Flora MacDonald – 150 Years

2022 marks the 300th anniversary of Flora MacDonald’s birth. With it comes the opportunity to honour her life and her bravery, in assisting Prince Charles Stuart and his escape from British justice following the calamity at Culloden.

This year the West Highland Museum, like the West Highland landscape in 1745, will be a hotbed of Jacobite activity, as the museum commemorates the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the exiled Stuarts (in the form ofa series of rarely seen and iconic 18th century paintings). In addition to the exciting new exhibition, the Museum marks its 100th birthday this year, and, of course, the 300th anniversary of Flora MacDonald’s birth, complemented by the Museum’s unique collection of pieces associated with Flora.

Flora MacDonald Monument

It seems that – even three centuries after her birth -the contribution of the young lady from the Isle of South Uist will not be easily forgotten.But has such interest in the importance of Flora MacDonald’s contribution to Scottish history always been the case? In researching some elements of her contribution in the escape of the Princeduring 1746 (for a future book), I stumbled on an interesting piece from the London Illustrated News, dated 27th January 1872 and written with reference to the 150th anniversary of Flora’s birth. It seems that the respected periodical had previously lamented the absence of a worthy memorial to the lady (in an editorial written in 1868) and were delighted with the resulting outcome.

For your interest, I have carefully transcribed and edited the piece, and reproduced a sketch of the rarely seen line drawing that originally accompanied the article:

Flora Macdonald.

Rather more than three years ago, writing about some point of interest in the Isle of Skye, we took occasion to comment upon the fact that no memorial stone of any kind marked the burial-place of Flora Macdonald. Hers is the only historical grave which it was left to the islanders to honour and protect; and, as the late Alexander Smith pointed out, it was shamefully neglected.

(Alexander Smith was a well-known Scottish poet, best known for his work A Summer inSkye, who had passed away from typhoid fever five years earlier.)

Our remarks had more effect than we could have anticipated; they were taken to heart in the right quarter, and, through the instrumentality of the young northern chief, Mackintosh of Mackintosh, backed by another northern potentate of modern growth, the Inverness Courier, the handsome monument has been successfully erected over the grave of the heroine. With great difficulty, arising from the ponderous character of the monolith and the abruptness of the road over which it had to be carried, the monument was placed, in November last, in the presence of the lord of the manor, Mr. Fraser of Kilmuir, and about 400 Highlanders, who stood unbonneted around the grave. In justice to the distinguished family of which Flora Macdonald was a member, it should be stated that her son, the late Colonel John Macdonald, of Exeter, sent a marble slab io be placed in the burying-ground, but it was broken in the course of transport, and was literally carried away piecemeal by tourists.

I wonder how many people on the Isle might claim to be in possession of a shard of that marble slab, perhaps handed down to them by their ancestors? Or, indeed, own a mysterious piece of that smooth material; of which they have no clue as to its original purpose or origin.

Quite recently another descendant, also a Colonel Macdonald, commissioned a monument at his own charge; but before it was completed the present larger and more national monument was begun, and superseded its necessity. The Iona cross which now stands in the churchyard of Kilmuir on Syke is a monolith of the finest grey granite, prepared by Mr. D. Forsyth, of Inverness, from a design by Mr. Alexander Ross, the architect of the Inverness cathedral. As compared with the great historical crosses which have survived from ancient times, this one is very much larger. It is 28 feet 6inches high, the cross itself being a monolith no less than eighteen feet and a half in height. The celebrated Inverary cross is only 8ft. 6in.; Maclean’s cross, at Iona, 11ft.; that of Oronsay in Argyleshire, 12ft.; St. Martin’s, 14ft.; Gosforth, in Cumberland, 14ft. 9in., and that of Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, 16ft.

