ON the early morning of February 27, 1776, a mixed force of regular British soldiers and fierce Highland militiamen resumed their advance up the valley of the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.

Under orders from the governor of the colony, Josiah Martin, the troops had advanced from his seat at the settlement of New Bern, while the Scottish exiles mustered at the seaport of Wilmington amid one of their own areas of settlement.

The aim for all was to re-impose royal authority over American rebels in the back country, after crossing over the river on the Moore’s Creek Bridge. The southern rebels were seeking in their rustic way to support the American revolutionary leaders gathering at the same time in Philadelphia, for what they called the Continental Congress. This elite was plotting to make the 13 colonies independent of the mother country.

The most militant came either from Virginia, the wasp’s nest of opulent planters, or else from New England, where urban communities of calculating merchants objected to being taxed – and at far too high a rate, of course – from London.

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The Carolinas were a long way from all this intense political activity. Governor Martin had to bring his forces together in a rather haphazard way but the military strength should have been able to overbear the Americans in their defensive position.

In the light of dawn, the sword-wielding Gaels attacked, with emigrant chieftains leading a charge across the bridge by warriors screaming their ancestral war cries. They met a barrage of musket and artillery fire.

Two loyalist leaders dropped dead, but one who survived the carnage was Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh, the husband of Flora MacDonald, who had helped Prince Charles Edward Stewart to escape the Highlands after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden 30 years before.

In 1746, Charles had fled first to the Outer Hebrides. The British government’s forces started a systematic search for him. Flora MacDonald happened to be visiting a brother on South Uist. She was not a poor peasant girl as legend often presents her, but belonged to a good family of practising Presbyterians: a match for any prince by Scottish standards.

A ploy was devised to spirit Charles back to Skye disguised as Flora’s Irish maid, Betty Burke. The first Flora learned of it was when the prince came to her secretly at night on June 20 in a hut on a shieling where she had been sent to tend her brother’s cattle.

From her account it would appear to have been the prince himself who asked for her help. She was not so keen but acquiesced for reasons she never wanted to discuss afterwards.

At any rate her doubts were overcome and the pretending pair crossed the Minch to Skye, close to the home of MacDonald of Sleat where they could find temporary shelter. The unlucky boatmen were sent back to Uist only to get arrested.

Flora at length suffered the same fate. But the prince fled onwards, first to Raasay and then back to the mainland. He remained there in hiding till French ships picked him up on September 19.

Flora had found her spot in history and it blossomed. She grew famous with a tourist traffic of her own. For instance, Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell came to Kingsburgh to see her. Boswell described her as “a little woman of genteel appearance, and uncommonly mild and well-bred”. Her husband Allan was “completely the figure of a gallant Highlander”.

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She was charmed by Dr Johnson, and confided more of her story to him than she ever did to others. She even joked with him and said that while she was on the mainland she had heard about Boswell being on his way to Skye, “a young English buck with him”. Johnson was given the honour of sleeping in the bed Prince Charles had slept in when he stayed at Kingsburgh in 1746.

But life was growing hard in the Highlands as the clan system began to break up. In 1774, Allan and Flora emigrated to North Carolina, where there were already settlers from Skye. They had scarcely arrived when in the spring of 1775 the American War of Independence broke out.

By now neither Flora nor Allan doubted for a moment that their duty lay with King George III. Flora urged Highlanders to join a local emigrants’ regiment, in which her husband, son and son-in-law all served. Defeat at the Battle of Moore’s Creek only showed they had made another political mistake.

After the battle, Allan was taken prisoner. Flora wrote that he “and about 30 other gentlemen were dragged from gaol to gaol for 700 miles till lodged in Philadelphia gaol, remaining in their hands for 18 months before exchanged”.

North Carolina came under no further military threat till 1780, when memories of Moore’s Creek and its aftermath negated efforts by an expedition under General Charles Cornwallis to recruit remaining loyalists in the area. The day of British offensives was almost done.

Left on her own, Flora suffered great hardship and came under interrogation by the Americans. She was allowed to travel to New York in April 1778 to be re-united with Allan. His regiment was transferred to Nova Scotia, and she went with him. Still afflicted by her ordeal in North Carolina, she felt ill and homesick. At the end of 1779 she returned to Scotland.

With her health broken, Flora settled in Skye but Allan could not rejoin her till 1785. He remained in Nova Scotia, hoping to be compensated for his heavy personal losses during the war, but he never got offered enough to make a new life in the New World possible.

The couple ended their days at Kingsburgh, finally well off thanks to their son John, who made a fortune in India. Almost the only clue Flora gave to her reason for helping Prince Charlie to escape lies in her answer to King George II’s son, Prince Frederick, when she met him on a holiday she took in London.

During this trip she was being treated as a heroine, and he asked her why she had helped his father’s enemies. She replied she would have done the same for him if she had found him in distress. Flora died at home on March 4, 1790, and her husband two years later on September 20, 1792. Both were buried near Kingsburgh. The journey over the sea to Skye had long become a legend, yet Flora was often strangely absent from the early versions, such as the songs of Lady Nairne.

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Two supposed autobiographies, by Flora Frances Wylde in 1880 and by the Rev Alexander MacGregor in 1890, were obviously fraudulent.

Flora’s memory was better served by James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson and other Scottish writers moved to compose poems in her honour. It was Harold Boulton’s Skye Boat Song that best caught the spirit of her adventure, though it makes no more than passing reference to her.

All through Flora’s story, legend has insinuated itself into truth. But the words of Dr Johnson when he visited her in 1773 sum up both the woman and her spirit: “A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.”