Hub for the Study of British Identities

Research network, journal and blog

Flora Macdonald – Jacobite Heroine and Loyal British Subject

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.





Prof. John MacKenzie

Professor John MacKenzie’s talk ‘Presbyterianism, Empire and Scottish identity’ is now available on Youtube:

Presbyterianism, Empire and Scottish identity

We’re delighted to announce our latest event, in conjunction with UHI Centre for History’s seminar seri330es.

Join Professor John MacKenzie, Visiting Professor, UHI Centre for History on Wednesday 18th January 2017, 5.15pm-6.30pm for a seminar about how Presbyterianism and Empire have shaped Scottish identities since the nineteenth century.

Venue: Ross House, North Highland College, Dornoch or online (via Video Conference)

Please book your place at our Eventbrite page or by emailing Jim MacPherson:


Culloden and Teaching Identities

This week’s blog post comes from Katey Boal, Leaaaeaaqaaaaaaaaheaaaajdzizmyzmgyylwjhndgtngy0my05ogi1lwnjmmq2ymyymzi0ngrning Manager at Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre, and reflects on discussions at our Exploring Identities day earlier this year.

Sister, wife, daughter, granddaughter, teacher, museums lover, environmentalist, radical, traditionalist, protester, tolerant // intolerant …immigrant.

I am all of these things, sometimes aspects of my life come into stronger focus than others but they are all me.  Sometimes these things come into conflict with each other but it doesn’t make them any less a part of who I am.

What do others see?

I am not sure.

I can tell you what they comment on – my accent.

So what does this have to do with identity?

Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre gets over 120,000 people visiting each year and over a quarter of a million people come to the site. They come from across the world, speak many different languages and all have their own world view. Our job is to give our visitors an understanding of what happened at Culloden, explore the complexities of conflict and discuss how the Jacobite rising impacted on world history.

Culloden Battlefield

These are big asks.  The Jacobite story is a complicated one, full of religion, politics and family lineages.  The story ranges across the globe, and it doesn’t finish at Culloden; there is a paranoia about Jacobites that lingers long after the rising finishes.

At Culloden we attempt to give a balanced view of this ‘civil’ war – however, people that visit can be focused on the romantic. While we do have visitors who are well versed in eighteenth-century history, many people visit with no concrete notion of what happened, where and why.

In a recent online survey, when questioned about the site, people (both those who have visited and those who have not) equated the story of the battlefield with words such as ‘pride’, ‘heritage’ and ‘honour’. In addition they were looking for an ‘authentic’ experience.  We have a significant number of our visitors who come from overseas, as ancestral tourists and at Culloden they find a connection to a real or sometimes imagined past. To put this in context to the idea of identity – visitors can come to the site seeking to validate their conceptions of self.


They are looking for an intangible connection to who they are. Our programming, the histories we tell, and the way we tell them create an environment that is pitched to enable critical thought.  This process can be difficult; visitors can be confronted with uncomfortable realities and at times don’t want their version of history to be challenged.  I am reminded of a time when a visitor was in tears because the ancestors they assumed fought on the Jacobite side, in reality were members of the Government army.

At Culloden context is key.  Unless we have diaries or first-hand accounts, often the only way we can learn about a person or their actions is from what others say about them or what records of their life survive (second or third hand accounts). If we are lucky we may be able to have a sense of who a person was, however we are looking at their actions through our twenty-first-century lens.  Working with identities, in the past and in the present is not easy; as practitioners, we don’t know how people conceptualise themselves and it is dangerous to make assumptions.

This is particularly true when it comes to working with school students or those who are from vulnerable groups.

Therefore, our programming is about building and encouraging our visitors and participants to exercise their critical thinking skills, to develop their self-confidence, creativity and the ability to express themselves.  This is not about imparting information, rather it is about facilitating discussion.

In many ways I think the concept of teaching identity is false. We explore, discuss and work with identity.  You are who you think you are; we create our ideas of self and express that to the world. Our stories are also impacted by the perceptions of others – that is why it is so vital that we remember that, when dealing with identity, we often hear only one part of something that is very complex.

Working in public spaces with the concept of identity both in the present and in the past is challenging, frightening and exciting. We engage in a conversation with people about topics that are meaningful and through our programming make a lasting impact on people’s lives.

Traditionalising Empire: Imperial Commodities in Gaelic Popular Culture

We’re delighted that Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart’s talk on empire, consumption and the Highlands is now available on YouTube:

‘Your house looks so British – I mean English – Or … Scottish?’

