OTD 1790: Death of Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald

Flora MacDonald, the ultimate heroine of the Jacobite cause, died on March 5, 1790 with 3,000 mourners attending her funeral on Skye where more than 300 gallons of whisky were reportedly drunk.
Flora MacDonald, Jacobite heroine. PIC: Contributed.Flora MacDonald, Jacobite heroine. PIC: Contributed.
Flora MacDonald, Jacobite heroine. PIC: Contributed.

Flora knew Bonnie Prince Charlie for only 10 days and spent time in his company for just a small portion of that before embarking on the voyage that was to seal her legendary reputation forever more.

Since helping the beleaguered Prince to flee Scotland dressed as a woman in the summer of 1746, MacDonald has been deeply romanticised as a gentle Highland rebel with her image immortalised in song, portraiture and bronze.

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Flora’s gravestone at Kilmuir is inscribed with the words of Samuel Johnson, who met her on Skye in 1772, the year before her emigration to North Carolina with her husband and children.

It reads: “Her name will be mentioned in history and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.”

What pushed Flora to get involved in the treasonous plot to accompany Charles Edward Stuart, dressed in a petticoat, calico dress and large hood, in a rowing boat from South Uist to Skye, remains unclear, particularly given she had shown no allegiance to any side during the rebellion.

Alarmed at the poor state of the Prince, she claimed to act out of charity, even telling the Duke of Cumberland that she would have done the same for him had he been in the same way.

Maggie Craig, author of Damn Rebel Bitches, Women of the ‘45, wrote: “Much has been written about Flora MacDonald.

“Very little of it makes it any easier to get at her personality or understand her motives. She comes through all the verbiage as curiously passive, a blank page on which everyone else has written their own interpretation of her life and character.”

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The courage of the 24-year-old, however, speaks for itself with the escape arranged as 2,000 government redcoats searched for the fugitive Prince, who had a £30,000 bounty on his head.

Flora’s step father, Hugh MacDonald, a Hanoverian officer with underlying Jacobite sympathies, may have been the mastermind behind the elaborate escape plan, according to various accounts.

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She was approached by Jacobite captain Felix O’Neil and then the Prince, at a sheiling near Ormacleit in South Uist, where her brother had asked her to mind some sheep.

O’Neil, in his request for assistance, pitched to Flora “the honour and immortality that would redound to her by such a glorious action.”

After Charles Edward Stuart asked directly for her help, Flora agreed. The ease at which she accepted the request varies by degrees. She either “joyfully” signed up or was horrified at the thought of it, according to various accounts.

MacDonald and Lady Clanranald got to work on the Prince’s escape plan, stitching the outfit for the Prince, who was to be taken to the home of MacDonald of Sleat at Monkstadt, near Uig, on Skye and then moved from Portree to Raasay.

After arriving at Skye, the group were moved on to Kingsburgh to stay at the home of Alexander Macdonald, the estate factor.

Flora was to later marry his son, Allan, a government soldier, with the couple having seven children.

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After the Prince was moved off Skye, information quickly started to gather against Flora, who was arrested less than two weeks after she left the Prince.

Flora was held in captivity for almost a year – first on HMS Bridgewater moored at Leith then in London, but, like many women arrested following Culloden, was treated better than an ordinary prisoner.

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She was allowed to stitch clothes and receive visitors. In Flora’s case, her handling may have been linked to her willingness to comply with her captors. Her statement, given at Applecross Bay, on July 12 1746, details the main players and locations in the plot.

After bring transferred to London on the HMS Bridgewater in December, she became somewhat of a celebrity, according to Craig. A collection of £1,500 was raised for her by Lady Primrose, a Jacobite, at her house in the Strand where Flora had been permitted to visit during her custody.

She was freed as part of the Act of Indemnity in July 1747 and returned first to Edinburgh, then Skye for a short spell, then back to London, where she sat for portrait artist Allan Ramsay, one of the most prominent portrait artists of the day.

She married in 1750 and settled on Skye before emigrating to North Carolina where her husband fought for the British Government with the Royal Highland Emigrants.

He was imprisoned for two years but the family eventually returned to Skye. Flora suffered poor health in later life and died in 1790 aged 69.