Stumbling out of the pouring rain on the Isle of Skye, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson found a welcome in the house of Allan MacDonald at Kingsburgh. Dr Johnson had developed a nasty cold; Boswell was wet and thirsty and delighted to get indoors. ‘There was a comfortable parlour,’ he wrote in his journal in the autumn of 1773, ‘with a good fire, and a dram of admirable Hollands gin went round. By and by supper came, when there appeared [Allan’s] spouse, the celebrated Miss Flora. She was a little woman, of a mild and genteel appearance, mighty soft and well-bred.’
What had he expected? The age of operatic heroines, loudly sacrificing all for love or liberty, had scarcely begun. But Boswell may have hoped for a more dramatic Amazon, one driven by passion to rescue her prince. This small, calm woman didn’t fit that fantasy. But, as he found over the next few days, ‘mighty soft’ was a false impression too. She was witty and tough. She teased Dr Johnson for not being ‘a young buck’, and she was ready – almost unprompted – to repeat yet again the story of how she had hidden Prince Charles Edward Stuart in the summer of 1746, almost thirty years before, and smuggled him across the sea from Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides to Skye. That was her past. But Flora would soon need all that resourcefulness again. Ahead of her was a much longer and harsher ordeal, beginning when she and her husband emigrated to America just as resentment against British rule was reaching the point of explosion.
Flora MacDonald was born exactly three hundred years ago and was 24 when Bonnie Prince Charlie lurched into her life. The new biography by Flora Fraser (who is named after her subject) intends to sift out a ‘real Flora’ from the spoil heap of sentimental legend. That means balancing the brief episode with the prince against the complicated story of her sufferings and allegiances in the North Carolina of the American Revolution. Born in South Uist, she grew up in a Hebridean tacksman family, that layer of clan gentry who held land leased directly from the chieftain. Unlike the mass of poorer islanders, she spoke fluent Scots and English as well as Gaelic, and was literate and polished in an 18th-century sense of being able to sew, sing, dance and make ‘civil’ conversation. Fraser uses the word ‘rational’ about her, and she grew up to be a great deal more clear-headed, practical and consistent than the erratic men who hijacked her into the prince’s service. This biography shows that, contrary to myth, MacDonald tried several times to avoid helping the prince or to pass him on to somebody else, reasoning that her family would be wrecked if she was caught with the Young Pretender and – equally sensibly – that her own reputation might be ruined. But she was overruled by the most intriguing and devious character in the whole story: her warrior stepfather, Hugh MacDonald of Armadale. A one-eyed swordsman and veteran of European wars, who seems a true survival from medieval Gaeldom, he was rumoured to have abducted Flora’s mother and married her ‘by force’. Now, with a flexibility typical of the Hebridean gentry, he had become an officer in the local militia – reservists supposedly loyal to the Hanoverian cause and tasked with hunting down Jacobite rebels – while continuing to hide Jacobite fugitives.
The Jacobite army had been slaughtered at Culloden on 16 April 1746. Prince Charles Edward fled into the Highlands, and on 26 April was shipped from the mainland to Benbecula – accompanied, it’s said, by a valet, two confessors and two Irish officers. He was settled in a remote cottage on South Uist where he lived a rather enjoyable life, supplied with a cow, a cook, plenty of food, brandy and clean bed linen while others tried vainly to organise a ship to take him back to France. The young man put in charge of his safety was Flora’s cousin Neil MacEachen, who later changed his name to Macdonald. (He had a brave and remarkable life as a courier for the Jacobite resistance, a novelist and – in French exile – the father of Marshal Étienne Macdonald, one of Napoleon’s most formidable commanders.)
All went well until June, when government troops landed in the Outer Hebrides, raiding houses and searching for the prince, who fled into the heather and then hid on an uninhabited islet off Benbecula. Now Hugh Macdonald of Armadale came forward, declaring himself ‘though an enemy in appearance, yet … a sure friend in his heart’. He had already thought up an escape plan, and decided who would carry it out. The prince, dressed as Flora’s lady’s maid, would be shipped across the Minch to Skye, where he and Flora’s mother could shelter them. Did he consult Flora about his scheme, or give her a chance to back out? Apparently not. Like everyone around her, she knew that the prince was on the island. But it was not until the night of 20 June, when she was woken by MacEachen, that the future of the Stuart dynasty was dumped in her lap. At first she refused, pleading the danger to her family and her virginal honour. Felix O’Neill, one of the Irish officers in the prince’s escort, joined MacEachen to argue the prince’s case. Still she resisted. Finally the colonel went outside and whistled into the darkness, and a very tall, sunburned and weatherbeaten young man in a mud-stained kilt appeared. The fatal charm, which had persuaded so many Highland clansmen to fling away their common sense, their lands and their lives, was now turned on Flora. Soon she was offering the hungry prince a bowl of cream, and agreeing to meet her stepfather to collect a ‘passport’ which, as a militia officer, he could issue for Miss Flora MacDonald and her Irish maid, Betty Burke.
