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Give Me Again All That Was There. The story of Flora Macdonald through the eyes of her maid Betty.
This is a work of fiction, and by no means to be relied upon as historically accurate. I don’t even know whether Betty Burke was a real person. Tradition has it that Flora Macdonald disguised Bonnie Prince Charlie as her ‘Irish spinning maid’ of that name, and dressed him in women’s clothing, in order to help him escape to the Isle of Skye from the Long Island, the three adjoining Hebridean islands of North and South Uist and Benbecula. Despite reading as many contemporary and more recent accounts as I have been able to discover, I have drawn no definite conclusions. The written accounts are all somewhat contradictory, (and in some cases strongly disagree with one another!) about who did what, when, and where, but none of them state specifically whether there actually was such a person as Betty Burke. And if there was, how she came to be living on South Uist. The best case I can make for her existence is that thirty years later, when the 1745 Jacobite rebellion was forgiven if not forgotten, Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited Flora and her husband at their home on Skye, and Flora told them exactly the same story she had told those who had interrogated her at the time, and since there was no longer any need to pretend Betty existed if she didn’t, I’ve chosen to believe that she did, and this is her story!
After King James the Second was deposed in 1688 because of his Catholic sympathies and disagreements with Parliament, the Hanoverians were invited to take the throne. Thereafter there continued to be a body of noblemen who were unhappy about this, and who plotted to regain it for the House of Stuart. These people were referred to as Jacobites, supporters of James’s claim. In 1715, they persuaded James the Second’s son, also James, to mount a rebellion. He landed in Scotland (where support for the Stuarts was always strongest) with the intention of invading England and seizing the throne. However, support proved less strong than he had hoped, and after losing a small number of battles within Scotland itself, he abandoned the attempt. In 1745 however, Charles Edward Stuart, his elder son, believing he had the financial and military backing of the French King, Louis XV, and encouraged by a group of Scottish and Irish supporters, decided to attempt to achieve what his father had failed to do. Initially he was very successful, rousing followers in the amongst the Highland Chieftains and even in Lowland Scotland, and winning numerous battles. In the Autumn of 1745 he marched south, reaching Derby, and intending to go on and conquer London. However, money was in short supply, and the promised funds and troops from France having failed to materialise, his followers persuaded him to retreat to Scotland over the winter, where they would wait for French support. Despite winning more skirmishes within Scotland, when challenged by the English Army led by William, Duke of Cumberland, King George the Second’s son, at Culloden Moor on the 16 th April 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie suffered a disastrous defeat, with most of his loyal clansmen slaughtered. He himself seems to have been willing at this point to abandon the attempt, but was persuaded by his friends to stay, hiding out in the Glens, in caves and in the homes of sympathisers, still, perhaps, expecting the arrival of French ships laden with gold and armaments.
After a number of hair-raising adventures and mishaps, he and a small group of supporters found themselves marooned on the Long Island, a chain of small islands in the Outer Hebrides. Although the local Macdonald Chieftain and his clans’ people had never wholeheartedly supported Bonnie Prince Charlie, they were unwilling to allow him to fall into the hands of Duke William, who had ordered vicious reprisals throughout the Highlands and Islands after Culloden. However, with the Hanoverian Army searching the island, and the Navy blockading the only port of any size, it became essential to find a way of getting the Prince away. No one was permitted to travel without a permit. The idea of taking him to Skye, which is mountainous and had a number of ports, was that he could be more easily concealed there until he was picked up by a French ship. Finding a way to spirit the Prince off the Uists was always going to be hazardous. Flora Macdonald, a young kinswoman of the Chieftain had been living on South Uist, keeping house for her brother, a farmer. Her father had died when she was very young and her mother had remarried and lived on Skye. She was persuaded to visit her mother bearing a letter from her step-father, a Government Militiaman who never-the-less had Jacobite sympathies, and accompanied by her ‘maid’, Bonnie Prince Charlie in disguise. Local fishermen were recruited to row them across the forty mile stretch of water. This dangerous mission was safely accomplished, and for most people that is where the story ends. What many do not realise is that the story of the escape was discovered, and Flora was arrested and imprisoned, at first in Scotland and later for a time, in the Tower of London. Here, however, her honest and open manner impressed many people including Frederick Prince of Wales and even ‘Butcher’ Cumberland himself. She became something of a celebrity before being released and allowed to return to Scotland. There, she later married, had a family, emigrated to America, suffered great hardship during the American War of Independence (her husband fought on the British side), and eventually returned to Skye, where Dr Johnson and James Boswell visited her in 1773.
Give Me Again All That Was There is available in print and as an e-book for Kindle from Amazon
This is the UK Amazon site but it is available from other Amazon sites too.
©2014 Rosemary Sturge