Flora Macdonald, Jacobite heroine, died on the 4th March, 1790.
Flora MacDonald’s voyage “over the sea to Skye” with the fugitive Bonnie Prince Charlie dressed as her maid, has made her into a legendary heroine. She has been portrayed in poem and song, on stage and the big screen, and admired the world over, for her courage and daring. Her loyalty gained her general admiration and sympathy in her day, but there was more to Flora MacDonald than the romantic, shortbread tin images portray. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English essayist, who met her in 1773, described her as “a woman of middle stature, soft features, elegant manners and gentle presence.” He also said that her name “will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.” She was a resolute woman of twenty-four when she enacted her part in the adventures of the handsome ‘Young Pretender’ and, when arrested, she displayed her maturity in doing all she could to protect those others who had helped the Prince to escape. Nevertheless, she was no romantic, loyal Jacobite. Indeed, her husband, four of her sons and a son-in-law all fought, at one time or another, albeit abroad of Scotland, for the Hannoverian King Geordie.
Flora MacDonald was born in 1722 at Milton on South Uist, where her father was a tenant farmer. When her father died and her mother was abducted and married by Hugh MacDonald of Armadale, Flora was brought up on Skye under the care of the Chief of her Clan, the MacDonald of Sleat. She attended school in Sleat and, by all accounts, in Edinburgh. In June, 1746, she was living in Benbecula, sandwiched between North and South Uist, when Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, pitched up after the defeat of the Jacobite Uprising at the Battle of Culloden. The Prince's companion, Captain O’Neill, sought her help, telling here the plan; that the Prince was to be disguised in a frock as ‘Betty Burke’. She thought the scheme “fantastical,” but after some hesitation Flora promised to help. If you look at pictures of Charlie, you’ll see that the idea of him masquerading as a woman wasn’t all that preposterous.
The island was held for the government by the local militia, but the local commander, also a MacDonald, was probably admitted into the secret. He gave her a pass to the mainland for herself, a manservant, an Irish spinning maid called ‘Betty Burke’, and a boat’s crew of six men. They sailed it is said, but it’s more than likely they rowed, from Benbecula to Skye on the 27th of June, 1746. They hid overnight in a cottage and, over the next few days, they travelled overland to Portree, at one point avoiding some Government troops. When Charlie left to travel to the island of Raasay and a ship to take him back to France, he gave Flora a locket with his portrait, saying, “I hope, madam, that we may meet in St James’s yet,” but she never saw him again. Neither did he give her the recipe for Drambuie.
The careless talk of the boatmen brought suspicion on Flora and she was arrested. Stories suggest that she was either imprisoned on a ship for five months or imprisoned in Dunstaffnage Castle, take your pick, before being brought to London. It’s fairly unlikely that she was imprisoned on a ship, unlike like the remnants of the Jacobite Army, for the simple reason that those ships were stinking, death traps, full of desperate and dying men. There is no mention of Flora suffering any such discomfort and had she, there surely would’ve been. After a short imprisonment in the Tower of London, she was allowed to live outside of it, under parole. Flora was never brought to trial and, when she was released, following the Act of Indemnity, in 1747, her admirers subscribed over £1500 on her behalf. After she was freed, she went to Edinburgh, travelled widely throughout Scotland, and returned twice to London, before settling once more on Skye.
On the 6th of November, 1750, Flora married her kinsman, Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh. Initially, they lived at Flodigarry, before moving to Kingsburgh in 1772, which is where, on Sunday, the 12th of September, 1773, Flora received the visit of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Boswell was to write of that rainy day, “To see Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great champion of the English Tories, salute Miss Flora MacDonald in the Isle of Sky, was a striking sight.” In 1774, Flora and Allan emigrated to Anson (now Montgomery) County, in North Carolina. It’s suggested that Alan MacDonald was a Captain in the Army during his time on Skye, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for that. There is more evidence for his having been a farmer and, in any case, it’s highly unlikely that an Army Captain would have been allowed to emigrate independently of his Regiment, let alone become a farmer in the Thirteen Colonies.
Flora’s husband served in a Regiment of Loyalist Highlanders; the 1st Battalion of the 84th Regiment of Foot (Royal Highland Emigrants). The Battalion was raised, predominantly, from Scottish soldiers who had served in the Seven Years’ War in North America. Farmer MacDonald enlisted along with many another, regardless of whether or not Flora actively participated in recruiting the men, exhorting them in Gaelic as it is said. It’s far more likely that the only exhorting she did was to wave off the Battalion as it proudly marched out of Cross Creek (present day Fayetteville). Soon after, on the 27th of February, 1776, Allan MacDonald was involved in the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. Half of the Battalion was captured and thirty were killed, with ninety-six officers and men taken prisoner; one of whom was Flora MacDonald’s husband.
Flora was left to fend for herself, spending the best part of two miserable years alone on a farm/plantation “that had been ravaged by the Patriots.” Her husband was exchanged in 1777 and the two were reunited in New York, from where they were posted to Fort Edward in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1778. Allan served there as a Captain with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Highland Emigrants and, for a time, they lived in a block house, which can still be seen today. It is well known as the last remaining building of its type in the province. Two of Flora’s sons, Ranald and Charles, also served in the Battalion.
The following year, 1779, Flora, who had been weakened by sickness and couldn’t bear the cold winters, returned alone to Skye to live with her daughter at Dunvegan Castle. During the voyage to Scotland in a merchant ship, it was attacked by a privateer, but Flora refused to leave the deck during the action and was wounded in the arm. In 1784, after the war in America, Allan reported for duty with Flora back on Skye. Flora MacDonald died at Peinduin (or Kingsburgh) on ‘An t-Eilean Sgitheanach’ on the 4th of March, 1790, in the same bed in which Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Samuel Johnson in his turn, had slept. She was buried in the graveyard at Kilmuir in Trotternish and it is said that over 3000 mourners attended her funeral at which 300 gallons of whisky were drunk.