A. S. Hargreaves
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Flora Macdonald, 1722–90, Scottish Jacobite heroine. She aided Charles Edward Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, to escape to France after the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden Moor in 1746. For smuggling the prince, disguised as a woman, to the Isle of Skye, she was imprisoned briefly in the Tower of London. Later she was visited by many celebrities, including Dr. Samuel Johnson (1773). Her romantic aid to the prince is commemorated in Highland ballad and legend.
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South Uist, Hebrides
Died March 4, 1790
Flora Macdonald became famous in Scotland and England by helping Charles Edward Stuart escape from his enemies in Scotland in 1746. Stuart believed himself to be legally entitled to become King of England. As a result of that adventure, Macdonald has been celebrated in many songs and legends. Macdonald later moved to America, where she took part in unsuccessful British efforts to defeat the American colonists in the Revolutionary War (1775–83).
Flora Macdonald was born in 1722 on Milton Farm in South Uist (pronounced YEW-ist) in the Hebrides (pronounced HEB-ruh-deez), a group of Scottish islands west of Scotland. Her last name is sometimes spelled MacDonald or McDonald. She and two older brothers were the children of Ranald Macdonald, a farmer who died when Flora was only two years old. Their mother, Marion Macdonald, remarried and had a second family with her new husband. Flora lived with her older brother Angus until age thirteen, when she was adopted by a relative, Lady Clanranald, the wife of a local clan chief. In Scotland, a clan was a social group made up of several families who claimed to descend from a common ancestor, bore the same family name, and followed the same leader, known as a chieftain.
While living with the Clanranalds, Flora became an accomplished singer and player of the spinet, a piano-like instrument. According to some accounts she traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to finish her education, returning to the Isle of Skye in 1745. It was here she was to become involved in the rescue of Charles Edward Stuart, an incident that would make her one of the most famous heroines of Scottish history.
Stuart family's claim to the British throne
In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart and his supporters made the last of several mismanaged attempts to take back the throne of England that had once belonged to the Stuart family. Charles Edward Stuart, known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie" (bonnie is a Scottish term for handsome), was the grandson of the last King of England from the Stuart family. (Kings and queens of England also hold the title King or Queen of Scotland and Ireland.) Stuart considered himself to be the rightful heir to the English throne, and his followers agreed.
In those days, it was dangerous to be a king or queen; plots against the lives of royalty were common. When James II, the last Stuart king, fled England for France in 1688, driven out by his enemies, many of his subjects still regarded him as their lawful king. They were called Jacobites (pronounced JAY-cub-ites; Jacobus is the Latin word for James). In 1714, a man from the German Hanover family was invited to become the King of England. He accepted, taking the name George I, and was succeeded by his son, George II, in 1727.
George II's followers were known as Hanoverians (pronounced HAN-oh-VAIR-ee-uhns). They rejected the notion that the Stuart family had any right to the English throne. They called the son of James II "The Old Pretender," and they referred to Charles Edward Stuart, born in 1720, as "The Young Pretender," because the two laid claim to the throne of England.
In 1745, the tall, lean, and freckle-faced Charles Edward Stuart landed on the coast of Scotland, determined to take back the English throne on behalf of his family, whose original homeland had been Scotland. The handsome young man charmed the Scottish chieftains by wearing a kilt, the native formal dress of men in Scotland, and by trying to speak Gaelic (pronounced GAY-lick), the Scottish language. In a short time, nearly 2,000 Highlanders (men from the Scottish Highlands, the mountainous region in northern and western Scotland) pledged to fight for the Stuart kingship.
Hanoverians win conflict, Stuart flees
In attempting to seize back the English throne, the Highlanders fought many battles with the Hanoverian army. The final battle took place at the Scottish town of Culloden in 1746. There, the 5,000 soldiers of Charles Edward Stuart's army were defeated by the Hanoverian army, which numbered 9,000 and was led by the Duke of Cumberland, King George II's youngest son. Because of the brutality of the Hanoverians, the Duke gained the name of the "Butcher."
At the end of the lost battle, Charles Edward Stuart advised his followers to scatter. The Hanoverians then began an intensive manhunt and put a price on the head of Stuart that equaled 2 percent of the cash available in the entire country of Scotland. Despite this enormous reward, it is said that not one single Scot betrayed Stuart in the five months in which he stayed in hiding in Scotland. With the help of hundreds of his supporters, Stuart then managed to escape to continental Europe. Young Flora Macdonald played a major role in Stuart's escape.
