Desperate times call for desperate measures.
If you have enemy troops baying for your blood at your heels, dressing up as a maidservant in voluminous clothes and fleeing by boat seems as good an option as any.
The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape to France after the rout at Culloden, dressed as Flora MacDonald’s Irish serving maid Betty Burke, has become the stuff of legend.
It’s also immortalised the memory of Flora MacDonald of South Uist, who risked her own life accompanying him on his desperate flight from Benbecula to Skye in an open boat on June 28, 1746.
As the famous song has it:
‘Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing.
Onward, the sailors cry!
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.’
Now the Betty Burke costume Bonnie Prince Charlie wore for his escape has been recreated in meticulous detail by Perthshire dress historian, Jo Watson.
She even went to the exact place, Nunton House in Benbecula, where the Betty Burke costume was made, and set herself the same deadline of four and a half days to make it.
Jo had already recreated Flora MacDonald’s wedding dress in meticulous detail, and the Betty Burke story had always intrigued her.
When she found out there was a fragment of the original dress material in a contemporary account by Bishop Robert Forbes, The Lyon in Mourning, that was all she needed to get the bit between the teeth.
Using contemporary sources, she researched the costume over 18 months, and had the original pattern, a purple sprig on a white background, digitally recreated and sent to India for printing.
“We didn’t have the technology for this at the time,” she said. “They would have sourced their printed cotton from India too.”
But that was only one of the lengths Jo went to in pursuit of authenticity.
By measuring clothes he is known to have worn, she knew that the Prince was between 5ft 10 and 5ft 11 , with a 36inch chest, a 28 inch waist, and size 9-ish feet.
And the costume came in many layers, as was normal at the time, starting with a light cotton petticoat with separate pocket, covered by a quilted skirt, then the cotton gown itself, an apron, kerchief, mop cap, and voluminous cloak with a massive hood.
To state the obvious, men and women’s torsos are very different, so Jo sourced a male mannequin and then had to butcher it to reduce it from a 39inch chest to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s slender 36 inches.
Research done and materials sourced, she headed for Nunton House in late June this year, mirroring the exact dates 277 years earlier when the household would have been abuzz with excitement and fear at the enormity of the task to which they’d been entrusted.
Jo said: “It was highly experimental, making and learning while making,.
“I loved doing it and the insights I got.
“Being at Nunton House was brilliant because I was in the kitchen of the original house, and I sewed at night time primarily.
“One night I stayed up sewing until 2am, and had a light on, but I went outside and the sun was coming up.
“I realised if they’d tried to make this outfit in the winter it would have taken longer. They made it in June just after the equinox so they had lots of natural light.”
Finding the perfect model for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s costume
We invited Inverlochy man and National Trust for Scotland (NTS) employee Alex MacDougall, of similar age and build to Bonnie Prince Charlie, to model Jo’s Betty Burke costume, choosing the Glenfinnan Monument for the location.
This was where the prince raised his standard to ignite the ’45 Rebellion, and is currently cared for by the NTS.
Alex played the part magnificently.
Here he wears the first layer, a light cotton petticoat.
Next, Jo attaches a pocket, which she also made and embroidered. Women used these as the only safe place they had to hide things away.
The quilted skirt was long enough to cover the prince’s feet. It took Jo ten days to make the first section using contemporary techniques, so she reckons they must have used an exisiting one and lengthened it.
Next comes the gown, complete with chest insert called a a ‘stomacher’, difficult to fit on a man’s broad shoulders, Jo found.
She made a kerchief to cover the Adam’s apple.
The mop cap was large and designed to cover as much of the face as possible.
Finally the cloak, fashioned in ‘the Irish style’, it was recorded. The huge hood could cover Betty’s face entirely as she shyly hung her head servant-style while on the run.
The Prince also wore cotton gloves to disguise his masculine hands, and the skirts were long enough to disguise his boots.
Alex said: “The clothes are light, but very warm. I could see why they could disguise someone.
“I wasn’t keen on the cap or the big hood, but the rest were OK to wear.”
In the process of her research, Jo found out a lot about the prince’s last few hours in Benbecula.
He left from a fisherman’s hut on the Rossinish peninsula.
Jo said: “It’s quite a walk to Rossinish from Nunton House, about five miles.
“The original fisherman’s hut is still there, it’s in ruins, but it’s the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie got changed into the Betty Burke outfit.
“Lady Clanranald and Flora were there with Neil MacEachan, Flora’s brother Milton and a servant, Iain Maclean.
“He was the cook at Nunton, and went over and did a barbecue for them on the beach.
“They had roasted bull’s heart and various other offal, that’s all they had available because the British were ransacking the island and Clanranald’s stores had gone right down.”
The night developed into a bit of a party.
“They had whisky, bread, butter, cheese, and claret and it’s reported that the prince was in really good cheer.
“They were all a bit tipsy, and said, it’s time to get you dressed, your Royal Highness.
“Apparently he found the whole process hilarious.”
The party came to an abrupt halt when the British started shelling close to Rossinish, and they had to take cover for the night.
Jo said: “In the morning, someone ran over from Nunton House to say we’ve got the British at the house, and by the way a Captain Ferguson slept in Lady Clanranald’s bed last night.
British at Nunton
“So she rushed back, thankfully they didn’t suspect anything, and Flora and Charles spent the day hiding in hills near Rossinish before sailing away at 8pm on June 28th.”
Jo’s project was funded by Creative Scotland as part of the Inverness Castle Experience project.
She’s determined eventually to recreate the shoes the Prince wore, but in the meantime is contenting herself with recreating one of his jackets as her next project.