The Prince’s Pilot by Neil MacDonald

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, after his defeat on Culloden Field on the 16th April 1746 made his way (accompanied by a few of his followers) to the West Coast of Scotland where, near Borrodale he met Donald MacLeod, a native of Galtrigil in Skye.

The question often asked; how did the Prince and Donald come to meet at such an isolated place; this is how it happened; early in April, Aeneas MacDonald of the Kinlochmoidart family (a banker in Paris) was asked by the Prince to go to Barra in order to recover some gold which had been landed on the island. The banker required someone who knew the area well and Donald MacLeod was his choice.

Shortly before the Battle of Culloden they set off for Barra, and landed back safely with the gold at Kinlochmoidart, ready to be transported to Inverness. However, as they were about to leave for Inverness, a letter was received from the Prince conveying the news of events at Culloden, and that Aeneas had to meet him at Borrodale. We have no information regarding the interview, but the banker returned to Kinlochmoidart, and Donald MacLeod was sent to Borrodale by the Prince’s orders.

The first task Donald was asked by the Prince to undertake was to go to the Isle of Skye with letters to MacDonald of Sleat and MacLeod at Dunvegan (two Chiefs) as he was sure they would help him in his hour of need; MacLeod did promise at one time that he would help him. Donald MacLeod refused to go to Skye. “What, does your Excellency not know that these two have played the rogue on you already,” said Donald. After a brief discussion it was agreed to seek refuge in the Outer Isles. In the Outer Isles they might be able to procure a vessel that would take the Prince back to France.

To Donald the care of the expedition was entrusted, and he, without further delay set about finding a suitable boat for the purpose. He had known the waters of the Minch and the West Coast all his life, he was a sailor born and bred.

A stout eight-oared boat which belonged to John, Borrodale’s son was put at his disposal to take the Prince and is companions across the Minch. His next task was to find a crew. This was not difficult as there were many willing hands. The oarsmen were, Roderick MacDonald, Lachlan MacMhurich, Roderick MacAskill, John MacDonald, Duncan Roy, Alexander MacDonald (the Jacobite Bard), Edward Burke, and Murdoch MacLeod, the Pilot’s fifteen year old son. Murdoch a pupil in the grammar school at Inverness, fought on Culloden Field, escaped unhurt and joined his Father at Loch nan Uamh. At the helm was staunch Donald MacLeod now in his 68th Year; at his feet sat the Prince, and scattered about the boat were; – Captain John William O’Sullivan, who was adjutant and Quarter-Master-General, Captain Felix O’Neill of Lally’s Regiment and Captain Allan MacDonald of the family of Clanranald; a clergyman of the Church of Rome.

At dusk on Saturday 26th April this little company sailed out of Loch nan Uamh on the first stage of an adventurous voyage. After a stormy night they arrived at Rossinish in Benbecula early the following morning.

It so happened that Clanranald had the Rev. John MacAulay Presbyterian minister in South Uist, (grandfather of Lord MacAulay) and Neil MacEachainn parish schoolmaster as his guests at his home at Nuntown (about seven miles from Rossinish). One of Clanranald’s herdsmen tending cattle saw the boat with some strange men coming ashore. He immediately set off for Nuntown to give this piece of news to his Chief. Clanranald sent one of his best servants to find out who the strangers were. The minister’s suspicion was aroused, and he secretly sent a servant (most probably his own servant) to inquire and find out as much as he could about the arrivals. Clanranald’s servant soon came back with the news that among the men in the boat was Prince Charles.

The Chief and MacEachainn set off for Rossinish, and after some discussion the Chief advised the Prince to go to Stornoway where he would most likely find a boat that would take him to France. They were to pose as a shipwrecked crew, now looking for a boat to go to Orkney for a cargo of meal. When the Rev. John heard who the strangers were, and their destination, a messenger was sent post haste to the Island of Harris, where his father the Rev. Aulay MacAulay was Parish Minister. Rev. Aulay was the great-grandfather of Lord MacAulay the Historian and a staunch Hanoverian.

