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Flora MacDonald

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Flora MacDonald
Portrait of Flora Macdonald by the artist Allan Ramsay
Flora Macdonald by Allan Ramsay c. 1749–1750; the roses are a Jacobite symbol. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Born1722 (1722)
Died5 March 1790(1790-03-05) (aged 67–68)
Known forassisting the escape of Charles Edward Stuart

Flora MacDonald [a] (1722 – 5 March 1790) is best known for helping Charles Edward Stuart evade government troops after the Battle of Culloden in April 1746. Her family had generally backed the government during the 1745 Rising, and MacDonald later claimed to have assisted Charles out of sympathy for his situation.

Arrested and held in the Tower of London, she was released under a general amnesty in June 1747. She later married Allan MacDonald and the couple emigrated to North Carolina in 1773. Their support for the British government during the American War of Independence meant the loss of their American estates and they returned to Scotland, where she died in 1790.

Personal details[edit]

Flora MacDonald was born in 1722 at Milton on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, third and last child of Ranald MacDonald (d. 1723) and his second wife, Marion. Her father was a member of the minor gentry of Clan MacDonald of Clanranald, being tacksman and leaseholder of Milton and Balivanich. She had two brothers, Angus, who later inherited the Milton tack, and Ronald, who died young.[1]

Sunset on South Uist, where MacDonald was born in 1722

Particularly in the Hebrides, elements of the MacDonald clan remained faithful to the Catholic Church, but Flora came from South Uist's Protestant minority. Through her uncle Maighstir Alasdair MacDhòmhnaill, Episcopalian Rector of Kilchoan and a Clanranald tacksman of Dalilea, Moidart, she was first cousin to Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair. Along with Sorley MacLean, the latter is considered one of the two most important figures in Scottish Gaelic literature.[2]

Her father died soon after her birth and in 1728 her mother married again, this time to Hugh MacDonald, Tacksman of Armadale, Isle of Skye. MacDonald was brought up by her father's cousin, Sir Alexander MacDonald, Chief of Clan Macdonald of Sleat. Suggestions she was educated in Edinburgh cannot be confirmed.[1]

On 6 November 1750, she married Allan MacDonald, a captain in the British Army whose father was Sir Alexander's steward, and tacksman of Kingsburgh, Skye.[3] They had seven surviving children, two daughters and five sons, two of whom were lost at sea in 1781 and 1782; a third son John made his fortune in India, enabling his parents to spend their last years in some comfort.[1]

The escape of Prince Charles Edward Stuart[edit]

MacDonald was visiting Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides when Prince Charles and a small group of aides took refuge there after the Battle of Culloden in June 1746. One of his companions, Captain Conn O'Neill from County Antrim, was distantly related to MacDonald and asked for her help. MacDonald of Sleat had not joined the Rebellion and Benbecula was controlled by a pro-government militia commanded by her step-father, Hugh MacDonald. This connection allowed her to obtain the necessary permits but she apparently hesitated, fearing the consequences for her family if they were caught. She may have been taking less of a risk than it appears, since witnesses later claimed Hugh advised the Prince where to hide from his search parties.[4]

Islands of Skye and Raasay, Portree mid-left

Passes were issued allowing passage to the mainland for Flora MacDonald, and a party of eight, including Charles disguised as an Irish maid called Betty Burke. On 27 June, they landed near Sir Alexander's house at Monkstadt, near Kilbride, Skye. In his absence, his wife Lady Margaret arranged lodging with her steward, who told Charles to remove his disguise, as it simply made him more conspicuous. The next day, the Prince was taken from Portree to the island of Raasay, while MacDonald remained on Skye. They never met again.[5]

Two weeks later, the boatmen were detained and confessed; MacDonald and Kingsburgh were arrested and taken to the Tower of London. After Lady Margaret interceded on her behalf with the chief Scottish legal officer, Duncan Forbes of Culloden, she was allowed to live outside the Tower under the supervision of a "King's Messenger" and released after the June 1747 Act of Indemnity.[6] Aristocratic sympathisers collected over £1,500 for her, one of the contributors being Frederick, Prince of Wales. She allegedly told Frederick she helped Charles out of charity, and would have done the same for him.[7]

Emigration to North Carolina[edit]

Following their marriage in 1750, Flora and her husband lived at Flodigarry on Skye. During the 1756 to 1763 Seven Years' War, Allan MacDonald served in the 114th and 62nd Regiments of Foot, and inherited Kingsburgh after his father died in 1772. The couple was visited here by poet, essayist, and lexicographer Dr. Johnson during his visit to the island in 1773. Johnson later described Flora as "a woman of soft features, gentle manners, kind soul and elegant presence".[b] He was also author of the inscription on her memorial at Kilmuir: "a name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour".[8]

