Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:55 am
Flora MacDonald is celebrated as a heroine of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. The part she played in helping the defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie escape “over the sea to Skye” has even been immortalised in song:
“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.”
Actually, there are better qualified Jacobite heroines, but Flora somehow captured the imagination and became part of the legend – perhaps because she was a remarkable woman. She is buried on Skye, at Kilmuir Cemetery on the Trotternish peninsula, where her memorial dominates the surrounding graves and looks across the Minch toward her birthplace on the distant Western Isles.
Most accounts suggest Flora MacDonald had a fairly privileged background, being partly educated in Edinburgh, raised under the protection of the MacDonalds of Clanranald and clearly capable of commanding servants. She took no part in the ’45 Rebellion, though her stepfather, Hugh MacDonald, is thought to have been sympathetic to the cause. If so, it was convenient that he seems to have commanded the local militia.
After defeat at Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie went on the run with a price of £30,000 on his head. For the best part of two months, with Government forces hot on his heels, he had either been sleeping rough, or in the homes of trusted supporters, in and around Lochaber and the Western Isles. In June 1746, the Prince and his close companions arrived in Benbecula, where Flora’s help was sought – possibly because of her stepfather’s position and sympathies, though one account suggests Flora and the Prince had met previously. Details seem to be contradictory, but the generally accepted tale is that Flora agreed to help after some hesitation. She obtained travel passes from her stepfather and set sail for Skye on 27 June with a small crew and two servants, one of which was the Prince, disguised as ‘Betty Burke’, an Irish maid. They were fired on off the coast of Waternish and landed on Trotternish, just north of Uig. From there, the party made its way to Portree and Flora and the Prince parted. Eventually, on 19 September, BPC escaped on a French warship from Borrodale on Loch nan Uamh in Arisaig, and never returned to Scotland.
Flora, meanwhile, was arrested, possibly after one of the boatmen had spilled the beans about her dodgy Irish maid. Despite a short spell in the Tower of London, she appears to have been well treated from the outset and was even introduced to Frederick, the Prince of Wales, who was keen to know why she had helped his father’s enemies. Good question. The traditional answer is that Flora, who would doubtless have been canonised had she not been a Presbyterian, would have done the same for anyone in a similar situation, even Fred. Bearing in mind that Flora MacDonald was undoubtedly incredibly brave to risk helping the chief Jacobite, whose objective was to remove the Prince of Wales’s father from the throne, and that his brother, the Duke of Cumberland, had carried out obscene atrocities in the Highlands, this must have been an interesting meeting. In July 1747, Flora was released and returned home to resume her life – she was only about 25 years old.
In 1750, Flora MacDonald married her kinsman, Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh. They farmed at Flodigarry on Skye, her celebrity status resulting in a visit in 1773 from the renowned lexicographer and writer Samuel Johnson and his friend James Boswell, during their tour of the Highlands. Johnson’s words feature on her epitaph. The following year, 1774, Flora and Allan emigrated for financial reasons to Cheek’s Creek, Anson, North Carolina. They took three of their seven children with them, plus a son-in-law and two grandchildren and settled down to make a new start – unfortunately interrupted by the American War of Independence. Allan fought with the Royal Highland Emigrants’ 84th Regiment, was captured by revolutionaries in 1776, and imprisoned. By all accounts, Flora lost everything. Allan was released in 1778; they met up in New York and then travelled to Nova Scotia, where Allan’s regiment was based. Homesick, Flora returned home to Skye in 1779, followed by Allan in 1785. Flora MacDonald died in 1790. Her funeral is said to have been attended by 3,000 mourners who managed to put away 300 gallons of whisky (it sounds a lot, but it’s less than a pint each). As a postscript, just to maintain the Jacobite legend, it has been put about that Flora’s shroud was a bed sheet used by Bonnie Prince Charlie.
“IN THE FAMILY MAUSOLEUM AT KILMUIR LIE
INTERRED THE REMAINS OF THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS
OF THE KINGSBURGH FAMILY, VIZ ALEXANDER MACDONALD
OF KINGSBURGH, HIS SON ALLAN, HIS SONS, CHARLES AND
JAMES, HIS SON JOHN AND TWO DAUGHTERS AND OF
FLORA MACDONALSD, WHO DIED IN MARCH 1790, AGED 68 – ‘A
NAME THAT WILL BE MENTIONED IN HISTORY, AND, IF COURAGE
AND FIDELITY BE VIRTUES, MENTIONED WITH HONOUR. SHE IS A
WOMAN OF MIDDLE STATURE, SOFT FEATURES, GENTLE MANNERS
AND ELEGANT PRESENCE.’ SO WROTE JOHNSON”
SUCH WAS THE INSCRIPTION ON A MARBLE SLAB ERECTED OVER THIS BURIAL
PLACE BY COLONEL JOHN MACDONALD FRS OF EXETER, WHO DIED AUGUST 16 1831
YOUNGEST AND MOST DISTINGUISHED SON OF FLORA AND ALLAN MACDONALD
OF KINGSBURGH. EVERY FRAGMENT OF THIS MEMORIAL HAS BEEN CARRIED
AWAY BY TOURISTS.
IN GRATEFUL MEMORY THESE WORDS ARE NOW RESTORED BY MAJOR REGINALD HENRY
MACDONALD OBE (RETIRED) A GREAT GREAT GRANDSON OF ALLAN AND FLORA 1955
If you ever do homage to Flora MacDonald at Kilmuir, there are a few unexpected bonuses. For a start, the location is beautiful – and handy for the Skye Museum of Highland Life. But the cemetery contains some other interesting memorials, the most fascinating of which are probably those of Angus Martin and Charles MacArthur.
A magnificent carved effigy of a knight in full armour lies at the far end of the cemetery. This marks the grave of Angus Martin, or Aonghas na Gaoithe (Angus of the Wind). Legend has it that Angus got his nickname, not from his personal habits, but by sailing in all weathers, married a Danish princess and had seven sons with her. From what I can gather, Angus lived in the 16th century. The story goes that he stole the grave slab from where it marked the grave of a Scottish king on the island of Iona, carrying the massive slab on his back up from the shore. Really? Who cares – it’s a fabulous grave marker anyway.
“HERE LIE THE REMAINS OF CHARLES MACKARTER WHOSE FAME AS AN HONEST MAN AND REMARKABLE PIPER WILL SURVIVE THIS GENERATION FOR HIS MANNERS WERE EASY & REGULAR AS HIS MUSIC AND THE THE MELODY OF HIS FINGERS WILL…”
And there the dedication ends. Tradition has it that the memorial was commissioned by the piper’s son, who unfortunately drowned in the Minch before the sculptor had finished. As the man reasoned he was unlikely to be paid for his work, he simply stopped and left it unfinished, the world forever pondering what he would have gone on to say. He didn’t even cross out the superfluous definite article.
I’ll leave you with the haunting adaptation of the Skye Boat Song from the popular Outlander series – it has echoes of the version by Robert Louis Stevenson.