On the evening of the 29th April the Prince and his followers set off for Stornoway. Early the next morning approaching the Island of Scalpay in East Loch Tarbert, Donald MacLeod decided to call on Donald Campbell tacksman on the island.

In passing, I should like to mention that Donald Campbell’s wife was a sister of Donald Roy MacDonald from North Uist who fought on the Princes’ side at Culloden, where he was wounded; also, Donald MacLeod’s wife was a first cousin of Flora MacDonald. Donald took the Prince and his companions to Campbell’s house, where they were hospitably received. There were no secrets. Campbell and his good Lady were told who the visitors were.

Next morning Donald MacLeod and the oarsmen set off for Stornoway. Donald took Campbell’s boat for the journey, being much lighter and easier to handle than the Borrodale boat. Donald had every hope of getting a suitable craft in Stornoway. O’Sullivan and the others were left in the care of Donald Campbell. In the meantime the Rev. Aulay MacAulay had received his son’s message from Benbecula, and now hearing of the shipwrecked crew in Scalpay he had a good idea who they might be.

He mustered some of his henchmen in Harris, and made for Scalpay. When Campbell saw the Rev. Gentleman approaching his house he had no doubt as to what his intentions were; to lay his hands on Prince Charles, which would entitle him to the huge reward of £30,000 offered by the Hanoverian Government for his capture. Campbell admitted to the Rev. Gentleman that the Prince was under his roof. After an exchange of a few words the Minister and his companions took their leave of the island.

As a boy in Harris I heard the following story recited many times, although I must admit I never saw it in print. One fine morning in May, Donald Campbell spied a boat-load of Redcoats approaching the shore and with the Prince in his house he had to do something about it, and time was not on his side; it was peat cutting time and Campbell saw a glorious opportunity of deceiving the Redcoats. In a matter of minutes he had the Prince dressed with some of his wife’s old clothes; they walked out of the house, and Campbell carrying a peat iron, they made their way to a peat bank a short distance away, where as the Redcoats passed by they were cutting peats. Campbell heard one of them say in Gaelic, “bha latha eile aig fear buain na monadh,” “the peat cutter saw better days,” a saying which can still be heard in Harris.

On the evening of the 3rd of May the Prince received by the hand of a messenger the great news that Donald MacLeod had secured a boat. Next day the Prince left Scalpay, accompanied by O’Sullivan, O’Neill, Ned Burke, and a guide. They landed at the head of Loch Seaforth whence a long walk lay before then to Stornoway. Unfortunately the guide lost his way, night came down, and in the darkness they found themselves in an area of bogs and pools of water. At last they reached a point some three miles from Stornoway where they took shelter by the side of a loch, known since as “Lochan a Phrionnsa,” the Prince’s Loch. The guide made his way to the town to track down Donald MacLeod, and inform him of their plight.

Donald lost no time in coming to the aid of the fugitives with food and drink, and immediately conducted them to the house of Mrs MacKenzie of Kildun, where they were received with true Highland hospitality.

At last their troubles seemed well-nigh over. But it was not to be. Before very long they became wanderers by sea and land once again, and this is how it came about.

The Rev. Aulay MacAulay already mentioned whose attempt to capture the Prince in Scalpay had failed, had warned the Rev. Colin Mackenzie Minister at Lochs in Lewis of the Prince’s intention to obtain a ship in Stornoway, an intention he had learned from his spying son the Minister in South Uist.

On the 5th of May Donald MacLeod returned to Stornoway to make the final arrangements for the ship he intended to hire; the Town was in an uproar. Donald could not understand what it was all about, but he soon learned it was something to do with the Prince. His reception from some of the town’s gentlemen was everything but pleasant. News had been received that the Prince was marching on Stornoway at the head of a large army. Donald admitted the Prince was in the area with an army of three men. Under no circumstance would they give Donald a ship, and he was told in no uncertain language to take the Prince off the island. Here, the Prince was a helpless fugitive, in their very grasp with £30,000 on his head. No effort was made to capture him. They nominally were his foes. In one sense, to capture him was their duty; by letting him go they were running the risk of the Hanoverian Government’s wrath; but to their honour they took that risk. Donald MacLeod relating the story afterwards said, “it was that Devil of a Minister that caused all the mischief:” the Rev. Aulay MacAulay of course.

About midnight on the 5th of May the rowing boat with its crew was brought round to just below Kildun House; a cow was killed that day and various portions were put aboard the boat, along with some meal, sugar, brandy and bread. On the morning of the 6th of May they took their leave of Kildun House and set out on their travels once again.

Their only hope was to get back to Clanranald Country. They followed the Lewis coastline until they came to Iubhard Island at the mouth of Loch Shell. Here, Donald was taken by surprise when he observed four men-of-war close by, and with all speed they made for the island. As they drew near to the shore some fishermen were observed spreading out their fish to dry on the flat rocks – a common practice in the Hebrides. The fishermen seeing the little craft coming towards them, and thinking it might be a press gang of sailors from one of the men-of-war, immediately fled to their boats leaving the fish behind them. For four nights Charles laid himself down to rest on his rough bed of heather in this lone Hebridean island, and slept soundly as he had done on the soft down in his father’s palace in Rome. On the 10th of May the coast being clear of ships the Prince and his companions left this island and sailed for Scalpay. Before leaving Iubhard Island the Prince wished to leave some money for the fish they ate during their stay so that the fishermen could find it on their return, but when Donald pointed out to him that the money would be far more likely to fall into the hands of chance visitors, he was prevailed upon not to leave any.

Scalpay was reached without further adventure, and when about to land they saw a group of suspicious looking men making towards them. They made off and headed south once again. It was getting dark as they left. They heard some time afterwards that their host Donald Campbell had left the island. It became known that he gave refuge to the Prince. This was a treasonable action in the eyes of the Hanoverian Government.

At daybreak they were approaching Rodel, South Harris. A warship was spotted close by and Donald managed to elude her by going into shallow water at Rodel. Here they waited till the coast was clear. Donald MacLeod wasted no time and was now on his way to Benbecula.

Here the party landed on a small island. They spent three nights in a bothy on this island. A messenger was sent to inform the Chief at Nuntown. The Chief duly arrived and promised to find the Prince a better place to hide in, and the place selected was Glen Corradale in South Uist, which lies between Heckla and Beinn Mhor.

Neil MacEachainn to whom the Glen belonged was appointed as guide, and late that evening on the 14th of May, crossed the mainland of Benbecula and safely arrived at their new sanctuary in South Uist. The Prince stayed in a small cottage in this glen till the 5th of June, (22 days). By now the whole area was swarming with Redcoats and the Prince had to move once more.

The boat that took them back from Arnish was not abandoned; Donald MacLeod brought it safely to Corradale; and this he did while Neil and his party were tramping the moor to Corradale, some 20 miles.

The next task for Donald MacLeod was to go to the mainland and search for Cameron of Lochiel and Murray of Broughton and deliver letters the Prince had written; a very difficult and dangerous task; Murdoch, Donald’s son was a member of the crew. They landed at Moidart, and Donald left Murdoch in charge of the boat while he himself and James MacDonald, a cadet of Clanranald, began the search for Lochiel and Murray.

It didn’t take them long to gain information of their whereabouts; a number of Jacobites had been in the area recently. Donald and his companion finally tracked down Lochiel and Murray at Kinlocharkaig. Lochiel was told of the Prince’s plight and his hiding place in South Uist. It is clear at this stage that Donald knew nothing of the Locharkaig Gold, or rather that at this stage Donald knew nothing of the Locharkaig Gold which had been landed from the French ships which had been transported to Locharkaig. He had been charged by the Prince to bring a supply of money, and it was not until he returned to Moidart that he asked Murray to provide him with it. Murray refused to hand over the money saying that he knew neither Donald MacLeod nor his companion.

The return journey to Corradale was accomplished, and on the 2nd of June Donald was with the Prince again, and at an opportune moment. Hugh MacDonald of Baleshare, North Uist, an Officer in the Hanoverian Militia searching for the Prince, and MacDonald of Boisdale arrived at Corradale by different routes with alarming news of the enemy’s movements. Hugh MacDonald was a brother of Donald Roy MacDonald already mentioned. Hugh had been sent by Lady Margaret MacDonald, Monkstadt, Skye to warn the Prince of the enemy’s movements. She was the second wife of Sir Alexander MacDonald, who at that time was with the Duke of Cumberland at Fort Augustus. Lady Margaret was alone at Monkstadt, to plot and plan with Donald Roy, the Prince’s safety. This lady sent six of her husband’s best shirts to the Prince.

