Macdonald, Flora (1722–1790)

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Macdonald, Flora (1722–1790)

Scottish heroine who ferried Bonnie Prince Charlie out of danger to the Isle of Skye after the failure of his rebellion in 1746 . Born Fionnghal nighean Raonuill'ic Aonghais Oig, an Airidh Mhuillinn (Gaelic for "Flora, daughter of Ranald, son of Aungus, Younger of Milton"), in 1722; died in 1790; daughter of Ranald Macdonald of Milton, South Uist, and Marian Macdonald; married Allan Macdonald, in 1750; children: seven, two daughters (including Anne) and five sons (including Charles, Alexander, and James).

Took Prince Charles to the Hebrides and Skye by boat after Culloden (1746); imprisoned in London (1746–47); emigrated to North Carolina (1774); Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge (1776); reunited with Allan in New York (1778); spent winter in Nova Scotia followed by return to Scotland (1779).

In 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, "Bonnie Prince Charlie," landed at Glenfinnan in the Scottish highlands and gathered volunteers for a rebellion against the Hanoverian King George II of Britain. Charles' Catholic grandfather, King James II, had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 and Parliament had resolved to have no more Catholics on the throne. The "Protestant Succession" had a weaker dynastic claim to the throne than the Stuarts, however, and Charles, the "Young Pretender," hoped that the Scottish clans, especially those which had stuck to the Old Religion, would rise up and restore the Stuarts.

At first the adventure prospered as he conquered Scotland, gathered recruits and marched southward. But by the time he reached the English midland city of Derby, his clansmen were falling out among themselves and doubting their ability to overthrow the Hanoverians. Ironically, London was in panic. Had the rebels pressed on, they would probably have been able to seize it; but instead, demoralized, they turned and retreated to Scotland. By April 1746, the regime had recovered its composure and a pursuing British army under the Duke of Cumberland shattered the Scots' force at the Battle of Culloden Moor and routed the remnants. Charles and a handful of followers fled the battlefield and hid in the hills during the next few weeks. Only by getting off the Scottish mainland and returning to his exile court in France would he be safe. Flora Macdonald enabled him to escape.

She had been born 23 years earlier in the Hebridean island of South Uist, daughter of a prosperous farmer. He died when she was two, but her mother married another Macdonald, from the nearby island of Skye, who had earlier served in the king of France's army and was a legend for his strength and swordsmanship. Flora was raised under the protective gaze of Scottish nobility and probably lived all her early years in the islands, though one tale describes her spending three years at an Edinburgh seminary for young ladies. Her writing was poor but she was a fluent talker in English and Gaelic and a talented singer and storyteller.

Flora's family, who were not Catholics, played no role in the uprising; instead, her step-father was made an officer in an anti-Jacobite militia company. But like many of the nominally anti-Jacobite highlanders, he was willing to help the fugitive prince escape detection in the summer of 1746 as the prince traveled incognito on the islands of Harris and Lewis. British soldiers and sailors searched for him in vain and even their threats of reprisals could not induce a betrayal. As their net gradually closed, however, the prince came to Ormiclade, home of the Clanranald family, where he met Flora Macdonald on June 20. At first, she refused to have anything to do with the fugitive but when she realized that her stepfather had planned the prince's escape her sense of duty moved her to action. According to historian Hugh Douglas, "The Prince's appeal to her honour won her over. As a Highland lady she could not refuse to assist a stranger in need." Flora was not political herself, but as Douglas adds, "in the Hebrides she was surrounded by relatives and kinsmen who either supported the Stuarts openly or at the very least had room in their hearts for them even if their heads held them back from rallying to the Prince's standard."

Macdonald recognized that the existence of a £30,000 reward on the prince's head would tempt everyone who knew about him to give the game away, so she decided to disguise him as a woman. From her stepfather, she obtained three passports for a voyage to Skye, one for herself, one for the prince's servant Niel MacEachainn, and one for "Betty Burke," an Irish seamstress who, she said, she was taking to her mother. Betty Burke was not happy with her new clothes. "The company being gone, the Prince, stript of his own cloaths was dressed by Miss Flora in his new attire," wrote MacEachainn, "but could not keep his hands from adjusting his headdress, which he cursed a thousand times." With six sturdy sailors, they had to cross a stormy strait called The Minch, 40 miles wide, on the night of June 27, 1746, blown fast by favorable winds. Arriving the next morning, they ran into an anti-Stuart militia company which opened fire on them but were able to pull away from the shore and escape. When they came ashore again, this time in a deserted cove, Flora walked up to a close relative's house and calmly chatted there with a local militia colonel of the McLeod clan, who was opposed to the Pretender, while servants and family members spirited the fugitive to a safe hiding place. From there, Flora saw him first to her mother's house and then safely onto a boat bound for the island of Raasay, which stood between Skye and the mainland. It took several more journeys around the islands before the prince could finally get aboard a ship back to France, but his long journey with Flora Macdonald soon became the centerpiece of his legendary escape.

