On my recent holiday on South Uist, I stumbled across an intriguing story. It’s a tale from the past that really captured my imagination.
Stories are all around us, if we only take the time to notice them. They are in our landscapes and buildings; in place names and language.
And, in this case, on a road sign . . .
It was one of those brown “sites of interest” tourist signs. I spotted it while heading south from Benbecula down into South Uist, on the only main road through the island. And it read simply “The French MacDonald”.
My curiosity was piqued.
Who — or what — was the French MacDonald? And what was the connection with a remote island in the Outer Hebrides?
The writing on the wall
I found the answer on a wall plaque outside the Kildonan Museum.
The splendidly named Etienne Alexander MacDonald (1765-1840) was Marshal of France during the Napoleonic Wars. He was a trusted military commander in Napoleon’s army and had a dazzling career, earning the title Duc de Taranto. After Napoleon was defeated he became a minister in the French government.
Etienne was born in France – but his roots were on South Uist.
His father, Neil MacDonald, was a native of the island, from Howbeg. He was also a staunch Jacobite.
When Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Uprising of 1745 ended in disaster, Neil was forced into exile in France. His close relative, Flora MacDonald, was instrumental in helping the Prince to escape.
Etienne himself only visited the land of his forebears once, in 1825. But he clearly felt the pull of his ancestral lands.
When he returned to France he took with him a bag of soil from Howbeg. It was buried beside him in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris when he died at the age of seventy.
It’s a story with all the elements of a swashbuckling adventure. A Prince fighting to regain his birthright . . . escape against the odds . . . fame and glory in a new land . . . and an unshakeable attachment to the old country.
It’s almost impossibly romantic — and it’s true!
For more from “The People’s Friend” team, read our blog here.