January 20, 2023 5 min read
When it comes to British explorers, there is no shortage of famous names steeped in history. Beyond these names, many have somewhat been left in the shadows. Once talked about all over the world and held in the highest regard, we hope to bring these back to the forefront and credit their achievements. The British Dictionary of Biography marks MacGregor as early a traveller and a philanthropist. The victorian however popularised what we know as canoeing/kayaking. Born on the 24th of January 1825, MacGregor was the son of Duncan MacGregor who fought Napoleon.
It’s safe to say he didn’t have the best start when it came to his relationship with the sea. At just 2 weeks old, he and his parents were rescued from a burning ship originally bound for India. Three of six lifeboats sank and 90 lives were lost. The luck of being saved clearly affected MacGregor, and at the age of 12 he tried to return the favour by stealing a lifeboat just off Belfast in order to help those in a similar situation to that which he had been in before. Growing up he was always fascinated by the world around him and beyond. After studying law at Cambridge, he left to travel through the middle east, Russia, North Africa, Canada and Siberia.
MacGregor in Rob Roy - Victorianweb.org
It was in his 40th year that he commissioned canoes in London to his specification made from cedar and oak. This was the birth of the Rob Roy Canoe. It is not known for certain where his inspiration came from for the design, however he hinted at an aboriginal lineage. Researchers now believe however that his designs spawn from similar designs found in North America and Siberia. The original was 15ft long, had a lug sail and jib with a 7ft double bladed paddle. This is now sitting in the National Maritime Museum in Henley, England.
On the 9th of July, MacGregor set off down the Thames from London. The voyage spanned three months and a little under a thousand miles. His journey saw him explore down the Meuse, Rhine Danube and Moselle rivers in his narrow craft. Where needed he travelled by train with his canoe as well. Before heading back to the UK, he finished off in the Swiss lakes and was met by protests. Locals did not want him to set off, believing Pontious Pilot lay at the bottom and would drag him down to the depths.
On the whole however, his trip was met well with many crowds gathering to see him push off at each stage. By the time he returned to London, finishing his maiden voyage, his weekly accounts had been published by the Record newspaper. He came back the ‘hero of the hour, and all the world talked about him and his exploits’. At a time where pleasure boating and camping were becoming ever more popular throughout the uk, Rob Roy showed its capabilities and it became the ‘poster boy’ for such personal adventures. Though formally referred to as a canoe at the time, the design would more closely align with that of the kayaks we use nowadays.
With the success and attention in the wake of his maiden voyage, MacGregor published a book which became extremely popular bringing an even larger following to his exploits. He was already planning his next adventure though. This time being to Scandinavia utilising a smaller canoe standing at 14 feet long.
This adventure was met by a couple close calls. The first being a collision during transport with a cart though no major damage was caused to the boat meaning MacGregor was free to soldier on with his mission. The second was an altercation with a whirlpool and the final notable event perhaps the worst. Whilst navigating the Elbe, the vessel found itself being chased down by natives brandishing axes and bludgeons. He later found out that he’d been mistaken for a ‘wild Chinaman’.
This journey took him almost a thousand miles again though this time, he completed the whole trip in 2 months. The British public eagerly awaited his accounts for this adventure, though now his method of exploration polarised opinion. Some couldn’t comprehend as to why he was using such a small craft when steamers were reliable and much faster. Others reminded them that MacGregor was not against the use of steamers. He in fact did make use of them at points during his trips. His beloved Rob Roy however was able to navigate the narrow waterways, far too small for that of a large steamer.
The summer of 1868 marked MacGregors final Rob Roy voyage, embarking to Egypt. His biographer described this trip as his greatest tour with it being much more dangerous than anything he’d come up against before on his European exploits. Just in terms of wildlife, he hadn’t come across crocodiles, wild dogs and boars to name a few. On top of this, there were many attempts to capture him.
After being shot at and chased repeatedly, he was eventually captured by the Arabs of Hooleh in Jordan. While still seated in his boat, MacGregor was lifted out of the water and taken into the local Sheikh's tent. He recalls accidentally giving him salt instead of sugar and having to thump the sheikh on the back in order to stop the coughing. With a translator helping, the two laughed it off and he was eventually away after settling a small bribe.
From here he began down the newly opened Suez Canal and made sure to remain as solitary as possible especially when stopping to sleep. After a close call, the last thing he’d need is to be robbed so close to the end of his journey. Eventually he made it to the red sea and then hopped on a steamer to Beirut.
Being a strong Christian man, MacGregor hoped to reach the sea of Galilee. Between him and it though was a tough trek through heavy snow. Upon reaching the other side, he spent 12 days at sea musing on the life of Jesus before heading for the UK.
It is important to note MacGregor’s philanthropic side throughout all of his exploring. All proceeds from his books went towards various charities and when asked why he travelled solo, he responded explaining he didn’t want to risk partnering with someone who’d be in it for the money. After years of exploring, his health eventually caught up with him and after fighting an illness for four years, he passed away at the age of 63 in Bournemouth.
The ‘Rob Roy’s’ rigid, weighty form eventually found itself replaced after a 40 year monopoly on the market throughout Europe. It’s successor, the ‘folding boat’ by Johann Klippers. Bringing canoeing to many throughout Europe and seeing how it has evolved into kayaking as we know it today is truly spectacular. He may not have ‘discovered new lands’ but his impact on the adventurers of then, today and the future can’t be underestimated.
Stay tuned for the next forgotten explorer!
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