Who is Flora MacDonald – the heroine who inspired the Skye Boat Song?

It’s the incredible tale that inspired the theme for the Outlander TV show and details a key part of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight to France following the defeat at the Battle of Culloden.

But how much do you know about Flora MacDonald, the Scottish heroine who plays a huge part in the story?

Using her keen wit to outsmart the British Government forces, Flora was able to help the Young Pretender, who had led the second Uprising of 1745, escape the clutches of the Government forces and flee over the water to Skye.

Not only has she now appeared on the show, played brilliantly by Scots actress Shauna MacDonald, but 2022 is also the 300th anniversary of Flora’s birthday.

Born on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in 1722, she became the unlikely figure to affect the life of a would-be King of Scotland, saving his life by dressing him up as one of her handmaidens.

She first came across Charles Stuart after he fled to her island home after being pursued by the Hanovarian army of King George II, following the last major battle to be fought on Scottish soil in 1746.

Incredibly, both Flora’s step-father and her fiancĂ©e Allan MacDonald were keen supporters of the Government and King George II.

Then just 24, Flora would have been unsure how to deal with meeting such a desperate figure – one whose family would readily see in chains.

However, brave Flora made up her own mind and decided to help the stricken Prince.

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Gaining permission from her step-father to take a boat from the small island to the mainland, she arranged for her crew to include Charles, now disguised as an Irish maid named Betty Burke, as they set out.

Sailing out in the summer of 1746, they left from Benbecula headed not to Mallaig but instead to Skye and landed at Kilmuir at what is today called Rudha Phrionnsa (Prince’s Point).

From there he was able to flee to France, where he hoped to appeal to the French King for more support for his cause.

In thanks for her help, Charles is said to have presented Flora with a locket containing his portrait.

Sadly though, the Young Pretender was never able to return to Scotland and she never saw him again.

Even worse for the young heroine, when it was discovered she had helped him escape, she was arrested and imprisoned at Dunstaffnage Castle, Oban and then briefly in the Tower of London. She was released in 1747 and returned to Scotland.

Their story was then immortalized when Englishman Sir Harold Boulton wrote the Skye Boat song in 1870 to a song collected by Scottish trad musician Anne Campbelle MacLeod.

And the Outlander similarities don’t end there, in 1774 Flora and her husband Allan and their family emigrated to North Carolina where they were eventually caught up in the Revolutionary War (sound familiar?).

Outlander episode five of season 6, ‘Give Me Liberty’, not only features an appearance by her in Wilmington but also shows a flashback of her taking the Bonnie Prince (played by Andrew Gower) to the boat.

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After their planation was destroyed by Colonial troops, due to Allan fighting on the British side, Flora returned to Scotland, eventually dying on Skye in March 1790.

She is buried at Kilmuir, her body wrapped in a sheet in which Bonnie Prince Charlie had slept.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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