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  • The Wee History Blog

Flora MacDonald, 1722-1790

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

Our second post for Women's History Month is Flora MacDonald, one of the most romanticised characters in Scottish History. She is remembered as the woman who saved Charles Edward Stuart, (the ‘Young Pretender’) who is more commonly remembered as Bonnie Prince Charlie. She died on this day (March 5th) 231 years ago.

Charles was the grandson of King James II. His grandfather had been deposed in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 which saw James replaced by his daughter Mary, and her husband, William of Orange. The son of James II, also called James Stuart attempted to claim back his fathers’ throne by way of a Jacobite rebellion. The Jacobite’s were those who wished to see the House of Stuart reinstated as British Monarchs. After the death of James Stuart, his son, Bonnie Prince Charlie attempted to state his claim to the British throne. He led the Jacobite uprising of 1745 in an attempt to reclaim the throne, where he was defeated. In 1746, Charles led the Battle of Culloden Moor, where he was defeated a second time. This second defeat forced him to flee north.

Two months after his Culloden Moor defeat, Charles arrived in South Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides that would become famous for it’s brutal clearances in the 19th Century. It was there he met Flora MacDonald, whose stepfather and fiancée, Allan MacDonald, were currently in King George II’s Hanoverian Army. Although her familial connections made her at best an unlikely ally, and at worst Charles’ enemy, the then 24-year-old Flora agreed to help him escape. Her motives for this have been questioned continuously by various historians. It has been suggested that the MacDonald’s were secret Jacobite sympathisers, which prompted Flora’s actions. However, it has also been suggested that a large part of her agreeance to help was prompted out of pity.

First she requested her stepfather’s permission to leave the Island to visit friends. She promised to take two of her servants with her, as well as a small crew to man the boat. They sailed from Benbecula on June 27th, 1746 to Skye and landed in what is now known as Prince’s Point. Charles had been disguised as Betty Burke, Flora’s maid. After waiting out the night in a nearby cottage, they travelled to Portree, where Charles could hide, then flee onward to France.

The then 26-year-old Bonnie Prince Charlie survived, only dying in 1788. However, after it was discovered Charles Stuart had escaped, and how, Flora was arrested and imprisoned in Dunstaffnage Castle, before being sent to the Tower of London, where she stayed until 1747, after which she was freed.

Upon her release she had gained a level of fame. In 1750 she married Allan Macdonald, however fell into debt and in 1774 they emigrated to North Carolina where they purchased a plantation. However, their timing wasn’t great. They arrived just before the American Revolution which started in 1775. The British government at the time were deeply concerned and viewed emigration to the colonies as a national security risk. They feared that those emigrants, many of whom had poor experiences in Britain, would align with the Americans over the British. Nevertheless, Flora and her husband sided with the British at the onset of the war. Allan MacDonald fought with a regiment that consisted of highland emigrants but was captured at the Battle of Moore’s Creek on February 27th, 1776.

After the plantation was destroyed, Flora fled, returning to Dunvegan Castle in Skye in 1779. This was not the end of her troubles. During her return, the ship was attacked by French privateers. During the conflict she suffered a wound to the arm.

Four years later, Allan MacDonald, having been released, also journeyed back to Scotland. 11 years after her return, Flora died on the 5th of March 1790. She is buried in Kilmuir Cemetery, Portree, Skye, allegedly wrapped in the blanket Bonnie Prince Charlie slept in.

Flora has been immortalised in legends, books, movies and song. In the famous Skye Boat Song, her actions on behalf of Charles Stuart are immortalised.

“Sweet bonny boat like a bird on a wing

Onward the sailors cry.

Carry the lad that’s born to be king over the sea to Skye”.

An inscription was added to her gravestone in 1922, it was written by Dr Samuel Johnson, who had met her after her imprisonment. It reads “Her name will be mentioned in history and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour”.

Flora MacDonald (1722-1790). Image: Wikipedia.


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