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Flora MacDonald



  • Writer's pictureElle

Flora MacDonald

#ChooseToChallenge, today is International Women's Day.

We can all choose to challenge and call out inequity. Today, we would like to remember a remarkable woman, our Highland Heroine Flora MacDonald.

In 1746, on the island of Uist, a young Flora MacDonald came face to face with Bonnie Prince Charlie, the young pretender, fleeing for his life after the defeat at the battle on Culloden Moor. After some hesitation, she agreed to help the Prince escape, despite her fiancée Allan MacDonald and her step-father being in the army of King George II.

Flora obtained permission from her step-father to travel to the mainland, accompanied by a crew of five boatmen and two servants. One of her servants was the Bonnie Prince, disguised as Betty Burke, a spinning maid. They set sail on 27th June 1746, not to the mainland but over the sea to Skye, landing in Kilmuir two days later at what is today known as “Rudha Phrionnsa” - the Prince’s Point.

After hiding overnight at Kingsburgh House, where Betty Burke was remembered as a strange maid who “walked like a man”, they made their way to Portree where the Prince was able to arrange a boat to the Isle of Raasay and from there, passage back to France. They never met again.

Flora was arrested after the news of the escape and her involvement in it made the rounds. She was imprisoned at Dunstaffnage Castle near Oban and also in the Tower of London.

In 1747, Flora was released and returned to Scotland, and this was by far not the end of her adventures! She had already become some sort of celebrity when she married Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh in 1750. The family had to emigrate to North Carolina.

When the MacDonalds arrived in the New World, the American Revolution was already in the making. Like many Highlanders, Flora and her family took the side of the King. Allan joined a regiment of Royal Highland Emigrants but was captured at the Battle of Moore’s Creek and imprisoned. Flora was forced into hiding while the rebels destroyed the family plantation, she lost everything.

Flora was persuaded to return to the Isle of Skye in 1779. During her voyage, her ship was attacked by French privateers, pirates with papers. Flora, being the heroine she was known as, is said to have refused to go under deck during the attack and she was wounded in the arm.

Flora enjoyed a wonderful and peaceful life after she arrived on the Isle of Skye, with her husband at her side after his release in 1783.

Flora MacDonald died on 5th March 1790. Reportedly, her body was wrapped in a sheet in which Bonnie Prince Charlie had slept in. The congregation of mourners who attended her funeral are said to have drunk 300 gallons of whisky. The funeral party included 3000 mourners, quite a wake. Aye, you’re right, the folk attending Flora’s funeral must have filled “the parting glass” a few times. On average, they would have had more than half a bottle each.

Not only has Flora MacDonald been immortalised by Samuel Johnson’s tribute to her, engraved on her memorial and also on her statue in Inverness:

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

The ‘Skye Boat Song’, published in 1884, is dedicated to the bravery of helping Bonnie Prince Charlie to escape. Flora did not commit to the Jacobite cause, but she decided to help a man in need.

“Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing Onward, the sailors cry! Carry the lad that’s born to be King Over the sea to Skye.”
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