Over the sea to Skye

Roy Foster hails Flora Fraser’s biography of Flora MacDonald, the heroine who saved Bonnie Prince Charlie

Despite all the efforts of spoilsport historians such as John Prebble and Hugh Trevor-Roper, Jacobite narratives will always hit the sweet spot for romantic escapism.

They are epitomised by Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Scott’s Waverley and, better still, Redgauntlet – and this reviewer’s childhood favourite, John Keir Cross’s The Man in Moonlight. (I still treasure it, published in 1947 by John Westhouse, London, ‘and decorated in the manner of the period by Robin Jacques’.) 

Flora Fraser, no spoilsport, is from a Highland clan who fought for Charles Edward Stewart; for his pains, her ancestor Lord Lovat became the last peer to be beheaded on Tower Hill. 

And, as the accomplished biographer of Emma Hamilton, Queen Caroline, Pauline Bonaparte and Mr and Mrs George Washington, she has a beady eye for the paradoxes of history, the rationalisations of survivors, and the way myths and reputations are made. And that is what makes this book such a riveting read.

Her namesake, also from a Highland clan, though a less elevated one, became famous overnight in the aftermath of the 1745 rebellion. That’s when she took charge of the fugitive Bonnie Prince Charlie and enabled him, disguised as her Irish maid ‘Betty Burke’, to evade Cumberland’s soldiery, escaping ‘over the sea to Skye’ and eventually to France. 

This narrative takes up the first half of the book – and is suitably thrilling, while based on intensive archival research as well as local knowledge and tradition. (The author spent much of her youth in a Western Isles house embellished by doors carved by the Sobieski Stuarts, two enterprising 19th-century claimants to the throne.) 

In disguise or out of it, the Prince seems to have been a good sport, but kept risking things by over-tipping innkeepers or complaining about the crudeness of drinking vessels. 

His companion by contrast comes across as sensible, self-disciplined, resourceful and brave. The images, which launched a thousand shortbread tins, usually portray two handsome young people in tartan dress, soulfully gazing at each other while boarding a boat in stormy seas. In fact, their time together was mostly spent cowering on hillsides and in bothies amid the kind of downpours that only a Scottish summer can provide. And, after they’d parted, the Prince still had a fair bit of ‘skulking and lurking’ to do before getting to France. 

The complications of the couple’s peregrinations, and the difficulties visited on those who sheltered them, are vividly reconstructed. The author shows an intimate grasp of the twists and turns of clan diplomacy as well as Hebridean topography in the aftermath of Culloden. 

No less absorbing, and much less familiar, is the way her heroine coped with life after Bonnie Prince Charlie. Arrested and imprisoned, she (unlike several co-conspirators and against the advice of law officers) evaded a treason verdict. 

Demurely attractive and notably self-possessed, she became a social success in London, befriending the family with whom she was lodged during her arrest. She was taken up by Lady Primrose, a rich Stuart sympathiser who endowed her with a substantial fortune, partly through crowdfunding. 

Returning to Scotland, Flora married a local tacksman (farmer and land agent) and settled down on Skye to raise a family. 

Her fame was now firmly established, rebooted by an admiring visit from Johnson and Boswell on their Highland tour, and she astutely had kept many material relics of her adventure, useful later for raising money. 

Fraser is particularly good on this ‘holy relics’ aspect of Jacobitism and Flora’s manipulation of items such as ‘Betty Burke’s’ brogues, garters and apron strings. Chips from the fabled boat were marketed like fragments of the True Cross. 

Such supplementary sources of income were soon necessary, as her husband Allan turned out to be a bad manager and hopeless with money. By 1774, Flora was describing herself as ‘a poor, distressed woman, once known to the world’ and the MacDonalds decided, like many clan members, to emigrate to America. 

And here a whole new adventure begins. Fraser tells us that, though she was raised on the Flora MacDonald-Bonnie Prince Charlie epic, it was only when researching in the USA for her Washington biography that she came upon the complications of Flora’s new life in North Carolina. 

This projected her heroine straight into the American Revolution – in which this Jacobite icon, as well as her husband and sons, firmly embraced the Loyalist cause and took arms in support of the Hanoverian monarchy.

Ironically, they thus unwittingly signed up to another losing cause, and the last chapter of Flora’s extraordinary life saw her back in the Highlands. Here her reduced circumstances were partly ameliorated by a royal pension – not from her exiled companion Charles Edward, now a boozy wreck, but
initiated by a more recent admirer, the future George IV.

Flora Fraser shows that her namesake’s life, though indelibly marked by her great Jacobite adventure, reflects and impacts on other and wider themes. These include the underestimated torrent of emigration from the Highlands across the Atlantic; the widespread linkages of the first British Empire (Flora MacDonald received financial support from her youngest son who, destined for the law in Edinburgh, instead made a successful career as a military engineer in India); and, above all, the complex webs of affinity and loyalty that enabled Scots Jacobites to fight for King George in America. 

On the other hand, some American ex-revolutionaries in 1782 approached Charles Edward about becoming king of an independent America. With uncharacteristic realism, the Prince replied (in proleptically Beckettian mode), ‘I have failed most of my life and have no wish to fail more.’

Part of the romantic appeal of Jacobitism is indeed that aura of failure, parlayed by Walter Scott and others into an unthreatening nostalgia. Success had to be sought elsewhere. 

Many prominent Irish Jacobites went to the Continent and had distinguished military careers in France and Spain. One Scot who followed a similar path was Neil MacEachen, who had accompanied his cousin Flora and the Prince on their sodden journey in 1746, and whose son became a Napoleonic marshal and Duc de Taranto. Making a pilgrimage to his father’s home in 1825, the Duc was struck by how local inhabitants remembered the 1746 events: ‘It seems they just happened yesterday.’ (He nonetheless got many of the details wrong.) 

On her death, Flora was shrouded in a sheet the Prince slept on 44 years before

Flora Fraser’s closely researched book not only strips away accretions and elisions, to reconstruct an iconic moment of romantic nationalist history. She widens out the canvas to take in the marketing of memory and the creation of factoids, sometimes by MacDonald descendants capitalising on their illustrious ancestress. 

It was all part of what Scott called the Jacobites’ ‘little idolatry of locks of hair, pictures, rings, ribands and other memorials of the time in which they still seemed to live’. Sharp for her purposes, and despite her late-in-life Loyalism, when she died in 1790 Flora MacDonald was shrouded in a sheet on which the Prince had slept 44 years before. 

She knew that the potency of romantic history depends on memory rather than accuracy, an insight shared by her namesake and demonstrated in this masterly book.  

Flora Fraser’s Pretty Young Rebel: The Life of Flora MacDonald is published by Bloomsbury on 15th September