See caption
Flora MacDonald by Allan Ramsay, 1749, shortly after her release
Wikimedia Commons

Flora MacDonald (1722 – 4 March 1790) is a Jacobite heroine remembered for her role in the escape of the Young Pretender to the thrones of England and Scotland, Charles Edward Stewart, commonly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746; Flora is an Anglicised form of her Scottish Gaelic name of Fionnghal.[1]

For her participation in the Young Pretender’s escape, Flora was arrested and held in custody in London until her release under a general amnesty in June 1747. She subsequently married her kinsman Allan MacDonald, and the couple emigrated to North Carolina in 1773. Their support for the British government during the American War of Independence led to the loss of their American estates and their return to Scotland, where Flora died in 1790.

Flora was not the poor peasant girl she is sometimes represented as in legend. Her father was a cousin of the chief of the MacDonalds of Clanranald, and was related to the powerful Campbells of Argyll. Dr Samuel Johnson18th-century English writer, critic, editor and lexicographer whose Dictionary of the English Language had far-reaching effects on the development of Modern English. after meeting Flora, then aged fifty-one, at her home in Kingsburgh on the Isle of Skye described her as “a little woman of genteel appearance, and uncommonly mild and well-bred”.[1]

Early life

Flora was born in 1722 at Milton on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, the third and last child of Ranald MacDonald, the tacksman or leaseholder of Milton and Balivanich on South Uist, and his second wife, Marion. Flora’s father died soon after she was born, and in 1728 Marion married Hugh MacDonald, known as One-Eyed Hugh or Uisdean Cam.[1]

Escape of Prince Charles Edwart Stewart

Flora was visiting her brother on the Clanranald island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, when Prince Charles and a small group of aides took refuge there after the Battle of Culloden in June 1746. One of the prince’s companions, Neil MacEachain, was distantly related to Flora and may have asked for her help, but she herself said later that it was the prince, and that she reluctantly agreed to help him escape.[1]

The escape plan was almost certainly the brainchild of Flora’s step-father Hugh, who provided her with a permit allowing her and an Irish maidservant, Bettie Burke – in reality the prince wearing a dress – to journey to Skye. They set sail from Benbecula on the night of 28–29 June in a small boat, crewed mainly by militiamen. The boat was sent back to Uist after Flora and the prince disembarked on Skye, and on its return the militiamen were arrested and confessed. Flora was subsequently captured, but not before the prince had continued on his journey to the mainland, from where he was rescued by two French ships on 19 September.[1]

Flora was taken on board HMS Furnace, to be interrogated by Major-General John Campbell of Mamore, “whom she faced with great courage and apparent openness”. She was subsequently sent to London, where she may have been held briefly in the Tower of London, but for most of her imprisonment she was at the house of a messenger-at-arms until her release some days after the general amnesty was declared in July 1747.[1] Flora spent a year in Edinburgh before returning to Skye in July 1748, to a mixed reception: “many Highlanders had suffered while she became rich and celebrated”.[2]

Emigration to North Carolina

On 6 November 1750 Flora married her kinsman Allan MacDonald (1722–1792) of Kingsburgh. They farmed at Flodigarry following their marriage, but Allan was a poor businessman, and after a quarrel with his clan chief the couple found themselves in financial difficulties. Allan and Flora emigrated to Anson County, North Carolina in 1774, where they settled at Killegray, an estate near Mountain Creek.[3] When the American War of Independence began the following year, Allan raised the Anson Battalion of the Loyalist North Carolina Militia, about 1000 men, including his sons Alexander and James. En route to the coast for collection by British transports, they were attacked by an American force at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge on 28 February 1776 and Allan was taken prisoner.[4]

In April 1777 the North Carolina Provincial Congress confiscated Loyalist-owned property and Flora was evicted from Killegray, with the loss of all her possessions.[5] After 18 months in captivity, Allan was released in September 1777; he was posted to Fort Edward, Nova Scotia as commander of the 84th Regiment of Foot where Flora joined him in August 1778.[3]

Later life, death and legacy

Flora returned to Britain at the end of 1779, where Allan joined her six years later. The pair ended their days at Penduin on the Isle of Skye, comfortably off thanks to the support of their son John. Flora died on 4 March 1790, and Allan two years later; both were buried on Skye, at Kilmuir, sixteen miles (26 km) from their home.[3]

Flora rarely spoke of her part in the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie; she may simply have been concerned that his presence endangered her family.[6] Perhaps Samuel Johnson summed up her legacy best when he wrote “A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour”. In modern memory though she is mostly associated with the The Skye Boat Song, written by Harold Boulton in the 1880s, but in which she receives “no more than a passing mention”.[3]