This week’s blog post comes from Mareike Zacke, one of our new MLitt British Studies students at UHI for 2016-17. Mareike is an Erasmus student from the University of Bonn.

Earlier this year I did a course at my university in Germany on the postcolonial Bildungsroman, which, amongst other novels, covered Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) as well as Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey (1970). Both novels portray the coming of age of their protagonists, Tambu and Tee, young girls who struggle to come to terms with their own identity after they have been exposed to different forms of ‘Englishness’.


Nervous Conditions follows Tambu as she moves from the patriarchal restrictions of her tribe in 1960s Zimbabwe to her paternal uncle who has just returned from studying in England. While living with her uncle’s family, Tambu experiences their new English’ lifestyle and soon, she notices a discrepancy with their ‘Englishness’: even though her uncle mimics Englishness and its progressiveness, he does not accept his daughter Nyasha’s even more modern – more English – way of thinking. To her, ‘Englishness’ means something different and as she has become a hybrid of both cultures, she struggles to fit into either society.

Similarly, Tee’s identity formation in Crick Crack, Monkey is equally disturbed as soon as she is exposed to ‘Englishness’ through education in school. Initially, she is brought up rather traditionally in colonial Trinidad by her aunt and is rooted in her culture. In school, however, she undergoes an English education that introduces her to strange concepts and thus leaves her confused about European customs and names. When she moves to her anglicised aunt Beatrice after winning a scholarship, Tee, like Tambu, begins to adapt a westernised lifestyle and is alienated from her cultural heritage and past.

Both novels depict the influence of ‘Englishness’ on individuals in a postcolonial context, yet, in terms of British identities it is challenging that the novels’ representations of Englishness, uncle or aunt respectively, are neither actually English (or British in the broader sense). What they impose on the young girls is what they believe to be ‘proper’ English behaviour, lifestyle and even language.

Their ideas of what the term ‘English’ stands for were rather stereotypical and I had to think about my own conceptions of British- and Englishness, realising that, being German, I tended to use both terms interchangeably. Naturally, as a non-native speaker of a different nationality I was not overly aware that what I called ‘British’ at times was actually perceived distinctly ‘English’ and that I consequently subordinated the other national identities in the UK. Just as I do not sympathise with the stereotype of the average German wearing Lederhosen, a traditionally Bavarian custom, at least they do not call us all Bavarian. The same understandably applies to other nations and cultures as well.


It is difficult to distinguish the terms ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’ and ever since reading the novels I have become rather cautious of using either term. The habit of using the term ‘British(ness)’, especially abroad, probably arises from the problematic of having multiple national identities on the island. Instead of subordinating them to an English identity, we use the term ‘British’ to acknowledge the other national identities. The term, thus, becomes a sort of ‘neutral’ description and refers to common features of all identities. However, the stereotypes attributed to the supposedly neutral term ‘British’ then, remain the same, ignoring that what has been shaped by popular culture is actually English.

Promoting ‘Englishness’?

The overall problematic is not only apparent abroad but also for people in Great Britain. If they do not know what term describes them best, how am I supposed to know? Consequently, the question of which term to use and which alternative is considered the most appropriate remains. Just recently this issue occurred when I arrived in Inverness for my Erasmus exchange. When entering my host mother’s house, I complimented her on it being so “English”, when it caught me red-handed that I was in Scotland … and that in order to prevent any offense I should probably refer to it as Scottish? Or British? In the end I might have mentioned all three terms, just to cover all bases.

Traditionalising Empire: Imperial Commodities in Gaelic Popular Culture

We’re very excited to announce our latest event, in conjunction with UHI Centre for History’s seminar series. picture1

Join Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI on Wednesday 26th October 2016, 5.00pm-6.00pm for a seminar about how imperial commodities found a place within the domestic popular culture of the people of the Highlands from the seventeenth century onwards, at first as exotic, fashionable curiosities, then increasingly as household necessities.

Venue: Ross House, North Highland College, Dornoch or online (via Video Conference)

Please book your place at our Eventbrite page or by emailing Jim MacPherson:


Blackness and Wildness: James IV and Highland Cultural Identity

This week’s blog comes from Dr Lesley Mickel, Lecturer in Literature img_0025at the University of the Highlands. Here, Lesley reflects on her paper, presented at our recent ‘Exploring Identities Day’.