Macdonald helps Stuart escape to France
Flora Macdonald's biographer, Elizabeth Gray Vining, described her in Flora, A Young Woman as "slight and short, 'well-shaped,' with wide dark eyes and the dazzlingly fair skin and bright color of the [Hebridean] island girls." In 1746, when Macdonald was visiting the Clanranalds in the Hebridean Island of Benbecula (pronounced BEN-be-koo-luh), Charles Stuart arrived there. Stuart's companion proposed to the family that they help the young man escape to the Isle of Skye. Flora Macdonald agreed to cooperate. She later said that she did so because she would offer a hand to any person who was in distress.
At the time of Stuart's attempted escape, British authorities on the lookout for him would not allow anyone to leave the island of Benbecula without the permission of the local citizen soldiers. Pretending that she was going to visit her mother, Flora Macdonald obtained a passport for herself, her manservant, an Irish maid named "Betty Burke," and a crew of six men. Betty Burke was actually Charles Edward Stuart, disguised in a gown, a cloak, and a white cap.
The party set sail and landed at Kilbride. Macdonald left Stuart and her servant hiding there in a cave and went to the home of Sir Alexander Macdonald of Sleat. Many families in the area were known by the last name Macdonald, because they were part of the same clan. Flora Macdonald revealed her secret to his wife, Lady Margaret Macdonald, who agreed to aid in the escape.
The next day, September 20, 1746, Charles Stuart left Scotland aboard the French ship that took him to safety. Before leaving he had returned the fancy garters from his Betty Burke outfit to Macdonald, and she later had a piece of jewelry made from one of the buckles. Some legends say that Stuart and Flora Macdonald shared a romance and that Charles presented Flora with his portrait in a golden locket. Whatever took place, the two were never to meet again.
Stuart's parting words to the young woman were, "For all that has happened, I hope, Madam, we shall meet at St. James's [the court of the English king] yet and I will reward you there for what you have done." Stuart spent his life traveling throughout Europe; he never succeeded in regaining the English throne.
Jail, freedom, and honors
When the boatmen who had smuggled Stuart out of Scotland returned to Benbecula, they were arrested and forced to reveal their secret mission. Soon Flora Macdonald was called before British authorities and questioned about her involvement in the plot. Although she provided the facts, she did her best to protect her friends. For her involvement in the escape, Macdonald spent several weeks on prison ships and finally was imprisoned. Legend says that she spent some time in the Tower of London, a famous prison, but no formal records support that rumor.
Elizabeth Gray Vining pointed out that like other prisoners of some importance, Macdonald was lodged in a messenger's house. According to Vining: "Messengers were government officials who escorted prisoners and witnesses from one place to another and sometimes carried mail. They were permitted to turn their own houses into private [jails] for profit." Macdonald stayed at the home of William Dick, who ran one of the best of them. Other prisoners who stayed there during her confinement included Charles Edward Stuart's barber and wig maker and other of his supporters.
During her time in London, an article about Flora Macdonald appeared under the title Some Particulars of the Life, Family, and Character of Miss Florence Macdonald, now in Custody of one of his Majesty's Messengers in London, in 1747. She was described as "a graceful person, [with] a good complexion, and regular features. She has a peculiar sweetness mixed with majesty in her [face], … even under confinement she betrays nothing of sullenness or discontent and all her actions bespeak a mind full of conscious innocence."
Macdonald was released from captivity one year later, in 1747, as part of a general pardon of prisoners by the British government. She then stayed for a time at the home of the widow Lady Primrose. There she was visited by many important people of the day, because the story of her helping Charles Edward Stuart had become well known, and Stuart still had many friends. Lady Primrose's home was the center of the now ruined but still hopeful Jacobite movement. Macdonald was honored at a banquet attended by many families from the Isle of Skye.
Marriage and relocation to America
In 1750, Flora Macdonald married Allan Macdonald (no relation to Flora's family). Allan, a tall, handsome, vigorous, and intelligent man, was the son of Macdonald of Kingsburgh in Skye, Scotland. During their long marriage, the couple produced five sons and two daughters.
In time, British landlords took over the lands of those who had supported the cause of Charles Edward Stuart. This, along with bad crops, loss of cattle, high food prices, bad weather, and disease epidemics, caused many Highlanders to leave their homeland rather than live there under British rulers hostile to their way of life. In 1774, Flora Macdonald, with her husband and two of their sons, moved to North Carolina, one of the American colonies. The Highlanders were drawn to North Carolina because their former countrymen who settled there had sent back glowing reports. Some of them had received generous grants of land from the British government.
Macdonalds rally the Highlanders
The American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775. At that time, British-appointed governor of North Carolina Josiah Martin made an effort to assert British control over the area. Martin wrote to British Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, that he could gather loyal Highlanders from the interior counties of North Carolina and slaves, who would support the British in exchange for the promise of freedom.