The Prince insisted that Baleshare and Boisdale stay the night at Corradale. Baleshare related afterwards that all of them had a real jolly night. Donald MacLeod when at Moidart managed to purchase two ankers of Brandy at one guinea an anker.

The Hanoverian net was closing in on the Prince, and it was only a matter of time till South Uist was overrun and his hiding place discovered.

On the night of the 6th of June, reluctantly, and in low spirits, the Prince, O’Sullivan, O’Neill, Burke, Donald MacLeod and the boatmen boarded their small craft and put to sea once more. They landed on the Island of Ouia a rocky uncultivated island lying off the south-east coast of Benbecula. They spent three nights on this island; their only shelter was a cave on the side of a cliff. As a last resort they decided to return to the former shelter at Rossinish.

It was at that hut that Clanranald’s herdsman spotted them that Sunday morning on their arrival from Loch nan Uamh. On the 10th of June the Prince accompanied by O’Neill and Burke were ferried across the narrow strait and proceeded to Rossinish on foot. Here the Prince was visited by Lady Clanranald who had longed to visit her husband’s distinguished friend. On the third night at Rossinish the Prince received secret information advising him to leave as soon as possible. Fortunately Donald MacLeod and O’Sullivan who had remained with the boat at Oiua got timely notice of the Prince’s predicament. Under cover of darkness the Prince was once more back in the boat, and once again heading for Corradale, but the weather forced them into a cove near Loch Skiport.

The following night it was decided to go to Loch Boisdale, in the hope of finding MacDonald of Boisdale, but alas he had been taken prisoner a few days before. The net was closing tighter than ever before and it was agreed that the party should split up. It was then suggested that the Prince should go to Skye.

On the 21st of June, Prince Charles bade farewell to his faithful followers on the shores of Loch Boisdale. For seven long weeks they had borne hardship and privation together. But not even at the hour of parting did the Prince forget the duty he owed them that stood by his side so nobly. Calling the boatmen, he ordered O’Sullivan to pay to each of them a Shilling sterling; a large sum in those days, for every day they had been with him. To Donald MacLeod he gave a draft for 60 pistoles to be paid by John Hay of Restalrig (his Secretary). We don’t know if Donald ever got that money. Murdoch the 15 year old boy fades out of the picture here. We don’t know how he got back to Skye.

Donald MacLeod himself after hiding in several places in South Uist and Benbecula was taken prisoner in the latter on the 5th of July by a fellow islander, Allan MacDonald (Ailean a Chnuic) from Knock in Sleat. Allan was a Captain in command of a company of m ilitia searching for the Prince. Although Allan was a blood relative of Donald, he treated him with the utmost severity, taking from him the sum of 60 guineas, and refused to give him even a shilling to purchase any small item with. From Benbecula, Donald and two priests also taken prisoner, were sent to Barra, in order to be examined by General Campbell, (Cumberland’s Commander in the West) but the general had left the island and they were accordingly sent to Portree. Here they were joined by Captain Malcolm MacLeod, Brae, cousin of MacLeod of Raasay. From Portree Donald and Malcolm were presently sent to Applecross Bay, where General Campbell was now ascertained to be. To their misfortune he was on board the sloop Furnace commanded by Captain John Ferguson, one of the most barbarous men whom the Government had turned loose in the Highlands. Ferguson was a native of Old Meldrum. General Campbell had come north in command of the Argyllshire Militia, and he and his men had proved invaluable to the Hanovarian troops. The General was described as a Highland gentleman; he afterwards became 4th Duke of Argyll.

Donald MacLeod said afterwards that the general treated him with respect, The interview took place on the Furnace. Donald admitted to the general being with the Prince, but as to his whereabouts at that moment he was unable to say. Donald gave nothing away. “Had General Campbell stayed on the sloop we would have been treated fairly well,” said Donald, “but he left shortly after we came on board, and Ferguson had the ordering of things his own way.”

