A Fugitive Prince
The Western Isles, or Outer Hebrides, are remote and wind-lashed maritime lands. A strand of rough diamonds, they lie off the west coast of mainland Scotland in the Atlantic Ocean and on the outer edge of Europe. The ground, at the mercy of the ebb and flow of the ocean and washed by driving rain much of the year, can appear more water than land. Lewis and Harris, North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist, Eriskay and Barra are some of these islands’ names. In the mid-eighteenth century, during the reign of George II, they were known locally and collectively as “the Long Island” and were the private fiefdoms of Macdonald, Macleod, and other clan chiefs.
White beaches and fertile shores dominate the low-lying western coastline of sprawling South Uist and of diminutive Benbecula, to the immediate north. On the farther side of a spine of hill, glen, and moor, the precipitous eastern coastline is rich in rocky inlets and coves, providing safe anchorage for vessels. In the mid-1740s a Macdonald chieftain generally known as “Old Clan” but properly Ranald Macdonald, XVII Captain of Clanranald, held feudal sway here and lived in peace with two powerful neighbors on the Isle of Skye, Sir Alexander Macdonald of Sleat and Norman Macleod of Macleod.
These last two chiefs were more often known locally as “the Knight”—though Sir Alexander was a baronet—and “the Laird.” The former was chief of the Macdonalds of Sleat, and the latter chief of all Clan Macleod. Wars with their ancestors and with other clan heads on the mainland had once occupied Old Clan’s forebears. Moreover, an earlier Clanranald chief had died in battle in 1715 on the Scottish mainland, while endeavoring to restore the so-called Pretender, an exiled Stuart prince, to the British throne and displace the ruling House of Hanover. For thirty years thereafter, however, the Long Island was tranquil. Inhabitants of the Clanranald lands confined their attention to raising black cattle, a hardy native breed, for sale in Highland markets and growing such crops on their “tacks,” or farms, as would withstand the harsh climate.
Centuries before, Scottish kings had conferred lands in this Atlantic archipelago upon forebears of Old Clan, the Knight, and the Laird. In the clan system that had since evolved in the Highlands, “tacksmen,” or gentlemen farmers, from collateral branches of the main Clanranald line, held their land on long leases from their kinsman chief. In turn, they provided smallholders—known as “the common sort”—with exiguous acres in exchange for an amalgam of labor, rent, and produce. Bovine disease and drought, rather than the might of other clans or government troops, were now feared by these islanders, richer or poorer. In summer the tacksmen grazed their livestock inland, in the glens that abounded there and above a maze of freshwater lochs. In winter they pastured their cattle on low ground, close to their farms. The wealthier among them had stone houses and dined on roast meat and drank French wine and brandy, as did Old Clan and his wife and family at Nunton, his seat on Benbecula. Herdsmen occupying dwellings that were sometimes little more than huts made a diet of bread, oats, cheese, and barley more palatable by the addition of whisky.
In the summer of 1746, notwithstanding these decades of peace, the atmosphere on South Uist and Benbecula was febrile. Militia raised on behalf of the crown by the Knight and the Laird from their lands on Skye and on the Long Island guarded the fords in the shallows between South Uist and Benbecula. The Minch, a channel some thirty nautical miles wide between the Long Island and Skye, was “pestered with the English navy,” as a South Uist native later remembered with feeling. The vessels in question, he observed, had been “sent there a purpose to hinder the prince or any of his party to make their escape.”
The royal personage in question is known to history as Bonnie Prince Charlie. Then a fugitive with a price on his head, to his pursuers he was “the Young Pretender.” The limelight had shifted from his father, James Edward Stuart, a prince dubbed “the Pretender” at the time of his bid to seize the British throne thirty years earlier and now often referred to as “the Old Pretender.” In the wake of a failed attempt on the British throne, Prince Charles had since late April been “skulking”—moving about stealthily—in a variety of refuges on the Long Island, among them Corradale, a secluded glen in South Uist on Clanranald land. The chief of those territories and his brother, Alexander Macdonald of Boisdale, supplied bread and brandy, shirts and local information; and the latter took charge of plans to secure the prince’s escape to the Continent. Although the Knight was steadfast in his support for the government, his wife, Lady Margaret Macdonald, sent secretly to Charles Edward in his Corradale retreat copies of the London Gazette containing valuable domestic and foreign intelligence. Many others, including several militia officers on South Uist and Benbecula, came to know and keep secret his identity over the course of these weeks. When fifteen Royal Navy ships hovered off the coast in mid-June, however, and a party of regular (commissioned) officers, landing on South Uist with orders to hunt down the Young Pretender, took Boisdale prisoner, real danger threatened.
