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Flora MacDonald; Heroine of the Scottish Hebrides
Flora MacDonald was a woman who led a life filled with adventure, and not a small amount of danger. Most of her life was spent in the Scottish western isles, apart from a period when she made her mark in the New World. She participated in subterfuge, spent a year in an English prison, found herself in the midst of revolution, went into hiding, and fought marauders on the high seas. But, unlike those rare female pirates whose legacies have risen to fame in recent years, Flora MacDonald was no criminal. Neither did she intentionally put herself in these situations. She was simply an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times who surprised everyone, probably especially herself, when she was confronted with situations which are the stuff of legends.
Who Was Flora MacDonald?
Born in 1722 to Ranald and Marion MacDonald in the Scottish Hebrides, Flora’s young existence was rife with adversity early on. Some sources indicate that her father was an abusive man. In any case, he died while Flora was yet a child. Her mother, Marion, then began receiving advances from another clan member, Hugh MacDonald. When Marion resisted, Hugh abducted her and married her by force. Probably due to these traumatic events, Flora was raised as a ward of the family of the chief of her clan, the MacDonalds of Clanranald, who were cousins of her deceased father. Being raised with the clan chief’s family is likely what put Flora in the position for the event that would later make her famous.
The Door Knock That Changed Her Fate
Flora was a young woman of twenty-four when the Jacobite Rebellion was in full swing. Descendants of the ousted Stuart dynasty were laying claim to the British throne. Because the Stuarts’ had ancestry in Scotland, and due to Scottish oppression at the hands of the English, the Jacobite movement gained the support of the Scottish people. Charles Edward Stuart, called the Great Pretender by the English and Bonnie Prince Charlie by the Scots, experienced defeat in his attempt to claim the British throne. When his military actions failed, the would-be King found himself fleeing or his life. When the British navy was hot on his trail, where did Charles Stuart seek protection? From the good people of the Scottish Hebrides. Flora was taken by surprise when she found an acquaintance at her door with none other than the Bonnie Prince, himself.
The Bonnie Prince Won Hearts
The Scottish people had placed their hopes on the Prince's claim to the British throne. His defeat seemed yet another defeat for the Scottish people. This song, 'Will Ye No Come Back Again' was written after the Jacobites were defeated and Prince Charlie sailed away to France.
Will Ye No Come Back Again
Flora’s stepfather, Hugh MacDonald, was in a position of authority with the ability to issue travel passes through the islands. A plan was hatched to disguise Charles Stuart as an Irish servant woman traveling with Flora to seek work. Accounts of this night mention that Flora was hesitant to participate, but it is emphasized that she did not express concern for herself, rather for her clansmen and kinfolk who might be implicated by this scheme. However, the situation for Charlie was dire. Traitors to the crown cannot be afforded to live, and the British were closing in fast. This was his only chance to escape, and ultimately Flora decided to lead him to safety. With Charles in disguise and travel passport in hand, Flora journeyed by boat to bring Charlie to the outer islands, and from there he was able to make the voyage across the Channel to France, escaping a traitors execution.
Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped with his neck intact, but it was Flora who faced punishment for her participation in the event. She spent a year in a London prison. Although, perhaps due to her soft disposition, and the support she received from the public, it is said that she was kept in comfortable quarters and well looked after until she was eventually pardoned.
The New World Brings New Adventures
Most women who lived through such excitement would expect to return home and settle back in to ordinary life. But, for Flora, the adventures seemed to follow her. Three years after her return to Scotland, at the age of twenty-eight, Flora married Allan MacDonald, a captain in the British Army. Her story is quiet for a few years… until Flora and Allan immigrate to the American colonies. How could she know when she arrived in North Carolina in 1774 what was around the corner?
Barely two years after settling in to her new life, the Declaration of Independence was signed and the United States of America was formed. As an officer in the British military, Allan MacDonald was on the wrong side of this battle. In the course of the war, Allan was captured and Flora went into hiding for her own safety. American freedom fighters, like the British military, sometimes took drastic measures for their cause. As British soldiers burned down American patriot homesteads, American soldiers destroyed the properties held by British loyalists. The MacDonalds’ plantation in North Carolina was ravaged.
In one respect, the MacDonald couple was very lucky. Allan was not killed and the pair were reunited after a prisoner exchange. They eventually returned home to Scotland, Allan having inheriting an ancestral estate. Sources say that Flora made the sea voyage back across the Atlantic on board a merchant ship in 1779 alone. We may deduce that Allan remained in America to continue fighting against the Revolution.
During the return voyage, the vessel carrying Flora was besieged by a privateer ship. This was an age of revolution, colonialism, and strong nations bent on expanding their empires and guarding their interests. Privateers were virtually pirates hired by governments to attack, harass, and plunder ships from rival nations. Reports of the event say that Flora refused to go below deck and lock herself away with the other ladies. She insisted on remaining on deck and facing these marauders head on. By this time Flora was fifty-nine years old, quite an age by the standards of the day. Despite her age, this woman stood firm and braced the attack. It is noted that Flora suffered a flesh wound in her arm during the ordeal.
Depiction of a Privateer Attack
Flora MacDonald is Honored by Highland Dancers
Although Flora MacDonald's time in North Carolina was brief, she is remembered fondly there to this day. 'Flora MacDonald's Fancy' is a Highland Dance performed in her honor by dancers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Some say that Flora herself performed this dance to distract British soldiers during Prince Charlie's elaborate escape. Others say that it was choreographed in memory of her.
Whatever the origins, new generations learn Flora's story whenever this dance is taught to young students of Highland Dance.
After returning to her homeland in the Hebrides, it appears that Flora was able to settle down and enjoy the last decade of her life in peace. Unlike Joan of Arc or other heroines in history, Flora never went out looking for adventure, somehow it just seemed to come looking for her. Reports from the period describe Flora MacDonald as a soft, pleasant woman with a likeable demeanor. By all accounts she seems like an unassuming woman from whom we might never expect greatness. She was a mother and a wife, and is described as gentle and soft spoken. The truth is that we don’t know what courage looks like until the moment when we are faced with danger and have but a moment to react. In these situations Flora acted with instinct. And, like Highlanders before and after her, instinct told her to stand strong and protect her own.
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Read more about Flora MacDonald
Flora MacDonald's Fancy
© 2014 Carolyn Emerick