The prisoners of whom there were many, were confined in a dark quarter under deck where they were not allowed light of any kind. “The little food we got,” said Donald, “was brought to us in nasty buckets, where the ship’s crew used to urinate in front of the hungry prisoners, for a piece of ill-natured diversion.” Donald MacLeod was aboard the sloop Furnace from the 1st August 1746 till 9th April 1747. For beds they had the choice of lying without any covering upon cables, boards, or stones. On the 9th of April the prisoners were transferred to another ship called The James and Mary; this took place on the Thames. Conditions on this ship were even worse. The only exercise allowed was from 9 till 10 in the morning each day, when they were permitted to walk among a number of sheep with sentries on both sides of them. Donald had as his companions Malcolm MacLeod, Brae, and the MacKinnon Chief. They were all treated with the utmost barbarity and cruelty. No attention was paid to their bodily needs; they were Rebels, let them die like vermin; that was the attitude of the Hanoverian powers that be.

For ten long months did Donald endure the hardships of the prison ships, but he left them with his spirit though not his health, and for those who treated him and his friends so cruelly, he had only one wish; “God forgive them,” he said “but God let them never die till we have them in the same condition they had us, and we are sure we would not treat them as they treated us. We would show them the difference between a good and a bad cause.”

Donald spent the last few weeks of his imprisonment in a messenger’s house in London. He was finally released on the 4th of July 1747. Though one of the first heroes to be released, he was one of the last to leave London. For this there were several reasons. He was weak after his long confinement, he had fallen among friends who had treated him with the utmost kindness, and he was destitute of the means necessary for the long journey to Skye. Donald MacLeod nevertheless found himself on a pinnacle of fame; he became known as the Prince’s Pilot. Among those who were imprisoned at this time were Clanranald and his Lady, MacDonald of Boidale, and MacKinnon of MacKinnon. Donald made the acquaintance of a London Scot; John Walkingshaw who presented Donald with a silver snuff box, measuring 3 3/4″ breadth and 11/4″ deep. Upon the lid is raised an eight-oared boat with Donald at the helm, and the four under his care, together with the oarsmen. It shows a map of the Long Island and Skye. The motto on the lid reads (from the Latin), “with joy will he in after years recall these things.” Round the edge of the lid, reads, “what has thou in store 0 Neptune.” Upon the bottom of the box, reads, “Donald MacLeod of Gualtergill in the Isle of Skye, the faithful palinurus 1746.” Also engraved on the bottom is a dove with an olive branch in her bill.

For two months after his release did Donald remain in London, and these two months offered him some slight compensation for all that he had suffered. This fine old man found himself the hero of the moment.

On the 17th of August we find Donald in Leith at the home of James MacDonald a friend of MacLeod of Raasay. That evening Donald was taken to the home of Bishop Forbes. The Bishop described Donald as the honest and faithful steersman of the eight-oared boat who had the Prince among his hands.

It was not until 23rd October that Donald MacLeod took his leave of the Bishop to go home to his wife and family in Skye.

And so at last Donald finds himself back in Skye. Many months had passed, and many strange things had befallen him since, in the month of February 1746 he sailed into Inverness with a view of taking a cargo of meal for the inhabitants of Skye.

For nearly two years after his return to Skye did Donald live. But his health was probably undermined by all he had gone through, and this grand old man passed away in September 1749 at the age of 72.


Prince Charlie’s Pilot – Evan M. Barron, Inverness; Robert Carruthers & Sons, 1913

Jacobite Memoirs of the Rebellion of 1745, by Robert Chambers, Edinburgh. William & Robert Chambers, Waterloo Place; and Longman & Co. London. 1834

The Life and Adventures of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, by W. Drummond Norie in four volumes. The Caxton Publishing Company, Clun House, Surrey Street, London, W.C.

The History of the Rebellion inScotland in 1745, by John Home Esq., Edinburgh. Printed for Peter Brown, 37 Nicolson Street; and Ogle Duncan & Co., London. 1822.