Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris

The Flight of Prince Charles

It was early morning on the Hebrides, that crowded group of rocky islands on the west coast of Scotland where fish and anglers much do congregate. From one of these, South Uist by name, a fishing-boat had put out at an early hour, and was now, with a fresh breeze in its sail, making its way swiftly over the ruffled waters of the Irish Channel. Its occupants, in addition to the two watermen who managed it, were three persons,—two women and a man. To all outward appearance only one of these was of any importance. This was a young lady of bright and attractive face, dressed in a plain and serviceable travelling costume, but evidently of good birth and training. Her companions were a man and a maid-servant, the latter of unusual height for a woman, and with an embrowned and roughened face that indicated exposure to severe hardships of life and climate. The man was a thorough Highlander, red-bearded, shock-haired, and of weather-beaten aspect.

The boat had already made a considerable distance from the shore when its occupants found themselves in near vicinity to another small craft, which was moving lazily in a line parallel to the island coast. At a distance to right and left other boats were visible. The island waters seemed to be patrolled. As the fishing boat came near, the craft just mentioned shifted its course and sailed towards it. It was sufficiently near to show that it contained armed men, one of them in uniform. A hail now came across the waters.

"What boat is that? Whom have you on board?"

"A lady; on her way to Skye," answered the boatman.

"Up helm, and lay yourself alongside of us. We must see who you are."

The fishermen obeyed. They had reason to know that, just then, there was no other course to pursue. In a few minutes the two boats were riding side by side, lifting and falling lazily on the long Atlantic swell. The lady looked up at the uniformed personage, who seemed an officer.

"My name is Flora McDonald," she said. "These persons are my servants. My father is in command of the McDonalds on South Uist. I have been visiting at Clanranald, and am now on my way home."

"Forgive me, Miss McDonald," said the officer, courteously; "but our orders are precise; no one can leave the island without a pass."

"I know it," she replied, with dignity, "and have provided myself. Here is my passport, signed by my father."

The officer took and ran his eye over it quickly: "Flora McDonald; with two servants, Betty Bruce and Malcolm Rae," he read. His gaze moved rapidly over the occupants of the boat, resting for a moment on the bright and intelligent face of the young lady.

"This seems all right, Miss McDonald," he said, respectfully, returning her the paper. "You can pass. Good-by, and a pleasant journey."

"Many thanks," she answered. "You should be successful in catching the bird that is seeking to fly from that island. Your net is spread wide enough."

"I hardly think our bird will get through the meshes," he answered, laughingly.

In a few minutes more they were wide asunder. A peculiar smile rested on the face of the lady, which seemed reflected from the countenances of her attendants, but not a word was said on the subject of the recent incident.

Their reticence continued until the rocky shores of the Isle of Skye were reached, and the boat was put into one of the many inlets that break its irregular contour. Silence, indeed, was maintained until they had landed on a rocky shelf, and the boat had pushed off on its return journey. Then Flora McDonald spoke,—

"So far we are safe," she said. "But I confess I was frightfully scared when that patrol-boat stopped us."

"You did not look so," said Betty Bruce, in a voice of masculine depth.

"I did not dare to," she answered. "If I had looked what I felt, we would never have passed. But let us continue our journey. We have no time to spare."

It was a rocky and desolate spot on which they stood, the rugged rock-shelves which came to the water's edge gradually rising to high hills in the distance. But as they advanced inland the appearance of the island improved, and signs of human habitation appeared. They had not gone far before the huts of fishermen and others became visible, planted in little clearings among the rocks, whose inmates looked with eyes of curiosity on the strangers. This was particularly the case when they passed through a small village, at no great distance inland. Of the three persons, it was the maid-servant, Betty Bruce, that attracted most attention, her appearance giving rise to some degree of amusement. Nor was this without reason. The woman was so ungainly in appearance, and walked with so awkward a stride, that the skirts which clung round her heels seemed a decided incumbrance to her progress. Her face, too, presented a roughness that gave hint of possibilities of a beard. She kept unobtrusively behind her mistress, her peculiar gait set the goodwives of the village whispering and laughing as they pointed her out.