Flora Macdonald's husband Allan helped raise a group of Highlanders to fight for the British against the American colonists. Allan Macdonald became a brigadier (pronounced BRIG-a-deer) general (a position just below major general). Meanwhile, Flora Macdonald rallied the Scots there to stand behind Donald McDonald, the elderly British officer who was to play a major role in the battle at Moore's Creek Bridge, North Carolina, in 1776.
Historian Tom Steel pointed out in Scotland's Story: A New Perspective that the Macdonalds were an example of an interesting occurrence: "Scots once loyal to the Stuart monarchy, who after the failure of the [1745 attempt by Charles Stuart to recapture the throne] transferred loyalty to an equally strong British monarchy they had once [tried] to overthrow."
Why did Highlanders, who had suffered so severely at the hands of the Hanoverian army, take their side in the conflict in America? Elizabeth Gray Vining explained that some were former military men still receiving soldiers' pay from the British army; they believed that they owed their loyalty—and their paychecks—to the British army. Others "remembered the fearful penalties that attended an unsuccessful rebellion against the Hanoverians…. The merchants among them wereafraid of losing trade…. Many of the Scots, like Allan [Mac-donald] himself, had come to North Carolina too recently to have developed firm ties to the land. All of them looked on monarchy as the form of government ordained by heaven and considered [the type of government proposed for America] horrid and unnatural."
The Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge
In North Carolina, with Flora Macdonald's help, eighty-year-old Donald McDonald had successfully recruited both Scottish and non-Scottish supporters of the British. On February 15, 1776, more than 2,500 troops showed up at Cross Creek to rally around Governor Martin. But learning that Martin was not there and they would have to march to far-away Brunswick, where Martin awaited them aboard a ship, many of the men immediately deserted, until there were finally only 1,300 Highlanders and about 300 Loyalists.
On February 26, 1776, the Highlanders arrived at Moore's Creek Bridge, where American revolutionaries had set up camp at the bridge over the creek to stop the Scots.
Early on the morning of February 27, the Highlanders charged and were met by American fire. Lillian B. Miller described the scene in The Dye Is Now Cast. To the music of bagpipes and drums, and the sound of battle cries, the Loyalists began their attack. "As the Scots attempted to cross the beams of the bridge, many fell into the water and drowned. Those who managed the perilous crossing encountered the murderous fire of [revolutionary leader Richard] Caswell's well concealed men. In a few moments, between thirty and seventy Tories [Loyalists] were either killed or wounded … The rebels suffered only two wounded, one of whom later died."
The rest of the Tories fled. The battle had lasted only three minutes. Soon after, Allan Macdonald and his son, Alexander, were taken prisoner and jailed in Halifax, Virginia.
Their battle lost, family returns to Scotland
In 1777, the family's plantation was taken away because Flora Macdonald would not take an oath of allegiance to America, as commanded by the North Carolina Congress. Soon after, Flora returned to Scotland. A popular tale says that during her trip, pirates attacked the ship she was on, but she stayed on deck to offer encouragement to the sailors and suffered a broken arm. In fact, she slipped and dislocated her arm while she was leading other women to safety below decks.
Upon returning to Scotland, Flora Macdonald traveled to Milton, where a brother built her a cottage; after two years her husband joined her there. The couple then settled once again in Kingsburgh, where they mourned the death of relatives and rejoiced in the birth of new grandchildren. She died there on March 4, 1790.
Flora Macdonald's funeral was unique to the Isle of Skye, where loyalty to Charles Edward Stuart ran deep. Thousands of mourners honored her in a funeral procession that extended more than a mile. Her body was wrapped in a sheet that had been slept on by Bonnie Prince Charlie, and she was buried at a churchyard in Kilmuir. Over time, admirers carried Macdonald's original gravestone away bit by bit. In 1871, a memorial consisting of a tall stone cross with a circle was erected at her gravesite. When it was blown down in a violent storm, a sturdier one was erected; it still stands there today.
For More Information
Fry, Plantagenet, and Fiona Somerset Fry. The History of Scotland. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, p. 198.
Miller, Lillian B. The Dye Is Now Cast. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975, p. 207-09.
Prebble, John. Culloden. New York: Atheneum, 1962.
Steel, Tom. Scotland's Story: A New Perspective. London: William Collins Sons and Co., Ltd., 1985, pp.169-72.
Vining, Elizabeth Gray. Flora, A Biography. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1966.
"Bonnie Prince Charlie, The 1745 Jacobite Rising." [Online] Available http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/CSOUCHON/jacobris.htm (accessed on 6/24/99).
"Macdonald, Flora." American Revolution Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/educational-magazines/macdonald-flora
"Macdonald, Flora." American Revolution Reference Library. . Retrieved September 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/educational-magazines/macdonald-flora