VERY shortly, we will commence the most ambitious history series undertaken by a Scottish newspaper in recent times with a five-part history of the Jacobites, their risings and the aftermath of Culloden. It will not make pleasant reading for some, but the facts need to be told and explained, for the period 1688-1746 set modern Britain on its course to its now defunct imperial domination, and Scotland after the Jacobites played a huge part in that British Empire.

First of all, however, as a taster, we are going to tell the story of a woman who was frankly just one member of the huge Jacobite supporting cast at the time, but whose actions saw her became a hero to many and a symbol of loyalty and friendship who was admired even by her enemies. Her name is instantly recognisable to this day – Flora MacDonald.

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After Mary, Queen of Scots, there is surely little argument that Flora MacDonald is the most famous woman in Scottish history, Lady Macbeth – real name Gruoch – being largely a fictional invention of William Shakespeare.

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Flora MacDonald’s involvement with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the fact that she really did save his life is what most people remember her for, but she was much, much more interesting than that, as I will try to show.

MacDonald was born at Milton on South Uist in 1722, seven years after the Jacobite uprising that fizzled out after the Battle of Sheriffmuir. Her father Ranald was a tacksman who held a tenancy of farmland and her mother Marion was a minister’s daughter – MacDonald would be raised a Presbyterian and would remain one all her life.

MacDonald and her two siblings were left fatherless when Ranald died while Flora was still a babe in arms. Apparently abducted, the widow Marion MacDonald was taken to Skye by Hugh MacDonald, a distant relative, and they married two years later.

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Flora stayed on South Uist and was taken under the wing of Lady Macdonald of Clanranald, her mother’s friend, who lived at Ormacleit Castle – I have seen it called Ormiclate – on the island. Flora began to attend school and may or may not have completed that education in Edinburgh from 1740 at the behest of Lady Margaret MacDonald – sources disagree on that matter.

The National:

At the age of 23, and now a fine-looking intelligent woman with manners and deportment, Flora was back on South Uist just as the Jacobite Rising of 1745 erupted on the mainland. Although many MacDonalds joined Charles Edward Stuart in his eventually lost cause, Flora’s family stayed in the Hebrides and she was living at Ormacleit during the bitter aftermath of Culloden when Bonnie Prince Charlie was a hunted, wanted man with a price of £30,000 on his head. He fled ever westwards away from Culloden, and eventually ended up in a hovel in Benbecula before hiding from the marauding redcoats in a cave.

We will never know exactly why Flora MacDonald chose to act as she did in the summer of 1746. Her stepfather was in charge of the local militia and it would have been in the family’s best interests for her to stay out of the events that ensued.

She was cautious at first, but out of loyalty to the House of Stuart and her MacDonald friends, Flora became actively involved in a plot led by the Clanranalds to get Charles off the island and out of the country. With the redcoat clampdown, anyone travelling off the island needed a passport, and Flora managed to obtain one from her stepfather.

The National:

She may well also have suggested the famous ruse that saw the Prince dressed as “Betty Burke”, an Irish maid. “Betty” was a big “woman”, but the disguise passed muster for long enough.

On June 27, 1746, Flora and the Clanranalds’ servant or ghillie Neil MacEachan led Charles to the shore where a boat and crew of six spirited the prince, Flora and Neil across 40 miles of stormy water to Kilbride on Skye – the reasoning for going there had been that the redcoats would not think the prince would come back towards the mainland. They were fired on as the boat neared land but were able to escape.

Bonnie Prince Charlie spent another night in the open before he was able to go to the safe house of MacDonald of Kingsburgh where they were able to eat a decent meal – the dishes are still in the family’s possession. Other safe houses followed as they kept moving on ahead of the searching redcoats.

With the prince maintaining the disguise of Betty Burke, they set out the following morning for Portree and ate in an inn called MacNab’s, now part of the Royal Hotel which has several paintings of the event. Walkers Shortbread used to feature a rather fanciful painting of the parting on one of their tins.

It was there that they did indeed part as the prince was going to Raasay to get passage to the mainland. At their last meeting, Charles had tears of gratitude in his eyes and gave Flora a locket containing a portrait of himself. He is said to have said: “I hope, madam, that we may meet in St James’s yet.” They never met again, and indeed there was no further communication between them.

