Europe

Flora MacDonald

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When Flora MacDonald died in March, 1790, more than 3,000 mourners made the long and difficult trek to the Isle of Skye in Scotland to drink 300 gallons of whiskey in her honor. And small wonder, because Flora had led a life for the ages.

Loyal her entire life to the British Crown, she nevertheless had taken pity on Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1846, as he fled the British Duke of Cumberland after the disastrous Battle of Culloden ended the last Jacobite Rebellion. The British put a price of £30,000 on the Young Pretender’s head, but Flora didn’t care. She dressed the handsome bumbler as her spinning maid Betty Burke and ferried him across the Western Isles one step ahead of the relentless manhunt.

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Finally convinced to shed his ridiculous disguise, Charlie shipped off from Skye to a lifetime of boozing, womanizing, and quarreling at the Vatican, where he eventually died and was interred beneath the Basilica floor. Flora, on the other hand, was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Nevertheless, the brave and gentle woman so impressed the English with her impeccable  manners, that they relented and released her to house arrest. There, she received visitors ranging from the writers Samuel Johnson and James Boswell all the way to the Prince of Wales. She also met and married Allan MacDonald (no relation), a junior Scottish nobleman on his way to the Carolinas to make his fortune.

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Unfortunately for the intrepid couple, they arrived in America in 1773, just in time to join the losing Loyalist side in the American Revolution. They forfeited all of their lands and found themselves booted penniless first to Nova Scotia and then on a privateer back to London. Two of their seven children died en route at sea, but their son John shipped off to colonial India, where he made enough of a fortune to allow his parents a pleasant retirement back on Skye.

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Like so many other characters in Scottish history, Flora got caught up posthumously in the rush to recreate a romantic Highland paradise that had never really existed. She inspired the lyrical Skye Boat Song and numerous mostly fictional portrayals in literature and film. Yet it isn’t difficult to imagine the 68-year-old grandmother shrugging aside all that celebrity as she sits on the shore of her beloved Skye, watching the early sun rise as gently and gracefully as the island girl herself.

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