Accounts relating to the tournament of The Wild/Black Knight and the Black Lady staged by James IV of Scotland in 1507 and 1508 show the interchangeable nature of the terms ‘black’ and ‘wild’. In his Historie and Cronikles of Scotland, (written c. mid 1570s, published 1782) Pitscottie refers to James IV’s tournament as The Black Knight and Black Lady and explains these chivalric identities as the antithesis of the white rose (Yorkist/English?) knight and lady who presented themselves at the tournament.

Lesley Mickel presenting at HSBI’s ‘Exploring Identities Day’.

The practice of pairing knights and ladies in this way was conventional in the sixteenth century, as reflected in the celebrated Bayonne entertainment (1565) featuring Charles IX of France, where knights and ladies of the same nation appear in pairs with matching costumes. Groupings of this kind are, of course, stereotypical and generalising in terms of race and nationality, but they are visually arresting and were a recurring motif in festivals representing diverse nations – a popular format for court entertainments in Europe. In contrast to Pitscottie, the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland’s accounts relating to James IV’s tournament refer to a ‘wild knight’, indicating the interchangeable, overlapping nature of the terms ‘wild’ and ‘black’. Pitscottie elaborates on James’s adoption of the ‘black’ disguise, showing that blackness was not only associated with exotic or demonic others (as often the case in the discourse of the period), but with great physical strength and power:

The king iustit him selff dissaguysed onknawin and he was callit the blak knicht quha gave battell to all thame that wald fect for their ladyis saik and speciallie of the knichtis and gentilmen of France Ingland and Denmark. The blak knicht sayit thame all bot their was nane that mycht war him at na tyme bot he wan the lady frome thame all for he was verie puissant and strenthie on horseback and faucht and iustit with kind of weaponis that usis thairunto that is to say with spear sword and mass bot their was nocht ane that incountart him that micht byd his straikis he was so strang and puissant in his armes thairfoir the iudge and harraulds gave him the degrie of that tournament that he vsed all kind of turnment maist manlie and knichtlyk of ony that was their at that tyme. (Pitscottie, vol I, pp.243-244)

It seems to me that just as the white rose knight from England represents a Yorkist version of Englishness, James IV uses ‘blackness’ to figure a version of Scottishness based on chivalric military power and strength. Chromatic opposites are used to define a sense of nationhood in relief – we are Scottish, because we are not English. These connections between blackness, wildness and Scottishness can also be seen in the visual language of Highland heraldry where savages or wild men are used as supporters on the shields of noble Scottish families from the Highlands and Islands. James IV’s guise as the ‘Black Knight’ deliberately appropriates associations of wildness and blackness linked with Highland identity to reinforce his personal prestige as a powerful warrior, and his national prestige as ruler over the expanding nation state of Scotland. In maintaining control over the recently subdued Western isles (in 1493 the Lord of the Isles, John MacDonald forfeited his title and estates to the Scottish Crown), James not only conquered this infamously wild and unruly region, but also appropriated its rhetorical construction into the visual iconography and discourse of Scottish kingship.

Lord of Lewis Coat of Arms

At the banquet following the tournament a great cloud appeared which ‘clekkit up the blak lady’ so that she disappeared – the result of ‘Igramancie’ hinting that the King’s physical prowess resulting in his claim on the Black Lady was matched by his mastery of the natural and supernatural world (Bishop Andrew Foreman devised the special effects). The online Dictionary of the Scots Language tells us that ‘Igramancie’ as a term means more than simply magic, as it is etymologically derived from ‘nigromancy’ – or more specifically, black magic. The king’s power then, has a mysterious origin and powerful although potentially dangerous applications; these magical and spiritual attributes of kingship were carried through into the later Stuart court masques staged at Whitehall and harnessed to a narrative of divine right and power, for example The Masque of Blackness (1605). Appropriating wildness associated with the North was part of a political discourse consolidating territorial claims over the North and a strategy to rewrite a negative narrative of Northerness, producing a rhetoric of Scottish national identity to take its place.

A Sense of Belonging

This week’s blog comes from one of the participants at our recent ‘Exploring Identities’ day at Inverness Museum and Gallery, and reflects on what we did during the day and how we explored the meaning of identity.

Who am I? Do I exist? Where am I from? Who are my people?

These and many other questions popped up on the excellent Exploring Identities Day co-hosted by IMAG and UHI.