At this point, when all seemed lost, Hugh Macdonald of Armadale sent a private message to the loch, where the royal party was “lurking [concealed].” This Skye tacksman was an officer in one of the government militias raised the previous autumn by the Knight. “Armadale,” as he was known, declared himself, “though an enemy in appearance, yet . . . a sure friend in his heart” and made a novel and daring suggestion for the prince’s deliverance: “As it seemed now impossible for him to conceal himself any longer in the country,” the officer volunteered “to send his stepdaughter, Miss Florence [Flora] Macdonald,” then on South Uist, “to Sleat” in Skye, where he and her mother lived. If His Royal Highness would “dress in women’s clothes, that he might pass for her [Flora’s] servant maid” on the voyage, Armadale advised, the disguised prince was sure “to be protected by Lady Margaret Macdonald” on that island across the Minch. The Knight’s second wife had been bred to favor the exiled Stuarts by her mother, a Scottish countess. Finally, the Skye militia officer proposed that Neil MacEachen of Howbeg, a cousin of Flora’s then with Charles Edward, be appointed to take care of both mistress and “maid” on the journey. This scheme of Armadale’s “pleased the prince mightily,” and he was “very impatient to see it put into execution.” It was envisaged that, in place of Boisdale, secret adherents to the Stuart cause on Skye would further plan to land and conceal him on the mainland, until a passage to the Continent might be effected.
Charles Edward Louis Philip Casimir Stuart had come from the Continent the previous summer to threaten the Hanoverian dynasty, now established on the British throne some thirty years. Long before, in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, James II of England and Wales and VII of Scotland, Charles Edward’s grandfather, had been deposed and exiled to France, after he turned Catholic, with his second wife and infant son. Since then James II’s daughters and son-in-law—William and Mary, then Anne, all Protestant monarchs—had reigned, until 1714, when the last had died childless. The then Elector of Hanover, as the queen’s nearest Protestant relation, next succeeded to the British throne as George I, and his son, George II, now ruled in the United Kingdom.
These Hanoverian monarchs from Germany did not please all in Scotland, whether Protestant or Catholic. Other than during the Cromwellian years, Stuart monarchs had reigned there since 1371 and in England and Ireland since 1603. Although the exiled James II had died in 1701, periodic attempts were made after 1714, with the aid of France, to restore the “rightful” Stuart line to the British throne in the shape of his son, James Edward Stuart. All had failed. Most recently, a French invasion force sent across the English Channel in early 1744 had been driven back homeward by storms, and Louis XV thereafter declined to offer aid to his fellow Catholic prince. He continued, however, to recognize the Stuart exile as James VIII of Scotland and III of England. Pope Benedict XIV and the papal court in Rome, where James Edward had now long resided and brought up his sons, Charles Edward and Henry Benedict, followed suit.
Styled “the Chevalier” by his supporters and “the Pretender” by the Hanoverian government, the Stuart princes’ father was, in the 1740s, pious, sickly, and old before his time. Nevertheless, he and his adherents, termed Jacobites, “Jacobus” being the Latin for James, still dreamed of his restoration to the British throne and centered their hopes in James’s elder son as agent for that change. Charles Edward was an ambitious young man in vigorous health. Covert encouragement from the Scottish Highlands led him to leave his paternal home in Rome for Paris and there in the summer of 1745 plan a daring attempt on the Hanoverian throne. The outcome of this venture, which has come to be known as the ’Forty-five, was to visit upon Georgian Scotland and England civil war and government retribution that lasted into the following year. When the Stuart heir slipped out of France, however, and landed in July 1745 in Clanranald country on the west coast of Scotland, he had with him only seven companions, four of whom had no previous military experience.
The prince’s unheralded arrival in Scotland took both Highland chiefs and the Hanoverian government by surprise. The country people in Arisaig, where the prince came ashore, were thunderstruck by the royal apparition in their midst. A member of a nearby parish was questioned by her minister: “What number of people is with him?” “Six men and himself,” the woman answered, “but word is sent to all the Highland chiefs about.”
