Before the 1720s Rob’s name had appeared only a few times in public print, whereas letters and other manuscript sources have hundreds of references to him. It would be possible to be misled into thinking that knowledge of his name was confined mainly to friends and relatives, to those he had business dealings with, and to those who sought to hunt him down. Then in the 1720s, when his most notorious misdeeds lay in the past, a scattering of references to him appear in print and manuscript verse which reveal him as a figure who was already on the way to becoming a legend, whose name was already rich in associations and worth evoking by journalists. Mention ‘Rob Roy’ and, it would appear, most people in Scotland would know who was meant. His name was ‘weel kent’ in popular broadside verses, but not as a central character. Rob himself, it seems, did not need to be explained to readers, but allusions to him were seen as useful in telling stories about others. The folk in whose company Rob is made to appear are notorious criminals. Horrible crimes and well-known outlaws were popular favourites (then as now), and though some criminals won sympathy and others disgust, they were often mixed together in the fascination with the underworld. Names of established criminal figures were added to irrelevant stories to try to boost some new criminal’s claim to notoriety.
Rob appeared prominently in verses relating to the case of Nicol Muschet of Boghall (who was executed on 6 January 1721) and his associates. The case was a particularly nasty one, and therefore particularly attractive to the writers of broadsides (a forerunner of the tabloid press) and to their readers. Muschet had murdered his wife, Margaret Hall. After marrying her in September 1719 he had repented with remarkable speed, and in the year that followed he devised – or was persuaded to adopt – a variety of ‘cunning plans’ to free himself from her. First he thought simply of absconding, but