Flora MacDonald (1722 – 1790)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Flora MacDonald is almost a mythical figure. Before moving to North Carolina, she was a Jacobite in Scotland who helped the Scottish pretender to the English throne, Prince Charles Stuart, escape with his life.

Since the reign of King James, Scottish Jacobites longed for a Scottish king to become king of England. In the late seventeenth century, Scottish citizens united behind King James’s son, Edward Stuart or the Old Pretender, with the hope to return a Scotsman to the English throne. The group became known as the Jacobites. However, the Old Pretender failed to become king, but Charles Stuart, King James’s grandson or the Young Pretender, attempted his claim to power in the mid-1740s.

In 1722, Flora MacDonald was born to Ranald and Marion MacDonald in the Scottish isles of Hebrides. Much of Flora’s early life has been the subject of folklore, but she became involved in the Jacobite rebellion in from 1745 until 1746. Although much of Flora’s life remains a mystery and the subject of myth, historians agree that the Jacobite heroine assisted Prince Charles Stuart in his escape after he was defeated at Culloden in the spring of 1746.

King George II hoped to quell the Jacobite movement after Prince Stuart’s defeat so the English army pursued Stuart. Prince Charles rushed to the Scottish Hebrides islands and he was in desperate need of help. According to legend, Flora MacDonald and her friends met Charles and she dressed the prince as the maid Betty Burke.

After the group made it safely to Skye, another Scottish island, Charles went on to escape to France. The English army eventually caught Flora, and they imprisoned her for her role in the Jacobite rebellion. In 1747, MacDonald was exonerated and she had become a celebrity in her native land for her aid to Prince Charles. Three years after her release she married Allan MacDonald, and in 1774, the couple, along with their two sons, moved to Cheek’s Creek in present-day Montgomery County, North Carolina.

The MacDonald family were well-received by the Highland Scots in the colony, as many Scottish immigrants heard the exploits of Flora’s heroism. However, Allan MacDonald, who received a commission from the English crown, and his family remained Loyalists during the eve of the American Revolution. Governor Josiah Martin, in need of troops to fight the growing Patriot forces, asked for Highlanders to join the Loyalist cause in 1775. Allan MacDonald assembled with the British army at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge.

The Patriots won the short skirmish at Moore’s Creek Bridge, and Flora’s husband and son were captured by the North Carolina militiamen. Flora was isolated for several years, and the Patriots seized her family’s plantation at Cheek’s Creek. Finally, after years of separation from her husband and son, Flora was rejoined her family in New York in 1778. Allan and the MacDonald family moved to Nova Scotia, but Flora returned to her native land in 1779. The Jacobite heroine died on March 4, 1790, on the Scottish isle of Skye.

Today, Flora MacDonald’s story continues to live on in North Carolina among the Highland Scot descendants in both song and folklore. John J. Toffey composed a historically based biography of Flora MacDonald known as A Woman Nobly Planned. In addition, Alexander MacGregor’s Life of Flora MacDonald (1882) became a popular biography of the Jacobite heroine.