However, a series of poor harvests and increasingly high rents resulted in what Johnson described as an "epidemic desire of wandering" throughout the Highlands in general. At the time of his visit in 1773, more than 800 people from the Sleat lands were preparing to emigrate to North America, and in 1774 Flora and her husband moved to Anson County, North Carolina.[9] Along with other Clan Donald transplants, they settled near what is now Cameron Hill, on a plantation named "Killegray".[10]

When the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, Allan raised the Anson Battalion of the Loyalist North Carolina Militia, a total of around 1,000 men, including their sons Alexander and James.[11] They then set off for the coast to link up with some 2,000 British reinforcements commanded by General Henry Clinton, who in reality had only just left Cork in Ireland. Early on the morning of 27 February, they were ambushed at Moore's Creek Bridge by Patriot militia led by Richard Caswell and along with his troops, Allan MacDonald was taken prisoner.[11]

After the battle, Flora MacDonald was interrogated by the local Committee of Safety. In April 1777, all Loyalist-owned property was confiscated and the MacDonalds were evicted from Killegray, losing all their possessions.[12] After 18 months in captivity, Allan was released as part of a prisoner exchange in September 1777 and posted to Fort Edward, Nova Scotia as commander of the 84th Regiment of Foot. He was joined here by his wife in August 1778.[13]

Return to Skye[edit]

Flora's grave in Kilmuir Cemetery, Skye

After a harsh winter in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in September 1779 MacDonald took passage for London in the Dunmore, a British privateer; during the voyage, she broke her arm and ill-health delayed her return to Scotland until spring 1780.[14] She spent the next few years living with various family members, including Dunvegan home of her son-in-law Major General Alexander MacLeod, the largest landowner in Skye after the MacDonalds.[15]

The compensation received for the loss of their property in North Carolina was insufficient to allow them to resettle in Nova Scotia and Allan returned to Scotland in 1784. Kingsburgh was now occupied by Flora's half-sister and her husband, and Allan instead took up tenant farming in nearby Penduin.[16] She died in 1790 at the age of 68 and was buried in Kilmuir Cemetery, followed by her husband in September 1792.[1]


1896 statue, Inverness Castle

Traditional portrayals of the escape focus on Charles, with MacDonald relegated to a secondary role. She herself rarely spoke of the episode, and her last contact with the Prince was when they parted ways at Portree. It appears her assistance was at least partly driven by fears his continued presence would endanger her family.[17]

Michael Newton, a modern scholar of Scottish Gaelic literature, argues English-language versions fail to recognise "Flora was only one of many people who risked their lives to protect" Charles.[18] [c] Her cousin, Gaelic poet Niall mac Eachainn, criticised her for trying to win favour from both Stuarts and Hanoverians, while contrasting his own continuing loyalty to the Jacobite cause. Mac Eachainn went into exile in France, and his son Étienne Macdonald became one of Napoleon's marshals.[19]

MacDonald was painted several times by Scottish portrait artist Allan Ramsay (1713–1784), most of which have now survived. The one used in this article was done after her release from the Tower in 1749–1750; in 2015, a previously unrecorded painting, allegedly also by Ramsay, was discovered in Florida.[20]

Inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the Victorian era created a Scottish cultural identity that co-opted "romantic" icons like Mary, Queen of Scots and Prince Charles.[21] In 1878, MacDonald joined this list with the publication of an alleged "Autobiography". Ghostwritten by her granddaughter Lady Flora Frances Wylde, it contains so many mistakes that it could not have been written by her.[1] These errors were repeated by Charles Ewald in his 1886 book The Life and Times of Prince Charles Edward, which remains the basis for many popular perspectives on her life and motivations.[1]

In 1884, Sir Harold Boulton composed English lyrics to Cuachag nan Craobh [d], a lament about unrequited love originally written by 18th-century Gaelic poet William Ross.[22] Under the title The Skye Boat Song, Boulton's lyrics focus instead upon Prince Charles' escape to Skye, and proved extremely popular. This was soon followed by the first performance of the Scottish highland dance known as "Flora MacDonald's Fancy", while a bronze statue was erected at Inverness Castle in 1896, with her dog Flossie by her side.[23]

The Flora MacDonald Academy, formerly Flora MacDonald College, in Red Springs, North Carolina is named for her. Two of her children are interred on the campus. Until 2009, it was also the site of the Flora Macdonald Highland Games.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In the 1948 film Bonnie Prince Charlie, Flora MacDonald is portrayed by Margaret Leighton, with David Niven as Prince Charles. Niven later recalled the film as "...one of those huge, florid extravaganzas that reek of disaster from the start."
  • Inglis Fletcher, The Scotswoman (1954); a novel based on Flora MacDonald's life in North Carolina during the American War of Independence.
  • The Flask, a Dutch folkband, released the song Flora MacDonald in 2021, telling her story from saving Prince Charlie until her death.
  • Flora MacDonald was played by Shauna Macdonald in Outlander, season six, episode five.


