Articles by Ben McConville
links to the present
SHE IS one of the
bravest and most romantic characters in Scottish history,
immortalised in the
Skye Boat Song for the selfless deed of helping Prince
Charles Edward Stewart flee from Hanovarian forces after Culloden.
dressed the fugitive prince as a lowly maid, named "her" Betty Burke
and helped make good his escape over the sea to the Isle of Skye
after the second Jacobite uprising of 1745.
More than 200
years after her death the MacDonald story - and the mythology
that has grown up around the reality - continues to grip the
imagination across the world.
Attend any clan
gathering and you will find dozens of earnest descendants of
Highlanders who honestly claim the heroine to be an ancestor.
But is it possible that so many could be part of the same
At least eight
generations have passed since the Jacobite helper lived but
expert genealogists are certain that Flora has hundreds of
descendants. What's difficult to determine, however, is who
among the thousands are truly linked to her.
Flora and her husband Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh had seven
children. Their lives were as turbulent as the times they
lived in and many of her children were to die young.
MacDonald, the XVth of Kingsburgh and Castle Camus, in 1961
prepared a family tree to trace Allan and Flora MacDonald's
descendants. Two of Reginalds grandchildren live Stateside,
and Clan Donald USA believe they are the only two
known descendants in America.
improbable that so many could be the direct descendant of
Flora MacDonald. In fact I know of only two in the USA," says
Mark MacDonald, national historian for Clan Donald USA.
matters, many people come from the female line of the family
and about three-quarters of her descendants will not have the
MacDonald name. Flora's sister-in-law Anne, for example, had
14 children and at least one of Anne's daughters had 16
children, and members have lived in New Zealand, South Africa,
as well as the UK and US.
without impugning the assertions of those [whose claims I have
not verified], it is quite common for people in the US, and
Canadians who later emigrated to the US, to mistakenly assert
Flora descent because it is a romantic line and their
grandparents may have been the source of the inaccurate
information," says MacDonald.
Clan Donald USA
has a regular presence at gatherings and Highland games in the
US, where their tent is a magnet for Americans of Scottish
origins in search of their roots. MacDonald adds: "About 5 per
cent of the people we get through our doors believe they are
descended from Flora. We politely listen and attempt to
gently redirect them toward more accurate alternatives for
Flora's time in
America is well documented, and she gave her own breathtaking
account of the time in her own handwriting. She spent five
years in America from 1774, when she and her husband set sail
for North Carolina with two of their sons, Alexander and
James. Her daughter Anne, along with her husband Alexander
MacLeod and their two sons, also made the six-week journey.
Flora's other children - Ranald, a Marine, Charles, who worked
for the East India Company, John, 15, a student in Edinburgh,
and Fanny, eight - remained in Scotland.
arrived in the New World just as the American Revolution was
intensifying and, like many Highlanders, Flora and her family
sided with the Crown. Allan and Alexander were captured by
Revolutionary troops along with Alexander MacDonald of
Cuildreach, the husband of Flora's sister, Annabella. The
family plantation was said to have been confiscated after
Flora refused to take the oath of allegiance to North
On her arrival
in London in 1779 she learned of the death of her son,
Alexander, at sea. Two years later her son, Ranald, also died
She wrote in
her account: "To my great sorrow, on my landing, received the
melancholy news of my son Alexander's death and a short time
thereafter got the account of [the ship] Villa de Paris
being lost on her way home, where my beloved son Ranald was
captain of the marines
melancholy strocks, by the death of my children who, had they
lived, with God's assistance, might now be my support in my
declined old age "
however, reunited with two of her children, Anne MacLeod, and
Fanny, her youngest, whom she had not seen since she had left
five years before.
Allan and Flora
MacDonald, their surviving sons, Charles and James, and their
daughters, Anne and Fanny, all returned home to Skye with
stories and memories of exciting experiences. Flora died in
1790 and Allan two years later, both buried on the island.
the genealogist who traced former US president Ronald Reagan's
Scottish and Irish roots, said one explanation for the high
levels of Americans believing they are descendants of Flora
MacDonald might be down to a case of mistaken identity.
is the Scotland editor for Burke's Peerage, the
British and Irish genealogy specialists, said: "Flora was and
still is a popular name in the West Highlands. There may be
families who are MacDonalds, but not necessarily the
MacDonalds of Kingsburgh. But there is a Flora in every
generation and so it enters family tradition. I am afraid that
most of these probably will not stand scrutiny of the records.
Some, of course, will be related to Flora MacDonald as she
will have hundreds of descendants."
While most of
MacDonald's children were in Britain at the time of her death,
Peskett says there is every possibility that subsequent
generations may have moved to America. He says: "Floras life
illustrates an important point about the movement of
Highlanders to the New World. It was not 'one way'. Many came
back and for some families generations have crossed the
Atlantic both ways."
editor in chief of Debrett's, the genealogy experts, said:
"There is a good chance that she will have hundreds, if not
thousands of descendants, even if she only had two children.
She lived 250 years ago and that means there have been about
eight generations since, and that makes a lot of descendants.
dismiss out of hand those who claim ancestry on the basis of
the oral history of the family either. While records in
America are intact from colonial days, many records in Europe
are incomplete, due to wars and other such disturbances,"
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