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The 1745 Jacobite Rebellion


Bonnie Prince Charlie

Flora MacDonald
Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry
Carry the lad that was born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air
Baffled our foes, stand by the shore
Follow they will not dare


The Skye Boat Song is familiar as a lullaby to millions around the world, many of whom otherwise have barely heard of the island. It recalls Prince Charles’ flight, disguised as a maid, from Government troops to the Isle of Skye, aided by Flora MacDonald.

Charles Edward Stuart, often referred to as Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the exiled claimant to the British throne. Charles was the son of James Francis Edward Stuart and grandson of King James II of England (James VII of Scotland), who had been deposed by William of Orange in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. The Jacobite movement was an attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne. Charles’ father James (known as the Old Pretender) headed the first Jacobite rebellion in 1715, but after the inconclusive Battle of Sherrifmuir, the rebellion was abandonded for lack of support and James fled back to France. In 1743 James declared his son Charles to be Prince Regent, giving him authority to try to recapture the British throne; the stage was set for the 1745 rebellion.

Charles landed in Scotland with just seven companions on the Isle of Eriskay (in the Outer Hebrides) in July. He raised his standard at Glenfinnan on the mainland, and clansmen sympathetic to his cause soon swelled his ranks. Many clan chieftains opted to remain home, including both the Macleod and MacDonald chiefs on Skye, but Charles did manage raise an army large enough to march on to capture first Fort William and then Stirling and Edinburgh, which he captured conclusively at the Battle of Prestonpans on 21 September. In November, he marched southwards into England leading an army of 6000 men. They captured Carlisle and continued to sweep south, reaching as far as Derby. Here, rumours (possibly spread by spies) of a huge Government force ahead led Charles and his advisors to decide to turn back. In fact the Government army was stranded miles to the north and Charles continued march into London would have met little resistance.

Back in Scotland and demoralised, many of Charles’ men returned to their homes, and the Government army, now led by the King’s son the Earl of Cumberland, caught up with the Jacobite forces at Culloden on 16 April 1746. Charles’ forces, by now hungry and exhausted, were massacred. Cumberland ordered his men to give no quarter to their opponents, and for the merciless treatment given to wounded and fleeing men, he is still referred to in the Highlands as Butcher Cumberland.

Many's the lad fought on that day
Well the claymore did wield
When the night came, silently lain
Dead on Culloden field

Charles himself escaped from the battlefield and his subsequent flight around the Highlands and Islands, pursued by Government troops and aided by many Highlanders despite the huge price on his head, has become the stuff of many legends. It was his flight through the Isle of Skye, however, aided by Flora MacDonald, which is best remembered.

Flora was born on South Uist though she was raised at Armadale in Sleat. In 1746 she was living in Benbecula when the fleeing Prince Charles arrived, seeking refuge and a safe hiding place. She disguised the Prince as her maid Betty Burke, and they were rowed across the Minch with a crew of six, landing at what is now known as Prince Charles’ Point in Trotternish, a couple of miles north of Uig.

Though the waves heave, soft will ye sleep
Ocean's a royal bed
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head

They hid there in a cottage before making a clandestine overland journey to Portree together. Here they parted, and Charles gave Flora a locket with his portrait and promised they would meet again. Charles hid for a time on Raasay but his flight continued with a gruelling march from Portree to Elgol , undertaken by night. They crossed the moors to Sligachan before passing over the Red Hills just north of Marsco before going through the Strath Mor and eventually reaching Elgol where Charles stayed overnight in a cave before taking another boat for the mainland. He eventually made it back to France, sailing from Arisaig on 20 September.

Flora MacDonald was arrested and brought to London for trial. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and was for a time under sentence of death, but was released in 1747. Afterward, she emigrated to America, and tried to recruit Scots living there to support the British government during the War of Independence. Later she returned to live in Skye, at Kingsburgh in Trotternish and Flodigarry. In later life she was something of a celebrity, and she hosted Johnson and Boswell at Kingsburgh during their tour of the Hebrides. Her grave can be visited at Kilmuir, a monument there bears Johnston’s tribute – ‘Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour’.

The Highlanders as a whole did not fare so well in the aftermath of Culloden. Cumberland’s army wrecked reprisals across the region. Highland culture was suppressed and the wearing of tartan and even the playing of bagpipes was made a hanging offence. Carrying of arms was outlawed and chiefs were stripped of their traditional powers and slowly became simply landlords. This was the final nail in the coffin of the Clan system and the Highland way of life, and paved the way for the The Highland Clearances.

Burned are our homes,
exile and death
Scatter the loyal men
Yet e'er the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

He never did.


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