Twice Flora MacDonald was asked to commit treason. Twice she chose the losing side and suffered for it.
But Flora’s treason came with a twist.
The first time she was a failed rebellion’s greatest heroine, remembered in statues and song. The second time, she rallied loyalists, sending her husband and a son to fight for king and crown. Swept aside by a great revolution, she ended up penniless.
Flora’s tale begins in the Scottish Highlands in the mid-1700s but shifts 30 years to the royal colony of North Carolina. Though separated by 30 years and 3,500 miles, each at the time seethed with rebellion that allowed no one to remain neutral.
The beautiful island
The dramatic landscape of Skye has always shaped life on the islands. In clan days, the long dark winters and 12 mountains acted as great barriers to keep strangers out.
Today, the mountains are magnets for hikers, bicyclists, rock climbers, photographers, kayakers, and other outdoors lovers. They flood into Skye each summer, the northern latitude rewarding them with up to 18 hours of sun.
Skye remains a sparsely populated world of small villages that together count 9,000 permanent residents, about the same as Flora’s day. The villages look traditional with their gray stone walls and slate roofs. Many homes are painted the traditional white and some retain thatched roofs.
But behind many of the old facades today are cozy B&Bs, artisan shops and restaurants serving "farm and field" cuisine drawn from the local farmers markets. There’s one distillery (Talisker), one brewery (Isle of Skye) and one world-class restaurant where reservations are required months ahead (The Three Chimneys).
Wee boat and a dark night
The trinket shops and museum stores are heavy with merchandise and books about local heroine Flora MacDonald. She’s enjoying a renaissance of fame – a new Starz channel show, “The Outlanders,” features a strong, Flora-like woman who time travels back to the rebellion on Skye in 1745.
Flora’s decision to do what she thought right instead of what her King wanted is echoed in the campaign for Scottish independence, which goes up for a vote in September.
Her grave on the wind-blasted northwest coast of the island has an 1880s monument that had to be erected because so many fans pulled stones from the original marker that it became a safety hazard.
Flora is beloved for saying “yes” when her clan asked her to take a “wee boat” out from the nearby island of South Uist and make a 20-mile dash across the Little Minch Channel to the Isle of Skye. With Flora was her Irish maid, “Betty Burke,” Beneath the skirts and bonnet, “Betty" was actually “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” The man officially called Prince Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Silvester Severino Maria Stuart was on the run with a $4 million reward on his head and a noose around the neck of anyone who helped him.
Eight months earlier, Charlie had landed in Scotland to claim the British crown, which his grandfather lost in a bloodless coup in 1688. A series of early victories held out hope that King George II, the German-born monarch, might be toppled. But by July, all that was won was lost, and more. Charlie was cornered at Culloden, near Inverness. His army of mostly Highlanders and a few French allies were outnumbered 2-to-1.
The result was a slaughter.
After several weeks on the run, Charlie turned to the MacDonalds for help. Despite his disastrous leadership, the clan remained loyal to him. Besides, under Highlands tradition, a request for shelter and help – even from a stranger and in some cases an enemy – could not be refused.
Flora was recruited to lead a treasonous ruse. Flora’s social standing as mildly wealthy member of the gentry meant she might travel with a maid. Add a bonnet to a bonnie face, add a dress and makeup and the would-be Stuart king could pass as a servant girl.
It worked amazing well, as the small boat made it to MacDonald territory on Skye. Despite nearly exposing himself with his mannish movements, the pair traveled all the way to Portree, the largest town on Skye. But the British were onto their disguise and closing in on the trail.
Charlie and Flora parted ways on June 29, 1746. Less than two weeks later, Flora was arrested and was shipped to the Tower of London. Charlie waited three months until slipping onto a French ship on the west coast of the Scottish mainland. He would never see Britain again.
Tours of the Tower of London these days are likely to underline the grizzly details of those who would oppose their monarch. Dressed in black and red tunic, the Beefeater guards guide relate the details of drawing and quartering and what it meant to have your head stuck on a pike.
But events moved swiftly in Flora’s favor. Tales of atrocities by British soldiers after Culloden were contrasted in the press to her loyalty, bravery and fealty to family. An intrigued King George II interviewed her himself, asking why she would aide a defeated usurper knowing that to do so could risk her life. Flora told the king that if it had been he who turned up at her doorstep that night, she would have done the same as she had for Charlie.
Not wanting another martyr on their hands, Flora was allowed to move to a private house with the promise not to escape. A little over a year after her arrest, she was offered a deal: Swear loyalty to King George and she could go free. She took the oath and was released as part of a general amnesty.
A new life and a new world
A life of notoriety seemed to have come to an end. In late 1750, just four months after returning home, she married Allan MacDonald, a member of her clan. Flora would give birth to seven children, including five in five years. In 1774, Allan was in the army and received orders to go to North Carolina. Flora and the family followed on the trip of more than 3,500 miles. At age 51, Flora had a new life and a new home on a small plantation near Mount Vernon, in Montgomery County, near the Richmond County line.
It didn’t last long: The Revolution broke out and in North Carolina, “Whose side are you on?” was the question of the day. Flora held true to her oath and became a vocal supporter of King George III, the son of the monarch she had once opposed.
It was a fateful decision. Her son, Alexander, had joined Allan to work with the loyalist units. Ordered to try to quell suspected unrest, the loyalists were caught by surprise when patriot militiamen appeared at Moores Creek.
The redcoats tried to charge across a narrow bridge the patriots had sabotaged by removing planks and greasing railings. Cannon fired straight down the bridge as the soldiers slipped and fell. Allan and Alexander were captured. Flora returned to London.
Back to Skye
Flora and Allan returned to Skye in 1783 to start over yet again, but the premature death of Alexander hit Flora particularly hard. She died at the family home in Penduin in 1790 and was buried in nearby Kilmuir.
Her passing brought honors and statues in her memory – even in England, where “the Rising” of 1745 was viewed increasingly with nostalgia as the United Kingdom.
It is in song that Flora MacDonald is best remembered today. “The Skye Boat Song,” a 19th-century folk ballad, imagines a sleeping prince with his head nestled in Flora’s lap, his guardian angel. It’s been recorded scores of times, most recently by Rod Stewart.
Though the waves leap, so soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.