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Flora MacDonald; Heroine of the Scottish Hebrides

Updated on December 14, 2015
Portrait of Flora MacDonald by Allan Ramsay (1713–1784)
Portrait of Flora MacDonald by Allan Ramsay (1713–1784)

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.

Relief map of the Outer Hebrides, the home of Flora MacDonald.
Relief map of the Outer Hebrides, the home of Flora MacDonald. | Source

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.

Flora MacDonald's Farewell to Bonnie Prince Charlie by George William Joy.
Flora MacDonald's Farewell to Bonnie Prince Charlie by George William Joy.

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.

Revolutionaries pull down the statue of the British King George at the outbreak of the American Revolution, by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel circa 1859
Revolutionaries pull down the statue of the British King George at the outbreak of the American Revolution, by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel circa 1859

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

A depitction of an actual privateer attack on a larger ship in the year 1800, by Ambroise Louis Garneray
A depitction of an actual privateer attack on a larger ship in the year 1800, by Ambroise Louis Garneray

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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Flora MacDonald's Fancy

© 2014 Carolyn Emerick


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    • Ilonagarden profile image

      Ilona E 3 years ago from Ohio

      I love Scottish history, and the individual characters are espeically interesting.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image

      Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      What an inspiring woman! Very well written, well done. I've shared this, and hope this piece gets the attention it deserves. Brilliant stuff.

    • profile image

      theloftmovieonlin 3 years ago

      very nice post i have read all the content its so good .

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I'm Cochran on one side and Hamilton on the other, and it is embarrassing how little I know of Scottish history. Thank you for this lesson. "The Outlander" caught my attention after my husband and I made plans to travel to Scotland next September, but there is so much more to learn. I'll be watching for more of your hubs.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Hi Eileen, thanks so much for your comment. I had never heard of her, but came across her tale while researching something else. When I read about her, I was so impressed by her story that I had to write about her!

    • profile image

      Eileen MacDonald 3 years ago

      Enjoyed your article. As a MacDonald from the Isle of Skye, much has been romanticised about Flora and her connection with the Prince. She was a strong, principled & honourable highland woman who did what she thought was right. Much like her kinswomen and contemporaries who also fought for what they believed in i.e. Mairi Mhor nan Oran (Mary MacPherson) and the women from Braes and Glendale. It is great to know that generations later, people are still interested in their lives. Moran taing (many thanks), Eileen.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Heidi and Aesta, yes she was one amazing woman! I agree that a movie should be made about her, and her story makes me proud to have some Scottish ancestry, too :-)

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I really enjoy stories of women who did what they had to do when confronted with life's circumstances. Enjoyed this story given that my husband is connected to this clan.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Wow! Has her story ever been made into a movie? It should be if not already. Thanks for sharing this obscure, but amazing, bit of history! Cheers!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      I had never heard of her before this. I stumbled upon her accidentally and her story was just so amazing I had to write about it. Others write about these amazing woman pirates... but what makes Flora so remarkably different is that the female pirates purposely sought out trouble and adventure. Whereas Flora was just minding her own business when trouble and adventure kept finding her. I still feel in awe of her amazing life and strength of character.

    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 3 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      I knew about Flora MacDonald's involvement in Bonnie Prince Charlie's escape (I learned a song about it in elementary school), but I had no idea she lived in what became the United States.

    • klidstone1970 profile image

      இڿڰۣ-- кιмвєяℓєу 3 years ago from Niagara Region, Canada

      What a way to make a history for yourself. It's been awhile since I've heard the story of Flora MacDonald. My grandmother's maiden name was MacDonald and the family had immigrated to Nova Scotia somewhere down the line. I've always liked Flora's story. You just never know what type of person you will be when confronted with adversity. She was a class act. Thanks for sharing your article. I enjoyed it very much.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 4 years ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting everybody! She was just such an amazing woman, and I thought people should know about her.

      informationshelte - I agree so much with what you said about character. It's something that you have or you don't. And I think it runs strong in the Scottish blood. My grandfather had Scottish ancestry and his character was as true as you can get.

      denden mangubat - the dance is a tribute to Flora. There is a legend that she did invent it and danced it to distract the British soldiers so they didn't find Prince Charlie. But nobody knows if that story is true. It was likely invented many years after she lived in honor of her memory.

      Suzette - we have much in common! Similar ancestry and interests. I think it's kind of cool that we both stumbled upon two strong Celtic women who lived lives of adventures!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

      What a great write. I have never heard of Flora MacDonald before so this is quite I retesting and informative. You did a great job of writing about her life. And to think she came to America. She had quite a life. I have written some Irish hubs because my niece and nephews are Irish through their father. My sister and I have English and Welsh in us from our paternal grandmother and a drop of Scottish from our mother's Italian side, believe it or not. That is where the interest comes for me. I also majored in English Literature and taught for 30 years, but also taught Spanish. Your MA course sounds wonderful and a cousin of mine has an MA similar to what you are studying. She works at the Paterno Library at Penn State.

      I will take you up on your offer to write for your publication. I will check out you FB page and publication. I love the Celtic era in Northern Europe. I love all of your articles here in HP also and will be reading more of your hubs. I am so glad our paths crossed here on HP.

    • denden mangubat profile image

      denden mangubat 4 years ago from liloan, cebu, philippines

      this is my first time hearing about her.that dance was made by her?

    • informationshelte profile image

      informationshelte 4 years ago

      This is an excellent account of historical events surrounding the figure of this brave lady, Flora MacDonald.

      Whatever fate is hiding, a person's true character shows in times of unexpected difficulty and uncertainty, and Flora proved that she had the courage and stamina to go through all those adventures.

      I doubt if nowadays there would more than a handful of women (not to say men too) who would be willing to fight against all odds, without being their own fault, and without any material gain, other than family honor and noble pride. Different times, different mores.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I haven't heard Flora MacDonald's name since I was a child. Thank you for reminding me of her and for creating this interesting and informative article. She sounds like a fascinating woman!

    • profile image

      Mimi 4 years ago

      You never fail to amaze me! You have a gift! I pray that it is recognized, as it should be, by those who will give you the recognition you deserve.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 4 years ago

      Thanks Audrey and Suhail! I'm so glad you both stopped by :-)

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 4 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      What a great story from history! I will definitely share this with my mentor of Scottish descent (and having a strong Scottish accent lol). Being a strong nationalist, I am sure she will have something to say about this story.

      Thanks for sharing. I found this story very informative indeed.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 4 years ago from California

      What a fascinating woman. Thank you for this introduction to her life.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 4 years ago

      Hello Sage, Hello Flourish! Thank you both for stopping by and so glad you liked it! I had never heard of this woman either and I stumbled across her while looking for info for another article I was writing, and she was so fascinating that I just HAD to write about her! :-)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      What a high spirited, independent and resourceful lady for her day! This was an interesting and well-written account. Voting up and more, sharing, pinning.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 4 years ago

      Wow, never heard of her but what an amazing woman! Someone who would be fascinating to know. Thanks for sharing, great hub and beautiful images.


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