On August 8, the prince wrote to one of these powerful beings, who had at their command varying numbers of fighting men, “I am come with a firm resolution to restore the King my father or perish in the attempt.” For all his lack of French support, when he raised his father’s standard at the head of Loch Shiel on August 19, he persuaded Macdonald, Cameron, and Stewart chiefs and lairds to lead out hundreds of their clansmen in the Stuart cause. More Scots of different clan “septs,” or branches, were committed to this “rebel army,” as it passed through the Highlands on its way south to Edinburgh, where the prince intended to rally all his adherents in the north. Foolhardy in many respects, Charles Edward’s latter-day scheme for a Stuart restoration had this advantage: in the summer of 1745, only a skeleton government army defended the United Kingdom. The greater part of George II’s forces had been concentrated, for two years now, in Flanders, fighting the French. In consequence, although the Hanoverian government ordered “a reward of thirty thousand pounds” to be bestowed on “any person who shall seize and secure the eldest son of the Pretender,” the Jacobite brigades passed on their way unchecked.
The prince entered the ancient Scottish capital in triumph on September 17 and took possession of Holyroodhouse, the palace once occupied by, among others of his ancestors, Mary Queen of Scots and her son, James VI of Scotland and I of England. Margaret Pringle, a young gentlewoman, observed: “Ye windows were full of ladies who threw up their handkerchiefs and clap’d their hands and show’d great loyalty to the Bonny Prince.” Some of these enthusiasts wore white roses, emblems of the “Jacobite” Stuart cause. Reviewing his men on horseback, Charles Edward himself sported a white cockade, or rosette, in his hat and carried a sword with a finely wrought silver hilt. He acknowledged spectators “with an air of grandeur and affability. . . . In all my life,” wrote Miss Pringle, “I never saw so noble nor so graceful an appearance as His Highness made.” While many of the Highlanders who had come south wore the plaid and kilt that were their customary attire, Charles Edward appeared in costly “Lowland . . . dress”—a grosgrain coat “trimmed with gold lace and a laced red waistcoat and breeches.”
Acting as regent, Charles Edward proclaimed his father James VIII of Scotland and days later was again with his troops in the field. Although he had grown up a petted prince at the papal court, he showed himself uncaring of privation, writing to his father on September 20, “’Tis owing to . . . my conforming myself to the customs of those people [the Highlanders] that I have got their hearts to a degree not to be easily conceived by those who do not see it. One who observes the discipline I have established would take my little army to be a body of picked veterans. . . . I keep my health better in these wild mountains than I used to do, in the Campania Felice [fertile region, south of the Papal States], and sleep sounder lying on the ground than I used to do in the palaces at Rome.”
When intelligence reached London of the prince’s singular victory the following day at Prestonpans outside Edinburgh and of “the late unhappy defeat” there of the Hanoverian general Sir John Cope, the government was confounded. The news “gives a very great alarm here,” the secretary of state for Scotland informed Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Lord President of the Court of Sessions in Scotland. However, a “very considerable body of troops, with artillery,” Lord Tweeddale continued, had begun their march northward from London, Government militia were being raised in the Highlands, and further troops had been ordered home from Flanders.
Enlisting more supporters after he crossed the English border on October 31, the prince aimed to end his journey at Westminster. Although he attracted other followers as he passed through the northern towns of England, his campaign foundered at Derby, a hundred miles short of London. In December lack of funds and dwindling numbers in the rebel army forced his retreat back north.
Pursuing him was the king’s younger son, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. Having returned to England from Flanders in November, he was appointed by his father commander in chief in Scotland, succeeding Cope. In his early twenties, like his remote cousin the prince, Cumberland was little tried in battle and had scant experience of army administration. But unlike Charles Edward, he had at his disposal trained government troops and a fleet of ships in northern waters commanded by Thomas Smith, a proficient commodore. In the early months of 1746, “redcoats”—Hanoverian troops—and rebel parties disputed control of the Scottish Highlands, the Jacobite army occupying the town of Inverness in February. A short time later Cumberland’s men reached Aberdeen, only eighty miles farther down the east coast. A reckoning was sure to come, once these government forces progressed northward in early April.
Copyright © 2023 by Flora Fraser. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.