The monument occupies a most commanding position at the extreme northwest of the Isle of Skye, within a few miles of the ruins of Duntulm Castle, the original seat of the Lords of the Isles, who at one time dominated over half the western seaboard of Scotland and threatened even the stability of the Scottish throne. The coast is singularly bold and picturesque, being, in common with the whole of the great promontory, or peninsula, composing this part of Skye, of landslip formation, the strange and picturesque peculiarities of which receive their highest development in the rocks of the Quiraing and the Storr, which are only a few miles distant.

The Quiraing forms part of the Trotternish Ridge escarpment on Skye and, even today, the landslip still moves, necessitating regular road repairs at its base.

The service rendered to Prince Charles Edward by Flora Macdonald —for which her name lives in history, and for which, according to Dr. Johnson, “it will ever be mentioned with honour, if courage and fidelity be virtues” —is very well known. After the disastrous battle of Culloden, on April 16, 1746, the Prince fled from one hiding-place to another, with the price of £30,000 upon his head. As he had landed on the west coast, knowing that among the Highlanders there he should find his most devoted adherents, so he now sought refuge among them, not less on account of the mountainous and difficult nature of the country than because he could trust his life there, even among people who, by the peculiar character of the system of clanship in the Highlands, were nominally his enemies.

Some of the great clans, and conspicuously the chiefs of the Macleods and Macdonalds, took an unfavourable viewof the chances of the rebellion from the outset, and they refused to call out their men in his support; but at heart the whole mass of the people were favourable, and the idea of betraying the Prince, even for such a sum, was utterly repugnant to the fervid loyalty of the clansmen of that time.

When Mr. Macdonald, of Kingsburgh, was reminded by the officer who examined him, as to the part he had taken in helping to effect the Prince’s escape, that he had lost a noble opportunity of “making himself and his family for ever,” the Highlander resented the speech. “A mountain mass of gold and silver," he said, “could not give me half the satisfaction I had from doing what I have done.” Eheu! Are there men of this mould now?

“Eheu” is a lovely Latin expression of pain and regret, meaning ‘Alas’, which has sadly slipped from our language.

Returning to the London Illustrated News article:

While 1500 militia were scouring South Uist in quest of the Prince, more than a hundred of the islanders knew where he was in hiding; but none of them gave a hint on the subject to parties unfriendly to him, and it was the same in all parts of the Highlands where he was secreted. The Prince had been thus screened for more than two months, when at length the search for him in the outer Hebrides became so minute that escape seemed hopeless. The soldiers received instructions to explore every nook and cranny of the island, and the Prince had to separate himself from all the companions of his wanderings, except his faithful friend Captain O’Neal. It was in these trying circumstances that Flora Macdonald resolved to attempt his rescue. Various circumstances contributed to point to her as the only person suitable for the enterprise. Flora was at the time on a visit to her brother in South Uist, but usually resided with her mother and step-father in the Isle of Skye. She was on intimate terms with the family of Clanranald, to whom the movements of the Prince were well known, and it happened that her stepfather was in command of one of the independent companies of soldiers stationed in the Long Island.

To avoid unpleasant encounters with the soldiers, who were ransacking every house and hovel of the district, Flora applied for leave to return to the house of her mother, in Skye, and obtained a passport for herself and servant, and also for a young Irish girl named Betty Burke, whom she wished to take home on account of her skill in spinning flax. The Irish girl was no other than the Chevalier, and his servant, Neil Macdonald.

Protected by her passports, Flora visited Clanranald and his lady at their residence at Ormaclade, a few miles distant from her brother’s house at Milton; and here arrangements were promptly made for obtaining a boat and crew, and for extemporising for the Prince suitable wardrobe for his acting the part of Betty Burke. They then visited the hiding-place of the Prince, and found him engaged in roasting the heart and liver of sheep upon a wooden spit! This was Flora’s first interview with the Prince. They all dined together, and laughed heartily over the Prince’s appearance when he joined them in the dress prepared for him, consisting, we are told, “of a flowered linen gown sprigged with blue, a cap and apron, and mantle of grey-coloured camlet, made after the Irish fashion, with a hood.”

A camlet (or, sometimes, camlot) is a garment traditionally woven from goat’s hair.

