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From Prince to serving maid: Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Betty Burke disguise recreated in meticulous detail

After months of painstaking research, dress historian Jo Watson headed to Benbecula to sew the outfit against the clock, as happened 277 years ago when Prince Charles Edward Stuart went on the run after defeat at the Battle of Culloden.

Bonnie Prince Charlie's Betty Burke disguise recreation
Jo Watson's meticulous recreation shows how a serving maid's costume could completely disguise Bonnie Prince Charlie as he fled to France. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT

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.

A portrait of bonnie prince charlie
Rosalba Carriera’s 1737 portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Image: Pininski Foundation.

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.

A women wearing a recreation of Flora MacDonald's wedding attire.
Jo recreated Flora MacDonald’s wedding attire, modelled here by Annette McKittrick at Leoonach Cottage Culloden. An image of Bonnie Prince Charlie completes the illusion. Image: DCT

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.

Someone pinning fabric together to make the Betty Burke dress
The cotton print recreated for the Betty Burke dress. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT

“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.

A portrait of Bonnie Prince Charles next to his jacket and waistcoat on display
Inverness forensic artist Hew Morrison’s portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, alongside his jacket and waistcoat on display in Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT

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.

Nunton House on Benbecula
Nunton House on Benbecula, once owned by the MacDonalds of Clanranald and where plans to facilitate Prince Charles’ escape were hatched. It was here that Jo recreated the Prince’s Betty Burke escape outfit 277 years after the event in June 2023. Image: DCT

“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

The model chosen for the disguise
Slender Alex MacDougall is about the same age, height and build as Bonnie Prince Charlie when he raised the standard at Glenfinnan. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT

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.

A woman in 18th century clothing helping the model into the an underskirt
Jo, herself dressed as an 18th century serving maid, helps Alex into the first layer of the costume. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT

Here he wears the first layer, a light cotton petticoat.

The pocket tied around the models waist. the fabric has flowers embroidered on it
The separate pocket Jo created for the costume. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT.

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 model in a quilted skirt
Now Alex sports the quilted skirt, lengthened to hide his feet.  Image: Sandy McCook/DCT

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.

The model with a cotton gown on with the quilted skirt showing underneath
The gown of pretty, purple-sprigged cotton goes on top.  Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Next comes the gown, complete with chest insert called a a ‘stomacher’, difficult to fit on a man’s broad shoulders, Jo found.

Alex, the model, having a neckerchief pinned around his neck
Jo made a kerchief to hide the Prince’s Adam’s apple. Image Sandy McCook/DCT

She made a kerchief to cover the Adam’s apple.

A mop cap being tied around the models head
A large mop cap could flop over the Prince’s face.  Image: Sandy McCook/DCT

The mop cap was large and designed to cover as much of the face as possible.

A cloak is added to the model to hide his face
The huge hood of the cloak was the final touch in the disguise.  Image: Sandy McCook/DCT.

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.”

The full recreation of betty burke disguise that Bonnie Prince Charlie would have worn
Alex MacDougall, as Bonnie Prince Charlie’s alter-ego Betty Burke, on the shore of Loch Sheil at Glenfinnan, where Prince Charles Edward Stuart raised the standard and started the ’45 Rebellion.  Image: Sandy McCook/DCT.

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.

A woman recording the model in the Bonnie Prince Charlie Betty Burke disguise
Jo resorts to modern technology to record her painstaking work. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT.

“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.

Much hilarity

“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.

More like this:

When the clans gathered at Glenfinnan in 1945 for a double celebration

Emerging after three centuries: The lost Jacobite portrait on show in Fort William