The National:

Charles got clean away and finally made it to France in September. We’ll see what happened to him in the final part of the forthcoming series.

Unfortunately the boatmen had proven too garrulous and were soon arrested. Flora went to her mother at Armadale, and it was there that she too was arrested several days later and taken to Dunstaffnage Castle where she confessed all before being hauled south and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The Laird of Kingsburgh was also taken south.

The Jacobite propaganda machine – aided, it must be said, by many neutral scribblers, so that public opinion was engaged – lauded Flora and for once the authorities in London showed some sense and allowed her to keep her pretty head instead of making her a martyr for a still living cause.

Lady Margaret MacDonald interceded on behalf of her young friend and Flora was soon released from the tower and kept under house arrest. She became something of a celebrity and with exquisite manners she received visits from many of the aristocracy, some of whom raised the not inconsiderable sum of £1500 to aid her. She also famously told Frederick, the Prince of Wales, that if it had been him on the run, she would have done the same as she did for Charlie.

In 1747, as part of a general amnesty under the Act of Indemnity, MacDonald was released but would not leave London without seeing those from the Hebrides freed as well, including Kingsburgh.

She was lionised everywhere she went on the way home, and had her portrait painted by Allan Ramsay. In the picture, she is bedecked with white roses, the symbol of the Jacobites.

Eventually MacDonald returned to Skye where she went to Kingsburgh and fell in love with, and married, Allan MacDonald, the son of the laird. He would be commissioned as an officer in the British Army during the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763, an important point to remember. They had seven children in all, with their eldest daughter Anne living into the 1830s.

The couple inherited Kingsburgh in 1772 and were there the following year when Dr Samuel Johnson called in to see her along with James Boswell who wrote that Allan “was completely the figure of a gallant Highlander ... He had his tartan plaid thrown round him, a large blue bonnet ... a bluish philibeg (kilt) and tartan hose. He had jet-black hair tied behind, a large stately man, with a steady sensible countenance”.

Flora was about 50 then, and impressed Johnson so much that he wrote of her as “a woman of soft features, gentle manners, kind soul and elegant presence”.

Times were hard, however, and beset by financial troubles, Allan and Flora MacDonald emigrated in 1774 to North Carolina in what was then the American colonies.

The stage was set for Flora’s next great adventure in the state where a sizeable Highland community had been established. They set up home at Killegray, but Allan, at his commission, had sworn loyalty to the Hanoverian king, and the MacDonalds had to make a similar oath in order to settle in America.

At the outbreak of the American Revolution, they kept to their oaths and became Loyalists, sometimes called Tories. Allan joined a Scottish contingent within the British Army with two of his sons, Alexander and James. There is a legend that Flora cheered them off to war in Gaelic while sitting atop a white horse.

Allan and Alexander were promptly captured at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in February, 1776. Flora had to give up Killegray and in poor health moved to New York and then to Nova Scotia before deciding to go home to Scotland in 1779.

Even then her troubles were not over as the ship on which she crossed the Atlantic was attacked by a French privateer. Flora refused to go below and ended up suffering a broken arm in the attack.

Allan made it back to Skye and the couple lived out their days at Kingsburgh. Flora MacDonald died there in March, 1790, reputedly in the same bed in which Bonnie Prince Charlie and Dr Johnson had slept.

At Kilmuir on Skye, Flora was buried in a grave which is visited to this day by many people who know her story. Her body was wrapped in a sheet that Bonnie Prince Charlie had used during his escape.

Samuel Johnson’s tribute to her is engraved on her memorial at Kilmuir which describes her as “Flora MacDonald, Preserver of Prince Charles Edward Stuart”.

Johnson wrote: “Her name will be mentioned in history and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.”

In the 19th century Flora MacDonald’s legend only grew with the passing of time. It seems only correct to end with some of the words of the famous song composed about the events of 1746.

Speed bonny boat like a bird on a wing,

Onward the sailors cry.

Carry the lad that’s born to be King,

Over the sea to Skye.

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,

Thunderclaps rend the air;

Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,

Follow they will not dare.

Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,

Ocean’s a royal bed.

Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep

Watch by your weary head.