For several miles the travellers proceeded, following the general direction of the coast, and apparently endeavoring to avoid all collections of human habitations. Now and then, however, they met persons in the road, who gazed at them with the same curiosity as those they had already passed.

The scenery before them grew finer as they advanced. Near nightfall they came near mountainous elevations, abutting on the sea-shore in great cliffs of columnar basalt, a thousand feet and more in height, over which leaped here and there waterfalls of great height and beauty. Their route now lay along the base of these cliffs, on the narrow strip of land between them and the sea.

Here they paused, just as the sun was shedding its last rays upon the water. Seating themselves on some protruding boulders, they entered into conversation, the fair Flora's face presenting an expression of doubt and trouble.

"I do not like the looks of the people," she said. "They watch you too closely. And we are still in the country of Sir Alexander, a land filled with our enemies. If you were only a better imitation of a woman."

"Faith, I fear I'm but an awkward sample," answered Betty, in a voice of man like tone. "I have been doing my best, but–"

"But the lion cannot change his skin," supplied the lady. "This will not do. We must take other measures. But our first duty is to find the shelter fixed for to-night. It will not do to tarry here till it grows dark."

They rose and proceeded, following Malcolm, who acted as guide. The place was deserted, and Betty stepped out with a stride of most unmaidenly length, as if to gain relief from her late restraint Her manner now would have revealed the secret to any shrewd observer. The ungainly maid-servant was evidently a man in disguise.

We cannot follow their journey closely. It will suffice to say that the awkwardness of the assumed Betty gave rise to suspicion on more than one occasion in the next day or two. It became evident that, if the secret of the disguised personage was not to be discovered, they must cease their wanderings; some shelter must be provided, and a safer means of progress be devised.

A shelter was obtained,—one that promised security. In the base of the basaltic cliffs of which we have spoken many caverns had been excavated by the winter surges of the sea. In one of these, near the village of Portree, and concealed from too easy observation, the travellers found refuge. Food was obtained by Malcolm from the neighboring settlement, and some degree of comfort provided for. Leaving her disguised companion in this shelter, with Malcolm for company, Flora went on. She had devised a plan of procedure not without risk, but which seemed necessary. It was too perilous to continue as they had done during the few past days.

Leaving our travellers thus situated, we will go back in time to consider the events which led to this journey in disguise. It was now July, the year being 1746. On the 16th of April of the same year a fierce battle had been fought on Culloden moor between the English army under the Duke of Cumberland and the host of Highlanders led by Charles Edward Stuart, the "Young Pretender." Fierce had been the fray, terrible the bloodshed, fatal the defeat of the Highland clans. Beaten and broken, they had fled in all directions for safety, hotly pursued by their victorious foes. Prince Charles had fought bravely on the field; and, after the fatal disaster, had fled—having with him only a few Irish officers whose good faith he trusted—to Gortuleg, the residence of Lord Lovat. If he hoped for shelter there, he found it not. He was overcome with distress; Lord Lovat, with fear and embarrassment. No aid was to be had from Lovat, and, obtaining some slight refreshment, the prince rode on.

He obtained his next rest and repast at Invergarry, the castle of the laird of Glengarry, and continued his journey into the west Highlands, where he found shelter in a village called Glenbeisdale, near where he had landed on his expedition for the conquest of England. For nearly a year he had been in Scotland, pursuing a career of mingled success and defeat, and was now back at his original landing place, a hopeless fugitive. Here some of the leaders of his late army communicated with him. They had a thousand men still together, and vowed that they would not give up hope while there were cattle in the Highlands or meal in the Lowlands. But Prince Charles refused to deal with such a forlorn hope. He would seek France, he said, and return with a powerful reinforcement. With this answer he left the mainland, sailing for Long Island, in the Hebrides, where he hoped to find a French vessel.

