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Jacobite heroine Flora Macdonald to be explored at Inverness and Tain events

By Margaret Chrystall

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Flora Fraser. Picture: Nicholas Latimer
Flora Fraser. Picture: Nicholas Latimer

An historicial biographer has been speaking about how she was inspired by her famous namesake.

If you are going to weigh up whether famous Flora Macdonald was the first superstar of her time, having her biographer Flora Fraser on speed dial might be handy.

As well as being named Flora after the heroine who supposedly rowed Bonnie Prince Charlie to Skye to escape government troops, the writer has spent eight years researching and writing the life story of her namesake.

But it only came about when the writer stumbled across a portrait of Flora Macdonald while looking through American archives for pictures of previous biography subjects George and Martha Washington.

Flora Fraser writes in her Prologue to Pretty Young Rebel, which came out last year: “There, among a sheaf of American revolutionaries’ portraits, was an image of Flora Macdonald familiar to me as hanging in the Scottish Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. What had she, a Jacobite heroine of 1746, to do with patriots across the Atlantic in the 1770s and later? … What I discovered and what I present here is almost stranger than the Jacobite fiction I read as a child.”

Pretty Young Rebel, the story of Flora Macdonald's life with transatlantic adventures.
Pretty Young Rebel, the story of Flora Macdonald's life with transatlantic adventures.

Flora describes spending a lot of time in Inverness-shire as a youngster with reminders of the Jacobites all around. She grew up at Eilan Aigas, a house on an island on the River Beauly where the “Sobieski Stuarts”, brothers who claimed to be descended from Bonnie Prince Charlie, had lived in Victorian times.

“My parents were always looking for free entertainment for six children and we’d go to Culloden Battlefield and take up our battle positions near the Fraser stone, it was just this bleak place then and we had to do our Lovat Scout bit, stalking on our stomachs – or going to Castle Urquhart to roll down the moat. We’d go to Rosemarkie for my mother’s birthday or picnic up Glen Strathfarrar.

“It felt natural that history was all around us!”

The daughter of historian and historical biographer Lady Antonia Fraser and Tory politician Sir Hugh Fraser, Flora’s grandmother was Elizabeth Longford – also a historical biographer.

Researching facts at the British Library for her mother and grandmother to earn pocket money at a young age, meant that eventually following in their footsteps felt right.

“I found I absolutely loved historical biography and that is what I’ve done ever since!”

Flora has written biographies of Emma Hamilton, Caroline of Brunswick, the daughters of George III, and Pauline Bonaparte.

Through a close look at the story of Flora’s ‘rescue’ of Bonnie Prince Charlie that has inspired paintings, songs and many accounts of Flora’s life, including her own, Pretty Young Rebel sees a view emerge of a self-possessed, calm, cool-headed and courageous young woman. And in later life, a disappointing experience having emigrated to North Carolina saw Flora Macdonald, by then in her 50s, coping surprisingly well with the loss of possessions, livestock, servants and the fine furnishings brought all the way from Skye.

Writer Flora says: “I think she was very different, pretty, but not at first glance, perhaps. She captivated people – Dr Johnson – and I think she had a twinkle. Though she had a strong faith, she wasn’t prim and proper. She is hugely alive all the time.”

The book offers many clues to the real woman. An old lady witnessed Flora encouraging the Highland troops loyal to the king at Cross Creek to take on ‘the patriots’: “I remember seeing her ride along the line of troops on a large white horse, and encouraging her countrymen to be faithful to the king. Why, she looked like a queen.”

But a small act of friendship is almost equally telling: “Before leaving … she extracted two rhinestone and glass shoe buckles. These she gave to the three Wilmington sisters…in token of gratitude for some gesture of kindness.”

Pretty Young Rebel: The Life Of Flora Macdonald (Bloomsbury, £10.99).

Flora Fraser talks at Inverness Museum on Saturday at 11am; St Duthac Book & Art Festival on Sunday, September 17 at noon; and Culloden Visitor Centre on Sunday, September 17 at 5.30pm.

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