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The Legendary Flora MacDonald

"Flora MacDonald, a name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour."

—Dr. Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland

As Dr. Johnson predicted, Flora MacDonald’s name lives on in annual memorials in Scotland, Canada, and the United States; in song; and in the following legends.

Romancing Flora

Some legends suggest a plot but leave details to the imaginations of the teller and the listener. Debating the details often leads to lively conversations. This happens with speculation about Flora’s relationship to Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

  • Did Flora fall in love with the prince?

Legend says yes. Documented history suggests not.

  • Did the prince fall for Flora?

Again, some people say yes. Others suggest he was the “love ’em and leave ’em” type.

  • Didn’t she have his baby?

According to one southern humorist, some southerners have conducted genealogical searches that prove they are descendants of Flora and Prince Charlie’s illegitimate child. They claim that this youngster accompanied Flora to North Carolina and stayed here. But no record exists of any child born to Flora MacDonald before her marriage, which took place five years after she met the prince. She was in jail in London nine months after her last meeting with Charles Stuart. So she could not have hidden the birth of a child.

Another Princely Encounter

Prince Frederick of England asked Flora MacDonald outright, “How could you dare to succor the enemy of my father’s crown and kingdom?”

She replied simply, “It was no more than I would have done for your majesty, had you been in like situation.”

Charmed by her response, the prince filled her hand with gold.

Fact or fiction? No one knows much about Flora MacDonald’s stay in London after her release from prison. She lived for a time at the home of Lady Primrose, a passionate Jacobite who entertained crowds of visitors curious to meet the famous Flora. One of these, according to legend, was Frederick, the Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne.

Some people say the legendary conversation took place while Flora was still under arrest. The prince, pleased with her answer, arranged for her immediate release. One North Carolina version of the legend claims that Flora had this conversation not with the Prince of Wales but with his father, King George II.

Princely Sheets

After ferrying Bonnie Prince Charlie safely to Skye, Flora MacDonald took him to the house of Lady Margaret MacDonald, who gave him a bed. After the prince’s departure, Flora removed the sheets, allowed no one to wash them, wrapped them in lavender, and kept them for the rest of her life. She carried them to and from North Carolina. Upon her death, she left instructions that she wanted to be buried in them. Her family wrapped her body in the sheets. Thus Flora carried her remembrance of the prince to her grave.

Fact or fiction? 

Right story, wrong person. Flora married the son of Lady Margaret of Kingsburgh, whose home on Skye briefly sheltered the prince. Flora MacDonald wrote in 1789 that it was Lady Margaret herself who preserved the sheets and used them for her shroud.

Flora MacDonald in North Carolina

Although Flora MacDonald lived less than four years in North Carolina, her activities led to several legends. The reputation for loyalty and heroism that preceded her to Carolina dogged her until she returned to Skye.

Rallying the Highlander Troops

As the brave Highlanders filed out of Cross Creek and began their march to Wilmington, Flora MacDonald watched from under a spreading oak tree. “On the public square, near the royal standard, in Gaelic, she made a powerful address, with all her power, exhibiting her genius she dwelt at length upon the loyalty of the Scotch, their bravery, and the sacrifices her people had made. She urged them to duty, and was successful in exciting all to a high military pitch. When she had concluded, the piper asked her what tune he should play. Like a flash she replied, ‘Give them leather breeches,’ which was probably suggested by the Scots’ wearing buckskin breeches, rolled up at the bottoms.” She then mounted her snow white charger, bade her husband farewell, and returned to Killiegrey.

Fact or fiction?

Flora MacDonald’s role in the American Revolution, reportedly described by eyewitnesses, has appeared in print several times over the years, particularly in literature devoted to American Scots’ heritage. This version comes from Dr. J. P. Maclean, who wrote in Lumberton, Robeson County, in 1909. Maclean identifies the MacDonald estate in North Carolina as Killiegrey. Recent historians dispute this identification.

Two Dead Children

While Flora MacDonald awaited her imprisoned husband’s release, two of her children, a boy aged eleven and a thirteen-year-old girl, died of typhoid fever. They were buried at Killiegrey.

Fact or fiction? 

Residents of communities near the supposed site of Killiegrey told this story for many years. These accounts moved Dr. Charles G. Vardell, president of Flora MacDonald College, to rebury the bodies on the grounds of the campus in Red Springs in 1937. However, documentation proves that none of Flora’s children died at such a young age in North Carolina. Research has determined that the two graves were not on the Killiegrey site, if indeed there ever was a site called Killiegrey.

So who are those two children buried in Red Springs? Could they be Flora MacDonald’s daughter Anne’s children? No records confirm this theory.

More Bravery

MacDonald’s well-known reputation for bravery in times of great danger perhaps spawned this legend.

Rallying the Sailors

Eager to return home, Flora MacDonald sailed from Nova Scotia to Skye. During the crossing, a French privateer attacked her ship. Flora refused to seek safety below deck. She saw the crew begin to lose nerve and panic. Pacing the quarterdeck, she encouraged the sailors to give it their best shot. She herself received a wound and slipped on the bloody deck.

Fact or fiction? 

Flora MacDonald wrote a somewhat different version in 1789: “I fixed my thoughts on seeing my native Country, tho in a tender state. . . . But in our passage spying a sail, made ready for action and in hurreying the Ladys below, to a place of Safety, my foot sliping a step in the trap, fell and brock the dislockated arm in two. It was sett with bandages over slips of wood, and keep my bed till we arrived in the Thames.”

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