And now dangers, disappointments, and hardships surrounded the fugitive. The rebellion was at an end; retribution was in its full tide. The Highlands were being scoured, the remnants of the defeated army scattered or massacred, the adherents of the Pretender seized, and Charles himself was sought for with unremitting activity. The islands in particular were closely searched, as it was believed that he had fled to their shelter. His peril was extreme. No vessel was to be had. Storms, contrary winds, various disappointments attended him. He sought one hiding-place after another in Long Island and those adjoining, exposed to severe hardships, and frequently having to fly from one place of shelter to another. In the end he reached the island of South Uist, where he found a faithful friend in Clanranald, one of his late adherents. Here he was lodged in a ruined forester's hut, situated near the summit of the wild mountain called Corradale. Even this remote and almost inaccessible shelter grew dangerous. The island was suspected, and a force of not less than two thousand men landed on it, with orders to search the interior with the closest scrutiny, while small war-vessels, cutters, armed boats, and the like surrounded the island, rendering escape by water almost hopeless. It was in this critical state of affairs that the devotion of a woman came to the rescue of the imperilled Prince. Flora McDonald was visiting the family of Clanranald. She wished to return to her home in Skye. At her suggestion the chief provided her with the attendants whom we have already described, her awkward maid-servant Betty Bruce being no less a personage than the wandering prince. The daring and devoted lady was step daughter to a chief of Sir Alexander McDonald's clan, who was on the king's side, and in command of a section of the party of search. From him Flora obtained a passport for herself and two servants, and was thus enabled to pass in safety through the cordon of investing boats. No one suspected the humble-looking Betty Bruce as being a flying prince. And so it was that the bird had passed through the net of the fowlers, and found shelter in the island of Skye.

And now we must return to the fugitives, whom we left concealed in a basaltic cavern on the rocky coast of Skye. The keen-witted Flora had devised a new and bold plan for the safety of her charge, no less a one than that of trusting the Lady Margaret McDonald, wife of Sir Alexander, with her dangerous secret. This seemed like penetrating the very stronghold of the foe; but the women of the Highlands had—most of them—a secret leaning to Jacobitism, and Flora felt that she could trust her high-born relative. She did so, telling Lady Margaret her story. The lady heard it with intense alarm. What to do she did not know. She would not betray the prince, but her husband was absent, her house filled with militia officers, and shelter within its walls impossible. In this dilemma she suggested that Flora should conduct the disguised prince to the house of McDonald of Kingsburgh, her husband's steward, a brave and intelligent man, in whom she could fully trust.

Returning to the cavern, the courageous girl did as suggested, and had the good fortune to bring her charge through in safety, though more than once suspicion was raised. At Kingsburgh the connection of Flora McDonald with the unfortunate prince ended. Her wit and shrewdness had saved him from inevitable capture. He was now out of the immediate range of search of his enemies, and must henceforth trust to his own devices.

From Kingsburgh the fugitive sought the island of Rasa, led by a guide supplied by McDonald, and wearing the dress of a servant. The laird of Rasa had taken part in the rebellion, and his domain had been plundered in consequence. Food was scarce, and Charles suffered great distress. He next followed his seeming master to the land of the laird of MacKinnon, but, finding himself still in peril, felt compelled to leave the islands, and once more landed on the Scottish mainland at Loch Nevis.

Here his peril was as imminent as it had been at South Uist. It was the country of Lochiel, Glengarry, and other Jacobite chiefs, and was filled with soldiers, diligently seeking the leaders of the insurrection. Charles and his guides found themselves surrounded by foes. A complete line of sentinels, who crossed each other upon their posts, inclosed the district in which he had sought refuge, and escape seemed impossible. The country was rough, bushy, and broken; and he and his companions were forced to hide in defiles and woodland shelters, where they dared not light a fire, and from which they could see distant soldiers and hear the calls of the sentinels.

For two days they remained thus cooped up, not knowing at what minute they might be taken, and almost hopeless of escape. Fortunately, they discovered a deep and dark ravine that led down from the mountains through the line of sentries. The posts of two of these reached to the edges of the ravine, on opposite sides. Down this gloomy and rough defile crept noiselessly the fugitives, hearing the tread of the sentinels above their heads as they passed the point of danger. No alarm was given, and the hostile line was safely passed. Once more the fugitive prince had escaped.

