Bonnie Prince Charlie’s dress that became a fashion hit

A depiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the dress he wore to flee Scotland. PIC NLS/Creative Commons.
A depiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the dress he wore to flee Scotland. PIC NLS/Creative Commons.
Share this article
1
Have your say

It is a swatch of material that tells the story of one of Scotland’s most famous escapes.

Pinned to the inside cover of the original copy of The Lyon in Mourning, a collection of papers,interviews and speeches collected after Charles Edward Stuart’s failed 1745 uprising, is a small patch of floral-print cloth.

The swatch of material that is stuck in the original version of the Lyon in Mourning. PIC Contributed.

The swatch of material that is stuck in the original version of the Lyon in Mourning. PIC Contributed.

It is a remarkable piece of evidence from one of Scotland’s most romanticised episodes.

Taken from the dress worn by Charles Edward Stuart during his escape from Scotland in the summer of 1746, it was collected by a woman on Skye who hosted the Prince for one night as he fled to France.

The piece of cloth from the legendary disguise was sent to Rev Robert Forbes, the author of the book, by Margaret McDonald of Kingsburgh.

A handwritten note in the original version of the book, which is held in the National Library of Scotland, says: “The above is a piece of that identical gown which the Prince wore for four of five days when he was obliged to disguise himself in a female dress under the name of Bettie Burke.

The swatch as it appears in the original version of the book. PIC National Library of Scotland.

The swatch as it appears in the original version of the book. PIC National Library of Scotland.

“A swatch of the said gown was send from Mrs McDonald of Kingsburgh according to her promise.”

Maggie Craig, in her book Damn Rebel Bitches, Women of the ‘45, said the gown was part of a disguise “sewn furiously” for Bonnie Prince Charlie as final arrangement to get Charles out of Scotland were made.

Stiched by Flora MacDonald, the South Uist woman drawn into the plot for his escape by her family, and Lady Clanranald, Ms Craig gives a good account of the costume made for Charles, who was 5ft 10inches tall.

It included a calico gown, quilted petticoat and a large hood “after the Irish fashion” which helped to cover his face.

Shoes, stocking and garters and head-dress were also provided.

The Prince, along with Flora MacDonald and Neil MacEachen, a tutor to the Clanranald children and friend of Charles, arrived at Totternish on Skye after a spell at Benbecula and South Uist.

An account in The Lyon of Mourning documents how Charles stayed with Margaret and her husband, the factor to the Macdonalds of Sleat, where he dined on eggs, bread,beer and brandy and smoked tobacco.

Charles was “very much fatigued” but refreshed and merry by bedtime.

He slept late the next day. When he woke, he was “keen to cast off his disguise” but it was not allowed.

The account added: “It was necessary he should leave the house in the female dress he came in, which would, if enquiry happened to be made, prevent the servants telling the particular dress he had put on when he stript himself of the gown, petticoats etc and therefore in Kingsburgh’s house, Miss put on his cap for him.”

After leaving the house late in the day, it is said he stopped at a wood to change into Highland dress given to him by his hosts.

It appears that the fabric swatch kept by Margaret McDonald caused quite a stir back in the late 1740s.

According to Maggie Craig, the “sprigged flowery” pattern of the dress was copied and manufactured in Edinburgh by an “enterprising” company in Leith.

“The material became all the rage for Jacobite ladies,” she said.

Meanwhile, Flora MacDonald was arrested and imprisoned at the Tower of London after the plot was exposed but she returned to Scotland after the Act of Indemnity was passed in 1747.