A desperate week followed, as Flora, MacEachen and the prince dodged their pursuers. Often hungry, exhausted and sodden (it was a shocking West Coast summer), they spent nights tramping across heather and bog. Prince Charles, who was only 25, took it all cheerfully except for a low point with the midges. As ‘the rain … poured down upon him so thick as if all the windows of heaven had broke open,’ MacEachen remembered, ‘there lay such a swarm of mitches upon his face and hand as would have made any other but himself fall into despair.’ This drew from the prince ‘such hideous cries and complaints as would have rent the rocks with compassion’. Meanwhile, as Fraser enthusiastically describes, the MacDonald ladies wrestled with calico and wool to construct an outfit that would fit a strapping fellow more than six feet tall and somehow make him look like an Irish servant girl. The crossing itself, thirty nautical miles of misty Minch rowed in an open boat, took most of the night of 28 June. Before it, Flora had shown her willpower and the gift for puncturing daft male schemes that she would need in later life. She flatly refused to let O’Neill come with them (he had taken an unwelcome fancy to her), and ordered the prince to take his beloved twin pistols out of his petticoats and hand them over to her brother for safekeeping.
Landing on the Trotternish peninsula at the northern tip of Skye, Flora left Betty Burke on the shore and climbed to the house of Lady Margaret Macdonald, wife of the powerful Sir Alexander Macdonald of Sleat. Margaret, horrified, warned that a military patrol had arrived and the lieutenant was just sitting down to breakfast. Flora joined the officer and entertained him with ‘a close chit-chat’ about everything and nothing while her hostess arranged to get her and the maid out of the place as fast as possible. The Kingsburgh MacDonalds, ten miles to the south, would take them in, and they set off the same day, Flora on horseback and Betty Burke on foot, a weird giantess who must have been conspicuous to passers-by. When they arrived rain-drenched at Kingsburgh, the prince, who had been sleeping rough for weeks, was offered a real bed, but ‘sat up late with his host and luxuriated in the pleasures of brandy, punch and tobacco, till [Kingsburgh] protested the need for sleep’. Afterwards, the linen sheets he had slept on were reverently folded away, unwashed. One was kept by Florence Macdonald, to be her burial shroud, and the other, many years later, was wrapped around Flora herself before she was laid in her coffin.
There were more adventures and forced marches by night before Flora finally said farewell to the prince in an upper room of the inn at Portree. By now he was no longer pretending to be Betty Burke and had become ‘an Irish baronet on the run’. His faithful escort were slurping whisky from a boat’s baler while they waited for a crew who would row ‘the lad that’s born to be king’ across to the neighbouring island of Raasay. Later generations imagined a parting of agonised lovers, an ‘ae fond kiss’ moment. It wasn’t like that. Both were dirty and – as usual – wet through; Flora especially was so tired that she can scarcely have realised what was happening. The prince made an empty little speech, hoping to welcome and honour her in London when – victorious – he entered St James’s Palace. Then he left. Afterwards, he never sent her so much as a message of gratitude, though he did try to send her a large lump of sugar he found in his pocket, saying – with unusual empathy for someone who had never been in prison – that ‘I am afraid she will get no sugar where she is going.’ But the messenger kept the sugar, in case the prince changed his mind.
From Raasay, Charles Edward went back to Skye and then to the mainland – where, after spending two months lurking with bandits and rebel chieftains, he was collected by a French warship and left Scotland for ever. Flora went on to her mother’s at Armadale, where she was arrested. Her stepfather, the ‘consummate intriguer’ Hugh Macdonald, took to the hills with the prince’s pistols, which he had commandeered. MacEachen also vanished, catching up with the prince on the mainland in time to escape with him to France. Interrogated, Flora admitted as little as she could. But her captors gradually put together the outline of what had happened and, with other Jacobite prisoners, she was transferred to the sloop Furnace and then to the Eltham. On board, she melted the hearts of the elderly officers in charge of her. ‘A very pretty young rebel’, General Campbell wrote. ‘Her zeal, and the persuasion of those who ought to have given her better advice, has drawn her into a most unhappy scrape.’ Commodore Smith of the Eltham ‘behaved like a father to her’, and on the slow voyage to Leith and then London she was carefully looked after, if not spoiled.
In London, she found that she was famous. Jacobite leaders were being hanged, drawn and quartered before cheering English crowds, but Flora, after two grim nights on a prison ship, was consigned to cosy house arrest just off St James’s Park with a few other well-born rebels. Visitors flocked to see her, the papers wrote adoring articles and she was informally adopted by Lady Anne Primrose, a sentimental Tory Jacobite who would later provide her with a great deal of money for a dowry. In 1747 a general amnesty allowed her to return to Scotland, where she travelled in Lady Primrose’s post chaise. There, portraits were painted and ‘Betty Burke’ dresses by Carmichael’s of Leith sold brilliantly. ‘O happy nymph! Thou savds’t the Prince,’ one song ran. Back on Skye, she married Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh, son of the house whose sheets had been graced by the Young Pretender, and they named the first of their five sons Charles.
But that was not the happy end of the nymph’s story. By the time Boswell and Johnson called on the MacDonalds, the pair were in trouble. Times were bad, Allan (a majestic, impulsive Highlander) was hopeless with money and farm management, and they were deep in debt. All around them, Gaelic society was dissolving as Skye tacksmen, driven by failed harvests and ruthless rent demands, led their people into emigration. In 1771, five hundred Gaels from Skye alone had left for the Cape Fear River country of North Carolina, and in 1774 Allan and Flora gathered a small crowd of relations and followed. It was a disastrous moment to choose. The American colonies were already in rebellion, though not yet in arms, and Fraser records that, on arrival, ‘all male passengers on board aged sixteen and over and not invalid swore an oath of allegiance to King George III.’ They vowed ‘to be faithful against all traitorous Conspiracies & attempts whatsoever, which shall be made against his Person, Crown, and Dignity’.
Nothing in this book is more fascinating than what it suggests about the concept of loyalty. In those days, loyalty had not hardened into the monolith of 19th-century moral discipline. It could be pliant, adaptable, even dual. The Skye and Uist militias served two opposing causes simultaneously without much soul-searching. Flora MacDonald stayed loyal to her prince, regretting nothing and slapping a child who called George II ‘His Majesty’, while at the same time begging for jobs for her sons in his armed forces: ‘Flora would not have been the only Scot of her time who was privately contemptuous of this Hanoverian sovereign but looked to the crown for protection and for preferment for their family.’ Nobody thought the worse of her for it. And yet it is hard not to be staggered at how easily these Gaelic settlers volunteered to fight for King George against the American rebels, gambling their lives for the dynasty that had massacred their fathers at Culloden and devastated their homeland with fire and gallows. When Allan raised a company of Highlanders to crush American colonials who called themselves ‘patriots’ (and were already controlling most of North Carolina), he and his men were proud to be ‘loyalists’. His wife, who had arguably committed high treason in 1746, ‘never … voiced any regret that her menfolk had not joined the [American] rebels, though they would have reaped much benefit. Flora MacDonald … while nursing an attachment to the former Stuart line, had no appetite for a revolution conducted on “democratical principles”.’ For a woman with her background, in which the semi-feudal bond to a clan chief was fused with Jacobite abasement before the divine right of kings, the thought of democracy was even more repulsive than that of a German ‘usurper’ on the British throne.
Allan, now a colonel, mustered a brigade of 1600 men – fewer than he had hoped, but for once his wife seems to have suppressed her instinct to pour cold water on male recklessness. Legend has her on a white charger, inspiring the Highlanders with a warlike speech in Gaelic before they marched off to battle. Then she rode back to the prosperous farm the family had created at Cheek’s Creek and waited for news. When it came, it was dreadful. At Moore’s Creek, on 27 February 1776, the Highlanders had been tricked into crossing a bridge which they thought was abandoned. But the bridge planks had been removed, and the Americans were waiting for them in trenches on the other bank. The attackers were shot to pieces, and most of the survivors, including Allan and his son Sandy, were taken prisoner.
