Flora Macdonald, truest friend to Bonnie Prince Charlie

Posted in Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Scotland on Thursday, 29 September 2011

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This edited article about Scotland originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 828 published on 26 November 1977.

Flora and Bonnie Prince Charlie, picture, image, illustration

Flora Macdonald leads the Young Pretender to safety

“You say, Captain O’Neil, that you wish me to help the prince to escape to Skye. But how can that be possible? No one is allowed to leave Benbecula without special permission.”

The young woman who spoke those words waited eagerly for the captain’s reply.

“It is proposed that the prince should disguise himself in woman’s dress,” said Captain O’Neil. “Your father is in charge of the militia here. Perhaps it would be possible for you to obtain a passport for yourself and the prince in the guise of a spinning maid, Betty Burke.”

Flora Macdonald thought about it for a few moments and then said, “It is true I could get permission by saying I was going to visit my mother.” She looked into the captain’s anxious face. “I will agree to do it.”

A few weeks before, on 16th April 1476, Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, had seen the dream of occupying the throne of his forefathers vanish in the smoke of the Battle of Culloden. After it, one thousand of his 7,000 followers lay dead on Culloden Moor.

He became a fugitive with a price of £25,000 on his head. His only hope was to escape to France. As he fled into the mists, he was sure only of one thing. Whatever happened, the clansmen would support him and hide him when necessary.

The news of the disaster of Culloden spread swiftly, and eventually it reached the Hebridean island of Benbecula, where the young Flora Macdonald was staying with relatives.

Soon afterwards, Captain O’Neil arrived on the island with a companion – the Young Pretender. O’Neil enlisted Flora’s help because he had been told she was a Jacobite sympathiser.

On the evening of the 27th June, Flora and her “maid” set out for Skye with a boat crew of six trusted men. Their oars dipped smoothly into the water and the boat drew swiftly away from Benbecula. Everyone began to relax. The worst part of the adventure was over. Or so they thought!

Their optimism was ill-founded. When they tried to land on the beach near Waternish they were met by a shower of bullets from a party of militia. As they turned and rowed furiously away, Flora decided that they should make for Kilbride. With bullets still spattering around them they were swallowed up by the darkness.

They landed at Kilbride in the early hours of the following morning, and there the prince spent most of the day and night in a cave. Then they journeyed to Portree, where flora arranged for a boat to convey him to Rothesay. Before they said farewell to each other, Prince Charles Edward gave her a gold locket.

But this was not the end of the story for Flora Macdonald. She returned home to learn that the boatmen from Benbecula had been arrested, and that they had divulged the whole story to the captain of the local militia.

Even then she could have fled and hidden in the mountains. Instead, she preferred to give herself up to the authorities, who treated her with surprising courtesy. She was allowed to pay a brief visit to her mother on Skye, and then she was conveyed to the Tower of London. There she was imprisoned for a short time and then released.

Later, she made a happy marriage and lived with her husband in North Carolina for a time before returning to Scotland. She died in Kingsburgh on 5th March, 1790. By her brave act of aiding the Young Pretender’s escape to safety all those years earlier, however, she had ensured that her name would live forever.

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