Many years ago I sat by the cascading waters of MacGregor’s Leap at the mouth of Glenlyon in the Highlands.

It wasn’t easy to get there from the road above, and when I found it I felt like a pilgrim who had reached his destination.

Some years afterwards I sat likewise by the tumbling waters of the Tyne at East Linton, and I reflected on its connection to MacGregor’s Leap.

Surrounded by a steep-sided gorge, the eastern opening of Glenlyon is a place of powerful atmosphere. Ancient trees cling to the slopes on both sides and folklore literally lives in the woods. The roar of the River Lyon as it narrows into rapids lures you into an imagination of the past. For it was here, in 1565, that Gregor Roy MacGregor, chief of the MacGregors, leapt across the river to escape pursuing Campbell warriors. His story is the stuff of legend, and I have been fascinated by it ever since.

The history of the MacGregors is one of persecution and genocide. They were eventually made landless, leaderless and even nameless. They were hunted and killed like wolves; hence their nickname, “the sons of the wolf”.

Gregor Roy’s story is one of romance as well as struggle. He had fallen in love with Marion Campbell, daughter of Red Duncan Campbell. After the death of Gregor’s father, Duncan had been given the responsibility to bring him up. It was a neat trick to try to turn a MacGregor chief into a Campbell . But Gregor remained true to his clan and so had to live life as an outlaw.

He would secretly visit Marion, however, and on one of these occasions he was almost caught. He fled, chased by Campbell warriors. This is when he jumped across the river at the point now known as Macgregor’s Leap.

Marion later joined him and they lived in a cave on the sides of Schiehallion, the mountain of the faeries on the edge of Rannoch Moor. It’s an incredibly romantic tale and it has seized my imagination since I discovered it.

But it had a tragic end. They were discovered in 1570 and Gregor was taken to the Campbell stronghold at Kenmore and beheaded. Marion was utterly devastated. In her grief she is said to have composed one of the most heartfelt laments in the Gaelic tradition. It has deeply moving and powerful lyrics: “They laid his head upon an oaken block; they poured his blood on the ground; oh had I a cup I would drink of it my fill.” Their son Alastair was only three when his father was brutally executed. The first years of his life had therefore been spent as a cave dweller. After his father’s execution he also lost his mother. She vanishes from history. What happened to her? Perhaps she was locked away and died of a broken heart. Perhaps she was banished, or worse, by her vengeful father. Maybe she died in childbirth as she was pregnant when they were captured.

So the young Alastair was brought up by his uncle Ewin MacGregor. His destiny was a bitter one: to lead a clan made destitute and landless.

He never learned to read or write. But he learned to live in the hills and survive. He could catch fish with his hands, he knew every plant and berry. He was a lethal shot and his skill with the bow and arrow was legendary.

He knew every pass, every strategic rock of his ancestral lands. He knew the legends of his clan. He knew the powerful and tragic story of his parents. The legacy of the past hung on his shoulders, and the responsibility for his oppressed people weighed on his entire being.

His title was Alastair MacGregor of Glenstrae but he was also known in legend as The Arrow of Glenlyon. The life of this red-headed warrior chief was full of adventure, war, violence, sorrow and intense loyalty.

His last journey took him through East Lothian. He crossed both the Roman Bridge in Musselburgh and the bridge over the Tyne at East Linton, not once but twice. He must have noticed our county’s bridges for nothing of the sort existed in his Highland homeland. He was mounted on “ane broun naig”; a brown nag. The journey was fatal for the poor horse, and also for Alastair.

The journey began in the midwinter of 1603. The leading members of the Gregarach had assembled to say goodbye to their chief in a lonely glen not far from Rannoch Moor. The clan was in a desperate state. In April of the same year, King James VI had given the order to “extirpate Clan Gregor and to ruit oot their posteritie and name”.