It would be two years before Allan and Flora met again. She stayed on the farm as bands of American militiamen raided and looted all the settlements in the ‘Scottish’ district, most now inhabited only by women and children. Flora lost not just ‘books, plate and furniture’, but most of the cattle and other livestock. As the ‘colonel’s wife’, she rode about the countryside to check on the safety of the remaining Highland families and broke her arm in a fall, a fracture that never healed properly and set off the long sequence of injuries and illnesses which tormented her for the rest of her life. In 1778, she was allowed to join Allan in New York, still under British control. But he soon moved north to join the Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment forming in Nova Scotia. Flora followed him, but fell seriously ill in the bitter winter and at last ‘fixed my thoughts on seeing my native land’.
She returned to London, then Edinburgh and finally – it took four days at that time to travel from Inverness to the West Coast – to Skye. Her fame briefly flared up again in London, when Boswell published his journal in 1785. But in the Hebrides Flora was now little more than a dearly loved poor relation, a guest flitting from one ‘big house’ to another. She spent some time at Dunvegan on Skye, where her daughter Annie was married to the MacLeod, but the great castle – its halls notoriously draughty, its food always arriving cold from distant kitchens – was comfortless for an infirm lady now in her sixties. After nine almost fruitless years spent lobbying for compensation – for his military expenses and his lost property in North Carolina – Allan joined her, and they settled ‘in straitened circumstances’ in a cottage not far from Kingsburgh. Reminded of her existence, the Prince of Wales said that of course she must receive a pension of £50. But he forgot to do anything about it, and the Scottish baronet who had mentioned Flora to him quietly paid it out of his own pocket. Prince Charles Edward Stuart, now a bad-tempered old wino in Rome, did nothing for her. But his brother, Cardinal Henry Stuart, ‘hinted that could she be induced to change her religious tenets’ – become a Catholic – ‘he would grant her a splendid pension.’ Nothing doing. On 4 March 1790, she died a staunch Presbyterian and was buried at Kilmuir, not far from where she and the prince had landed on Skye: there, today, a tall Celtic cross marks her grave. ‘At the wake that followed, island lore relates, “upwards of three hundred gallons” of whisky were consumed.’
After plenty of enterprising research in Britain and in North Carolina, Fraser makes a fresh and exciting narrative out of this old story, but not one that is always easy to follow. She writes a nobly Victorian prose: ‘The audacity of his further actions in concert with Flora would evoke further admiration,’ or ‘her residence there offered respite after the ardours of the night voyage.’ She also has an eccentric habit of translating perfectly common words (‘He was … jocose [good-humoured]’) as if her readers were still at primary school. But explaining the tangle of 18th-century Highland relationships and obligations – the emotional nexus that underlies so much of the Prince Charlie episode – would test any biographer. I counted seven different Alexander MacDonalds in the book, most of them related and distinguished (on and off) by the name of their estates. The book’s genealogy chart helps, but only up to a point.
Flora was certainly brave and resolute. Had she been caught with the prince, she might easily have died in prison, or ended up as an indentured, enslaved servant in the Caribbean. But these were capricious, aristocratic times. Strictly, what she had done was treasonous. She had preserved the kingdom’s most dangerous enemy, helping him to escape and probably organise another Jacobite invasion. If it had succeeded, the Hanoverian dynasty would have been overthrown, the liberties of the 1688 revolution cancelled, the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707 reversed, Ireland liberated and Britain’s elites colonised by Catholic appointees. And yet Flora emerged as an adored celebrity. During the Second World War, hundreds of young women who sheltered partisans or Allied airmen died in concentration camps. But in Georgian Britain, brutal enough to the lower orders, a good-looking girl with presentable manners touched a sporting reflex in upper-class officers, especially if they were Scottish. If the prince had been caught clambering into a boat with a barefooted lass who spoke only Gaelic, it would have been a different story.
It’s now thought that the most common single motive among the Forty-Five’s Scottish supporters was not love for the Stuarts or dislike of the Presbyterian ascendancy but an embryonic nationalism. It was the wish to restore independence, after the first decades of Union had proved humiliating. But Fraser says nothing about this, and Flora herself doesn’t seem to have made any comment about the prince’s plans for Scotland. Her cult, in Victorian England especially, had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with loyalty: the self-sacrificing loyalty expected by a man from a true woman. Flora is supposed to have said that she would have tried to rescue anybody she found in such distress, not just a rebel prince. It was a remark that thrilled her sympathisers, Jacobites or not. Sanctified as a model of faithful and compassionate womanhood, Flora MacDonald – for better but mostly for worse – stood by her man.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.