I came away from IMAG’s previous event (Reflections on Celts) feeling very European. But this day focused more on British vs Scottish identities, perceptions of identity and teaching of identity. On those darn demographic boxes that now appear on every form, I have to admit that I tick British based on having 2 English parents, 1 Scottish grandmother and 3 English grandparents. But then as Ian Blyth rightly said, we are all from Africa.

Dr Ian Blyth talking about recent philosophies of identity


Fast forward to the end of the Exploring Identities Day and we are asked to draw on a satellite map of Scotland. I begin with St Kilda just visible as a blur on the far left of the image taken from space. My grandmother’s ancestors, Macdonalds, came from Hirta in the 1840s. They settled in Rodel on the southern tip of Harris and some of the family moved a few miles to Tarbert where my grandmother was born as a Mackenzie in 1901. How she ended up in the Midlands of England, as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK, is a bit of a family mystery.

But back to the map – the islands in the sea are important to me. Following the line of grainy blurred shapes, I add names in orange marker pen as I head up the chain of the Outer Hebrides: Mingulay, Vatersay, Eriskay, Barra, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Harris, Lewis. If only I knew how to speak Gaelic, then the names themselves would become a song of wind chimes strung across the Minch. Today we have spoken of ancestors and of story-telling, of culture and of heritage, yet surprisingly only one song has been sung.

I return to the map and mark on places of yet more significance for me – Luskentyre where I want my ashes scattered, Callanish where the stones can make time stand still. I’ve visited these places many times and they exist also in my mind as places to which I can return to find peace. Once, they saved my life.

Back in the day I was a translator in Paris, suicidally wanting an escape route from work pressure and city rat race that didn’t involve returning to England. The existential questions kept coming at me then – but paramount amongst them was “what did I want to do with the rest of my life?” One day on the bus to work which I had taken a thousand times before, I realised I was asking myself the wrong question. No wonder the answer was beyond my grasp. “What would I do if I had 3 months left to live?” That question was easy – I would return to Harris, the landscape and the seascape of my dreams, maybe I would explore the other Hebridean islands too. After all, I had 3 months to live. Time enough. And so Scotland saved my life. It may have happened a second time, but that’s another story.


Cait McCullagh and Dr Kristin Lindfield-Ott guiding us through our ‘Mapping the Highlands’ exercise

So on my map, I add in The Minch and make a start on labelling the Inner Hebrides. I visited them on my Grand Tour when I left France and have been lucky enough to return to many of those special places – Arran, Islay, Jura, Mull, Iona, Staffa, Eigg, Canna, Rum, Muck, Skye. All jewels of the Scottish seas. I often wondered if you have to be an island in order to fall so in love with islands.

The discussion around other people’s maps leads us to the concept of home. My hometown is where I was born and brought up in the Midlands due to the quirk of my Hebridean grandmother landing herself a husband in the very centre of England. However I cannot say it is home. I spent most of my time there wanting to escape. The times I have returned to Harris in the past offered me moments when I felt that the island was the home of my soul. It felt deeply spiritual to return there and it kept drawing me back but I have been away a while now so I’m not sure if the magic still works. I’ve been lucky enough to land on St Kilda a few times but I have no idea whether good fortune will ever take me back there as much as I long to see it appear again out of the morning mist. I still feel that the island of Hirta holds me safe in the palm of its hand (or in reality protected in the caldera which remains visible from space if only the satellite image were a little less grainy).

St Kilda

Scotland always draws me back to its shores. It is magnetic. I have recently returned from exile after family bereavement and a conjunction of other unfortunate circumstances forced me to leave. Two years away seemed much longer. Inverness is home now and I believe that it always will be where I live. Three months I have been back here and it was only last week that I noticed the big red YOU ARE HERE marker on the tourist map board on the street where I live. Life is in transition for me, I am evolving in more ways than it is possible for you to imagine, I am creating a new life for myself, a new “I”, the same “me”. But I AM HERE, finally it has sunk in. My exile is over. I have returned – maybe not exactly triumphant but at least still alive. Now I cannot imagine life without the river, the bridges and the pink castle. The bridges guide me through my own mental maze and the river replenishes me with energy every day. As long as the river keeps flowing, I can keep going. That’s my latest mantra for keeping suicide at bay. Like I say Scotland saved my life – twice.

As for my identity, that is so multi-faceted my Facebook friends tell me it warrants its own blog.

I am male. I am weak. I am my mother’s daughter. I am strong. I am a survivor.

Which of these statements (if any) is false?



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