  1. ^ Gaelic: Fionnghal nic Dhòmhnaill
  2. ^ Johnson, who claimed to have Jacobite sympathies, asked to meet Flora
  3. ^ MacDonald herself rarely referred to the episode in later life, and made no attempt to highlight her own role
  4. ^ "Cuckoo of the Trees"


  1. ^ a b c d e f Douglas 2004.
  2. ^ Thomson 1983, p. 184.
  3. ^ MacInnes 1899, pp. 15–24.
  4. ^ Riding 2016, pp. 465–467.
  5. ^ Riding 2016, pp. 467–468.
  6. ^ Riding 2016, pp. 468–469.
  7. ^ MacLeod 1985, p. 90.
  8. ^ Bate 1955, p. 463.
  9. ^ Fraser 2022, pp. 123–124.
  10. ^ Quynn 1941, p. 246.
  11. ^ a b McConnell 2014.
  12. ^ Meyer 1963, p. 75.
  13. ^ Quynn 1941, pp. 249–251.
  14. ^ Quynn 1941, pp. 251–252.
  15. ^ MacGregor 2009, p. 134.
  16. ^ Quynn 1941, pp. 252–253.
  17. ^ Riding 2016, p. 465.
  18. ^ Newton 2001, p. 39.
  19. ^ Newton 2001, pp. 39–41.
  20. ^ "'Flora MacDonald portrait' found in Florida". BBC News. 31 March 2015. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  21. ^ Morris 1992, pp. 37–39.
  22. ^ Cuachag nan Craobh, Tobar an Dualchais
  23. ^ Historic Environment Scotland. "Inverness, Castle Wynd, Statue Of Flora Macdonald (13434)". Canmore. Retrieved 26 January 2015.


  • Bate, W Jackson (1955). The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. OUP. ISBN 978-0195004762.
  • Douglas, Hugh (2004). "Flora MacDonald". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/17432. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • Fraser, Flora (2022). Pretty Young Rebel: The Life of Flora Macdonald. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1408879825.
  • MacInnes, John (1899). The Brave Sons of Skye; Containing the Military Records (compiled From Authentic Sources) of the Leading Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers, and private soldiers whom "Eilean a' Cheo" has produced. Eyre and Spottiswood.
  • MacLeod, Ruairidh (1985). Flora MacDonald: The Jacobite Heroine in Scotland and North America. Shepheard-Walwyn. ISBN 978-0856831478.
  • MacGregor, Alexander (December 2009). The life of Flora Macdonald, and her adventures with Prince Charles (Print On Demand ed.). Nabu Press.
  • MacLean, JP (1900). An Historical Account of the Settlements of Scotch Highlanders in America. Helman Taylor.
  • McConnell, Brian (30 November 2014). "A Highlander & Loyalist – Alan MacDonald" (PDF). UE.org. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  • Meyer, Duane (1963). The Highland Scots of North Carolina. Raleigh, N.C.: Carolina Charter Tercentenary Commission.
  • Morris, RJ (1992). "Victorian Values in Scotland & England". Proceedings of the British Academy (78).
  • Newton, Michael (2015). Seanchaidh na Choille The Memory Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada. Nimbus Publishing. ISBN 978-1772060164.
  • Newton, Michael (2001). We're Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States. Saorsa Media.
  • Quynn, Dorothy Mackay (July 1941). "Flora MacDonald in History". The North Carolina Historical Review. 18 (3): 236–258. JSTOR 23516055.
  • Riding, Jacqueline (2016). Jacobites; A New History of the 45 Rebellion. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1408819128.
  • Sumner, Natasha; Doyle, Aidan, eds. (2020). North American Gaels: Speech, Song, and Story in the Diaspora. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 978-0228005186.
  • Thomson, Derek, ed. (1983). The Companion to Gaelic Scotland. Blackwell. ISBN 9780631155782.

Further reading[edit]

  • Douglas, Hugh (1993). Flora MacDonald: The Most Loyal Rebel. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0750903486.

External links[edit]