Well known in the islands, Macdonald was eventually identified by British soldiers, who had tortured several hostages into revealing information. She was arrested, held first on a ship, and then taken south to prison in the Tower of London. There, ironically, Londoners soon began to treat her not as a traitor or conspirator but as a romantic heroine. Even the king's son, Frederick, prince of Wales, came to visit her and was charmed by her good manners and dignified defense of her actions for which, she said, there had been no political motive. She was released into the custody of a sympathetic family but still confined to their house until her freedom came as part of the terms of a General Indemnity granted in 1747. The government's spies in France assured George II that there was no danger of any more rebellions and indeed Charles, despite constant plotting, deteriorated into alcoholism and was powerless to try again for the British throne. In 1748, the king of France evicted him too, and Charles spent the rest of his life wandering unwanted through Europe. Meanwhile, the British army was forcibly dismantling the Scottish clan system which had supported the Pretender, transforming the social and economic structure of Scotland in the process.

In 1750, age 29, Flora married Allan Macdonald, son of "Old Kingsburgh" of Skye. They lived together at his family farm, Flodigarry, where he experimented in new farming techniques, and they were still there in 1773 when Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, making their famous tour of Britain, went to stay with them for the night. Boswell described Allan Macdonald as "completely the figure of a gallant Highlander, exhibiting the graceful mien and manly looks which our popular Scotch song has justly attributed to that character." They broke with tradition by naming their oldest son Charles, in honor of the prince (whom Allan had not even supported) instead of naming him after his paternal grandfather. Six other children followed in the next fifteen years but the family's farming reforms did not go well. Poor prices, local resistance to innovations, and a certain lack of common sense on Allan's part led to successive years of failure, which ate up both his own fortune and the money Flora had brought to the marriage as a dowry. In 1767, Allan lost his job as "tacksman" or land-agent for the clan chief and their fortunes continued to dwindle.

Many Scots had been emigrating to the American colonies in the face of hard times, and when Allan's father died in 1772 he and Flora decided to take the same course in the hope of making a fresh start. Just before they left in 1774, Flora wrote the family lawyer:

There will soon be no remembrance of my family in this miserable island, the best of its inhabitance [sic] are already making ready to follow their friends to America, while they have anything to bring them and among the rest we are to go … as we cannot promise ourselves but poverty and oppression [if we stay in Scotland].

The Atlantic voyage in the fall of 1774 was stormy but the growing difficulties of their old life led the Macdonalds to look forward with hope to America.

This is not a simple Highland girl that legend has handed down but a clever, strong-willed young woman who commands attention.

—Hugh Douglas

When they arrived in Richmond County, North Carolina, near the present-day town of Fayetteville, they were greeted by the many Highland settlers in the district who knew of Flora's heroic deeds and had themselves, in some cases, been at Culloden. For Highlanders from the islands, especially the bare, windswept Hebrides and Skye, North Carolina presented a dramatic contrast, both in its high summer temperatures and its dense forest coverage, the like of which many of them had never previously seen. The Macdonalds bought a large plantation, "Killiegray," consisting of 70 acres of arable fields and a group of orchards, which they worked with their sons and eight indentured servants, but they had hardly begun their lives as farmers when the Revolutionary War began.

Whatever their earlier disputes with the Hanoverians, the Macdonalds now emerged as staunch opponents of the Revolution and defenders of King George III's government. The colony's governor, Josiah Martin, recognized Allan as a leading clansman from the moment of his arrival, and Allan reciprocated by swearing loyalty to the throne, just as he had done during the "Forty Five." He toured the colony with his two sons, both now old enough for

military service, trying to raise troops, and ignored a summons to join a highland regiment which was forming far to the north in Nova Scotia. Historian Hugh Douglas argues that Allan "was the key figure in the fight to save North Carolina for the King. Because of Flora's fame and his own enthusiasm for the Loyalist cause, it was natural that the Highlanders should look to [him] for leadership." He spent £300 of his own money equipping his soldiers, but even so they were a reluctant and poorly trained band.