Genocide was in the making. Bounty hunters were rewarded for the head of a MacGregor. It was a ‘final solution’ of utter brutality. It was ostensibly punishment for the MacGregors’ slaughter of the Colquhouns at the Battle of Glen Fruin. But in truth it was a culmination of a deliberate and planned policy of extermination.

The MacGregors were no pussycats. But they could never hope to defeat the Campbell power that washed them from their ancestral glens. And now the State had declared them outlaws by birth. The very name MacGregor became a death sentence.

So as the year 1603 closed with bitter winds and snow drifts, Alastair’s people were starving in the hills and desperate. And so he had reluctantly accepted an offer from the great Campbell chief, the Earl of Argyll: if Alastair gave himself up, then Argyll gave his word that he would ensure Alastair could travel to England so that he could plead with the king personally.

In fact, when the two men met, Argyll gave Alastair a written promise that he would be escorted to England. Of course, Alastair was suspicious, and suspected treachery. But what else could he do?

And so Alastair and several other clan members gave themselves up on January 4, 1604. The Arrow of Glenlyon was taken by the Earl to Edinburgh.

His journey through our county is a ghost journey. By that I mean we know he took it, but we get only images from our imagination as to what went on in his mind as he travelled on that old brown horse towards England. Nigel Tranter, master storyteller of historical faction, helps put substance to that imagined journey.

“That was a strange journey,” he wrote in his book Children of the Mist. “He felt more a prisoner, a man condemned, than he had done hitherto, despite being on his way to see his sovereign-lord.” Traprain Law must have loomed as a dark silhouette as he passed it, perhaps a faint reminder of the Highland hills which had embraced him from the time of his birth. He crossed the bridge at East Linton in fading light. A quick glance at the cascading falls of the Tyne and he must have been reminded of the place his father once leapt across the Lyon. But darkness soon fell and Tranter has him staying at Coldingham.

Dawn lingered but eventually opened another bitterly cold day. It was late morning when they finally reached the Tweed. They crossed the shakey old timber bridge and Alistair was now well and truly on English soil.

Here he expected to be given his freedom to make his way to London. But all eyes turned to Alastair: “Seize him, seize him!” said the guards.

Before he could react he was tied and bound.

“What treachery is this, Argyll promised!” he said.

“Aye,” was the reply, “he promised tae hae ye safely escorted tae England, and that we hae done. He hus kept his word, for we hae taken ye tae England! Now ye Hieland scoundrel, ye will meet justice.” He was led back across the bridge and back into Scotland. He returned along the route he had come.

We know his horse did not make the journey alive. We can conjecture why. The Arrow of Glenlyon would not have been led to his death without a fight.

Where did Alistair stay overnight on this return journey? Tranter suggests Dunbar, where he was “flung into one of the stinking cells of the Tolbooth, without food or drink, and left to come to terms with his fate”.

The return crossing over the Tyne at East Linton must have felt like a lifetime later. Or perhaps as a MacGregor in those times he was used to such sudden collapse of hope into despair.

Upon his arrival at Edinburgh on January 18, 1604 he was compelled to give a confession. He revealed the treachery and complicity of Campbell chiefs, but nothing would save him.

He was soon afterwards hanged by the west wall of St Giles on a great crucifix-shaped gallows. He was not alone. There were 10 other MacGregors who were hanged with their chief. Alastair was hanged higher than his clansman as a mark of his rank. A great crowd had come to be entertained by the swinging highlanders, and it was certainly not the last time Edinburgh citizens gathered to watch persecuted MacGregors die.

Alastair’s head was displayed on Dumbarton’s tollbooth, to remind people of Glenfruin. But the truth is Clan Gregor’s crime was its refusal to submit to persecution. As a later motto proclaimed: “MacGregor Despite Them!” And what irony that Alasatair’s descendants were in the front of the charge at Prestonpans in September 1745. They still lived and walked the glens, despite the persecution, and they fought to restore the descendants of the king who had tried to “extirpate” them.

History is funny in so many different ways.