1746 - Escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie


'Betty Burk'

After Culloden, the Prince became a hunted man with a heavy price on his head. Even so, he still found assistance. He had with him his two faithful Irish officers Felix O'Neil and John O'Sullivan, but for all their loyalty they were of little use to him in terms of local knowledge. Having escaped as far as the little island of Benbecula, to Clanranald's lands, Charles found that his host had a helper for him. Neil MacEachan Macdonald, an experienced secret agent in the French service, was waiting specifically to assist Charles in his escape. The famous Flora Macdonald was Neil's cousin, and it was no accident that led to her encounter with the prince. In his own lively and sometimes comic narrative, MacEachan, talking of himself in the third person, explains how it happened. His manuscript breaks off, however, before the ending of the story. Charles's escape to France on the Du Teillay, and his subsequent descent into a miserable alcoholic old age, are well-known.

The scheme was this: to send his [Macdonald of Kingsburgh's] stepdaughter, Miss Florence MacDonald, to Sleet, to live with her mother 'till the enemy was out of Wist [Uist]. The prince at the same time was ordered to dress in woman's close [clothes], that he might pass for her servant-maid, and Neil was appointed to take care of both. The scheme pleased the prince mightely, and he seemed very impatient to see it put in execution.

But to return to the top of the hill, the prince with Neil and Mr. O'Neil remained there the whole day. About sunset the prince told Neil that he entrusted himself in his hands, and that his life and safety depended upon him, Neil answered that the charge was more than what his life was worth; but yet, with God's assistance that he would find means to preserve him from all danger till every thing was got ready to leave the country. After this they took a refreshment of bread-and-cheese, and set out towards the north end of the country, every body carrying his own share of the baggage, the prince carried his own few shirts, O'Neill carried his own linnen, and Neil carried the provision, his own gun and sword, and the prince's fusee and one of his holsters, while the other hung upon his own belt. As they were going on, the prince clapt Neil's shoulder, often telling him if ever it was their good fortune to get free of their present troubles, he would make him live easie all his days for the fatigue of that night. Neil was informed some days before, that Miss Flora lived with her brother in a glen near Locheynort, where they had all their cattle a grazing at that time, and which happened to be very near the rod [road] they were to pass that night.

When the prince was informed of it, he would needs go to see her, and tell her of the message he had from her stepfather. When they were near the little house where she was asleep, for her brother was not at home, Neil left the prince and O'Neil at a distance off, 'till he went in and wakened her; she got scarcely on the half of her close [clothes], when the prince, with his baggage upon his back, was at the door, and saluted her very kindly; after which she brought to him a part of the best cheer she had, among the rest was a large bowl full of creme, of which he took two or three hearty go-downs, and his fellow-travellers swallowed the rest.

He discovered to her her stepfather's proposal, and ask't whether she was willing to run the risque. She joyfully accepted of the offer without the least hesitation, and that no time might be lost, she was ordered immediately away to benbicula to consult with her stepfather and the Lady Clanranald, to get every thing in readiness as soon as possible, and to send them word back again next day how all was going on with them. Having taken leave of Miss Flora, they pursued their journey, and about sunrise they arrived upon the side of a hill three miles from Corrodale, where they sate down under a rock in order to take some rest . . .

The company being gone, the prince, stript of his own cloaths, was dressed by Miss Flora in his new attire, but could not keep his hands from adjusting his head dress, which he cursed a thousand times. There they lay till the evening, waiting impatiently for the night to set off. Here they were alarmed by five wherries [boats], the same, as they supposed, that landed the Campbells the night before in Benbicula, supposing, by taking this precaution, to keep the prince from making his escape. But their fears were soon over; for the wherries sailed by to the southward without ever stopping. After sunset they got into their boat, which was managed by the following persons - Rory McDonald, John McDonald, John McMurich, Duncan Campbell, and Rory McDonald of Glengary family; the prince passed for Miss McDonald's maid, and Neil McDonald in the quality of a servant.

The weather proving calm in the beginning of the night, they rowed away at a good rate . . .The prince, who, all this time, was not in the least discouraged, encouraged them to row still better, saying that he would relieve him that was most fatigued. The poor men, almost ready to breathe out their last, at length made the point of Watersay on the north corner of the Isle of Sky, where, having got into a cliff in a rock, they rested themselves for an hour, and at the same time revived their drooping spirits with a plentiful repast of bread and butter, while the water that fell from the top of the rock furnished them drink.

This gave them fresh vigour for to undertake the remaining part of their labour . . . they landed in Kilbride in Troterniss within a cannon shot of Sir Alexander Mcdonald's house, twelve miles from the place where we saw the enemy.

In the neighbourhood of this place was another party of the Sky[e] militia, who was post'd there to examine all boats that came from the isles, as they were pretty well assured that the prince was there at that time. Miss and Neil having kept the prince in the boat as well as they could, went to the house, leaving strict orders with the boatmen not to stir from it till they came back, or some word from them, and in case their curiosity led any body thither, who might perhaps take the liberty to ask who was the person kept in the boat, to answer Miss McDonald's maid, and to curse her for a lazy jade, what was she good for, since she did not attend her Mrs.

About an hour before sunset they set off for Kingsborough, where they were to be that night. Miss Flora, who staid for dinner at Mungstot, that she might not be suspected by Lieut. MacLeod, followed a horseback at some distance, and was mightily diverted to hear several of the country people with whom she fell in upon the road, as they returned from the meeting house at Mungstot, it being Sunday, make their remarks upon the behaviour of Betty Burk, her maid, which name the prince borrowed when he left the Isle of Wist.

Neil, who walked a little behind the prince, and Kingsborough, hearing the subject the fellows were upon, went slower till they came up and joined him, but they, notwithstanding, continued to speak with the same freedom as before, of the impudence and assurance of Miss Burk, who was not ashamed to walk and keep company with Kingsborough, and was no less vexed than surprised how he took so much notice of her, when he never minded her mistress, who was so near at hand. Betty, very easie of what would be said of her, went on always at such a rate, that she very often got a piece before her fellow travellers, which gave occasion to some of the fellows to cry out, 'Curse the wretch do you observe, sir (meaning Neil), what terrible steps she takes, how manly she walks, how carelessly she carries her dress', and a hundred such like expressions, which they repeated over and over again.

But what they most took notice of all was, when Kingsborough and his companion was come to a rivulet about knee deep, which crossed the high rod [road], to see Burk take up her petty coats so high when she entred the water. The poor fellows were quite confounded at this last sight, which made them rail out against Burk, calling her all the names in the world, and ask't of Neil if he was acquainted with her. Neil told them that he knew nothing about her further than to hear she was an Irish girl who met with Miss MacDonald in Wist, and uppon a report of her being a famous spinister [spinner] of lint, engaged her for her mother's use.

The honest people soon after departed with Neil and Miss Flora, and made for their different homes full of astonish -
[Manuscript ends abruptly.]

Origins of the 'Forty-Five, ed. W. B. Blaikie, Scottish History Society, 1916.

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