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Flora Macdonald Pretty Young Rebel book cover by Flora Fraser
Flora Macdonald: “Pretty Young Rebel”: Her Life and Story by Flora Fraser

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Revisiting Flora MacDonald’s fame with new research on her family history, memory in popular culture, shifting social status, and Presbyterian values, author Flora Fraser’s new biography, Flora Macdonald: “Pretty Young Rebel”: Her Life and Story, presents what was legendary — and revolutionary — about MacDonald’s everyday life on both sides of the Atlantic. Fraser asks, what did she, a Jacobite heroine, have to do with the American Revolution?

At only 24 years old, after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, MacDonald was a key player in a larger strategy to rescue the defeated Prince Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie” Prince Charlie), taking him by boat to find refuge from Scotland’s Outer Hebrides to a place of safety on the Isle of Skye. Soon after, she was arrested by British military forces, who charged the “pretty young rebel” for treason and brought her to London. British papers and pamphleteers covered her eventual release under the Act of Indemnity in 1747, taking inspiration from MacDonald’s journey to write novels, poems, and music like "The Skye Boat Song.”

Seeking financial stability in 1774, Flora and her husband, Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh, left Scotland to settle in Cross Creek, North Carolina. They did not know that the American Revolution would put them in the middle of more tumult that would further uproot their lives. In this war, Flora found herself loyal to the British cause. When Allan was enlisted in a Highland regiment, along with four of their sons, Flora bravely made her own memorable odyssey back to Scotland in 1779.

Read an excerpt from Fraser’s Pretty Young Rebel about the family’s arrival and early days in North Carolina.

Excerpt

After weeks at sea, land at last came into sight. The white sandhills and tall pines that distinguished the vast coastline of North Carolina heralded new beginnings for Flora and her fellow emigrants. They had left behind in Skye jagged eminences, green pastures, and icy burns flowing over stones and rocks into lochs below. Now they entered the sluggish mouth of the great Cape Fear River. The ship’s passengers first gazed on Fort Johnston, where a garrison defended the colony from attack by sea. Here all male passengers on board aged sixteen and over and not invalid swore an oath of allegiance to King George III. They vowed, too, to be “faithful against all traitorous Conspiracies & attempts whatsoever, which shall be made against his [the King’s] Person, Crown, and Dignity.

[...]

Flora’s arrival in Cross Creek in the autumn of 1774 undoubtedly aroused interest in a population that boasted so many immigrants from Skye and the west coast of Scotland. Members of the Argyll community, established here thirty years before, still represented the district in the colonial assembly in New Bern. Now, however, immigrants from the Hebrides were prospering also as plantation owners and merchants in the town. Mezzotints, engravings, and woodcuts bearing Flora’s image were familiar from home to many of these Scots. Those prints in which she was swathed, in youth, in tartan and adorned with a white rose or white ribbons — Jacobite emblems — were especially popular. British book markets, still doing a roaring trade in tales of the Forty-five, supplied the preponderance of reading matter for Scots in North Carolina, as for other emigrants and those born in America too. Moreover, there had appeared in the colonial press, earlier that year, notices advertising the forthcoming publication of Dr. Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles. “When in the isle of Skye,” the Virginia Gazette informed its readers, “he paid a visit to the celebrated lady so well known by the name of Miss Flora Macdonald, whose heroic adventures in 1745 have rendered her fame immortal with the generous of all parties.” A distinguished visitor to the Hebrides in 1825 was to relate that the events of the Forty-five were as fresh in the minds of the inhabitants as were those of the previous day. Those Highlanders who emigrated to North Carolina in the 1770s and preserved a detailed knowledge of the Jacobite past now found Flora, who had once caused such a stir in the world, among them. Flora first took up residence in an “abode” close to the market house and courthouse and on the brink of Cross Creek, the waters that bisected the township and gave the settlement its name.

[...]

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Others in the Scots country in North Carolina echoed this refrain of living comfortably. These emigrant Highlanders believed themselves to be in a kind of Eden. While those who lived near the colony’s coast, where stagnant water and swampland abounded, suffered from typhus and malaria in the summer months, the climate in the Upper Cape Fear Valley was healthy and the winters temperate. The sandy, forested uplands there, if difficult to farm, were well drained. Balole, who had so lauded the advantages of the colony the previous year, appeared justified. In the space of only two or three years, Flora and her maternal relations and closer family had successfully executed a plan of emigration and were, moreover, settled within a day or two’s ride of one another in the colony. Lochbay had an income on which he could have settled, with Annie, in the south of Scotland, or even in England. Flora and Allan, however, had no such option available to them. Their recent outlay, which had secured more than five hundred acres and two dwelling houses on Cheek’s Creek, would have bought them little in the British Isles. In America — that “best poor man’s country” — the family, rich and poor, could thrive together. While still in Skye, Flora had described herself to the Duke of Atholl as a “poor distressed woman (once known to the world).” Her earlier fame, however, had never been wholly eclipsed. Dr. Johnson, Boswell, and Thomas Pennant, among others, had come calling in recent years, eager to cast eyes upon her. Now, no longer distressed, she was considered a venerable ornament to society by the Highland community that centered on Cross Creek. The recent bleak years at home in Skye promised to recede now that she and Allan were making a new life with her relations in America. Those days when warnings to give Allan no credit were affixed to the church doors in Skye were now only a painful memory. Sandy and James were helping their father work the farms. Charles was with the Bengal army in Bombay, while Ranald was in the Marines. Johnny looked to have a bright future in the law in Edinburgh, and Fanny was safe on Raasay. For all the upheaval, for all Flora’s reluctance to leave Skye, she had reason to hope that she had escaped “poverty and oppression” for good. Such hopes, however, were to prove short-lived.

[...]

What Flora and her relations had not expected was to find that the colony where they now made their home was in political turmoil. Much later Lochbay was to be asked “how he could think of going to settle in a Country, which was at that moment in flame.” Flora’s son-in-law replied, “that he did not know, at that time, that the troubles had grown to such a height.” In this he was not alone in Scotland or even England at the time. News traveled slowly. Furthermore, it had not been in the interests of those who sought to entice their fellow Highlanders westward to dwell on “troubles” in the thirteen British colonies. While the Kingsburghs and Macleods were crossing the Atlantic in the summer of 1774, however, the territory had come alive with disaffection. Earlier in the year, in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, Parliament in London had passed legislation — the Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, and the Quartering Act — designed to splinter resistance and damage the economy in Massachusetts Bay and to serve as a warning to other American territories of the consequences of insubordination. These Coercive Acts, however, had the effect of stimulating colonists in North Carolina and elsewhere to spring to the defense of Boston and to condemn the legislation as an attack on American liberty. An irregular assembly in Wilmington declared in July that the cause of that distant town was “the common cause of British America.” Josiah Martin, governor of North Carolina, censured such resolves and other “plans derogatory to” the crown as “inflammatory, disloyal and indecent” and intended to “excite clamour and discontent.” The governor, however, failed to prevent irregular county committees of safety from electing delegates to an extra-legal provincial congress that convened in August and itself elected delegates to a Continental Congress that met in Philadelphia that September. In a modest guild hall, representatives of all thirteen colonies, bar Georgia, gathered at this historic convention and “associated and agreed for themselves and their constituents” back home to ban all imports from Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies. The aim of this Continental Association, which took effect on December 1, 1774, was to force Parliament to repeal the Coercive Acts. It also provided for a ban on exports to these same territories a year later, if the acts were still in force then.

Flora Fraser, Flora Macdonald: “Pretty Young Rebel”: Her Life and Story (Knopf, 2023), 174, 177, 184-188.

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