The Gentle Lady
The Story:(Click on images to enlarge)
The Gaelic beneath the portrait translates, “As long as a flower grows in field, the fame of the gentle lady shall endure”. This is also found on an inscription beneath a monument erected in her honor by her descendants.
After the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) was on the run for several months. Many loyal supporters throughout Scotland hid him from the Hanoverians, who offered a phenomenal reward of £30,000 for his capture. He eventually made his way to the Outer Hebrides in the company of one of his captains, Neil MacEachen MacDonald. With the King’s forces close on their heels, Neil contacted his cousin, Flora MacDonald, who was visiting her brother on the Isle of Uist.
Neil explained the desperate situation to Flora, and she reluctantly agreed to help. The MacDonald clans’ allegiance slid both ways and Flora was no Jacobite. Her fiancé was in the British army. Her stepfather, Hugh MacDonald, was commander of the local King’s Militia. It was from him she could obtain passes to travel.
This she did for herself, her cousin, and her handmaid “Betty Burke”, whose skills as a flax spinner, as she told her stepfather, were needed by her mother on the Isle of Skye. Though Hugh was suspicious of what his stepdaughter was up to, he handed over the passes, likely with a nod and a wink. Like many other Scots who sided with the British Crown, he probably was just as desirous to see the Prince, a Stuart and true heir to the English and Scottish throne, get safely away.
With the Prince unenthusiastically rigged up as “Betty Burke”, Neil and Flora took him out on Loch Uiskevagh and then out to the open sea. They spent an adventurous night first avoiding a British Man of War, then being tossed about in a vicious Hebridian squall. The next morning, June 29, 1746, they made their way through a dense fog toward the Isle of Skye. When the fog lifted, it revealed the Isle’s Trotternish Peninsula and several patrolling British ships. Avoiding detection from the sea, they were fired upon by a militia patrol. Eventually they landed on what is now called “Prince Charlie’s Point”.
In Harvey’s latest work, we see Flora, Neil, and “Betty Burke” taking brief refreshment before striking out for assistance from Lady Margaret MacDonald. While Charlie pulls the cork from a wine bottle, Neil leans on a fowling piece, frustrated by the Prince’s refusal to listen to reason. Again, he tries to explain to him the dangers of leaving the boat to accompany them to the house. The Prince reluctantly agrees to remain behind with the boat crew.
Flora has freshened up after her arduous voyage, changing into presentable traveling attire befitting a lady of her station. While waiting for Neil, Flora has made a friend of a local herding dog, who looks hopefully for a dram from the quaich. The collie’s flock grazes through the ruins. The ram eyes the Prince curiously. Over the stone wall, a couple of Highland “coos” relax and take in the scene. As gulls hover overhead, the crew of the “Skye Boat” awaits further orders.
Flora invites the viewer to come closer and share her private joke. Is she amused by her thirsty new friend? Or maybe the Prince’s “crab stick” leaning against “Betty’s” tote bag? A prince strutting around in a peasant woman’s dress brandishing a cudgel? The idea!
Eventually the Prince would escape to France with Cousin Neil. Flora would soon be arrested and spend time in the Tower of London. Flora’s story of her courage and daring won the hearts of her English captors. Allowed out of the Tower on parole, Flora achieved “rock star status” overnight by London society and was the guest of honor at many parties and functions.
In 1747, she was allowed to go home. She married Captain Allen MacDonald and in 1773 immigrated to North Carolina. The MacDonalds supported the Loyalists during the Revolution, Allen taking a commission in North Carolina’s Tory regiment of Royal Highland Immigrants. Flora is said to have cheered on the Highlanders, in Gaelic, from the town of Fayetteville, as they marched off to their defeat at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in February of 1776, where Allen was captured. After going first to Nova Scotia, then back to Scotland, Flora passed away in 1790 at the age of 68. She is buried about two miles from the place where she, “Betty Burke”, and Cousin Neil landed in 1746. Three thousand mourners attended her funeral and three hundred gallons of whiskey were consumed in her memory.
The image of a cat snuggling with a mouse can be found throughout ancient Celtic carvings and paintings. It is thought to represent the lion and the lamb as found in Isaiah 11: 6 – 9. Here it is appropriate that they should represent the Hanoverian helping the Jacobite.
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