David MacDonald, A Wee Guide to Flora MacDonald (Goblinshead, 2003)

Flora MacDonald first came to my attention when a group I was in added "The Skye Boat Song" to our repertoire. In one of the verses we sang: "Rocked on the deep/Flora will keep/Watch by your weary head." I got reacquainted with her when my family and I travelled around Scotland in 1995. Out on the Isle of Skye she seemed to be omnipresent. It was therefore with some surprise I found out that she was not always the big hero in people's eyes.

Flora MacDonald was born in 1722 on South Uist, an island in the Hebrides. Her moment of glory came in the aftermath to the 1745-46 Jacobite uprising in Scotland. In the battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746 the Jacobite cause was crushed by the Duke of Cumberland and his army, and with it the dream of the free Scottish nation.

The leader of the uprising, Bonnie Prince Charles, fled from the English troops through the Scottish highlands. With very harsh methods the English chased him while arresting, torturing and killing his followers.

In June the Prince found himself on South Uist. But the army was closing in and it was necessary to ship him over to the Isle of Skye. Flora MacDonald agreed to be in charge of the operation. The tall and manly Prince was dressed in women's clothing, pretending to be Betty Burke, an Irish spinner of fine lint and wool. As this he was roared over to Skye in a large boat with an eight-man-crew. And yes, on that journey he rested his head in Flora's lap when he was tired.

The Prince safely reached Skye from where he later could move on, finally picked up by a French ship on 19 September 1746 and returned to France. Flora was arrested and brought to London for trial. She was then considered a big hero, the woman who had rescued the life of the heralded Prince.

In July 1747 Flora was freed, together with many other Jacobites. Ladies in London had collected £1,500 for her, a large sum in those days, and she returned to Scotland where she first resided in Edinburgh under an assumed name. On Skye she was treated with some suspicion. People thought she had got off very lightly from the trials and with the money that had been given to her she had benefited in an improper way.

But the story does not end there. In 1750 she got married. With her husband she had seven children. In 1774, after her husband had lost his job and the family had fallen on hard times, the family emigrated to North Carolina. In the War of Independence her husband fought on King George's side, once again leaving the family without home and money when the war finished.

First Flora, and then her husband Allan, returned to Britain. For a few years they stayed with various friends and relations, having no home of their own and Flora suffering from illness. In 1790 both died, Flora in March and Allan in September.

In his Wee Guide to Flora MacDonald David MacDonald tells the tale with every detail there is to find. He adds pieces of information on the situation in Scotland (and in America) in those rebellious times, mentioning almost anyone who had a connection to Flora.

In the second part of the book he lists a number of places of interest connected to Flora's life. Only places in Scotland are mentioned. Here you will find no references to where Flora stayed in London or where she and her family lived in North Carolina. But to be fair, this is a book in a series of guides to Scotland.

The story is a fascinating one and I took great pleasure in reading it, though I could have done without a few names and some of the cross references. Next time I travel around Scotland I will bring the book and tick off all the places I visit, because Flora MacDonald, along with Mary Queen of Scots, Robert the Bruce and a handful of others is one of the big Scottish heroes. Until then I will keep on singing "The Skye Boat Song" and listen to the fiddler of my group play "The Lament of Flora MacDonald" — but from now on the introductions to the song and the tune will be slightly longer and bit more detailed than before.

Recommended reading to anyone with an interest in Scottish history, or planning a trip round the Scottish Highlands


[Lars Nilsson]