Graham Reid | | 2 min read
Bonnie Prince Charlie may be a romantic figure in Scottish history, but in truth he was a dandy, a fool and an inept military leader who couldn't corral – as if anyone could however – the rival clan leaders he lead down from Scotland to within a spit of London, only to turn back and then suffer an ignominious defeat at Culloden.
However the woman who spirited him away on a boat “like a bird on wing, over the sea to Skye” as the beautiful song has it, is a much more interesting character.
While the Italian-born Bonnie Prince escaped back to France then Italy where he lived out his days as an increasingly dissolute, obese drunk, dying at 67 in 1788, Flora MacDonald who helped him escape to Skye had a fascinating life.
McDonald's grave on Skye is high on Kilmuir, a hill with a commanding view over rolling land, the grave of a recent arrival, designer Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) and off to the distant grey ocean, on this cold day in early April under a glowering sky.
There are no pilgrimage parties here today.
Around MacDonald's last resting place are graves and monuments to the ancients dating back many centuries and here, in this remote place, we can think on the failure and folly of “the lad born to be king” and the strange twist of fate which delivered him to the hands of Flora MacDonald.
MacDonald's family were Jacobites in the Outer Hebrides and it was when she was there in her early 20s that the fleeing Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart) turned up after Culloden.
With a small party and Charlie disguised as her maid, they sailed to Skye and landed at remote Kilbride on the south coast. In the days to come Charlie made his way to Portree and at MacNab's Inn (now known as the Royal Hotel) he and MacDonald said their farewells.
MacDonald remained on Skye but within weeks was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, the following year was released under an amnesty and in 1750 married a captain in the British army (yet another piece in the convoluted loyalties and partiality in the relationship between Scotland and England).
They lived on Skye and writer Samuel Johnson had kind things to say about her after a visit, one of the few nice things he said about Scotland. His words are on her memorial.
MacDonald and her husband emigrated to North Carolina just in time for the American Revolution (against Britain) and they sided with Britain. She and her husband were captured after a battle, they lost their property, emigrated to Nova Scotia and finally ended up back in Scotland after a decade away.
She died six years later at age 68. She'd outlived the prince by two years
There are statues, portraits and memorials to her, an academy in North Carolina, and at Dunvegan Castle on Skye where she lived in the final years of her life, you can see her corset and pin cushion and a lock of the bonnie prince's hair which she kept.
And, of course, there is the Skye Boat Song.
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Some are serious, some far from it.