If you look at a map of the Outer Hebrides, Benbecula looks like a stepping stone between South and North Uist. Apparently the MOD is the island’s main employer and parts of the island have been used for missile testing and target practice by the MOD since WW2. Call me a peace loving hippy but I felt a bit sorry for the island, it all seemed a bit cruel and incongruous, all this wild beauty being used as a missile testing range.
In the light of this information we decided that wild camping on Benbecula probably wasn’t for us. It wasn’t the weather that put us off, it was the possibility that a Typhoon, not of the tropical cyclone type, but of the Eurofighter type might spoil our evening by launching a stray missile in our direction.
So we pushed on to Shell Bay Camp site for the night, which was going to be the subject of this blog, however I’ve suffered a bad attack of digression and will instead give you my take on Flora MacDonald, who pops up all over the place on the Outer Hebrides.
Flora of the Outer Hebrides
Famous residents of Benbecula include Flora MacDonald and a mermaid. The famous mermaid was reputedly buried at sea, so no chance of disproving that one then.
Flora was born on South Uist, the daughter of a Tacksman named MacDonald, the right hand man of the laird, who was also named MacDonald. Sadly, Flora’s Dad died when she was a baby and her mother was apparently abducted and married to another MacDonald, which was probably handy (the name not the abduction) as Flora and her mum didn’t need to go through all that rigmarole of having to change their names on their passports, bank accounts or Facebook page. Things didn’t turn out too badly for Flora after this rocky start, as she ended up being well educated and a member of the Scottish gentry.
When Charlie Met Betty
Flora found fame when Bonnie Prince Charlie was in the area, not on an official royal visit, more in a spot of bother really after the Battle of Culloden. Flora and her mates hatched a cunning plan and helped young Charlie out by dressing him up as a woman and taking him in a boat over the sea to Skye. Charlie obviously got right into this and dressed up not just any old woman, but as an Irish maid called Betty Burke. I can only imagine this was a plan hatched after a late night on the pop and which probably seemed like a jolly jape at the time.
It must have been a right good session as the cold light of day didn’t cool their enthusiasm for the plan. So next morning off they went in a little boat, possibly a bit hungover but all still well up for it. Flora and her ‘manservant’ with Bonnie Prince Betty and a crew of six boatmen, who when they weren’t in fear of their lives for prince smuggling, must have been having a right old laugh at their passenger Ms Burke. Calls of ‘Ooh Betty’ could be heard rising above the mist as the motley crew made their way towards Skye.
The Young Pretender
When they got to Skye, the party were given refuge in the house of another MacDonald. (I’m starting to think that it must have been a right nightmare for the postman, what with everyone having the same name) However, that Mr MacDonald was away at the time and knew nothing of his cross dressing royal guest. The lady of the house, Mrs MacDonald, apparently told the prince he looked a right Charlie dressed up as a woman and was making himself more conspicuous, so Charlie dropped the dressing up. I’m thinking that Charlie / Betty was probably getting right into it by this time and can’t help wondering if he wasn’t just a teeny bit disappointed when he had to drop the Betty Burke persona and go back to being plain old Prince Charles again. Who knows? And is that why he was called the young pretender?
The pesky boatmen ended up dobbing Flora in after a bit of interrogation, which resulted in her being whisked off to the Tower of London. Luckily her posh mates quickly had a whip round and miraculously secured her release. The writer Samuel Johnson described our Flora as ‘a woman of soft features, gentle manners, kind soul and an elegant presence.’ I can’t help wondering if it was these same soft features and elegant presence combined with the cold cash bung that ensured Flora didn’t stay banged up in the Tower for long.
As she left the tower Flora reputedly made a statement to the press, saying it ‘had been emotional’ and that she’d ‘like to thank her rich friends for getting her out.’ She added that she’d ‘only helped Charlie because she felt sorry for him’ and she ‘wasn’t a sympathiser and would have helped either side.’ Flora then got down off the fence she was sitting on and was heard to utter those immortal words “I fancy a MacDonald’ She then married an Allan MacDonald, who was an army captain and went off to live in America.
America turned out not all it was cracked up to be, the natives were revolting and Allan joined in the fray raising an army, which included Flora’s sons and which ended up being beaten by the Americans. Flora and Al came home after losing some of their assets in the melee and then stayed with yet more minted MacDonalds until Flora died at the age of 68 and was buried in Kilmuir cemetery on Skye.
The Tail of the Mermaid
I’m afraid the fishy tale of the mermaid isn’t as well documented, evidenced or believable, however along with Flora MacDonald the myth of the mermaid continues to contribute to tourist attraction on this little island of Benbecula.