And now for a considerable time Charles wandered through the rough Highland mountains, his clothes in rags, often without food and shelter, and not daring to kindle a fire; vainly hoping to find a French vessel hovering off the coast, and at length reaching the mountains of Strathglass. Here he, with Glenaladale, his companion at that time, sought shelter in a cavern, only to find it the lurking place of a gang of robbers, or rather of outlaws, who had taken part in the rebellion, and were here in hiding. There were seven of these, who lived on sheep and cattle raided in the surrounding country.

These men looked on the ragged suppliants of their good will at first as fugitives of their own stamp. But they quickly recognized, in the most tattered of the wanderers, that "Bonnie Charlie" for whom they had risked their lives upon the battle-field, and for whom they still felt a passionate devotion. They hailed his appearance among them with gladness, and expressed themselves as his ardent and faithful servants in life and death.

In this den of robbers the unfortunate prince was soon made more comfortable than he had been since his flight from Culloden. Their faith was unquestionable, their activity in his service unremitting. Food was abundant, and, in addition, they volunteered to provide him with decent clothing, and tidings of the movements of the enemy. The first was accomplished somewhat ferociously. Two of the outlaws met the servant of an officer, on his way to Fort Augustus with his master's baggage. This poor fellow they killed, and thus provided their guest with a good stock of clothing. Another of them, in disguise, made his way into Fort Augustus. Here he learned much about the movements of the troops, and, eager to provide the prince with something choice in the way of food, brought him back a pennyworth of gingerbread,—a valuable luxury to his simple soul.

For three weeks Charles remained with these humble but devoted friends. It was not easy to break away from their enthusiastic loyalty.

"Stay with us," they said; "the mountains of gold which the government has set upon your head may induce some gentleman to betray you, for he can go to a distant country and live upon the price of his dishonor. But to us there exists no such temptation. We can speak no language but our own, we can live nowhere but in this country, where, were we to injure a hair of your head, the very mountains would fall down to crush us to death. Do not leave us, then. You will nowhere be so safe as with us."

This advice was hardly to Charles's taste. He preferred court-life in France to cave-life in Scotland, and did not cease his efforts to escape. His purposes were aided by an instance of enthusiastic devotion. A young man named McKenzie, son of an Edinburgh goldsmith, and a fugitive officer from the defeated army, happened to resemble the prince closely in face and person. He was attacked by a party of soldiers, defended himself bravely, and when mortally wounded, cried out, "Ah, villains, you have slain your prince!"

His generous design proved successful. His head was cut off, and sent to London as that of the princely fugitive, which it resembled so closely that it was some time before the mistake was discovered. This error proved of the utmost advantage to the prince. The search was greatly relaxed, and he found it safe to leave the shelter of his cave, and seek some of his late adherents, of whose movements he had been kept informed. He therefore bade farewell to the faithful outlaws, with the exception of two, who accompanied him as guides and guards.

Safety was not yet assured. It was with much difficulty, and at great risk, that he succeeded in meeting his lurking adherents, Lochiel and Cluny McPherson, who were hiding in Badenoch. Here was an extensive forest, the property of Cluny, extending over the side of a mountain, called Benalder. In a deep thicket of this forest was a well-concealed hut, called the Cage. In this the fugitives took up their residence, and lived there in some degree of comfort and safety, the game of the forest and its waters supplying them with abundant food.

Word was soon after brought to Charles that two French frigates had arrived at Lochnanuagh, their purpose being to carry him and other fugitives to France. The news of their arrival spread rapidly through the district, which held many fugitives from Culloden, and on the 20th of September Charles and Lochiel, with nearly one hundred others of his party, embarked on these friendly vessels, and set sail for France. Cluny McPherson refused to go. He remained concealed in his own country for several years, and served as the agent by which Charles kept up a correspondence with the Highlanders.

On September 29 the fugitive prince landed near Morlaix, in Brittany, having been absent from France about fourteen months, five of which had been months of the most perilous and precarious series of escapes and adventures ever recorded of a princely fugitive in history or romance. During these months of flight and concealment several hundred persons had been aware of his movements, but none, high or low, noble or outlaw, had a thought of betraying his secret. Among them all, the devoted Flora McDonald stands first, and her name has become historically famous through her invaluable services to the prince.