According to a local tradition which is probably greatly embroidered, Flora rode a white pony and set up a royal standard on February 18, 1776, the day her husband's column set out, exhorting the recruits in Gaelic to fight for the king. Almost at once they were ambushed at the Battle of Moore's Creek, when they rashly tried to charge across a damaged bridge brandishing their Scottish broadswords in the face of withering cross fire. The battle "was over in minutes," writes Douglas, "a defeat almost as violent and swift as Culloden and just as complete. Once again highland bravery and the broadsword had counted for nothing in the face of devastating musket fire."

Among those taken prisoner by the victorious patriots were Allan and sons Alexander and James. James managed to escape and return to his mother with the news that all three of them had at least survived the battle, but Allan and Alexander remained captives for a year and a half until they were ransomed during a general exchange of prisoners in New York. Flora endured two wretched years after the defeat and later told a chronicler:

Mrs. Flora Macdonald, being all this time in misery and sickness at home, being informed that her husband and friends were all killed or taken, contracted a severe fever, and was deeply oppressed with straggling parties of plunderers from their army and night robbers, who more than once threatened her life wanting a confesion [sic] where her husband's money was. Her servants deserting her, and such as stayed grew so very insolent that they were of no service or help to her.

Flora spent time visiting other highland women whose men had been killed or captured, and on one such visit fell from a horse and broke her arm. There was no doctor in the colony to treat her, and it caused months of severe pain. She was finally able to leave North Carolina when a relative, Alexander MacLeod, sailed under a flag of truce to Wilmington in a small ship and picked her up with her daughter Anne Macdonald , a fellow colonist. They sailed to New York City, headquarters of the British forces, and were reunited with Allan.

Allan, however, had spent time since his release raising a new regiment of volunteers, whom he soon took to join the loyalist Highlanders in Nova Scotia. Flora followed him a few months later but had a rough sea voyage and a gruelling winter march. North Carolina's heat and the bitter winter of Canada were both taking a severe toll on her health and now, approaching 60, she became a near invalid. She remained high spirited in the face of adversity, however. Rather than spend a second winter in the icy garrison, she managed to get a place on a British ship heading back to England in the fall of 1779. It sighted a French man of war, and Flora, as she hurried the female passengers below decks, broke her other arm. In London, where the ship landed, she learned that her son Alexander had been lost at sea. This was the final straw which made her severely ill for the next six months. Old Jacobite friends remembered her from 33 years before and cared for her in this illness until she was well enough to return to the Scottish islands. At the end of the American wars, she was reunited with her husband Allan, and they lived together on Skye, surrounded by family and friends, until her death in 1790.

A lot of sentimental nonsense has been written about Macdonald, not least by Americans of Scottish descent trying to mimic the language of Robert Burns. In 1916, for example, a Canadian newspaper editor, James MacDonald penned these deathless lines:

It was granted to Scotland that out of the gloom there should flash forth a deed so full of high patriotism that so long as the true sons of the Gael shall foregather, it will be remembered with glad hearts and high-lifted bonnets. Think you that this honor was granted to some great chief in the forefront of battle … ? Nay, it was but a bit sonsie lassie, her hair yet bound with the blue snood of maidenhood, who offered her all, even life itself, to save Scotland's "Bonnie Prince."

More sober historians like Hugh Douglas have in recent years sorted out the facts from the myth and shown that in the case of Flora Macdonald, as with so many others, the truth is as strange, and more interesting, than the fiction. Although there are still many gaps in our knowledge of Flora Macdonald, we can now piece together the story of her life as a flesh and blood woman rather than a legendary Jacobite presence.


Black, Jeremy. Culloden and the '45. Stroud, UK: Alan Sutton, 1990.

Douglas, Hugh. Flora Macdonald: The Most Loyal Rebel. Stroud, UK: Alan Sutton, 1993.

Macdonald, James A. Flora Macdonald: A History. Washington, DC: Scottish Society of America, 1916.

MacGregor, A., and W. Jolly. The Life of Flora Macdonald. Stirling, UK: Eneas Mackay, 1932.

suggested reading:

Carruth, J.A. Flora Macdonald, the Highland Heroine. Norwich, 1973.

Lenman, Bruce. The Jacobite Risings in Britain. London: 1980.

MacLean, Alasdair. A Macdonald for the Prince. Stornoway, 1982.

MacLean, J.P. Flora Macdonald in America. Morgantown, PA: 1984.


National Library of Scotland.

Scottish Record Office.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia