Flora MacDonald – Heroine or Traitor?

Written by: Isabelle Sher.

On the 16th of April 1746, the Jacobite rebels were defeated at Culloden by Government troops under the command of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. Following the catastrophic defeat of Charles Stuart (better known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’), those who remained loyal to the Prince’s cause sought to help him negotiate a means of passage to France, all the time braving the possibility of discovery of his escape by the ‘Redcoats’. In June 1746, Charles and his few remaining loyal supporters arrived at Benbecula, where they enlisted the help of Flora MacDonald. 

Time does little to alter the vivid images of those two short weeks. I have nothing else to occupy me here. The heat in London rages on; the stench of death and fear overpowering. I pray that he, at least, is safe; to regret my own actions is a lost cause. With each fresh sensation of regret I intend to displace it by a determination to rid from my mind what has passed, and what cannot be altered.

I ought not complain, I repeatedly tell myself. I have not been imprisoned in The Tower but placed under the close watch of one of the King’s own messengers. I think of my dear brother Angus and the sheep, the little white specks just visible in the distance of the never-ending twilight of June in Benbecula. I close my eyes and dream of peace. I wonder at the hearts of those Government soldiers, as they rampage across the land like savages; burning all they find. I think back to that fateful night when Hugh O’Neill and Charles Stuart arrived to speak with me. I imagine one could never forget a sight such as the one summoned to stand before me. The prince reeked overpoweringly of alcohol; an abhorrence I could forgive under the circumstances. His deathly pallor contrasted unnaturally with his peeling sunburnt skin. Upon his head was his filthy, louse-ridden periwig, Lord knows why. The men’s voices rasped in a silence disturbed only by gently breaking waves and the odd sheep. They had little regard for how my assistance might ruin the reputation of my chieftain Sir Alexander MacDonald. That wretched O’Neill. I cannot fault my dealings with him, sharp as they were, for inherent in his manner was a detestable cheek. I repeatedly asserted that I would have no part in assisting the Prince and yet against my better judgement I allowed my mind to be turned. My family are no sympathisers to Charles’s cause and were it not for his pitiful condition, and the merciless way in which the Government forces treated our Highlanders, I am certain that even fewer would have come to his aid.

Even then the wretch hardly helped himself; dressed as my maidservant in women’s garb, he did nothing to keep up appearances, though doubtless his drunkenness and pain from the scurvy did little to help. Though I did not think much of it at the time, it is curious to think that the rightful heir to the throne was acting as my own named maidservant, Betty Burke.

I shift uneasily in my cramped confinement. The sun burns brighter still, hot on my face. I long for a breeze. I can hear the men laughing. They can make merry. I can only be melancholy.

I was aghast at the conduct of the Prince, who behaved in such a manner as to arouse the suspicion of everyone on the island following our crossing to Skye. I suspect he was too proud to play the part of a woman, for he would insist on being armed, despite mine and the party’s protestations that a thorough search by Government forces would give him away.

My arrest came several days after the prince and I parted ways. God willing, my life will be spared. From Fort Augustus I was moved to Edinburgh Castle, and then to London. I pray that nothing more terrifying befalls me again, for the unfairness of what has become of me is, I believe, undeserved. I only did as I believe any kind-hearted soul would have done when confronted by so pitiful a man.

The summers are too warm here. I long for the roaring winds and treacherous seas of my homeland. There at least I can witness the liveliness of the world. If it were not for the sheer number of people residing in and amongst this city, London would stand quite still. They say it will begin to cool in a month, for it is nearing September. I hope that they are right.

I wish the prince Godspeed, I tell myself, but I cannot ever wish for his return. 

Image: The Field of Prestonpans, Coloured lithograph by Mouilleron after Sir William Allan, printed by Lemercier, published by E Gambert and Company, 25 Berners Street, London, 1 September 1852. https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1971-02-33-303-1

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