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The Scotswoman by Inglis Fletcher

The Scotswoman by Inglis Fletcher

One of the things that appeals to me about books and reading is that they’re like a fingerprint —once imprinted, they remain as they were laid down— even as things, circumstances, and interpretations around them change.

This particular book doesn’t shed any stunning light on a history that is no longer being told, but it is a peek back —over 65 years now— at the way a piece of historical fiction was approached at that point in time.

The book is part of a series called The Carolina Chronicles, and deals with the roots of the author, whose father came from North Carolina’s Tyrrell County. Her fascination with her Scots and Scots-Irish roots must have run deep, and she eventually wrote twelve volumes in just the Carolina Chronicles, covering 200 years of North Carolina history, from 1585 to 1789.

In this novel, the protagonist is Flora MacDonald – yes, that Flora MacDonald, if you know any Scots history. Flora MacDonald, as the story goes, spirited Bonnie Prince Charlie away from mainland Scotland after the defeat at Culloden in the ‘45 (the final Scottish rebellion in the name of the Jacobin claimants to the throne of Scotland) and took him to the Island of Skye. He later left from Portree on Skye and went to Raasay, Flora remaining on Skye. She was later arrested and imprisoned, and eventually released through the good offices of sympathetic nobles.

The book picks up when Flora is in her middle years, having married Allan MacDonald, and preparing to flee Skye following the clearances, during which many Scots were evicted from their homes and farms. The best bet seemed to be America for many of them.

Part history and part novel, the book follows the story of not only Flora, but her son, nephew, friends and other relatives, and features some sub-plots of the romantic adventures of the younger members of the party. Arriving in the Colonies, the Scots face a new dilemma: there is much talk of rebellion, and as it is 1774 when the family arrives in the Carolinas, the Revolution is already unstoppable.

Oddly, it has always seemed to me, many of the Scots resisted rebelling against England, and would have preferred to stay out of the troubles altogether. Many of the new immigrants moved far inland, away from the port cities and the brewing rebellion – where many of them stayed, hidden in the hills and glens of the mid-south.

Flora’s immediate family were not so lucky, and Allan MacDonald, a British solider turned farmer, raises a Battalion to fight for the King. Allan is eventually taken prisoner, and Flora escapes to Nova Scotia, but lacks the funds (their property in North Carolina is confiscated with some compensation, but not enough to survive in Nova Scotia). Flora returns to her beloved Scotland, where she is eventually joined by Allan, and they die back home in their late 60s.

Fletcher is an author noted for her painstaking research. When her first book in the Carolina Chronicles was published, she was challenged by native “Tar Heels,” but stood her ground and defended her story with letters and quotes from those who lived through the adventures.

Thematically, Fletcher was interested in the fight for freedom as represented by the ownership and love of the land – though Flora has always seemed to me, as were many of the Scots of the Revolutionary War period, a bit of an enigma. If freedom were a value held dear, and if England a foe to be defeated at the loss of so many on the battlefield of Cullodon, then why did so many Scots either flee or fight on the side of the English when another chance at freedom presented itself? Perhaps they didn’t think the rebels could win, and it would be Cullodon all over again. Perhaps they hadn’t had t

ime to align themselves with the fledging nation. But Inglis stresses the deep love and attachment Flora and her family felt for Scotland, and for Skye – their final parting from its shores is wrenching and Inglis does a masterful job of helping the reader feel the pain the emigres must have experienced at leaving all they had known, and a world that had been theirs for hundreds of years.

My copy of the book —an original printing from 1954 and among my mom’s many books about or set in Scotland— was one of the several million copies of Fletcher’s books sold. Fletcher herself might have been the heroine of one of her novels: she attended the School of Find Arts of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. (she was born in Illinois), intending to become a sculptor. But after marrying John George Fletcher, a mining engineer from Colorado, she moved with him to sparsely settled areas of Alaska, the state of Washington, and California. All in all, she moved twenty-one times in five years. She ran a series of lectures, and lived for a time in Africa before being bitten by the genealogical bug and setting out to write the story of her people in the Carolina’s.

Jamie Wallace