Book review: Pretty Young Rebel - The Life of Flora Macdonald, by Flora Fraser

Encompassing both her famous rescue of Bonnie Prince Charlie following the Jacobite Rising and her loyalty to the British Crown during the American War of Independence, this is a persuasive and pleasing account of Flora Macdonald’s life, writes Allan Massie

Flora Macdonald by Richard Wilson PIC: Wikimedia Commons
Flora Macdonald by Richard Wilson PIC: Wikimedia Commons

There are people whose fame in history rests on a single act. One such was Flora Macdonald. Everyone who knows anything about the ’45, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Culloden and the flight through the heather knows that she was instrumental in the Prince’s escape, escorting him, disguised as her Irish maid Betty Burke, from Benbecula to Skye. There was no romance, though some still like to think there was. When he was safe on Skye, she returned home and never saw him again. They had been together for not much more than a week.

Nevertheless she became a celebrity. Arrested and carried to London, she was treated quite kindly, put under house arrest in the charge of a wealthy Jacobite sympathiser, Lady Primrose, and such was her celebrity that more than 20 years later Johnson and Boswell on their famous tour to the Hebrides were proud and delighted to visit her.

What was remarkable, as Flora Fraser shows in this detailed and enjoyable biography, is that she and most of her family were not really Jacobites. Like many, they had received the news of Charles Edward’s venture with apprehension. Most Jacobites were Catholics or Episcopalians; Flora and her immediate family were Presbyterians. But if they had no enthusiasm for the Rising, judging it unlikely to succeed, they had no wish for the Prince to be captured, especially on Macdonald land. That would have been shameful.

Pretty Young Rebel, by Flora Fraser

As is well known there was a reward – £30,000 – for the capture of the Prince, and there was real danger in sheltering him. Flora had hesitated at first, but was resolute when she committed herself. There is drama in the story of their time together, also humour, notably Charles’s reply when Flora tried to take his pistols away, saying their discovery in any search of the Irish maidservant would arouse suspicion.

Once Flora had been released from custody and returned home, she married a cousin, started a family and lived the life of a Highland gentlewoman, sensibly aware also of the advantages to be gained by her celebrity. As her sons grew up, she made use of her reputation and the admiring connections she had made to launch them on careers, one son with the East India Company. She seems to have been an eminently sensible woman.

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Unfortunately her husband, Allan Macdonald of Kingsbury, though amiable, was less sensible or at least less competent. He fell into debt, sold up and, following the fashion of the day, decided they should emigrate to the American colonies. They headed for North Carolina, already well-stocked with immigrant Scots, many of them Highlanders. Their timing was unfortunate; the American colonists were ripe for the rebellion that would become known as the War of Independence. Allan and Flora, like many of the Scots in the Carolinas, were Tories, that is to say, loyal to the British Crown. Soon the woman who had guided Charles Edward to safety was herself a refugee, making with her family for Canada, an arduous and dangerous journey.

I had always known that Allan Macdonald and other Scots with Jacobite connections had remained loyal to the British Crown and the House of Hanover in the American war, known this while ignorant of the details. Flora Fraser tells this story admirably, making it every bit as interesting as her account of the most famous days in her heroine’s life. One is relieved that she would in time return to Scotland. There she soon found her old celebrity acquired a new polish when, after Dr Johnson’s death, Boswell published his own account of the journey to the Hebrides and their meeting with Flora. Nevertheless, Flora and her likeable but incompetent husband depended much on the kindness of friends until, after Charles Edward’s death in 1788, George, Prince of Wales (the future George IV,) arranged that she should receive a royal pension.

This is a full and always interesting book, a rich picture of Highland society at a time of change as well as a persuasive and always pleasing account of Flora’s life, a social a study as well as a fine telling of a well-known tale, and of the less familiar story of the Scots who chose loyalty to the Crown in America. One wonders if the memory of the Jacobites’ defeat led them to think the American rebels would suffer the same fate.

Pretty Young Rebel – The Life of Flora Macdonald, by Flora Fraser, Bloomsbury, 288pp, £25