But,in the midst of their merriment, at that very time a voice warning of the danger of their position was hurriedly brought to the hut. A messenger arrived to tell Lady Clanranald that an officer and troops were at her house, and that she must return immediately. She had to bid farewell to the Prince; and now he had to part with his last companion, O'Neal. It was trying and an anxious moment, and the alarm was increased when, on reaching the shore, wet and much fatigued, they saw four wherries full of armed men, making apparently for the beach. But the boats passedon, within gunshot of the place where the Prince and his companions lay concealed amongst the heather. This danger passed, they embarked in the boat and got safely away to Skye. The passage was stormy, wet, and tedious. Next day they sighted the coast of Waternish; but as they approached it, a party of soldiers appeared on shore, armed, and possessed of a boat, but having no oars. To put back to the water was the work of a moment; a few vain shots were fired from the shore; but no harm was done, and they sought a landing at a more convenient place. This was found within few hundred yards of Sir Alexander Macdonald’s seat of Monkstadt House. The chief himself was at this time at Fort Augustus, in attendance upon the Duke of Cumberland ; but his wife was at home, and, like the rest of the Clan Macdonald, sympathised with the Chevalier much more than with her husband and the Royalists. Flora waited on Lady Margaret, and was received as became her position. The house was full of Royalist officers, one of whom beset her with questions as to the search for the Princeat that moment going on in the Long Island. The same officer had been in the custom of examining every boat which landed from Uist; but, meeting this young lady in the drawing-room of Lady Macdonald, and deceived by the easy manner in which she accounted for her appearance and parried his efforts to procure information, his suspicion was disarmed, and Flora found opportunity, in course of the evening, to communicate with Mr. Macdonald, of Kingsburgh, who acted chamberlain or factor for the Macdonald estates, and with Lady Margaret, both sound Jacobites.

Meanwhile, the poor Chevalier had been left all this time sitting on his trunk by the seashore. The difficulty was what to do with him. To offer shelter at Monkstadt would be ruin to the Macdonalds; but Mr. Macdonald of Kingsburgh, who was a cool, sensible man, said he would take him to his own house,“I am now an old man,” he said, “and it makes little difference whether I am to die with a halter round my neck or a natural death, which cannot now be far distant.”

Kingsburgh left forthwith to find the Prince, taking in his hand a wallet of wine and biscuits. It was not easy to discover the Prince’s whereabouts, but when approaching the place where he ought to be found, he saw some sheep run off as if startled, and, with a farmer’s instinct, made for the source of the alarm. The Prince had seen him approaching, and came forward in very unfeminine manner, with a large knotted stick in his hand. “Are you Mr. Macdonald, of Kingsburgh?”, he demanded, and matters were of course at once amicablyarranged.

The journey across country to the house of Kingsburgh was not without its perils. Neither Kingsburgh nor Flora Macdonald, with their retinue, could travel in Skye without being seen by all observers; and Betty Burke had an unfortunate trick of bowing instead of curtseying to passers by, and while crossing the streams that traversed the route she either kilted her petticoats indecently high or let them draggle through the water. Kingsburgh had to remonstrate. “Your enemies,” he said, “call you a pretender; but, if you be, I can tell you, that you are the worst at your trade I ever saw!” The whole party (Charles, Kingsburgh, and Flora Macdonald) arrived in safety at Kingsburgh House about eleven o’clock at night. Thence, after a night of rest such as he had not enjoyed for months, the Chevalier made his way to the Island of Raasay, and. after many further wanderings, escaped to France.

The fact of the rescue was soon discovered, and it was traced to Flora Macdonald. She was apprehended; so were all who had to do with the enterprise, and sharply had they to pay for their loyalty.

Flora Macdonald was taken from Leith to London in a British government man-of-war on 7thNovember 1746, amidst the waving of flags and the cheers of thousands of spectators.

By this time the Prince had been long safe in France, and, whatever may have been the energy with which those acting under the Duke of Cumberland prosecuted the search for him in the Hebrides, there can be little doubt that those still higher in authority were secretly grateful that he escaped. The danger of another revolt was not so great as that arising from the embarrassment of either keeping or killing so illustrious and popular a prisoner.

Public sympathy in London went strongly in favour of Flora Macdonald that the Government, after a little while, released her from the Tower, to be placed in the custody of friends who became responsible for her appearance. The house of Lady Primrose of Dunipace was open to her, and there she resided till the amnesty of 1747 set her free.

It seems that Lady Mary Primrose, a prominent Jacobite sympathiser of French ancestry, became Flora’s benefactor in November 1746, during Flora’s incarceration in London, and presented Flora with a bronzebrooch, and a French,painted sandalwood fan.Three carefully painted images on the fan depict a wealthy couple, and what is thought to be their nursemaid tendingtheir child.Lady Primrose’s French heritage may explain the fan’s origins.These items, among other interesting artifacts closely associated with Flora MacDonald, form part of the Carmichael collection on display on the West Highland Museum.

Following Flora’s release on parole, she was allowed to reside at Lady Primrose’s London home as a guest.

Meantime Flora was, so to speak, the rage of the season. Everyone visited her, even the Prince of Wales, father of George III, to whom it is reported that she said she would have done the same for him had she found him in like distress. A sum of money was collected for the gallant young lady, which Lord Mahon quotes at £I,500.

This sum is today’s equivalent of a staggering £340,000!

The amount must have been considerable, for as late as April, 1761, Flora acknowledges the receipt of £627, lodged with a business firm in London on her account by Lady Primrose.

Soon after returning to the Highlands, Flora married theeldest son of Kingsburgh, by whom she had a large family of sons —all afterwards officers in the King’s service—and two daughters. They emigrated to North Carolina, but returned, after many adventures. One of these was, that in crossing the Atlantic they were chased by a French privateer, and action took place. Flora’s spirit was up, and she kept the deck all the time, but had the misfortune to break her arm in the fight. Hence, she used to say that she had fought for the House of Stuart and for the House of Hanover, and suffered for both.

In the pleasant old house of Kingsburgh—of which no vestige remains save a few old sycamores—Flora received Dr. Samuel Johnson and Boswell on their memorable tour of Skye, in 1773, and both seem to have been much impressed by the simple dignity of the lady. She communicated to them a narrative of her adventures, which will be found in the “Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides”, together with much interesting gossip regarding the place, the people, and the period.

Quantum cedat virtutibus aurum (with virtue weighed, what worthless trash is gold) —was Johnson’s philosophical reflection as he quitted the kindly house of Kingsburgh; and he has done much by his references to Flora Macdonald to keep fresh the memory of her loyal devotion. She died in 1790. Evenamong Highland funerals, that of Flora Macdonald is celebrated for the multitude of people who assembled at it. A lingering love of the cause attracted many, as it could by then be indulged in without danger either to themselves or to their Chief; but Flora’s personal virtues were great, and to this day there is no name mentioned in Skye with more reverence and respect than that of Flora Macdonald. It therefore meet and right that a fitting monument has been erected over her grave.

‘Meet and right’, meaning ‘it is right to so do’, seems to be another expression that has passed from common usage, although it has now become the name of online dating app!

Similar articles to the one above appeared in many newspapers during 1872, seeming to indicate that the legend of Flora MacDonald was already marked as one worthy of commemoration. Perhaps our descendants will look forward with equal interest to the celebration of Flora’s 450th and, even, her 600th anniversary!

Mark Bridgeman

Mark Bridgeman, author of Blood Beneath Ben Nevis, has appeared on ITV, Channel 5, and BBC Radio. His stories have been dramatised on Canadian radio, and featured in newspaper serial form. Nominated for the John Bryne Award in 2022, Mark has also appeared at several literary festivals presenting his popular 'Trial By Jury' event.

He is also the author of eight books (and counting…) which are currently available in paperback. For further details please visit www.markbridgemanauthor.co.uk