him, with two daughters.

MacGregor had much literary facility, and was a good draughtsman, always illustrating his own books. While at Cambridge as an undergraduate he contributed to the 'Mechanics' Magazine/ 1844, and sent sketches to 'Punch,' His records of his travels are very brightly written. Their titles are: 1. 'Three Days in the East,' 1850. 2. 'Our Brothers and Cousins, a Tour in Canada,' 1859. 3. 'A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe, 1866. 4. 'A Voyage alone in the Yawl Rob Roy,' 1867. 5. 'The Rob Roy on the Baltic,' 1867. 6. 'The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Red Sea, and Gennesareth,' 1869. He also wrote paners on a variety of mechanical questions in the 'Mechanics' Magazine,' beginning in 1844 (xli. 96, xliii. 426, xliv. 170, 222, 348, 418, xlv. 500, and others) ; 'Eastern Music, a Collection of Egyptian and Syrian Tunes,' 1851 ; 'An Abridgment of Specifications relating to Marine Propulsion,' 1858.

[Private information ; Times obituary, 20 July 1892; Letter from Mr. Turner in Times of 22 July 1892.]


Charles Alexander Harris, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 35. pgs. 97-98.

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