This week’s blog comes from one of our MLitt British Studies students, John Macdonald, and is one of the assessments on our module ‘British Identities’. John MacdonaldJohn runs a tour company in the Highlands and Islands – The Hebridean Explorer

Grandly overlooking Inverness is the statue of Flora Macdonald, the Jacobite heroine, famous for her role in helping Charles Edward Stuart (or Bonnie Prince Charlie as he is popularly known) evade capture following the Jacobite army’s bloody defeat at the hands of the government Hanoverian forces on Culloden Moor in 1746.[1]

Flora Macdonald Statue

Flora Macdonald, Inverness Castle, Scottish Highlands


Less well known is that in later life – following her emigration to North Carolina – Flora Macdonald became a supporter of the British government cause in North America during the War of Independence. How does a heroine so identified with one movement become a seemingly loyal supporter of its opposition in later life?


Raised in the Clan Donald lands of the Hebrides and West Highlands, Flora Macdonald’s early identity was shaped by the culture, traditions and structures of clan life, and the complexities of the Jacobite cause that dominated the Highland region (and much of the British Isles) during the first half of the eighteenth-century.[2]


While Flora Macdonald’s relatively brief assistance to Charles Edward Stuart – helping him escape ‘over the sea to Skye’ – resulted in a short period of imprisonment in London, it also brought her a lifetime of fame and legend as a Jacobite heroine.


Such became Flora’s celebrity throughout British society that within just a few years of the uprising she was painted by many prominent artists, including Allan Ramsay who famously portrayed her swathed in tartan with a recognisable Jacobite emblem in her hair (the white rose).

Flora Macdonald by Allan Ramsay

Portrait of Flora Macdonald by Allan Ramsay (1749), ©Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Following her marriage in 1750 to Allan Macdonald (a former Highland militia officer and supporter of the King during the ’45 Jacobite rising), Flora spent over two decades on the Isle of Skye where the hardships of life in the Hebrides eventually led to her decision to emigrate to America in 1774.


However, her arrival in North Carolina – where she was lauded as a symbol of Highland bravery and independence, particularly amongst the large Highland Scots communities dominant throughout the region – soon brought a fresh conflict of loyalty.


Allan Macdonald joined the British forces at the outbreak of hostilities during the American War of Independence. In supporting her husband’s decision it seems that Flora Macdonald moved away from her Jacobite heritage to that of a loyal subject of the British crown.


Considering what factors influenced Flora’s changing identity raises many questions. Was it out of loyalty to her husband and family? As well as her husband, a number of her sons were British military officers during this time.


Maybe, having previously experienced the devastating power of the King’s army, Flora had no doubts that the Crown would succeed in quelling the revolution. Or, could Flora have been a reluctant Jacobite in earlier life – after all, she did marry a committed government supporter soon after the uprising.


Arguably, Flora Macdonald encapsulates the emerging duality of Scottish and British identities developing around the Empire in the late eighteenth century. Many of the emigrants from the British Isles during this time formed, or settled in, distinctive ethnic and regional communities that sat alongside – often uncomfortably – a shared sense of Britishness and British identity.


Whilst we can only guess at her personal motivations for supporting the Crown it seems evident that Flora Macdonald’s Jacobite and British loyalties highlight the complexities and fluidity of identity.


It was possible to have multiple identities simultaneously and, importantly, identities were flexible and had the ability to change over time. As Linda Colley aptly noted, identities ‘are not like hats… human beings can and do put on several at a time’.[3] Although popular history has chosen to remember Flora Macdonald in a Jacobite hat, it seems that she wore more than one during her lifetime.


[1] For an overview of the Jacobite uprising of 1745-46 see Jeremy Black, Culloden and the ‘45 (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000).

[2] For a detailed examination of Flora Macdonald see John Toffey, A woman nobly planned: fact and myth in the legacy of Flora MacDonald (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1997).

[3] Colley, L., Britons: Forging The Nation 1707-1837 (London: Yale University Press, 1992). p. 6.