by Alison MacRae
Celtic Guide magazine
This painting of Flora MacDonald was painted by Scottish painter Allan Ramsey.
When I hear the "Skye Boat Song" I can't help see a picture in my mind of Flora MacDonald, and what she did to help Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charles, as he was known in Scotland), from Uist to the Isle of Skye, after his defeat of the Jacobite Battle of Culloden in 1746.
The text of the song gives an account of how Bonnie Prince Charlie, disguised as a serving maid, escaped in a small boat with the aid of Flora MacDonald. Her part in the escape is immortalized in the "Skye Boat Song." It describes the account of his escape from the mainland to evade Government troops after the Battle. (Culloden was the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising).
The Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie were decisively defeated by Hanoverian forces commanded by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. Flora's stepfather and her fiancee Allan MacDonald were in the Hanoverian army of King George II.
Here is the chorus of the "Skye Boat Song"
"Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing, Onward the sailors cry, Carry the lad that is born to be King, Over the sea to Skye".
This was written a century and a half after the battle, by Sir Harold Boulton, 2nd Baronet, 1859 - 1935. He was the author of the lyrics only. The melody has been around for decades and was used in many different Scottish songs.
This is the story of Flora MacDonald. Flora was born in Milton on the Island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. A year after she was born her father died.
Flora's mother re-married five years later. She married a MacDonald from Armadale, Skye. They were not related even though they shared the MacDonald name.
When Flora was visiting her brother on Benbecula on the Outer Hebrides, she came upon Bonnie Prince Charlie and a small group of his aides who had taken refuge after their defeat at the Battle of Culloden.
It was one of Bonnie Prince Charlie companions, a Captain Conn O'Neill from County Antrim, Ireland, also a distant relative to Flora, who approached her to ask for help to aid them in their escape.
Flora was able to get all the right passage permits as Benbecula was controlled by a pro-government militia commanded by Flora's step-father Hugh MacDonald.
Bonnie Prince Charlie was barely ahead of the government forces so Flora had to act fast to get him and his aides out of the area.
There was also a thirty thousand pound reward offered, and although many Highlanders saw him and aided him, not one of them betrayed him. That was how loyal they were to him.
Bonnie Prince Charlie was disguised as an Irish made and the name that he went under was Betty Burke. Flora, two servants and six boatmen were rowed to the Isle of Skye and evaded capture. That was where Flora left him and his aids. Prince Charles left Scotland on board the French Frigate L'Helureux arriving in France in September.
Flora had risked her life to help Bonnie Prince Charlie leave the country, and she was worried about her family and the repercussions in doing this.
Unfortunately, two weeks after Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped, the boatmen were detained and confessed. Flora and her brother's steward was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. Her brother's wife, Lady Margaret was the one that interceded on her behalf with the Chief Scottish legal officer.
This meant she was allowed to live outside the Tower with the supervision of the King Messenger.
She was released after the Act of Indemnity of June 1747.
A collection of one thousand five hundred pounds was raised for her by a number of aristocratic sympathizers.
Her courage and her loyalty gained her a lot of sympathies which was increased by her good manners and gentle character, which helped raise the funds for her.
Flora was also known to have told the Prince of Wales she had acted from the heart and would have helped him as well in the same way, had he been defeated and in distress.
In 1750, on 6th November, Flora married Allan MacDonald. He was a captain in the army and the eldest son of Alexander MacDonald of Kinsburgh. No, he was not a relation, another MacDonald with the same last name. Flora was 28 years old.
The couple lived at Flodigarry, Skye. When Allan's father died in 1772 he inherited the family estate and the moved to it. Unfortunately, Allan was not a good businessman, and he quarrelled a lot with his Clan Chief over increases in rent. This left him in a lot of debt.
The monument of Flora MacDonald grave. Kilmuir, Isle of Skye.
Above is a plate I have of Flora MacDonald and Bonnie Prince Charlie It is called "Flora MacDonald's Farewell."
That is the reason Allan and Flora, along with many other Highlanders emigrated to Anson County, North Carolina. They settled on an estate which they named Killegray.
The American War of Independence began in 1776. Flora and the rest of the Highland settlers had signed a treaty declaring loyalty to North Carolina.
They went against this when Flora got an army together with the help of the Highland settlers to fight for the King. Their army was defeated by American patriots.
This also ruined King George III's plan to divide the colonies. Flora's husband Allan was taken prisoner at this time as well.
In April 1777, the North Carolina Provincial Congress authorised the confiscation of loyalists owned lands, which included Killegray, which was the land that Flora and Allan owned. They were evicted and they lost all their possessions.
Allan was released in September 1777. He was posted in exile to Ford Edward in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada, as commander of the 84th Regiment of Foot, (Royal Highland Emigrants). Flora joined him in August 1778.
Flora could only stand one harsh Canadian winter. In September 1779 she booked passage for London on the Dunmore a British privateer.
Bad luck followed Flora, her ship was attacked by French privateers. She broke her arm and ill health plagued her on the homeward journey. Flora returned to Scotland in the Spring of 1780
Flora was forced to spend years living with family members because of losing all possessions in North Carolina. They did not receive much compensation for their property, so they did not have much money to live on.
One of their sons had made a fortune in India which allowed his parents to live their last years in some comfort.
Flora died in 1790 at the age of 68. Her husband Allan died in 1792. They had seven children, two daughters, and five sons, two of the sons were lost at sea.
Flora was buried in a shroud that was a bedsheet used by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Her funeral was attended by 3,000 people. She was so well known and loved because of her helping Bonnie Prince Charlie, that people came from miles to attend. It was also known that 3,000 gallons of whisky were consumed. Lots of toasts to her memory no doubt.
There is a monument in Kilmuir for Flora, and the tribute was paid for by Samuel Johnson, he was an English writer, who made lasting contributions to English literature.
He had met her and described her as a woman of soft features, gentle manners, kind soul and elegant presence.
The tribute that was engraved on her monument reads: "A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour."