Flora MacDonald: The Reluctant Jacobite

She should have died in obscurity having lived a life unremarked upon in a place as remote from the public consciousness as it was by location from mainstream society but she was brought into the narrative of history having had fame thrust upon her and the page she wrote was to prove as indelible in myth as it was in fact.

Flora MacDonald was born in 1722, on the Island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides a daughter of the Highland Clans, the MacDonald’s of Clanranald.

The Islands off the northern coast of Scotland were a place of dread to some, barren and windswept, of jagged cliff and narrow inlet surrounded by a treacherous sea they stood majestic as if torn from the grasp of God against his Will; but though grim and of frightening aspect to outsiders they bore deep into the heart and soul of their inhabitants and Flora was no different. She was deeply attached to the place of her birth and when as a young girl she had the opportunity to leave when her mother re-married (her father had died when she was still an infant) she chose instead to remain immersing herself in the folklore of the place, reciting the poetry of the people, and becoming a fine singer of songs in her native Gaelic.

In September 1740, she was invited to stay with Lady Margaret MacDonald of Monkstadt in Edinburgh where she could continue her education. There remains some uncertainty as to whether or not Flora took up the invitation or how long she may have remained but by 1745 she was back in the Hebrides – it was to prove a significant year.

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On 23 July 1745, the catholic Charles Edward Stuart landed at Eriskay with just seven companions and a small cache of arms to regain, he said, the throne of Britain for his father and the one true faith but he had little to offer, he told those present to greet him, other than a trust in God and the loyalty of his people.

News of the Princes arrival soon spread but was not greeted with anything like universal approval.

Clan Chief Ranald MacDonald, who resided on the Island of Benbecula, was less than enthusiastic and had declined to come out in support of the Stuart claimant - the Islanders isolated, vulnerable to assault from the sea and with no hills or hinterland to retreat to were disinclined to commit to adventures of uncertain outcome – but he was willing to let his son commit to the Prince if he wished and along with other branches of the Clan as many as 500 MacDonald men were to fight for the Stuart cause constituting a sizeable proportion of what would be the Jacobite Army.

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Despite such unpromising beginnings a series of unexpected victories saw the Jacobites clear much of Scotland of Hanoverian forces and march south to within 80 miles of London, but it wasn’t to be, and just 8 months after formally raising his Standard at Glenfinnan the Princes cause lay in ruins shattered upon the desolate moors of Culloden and thereabouts.

Following his defeat rather than try and rally his surviving troops, many of whom had not been present at the slaughter of Drumrossie Moor, he abandoned the Clans that had supported him and fled north with a price upon his head and the shadow of the noose around his neck looming large.

Hiding out in caves and abandoned buildings accompanied by a small retinue of loyal supporters he became reliant upon strangers for his sustenance and safety.

Living in constant fear that he would be betrayed for the unprecedented reward of £30,000 that had been offered for information leading to his arrest he was in despair and drinking heavily. His love of the bottle had already been duly noted but now it seemed it was his only solace.

He was not just a hunted but a haunted man and it was feared that he would break under the strain.

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By June the Prince and his entourage had escaped as far north as Benbecula where the 24 year old Flora was at the time resident.

Benbecula was under the control of the Hanoverians but with no troops present they were reliant upon a local Militia to impose authority many of whom had been sympathetic to the Jacobite cause which at least offered a little respite and a glimmer of hope but opinion on the Island was divided and the reward remained a great temptation.

The noose was tightening, a naval blockade was in force and who and who could not be trusted a constant source of uncertainty and trepidation.

One of the Princes companions was Captain Conn O’Neill, a distant relative of Flora’s who had met her on a number of occasions. She was considered calm and good natured and was well-considered by those who knew her. He thought her a woman they could trust.

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When he took Flora to visit the Prince and asked for her help she was reluctant to become involved.

She had taken little interest in the rebellion and knew that to aid the fugitive would be an act of treason undertaken at the expense of her own life. It was only upon meeting the Prince despondent, disheveled, malnourished, and tipsy that she changed her mind out of a sense of common decency rather than any expression of political or dynastic affiliation.

The plan of escape would be Flora’s, she would organise it, and she would facilitate it.

They would charter a boat and row to the Isle of Skye where support for the Jacobite cause was strong with the Prince disguised as Flora’s Irish maid Betty Burke. Once upon Skye the Prince would go into hiding until the opportunity came to continue onto Raasay from where he could take ship for the Continent and safety.

The Commander of the local Militia just happened to be Flora’s step-father Hugh MacDonald, not a man in whom she could confide but one who would issue Flora with a pass to the mainland for herself, a manservant, a maid, and a crew of six boatmen with few questions asked.

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The Prince, bonnie and slim-hipped though he may have been was also tall and ungainly and did not make for a convincing woman. It also made finding clothes to fit problematic but he did at least turn a few heads:

Oh! See that strange woman, her big wide steps! What a bold slattern she is! One of a giant race for sure.”

Indeed, with rouged cheeks and a twee bonnet his trying to keep his long dress from trailing in the mud whilst acting the part of an oversized and compliant Irish maid was the cause of much mirth.

The noble Charles Edward Stuart’s own thoughts went unrecorded.

Leaving on 27 June with the pass from her step-father on Flora’s person there was little need for secrecy and though the atmosphere was fraught with tension the journey was uneventful accept for a choppy sea that rendered some less than well-set and leaden bottomed.

Having reached the Isle of Skye the Prince was ushered into hiding whilst a network of support and safe houses was established.

He thanked Flora for her help and promised that she would be suitably rewarded upon his return.

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But the Stuart presence would never again cast its shadow upon Scotland’s shores and though their farewell had been heartfelt and beset with tears of joy and relief she would neither see nor hear from him again.

It wasn’t to be until September that a French Frigate was at last despatched to pick the Prince up and complete the escape by which time it was more in the Hanoverian’s interests to see him gone than bring him to trial.

Returning to Benbecula, Flora was soon to be disobliged of any notion that she may have got away with it for the boatmen, if they had been sworn to secrecy soon broke their vow and spoke often and loudly of the unusual woman who had been present in their boat.

Flora was arrested on suspicion of having aided in the escape of the traitor Charles Edward Stuart and taken south and imprisoned along with other suspected Jacobites in the Tower of London.

But unlike her fellow captives who elicited little sympathy Flora was much spoken of and in her case a willingness to concede the benefit of the doubt prevailed.

She fascinated and intrigued as much through personality as deed and became something of a cause celebre.

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Taken before the victor at Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland, whose amiable demeanour belied a ruthlessness that was to earn him the well-deserved title ‘Butcher’ Cumberland Flora conducted herself with grace and good manners answering his questions with calm reassurance.

When he demanded to know why she had knowingly betrayed her Sovereign, she insisted that she had acted only out of Christian charity declaring:

“I should have done the same for you Your Royal Highness had you been in like need.”

The Duke was suitably impressed.

It was soon widely acknowledged that she had not acted out of malice and posed no threat to the Hanoverian State and so from time-to-time was permitted to live outside of the Tower of London under the watchful gaze of Lady Primrose in whose care she was left.

On 17 June 1747, she was released from captivity under the General Amnesty promulgated for those remaining Jacobites who had not been brought to trial and returned to Scotland.

If she thought it was to a quiet life she was mistaken for she was famous and unusual for any conflict a heroine to both sides - to the Jacobites for her courage and devotion to a lost cause; to the Hanoverians for her daring and humanity.

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On 6 November 1750, she married Allan MacDonald, an Officer in the British Army to whom she bore seven children and for the next two decades lived the sober life of devoted wife and mother interrupted only by the curious who would gawp from afar pay or attendance upon her.

One such visitor in 1773 was Dr Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame who wrote of her:

“A woman of middle stature, soft features, gentle manners, kind soul, and elegant presence.”

In 1774, Flora and Allan left Scotland for North Carolina just in time for them to become involved in the American War of Independence where her husband serving in the British Army was taken prisoner leaving Flora to fend for, herself.

It was to prove a traumatic time particularly when her house was destroyed and her possessions stolen.

Flora yearned to return home to the place she loved but it wasn’t until 1779 when her husband was released from captivity that they were able to take ship for England but even then it was to prove anything but trouble free.

Attacked by pirates during the voyage Flora refused to hide below decks and was badly injured in the fighting.

Destitute but well-connected Flora lived with relatives until 1784 when she and her husband were once more able to move into the family estate of Kingsburgh on the Isle of Skye.

Even late in life she remained a celebrity and a figure of admiration and devotion.

Flora MacDonald, the reluctant Jacobite, died on 4 March, 1790, aged 68.

The words that adorn her memorial at Kingsburgh are also those penned by Dr Johnson:

“Flora MacDonald, Preserver of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Her name will be mentioned in history if courage and fidelity be virtues spoken of with honour.”

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