Flora MacDonald (1722 – 1790)
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This blog post was written by Amy Lyall, a student journalist. You can find more of her excellent stuff here: https://amylyallwrites.wordpress.com or on Twitter @amylyall1.
Small but mighty; Flora MacDonald is widely considered one of the most romanticised heroines in Scottish history. Born in 1722 on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, she was described by author James Boswell as: “a little woman, of a genteel appearance, and uncommonly mild and well bred.” Flora is primarily remembered for aiding in the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was on the run following his defeat at Culloden in the Jacobite rising of 1745.
Aged 24, Flora was persuaded to accompany Prince Charles Edward Stuart on a boat from Benbecula to the Isle of Skye, saving his life and risking her own in an act of earnest charity. Despite the £30,000 reward for his capture, and fearing the consequences for her family, Flora dressed the prince in a blue and white dress, disguising him as an Irish spinning maid named Betty Burke. Upon reaching Kilmuir, the pair travelled across the island towards Portree, consistently seeking refuge from the enclosing British army ‘redcoats’. The following day, the prince continued to the island of Raasay, before hailing a warship named L'Heureux, which was headed for France. On parting, he presented Flora with a locket containing his portrait, uttering: "I hope, madam, that we may meet in St James's yet."
Flora and Charles were never reunited, however, when rumours of the smuggled prince reached England, Flora was punished for her actions. She was imprisoned at Dunstaffnage Castle in Oban and then moved to the Tower of London before being released under a general amnesty in 1747.
The tale of Flora’s courageous act has been eternalised through the lyrics of The Skye Boat Song – a classic folk tune which remains popular today, even being adapted to score the opening titles of the TV series, Outlander.
However, Flora’s story does not end there. Three years after being released from prison, she married Allan MacDonald, a captain in the British army. The couple had seven children, two of whom were lost at sea on separate occasions. Due to financial troubles and rent disagreement, the family emigrated to North Carolina in 1774, settling alongside a community of Highlanders on an estate named Killegray.
The following year brought the break of the American Revolution, in which Flora’s husband rallied a British militia of around 1,000 men. In 1776, the group was attacked by American forces, with Allan and son Alexander being taken captive. Having been evicted from her home at Killegray and losing all possessions, Flora took her children to New York before finally reuniting with her husband in Nova Scotia in 1778. Flora soon decided to return to Skye; however, meeting further misfortune, her journey was intercepted as their ship was attacked by French privateers. Flora, forever a symbol of resilience, refused to go below deck during the fighting and was wounded in the arm.
After spending her final years on the island, Flora died on 5 March 1790 upon the bed of which slept the Bonnie Prince during his stay in Skye. Preserving the legend, Flora was shrouded in the prince’s bedsheet before burial at Kilmuir Cemetery. The funeral is said to have been attended by 3,000 mourners, drinking 300 gallons of whisky between them. Her gravestone, a Celtic cross, is marked with the words of Dr Samuel Johnson, who met with Flora whilst touring the Highlands: "The preserver of Prince Charles Edward Stuart will be mentioned in history and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.”
In 1896, this same inscription was carved below the statue of Flora which stands before Inverness Castle; a spot also marking the beginning and end of Scotland’s North Coast 500. Tourists, travellers and locals alike are welcomed and bid farewell by this legendary Jacobite figure who gazes down the great glen of the River Ness - an image of allegiance and amity, admired even by her enemies.