Scottish history is replete with the deeds of brave men. The best-known Scottish heroes are William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, who, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, led armies to victory during the First War of Scottish Independence. But there is also a number of oft-forgotten—yet undeniably fierce—women from Scottish history whose courage also deserves attention. Here are the stories of six of them.
1. Flora MacDonald
One of the most famous badass women from Scottish history is Flora MacDonald. In 1746, she came to the aid of Charles Edward Stuart, popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, who raised the Jacobite rebellion in an attempt to remove the English King George II from the British throne and restore the Scottish Stuart monarchy to power. But after his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie was relentlessly hunted by British government forces. They would have caught him if not for MacDonald.
MacDonald was visiting Benbecula, an island off the west coast of Scotland, when she encountered the prince. Although initially reluctant to help him for fear of punishment, she decided to smuggle Charles across the sea to Skye by dressing him up as her maid, Betty Burke. The plan worked. Bonnie Prince Charlie was eventually able to escape to France, but soon afterward, MacDonald was captured and imprisoned for a year in the Tower of London.
Their sea-crossing was later romanticized in the “Skye Boat Song,” the lyrics of which report that, “Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep / Watch by your weary head.” Fans of Outlander will be familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson’s revised lyrics for this song, as they are used in the show’s opening credits.
2. Anne Mackintosh
Though MacDonald is the best-known Jacobite heroine, Anne Mackintosh was actually far more involved in the cause. In 1745—at just 22 years old—Mackintosh essentially became a military commander in the Jacobite rebellion, despite the fact that her husband, Angus, chief of the Clan Mackintosh, fought for George II. She rode around the Highlands and raised around 350 troops to fight in the Clan Chattan Regiment, and although she likely never saw action in the field herself, this earned her the nickname “Colonel Anne.”
Mackintosh also helped Bonnie Prince Charlie evade capture when he was staying at her home, Moy Hall, on February 16, 1746. British forces had sent 1500 soldiers to seize him after they caught wind of his location. But word of their approach reached Moy Hall, and Charles fled into the woods. Mackintosh sent out a handful of men, led by local blacksmith Donald Fraser, to disperse the attackers. The group took the enemy by surprise. They fired on the British forces and created a cacophony of noise to fool them into thinking there were many more Jacobite rebels than there actually were. Though it was a risky strategy, the troops turned tail.
When Mackintosh’s husband was captured, he was placed under her custody and she allegedly greeted him by saying, “Your servant, Captain,” to which he replied, “Your servant, Colonel.” Bonnie Prince Charlie had a different moniker for her though: “La Belle Rebelle,” which is French for “The Beautiful Rebel.”
3. Agnes Randolph
When Patrick de Dunbar, 9th Earl of March, went off to fight during the Second War of Scottish Independence, his wife, Agnes Randolph—known as Black Agnes—was left in charge of the castle with just a few guards and maids by her side. William Montagu, 1st Earl of Salisbury, saw this as a chance to take the castle and, in January 1338, launched a siege with his English forces.
Salisbury began by catapulting large rocks at the castle, but Randolph was unfazed and had one of her attendants mockingly wipe the dust from the walls with a handkerchief. He then used a battering ram, but Randolph had it crushed with the rocks that had been thrown at the castle earlier. Next, Salisbury bribed a guard to leave the gate unlocked, but the man kept the money and told the lady of the castle, leading to some of Salisbury’s men—and almost Salisbury himself—being trapped when they attempted to sneak in. Randolph apparently taunted the earl by calling out, “I intended that you should have supped with us, and assist us in defending the Castle against the English.”
Salisbury then threatened to have her brother, the 3rd Earl of Moray, killed, but this too backfired. Moray had no children and so, as reported by the Lanercost Chronicle, Randolph responded, “If ye do that, then shall I be heir to the earldom of Moray.” Months into the siege, Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie came to the castle’s aid, sneaking in with 40 men via the sea and pushing the English back in a surprise attack.
In June, Salisbury finally admitted defeat and withdrew his army. Thanks to her audacious defense of Dunbar, Randolph was remembered in a ballad, set down by medieval chronicler Andrew of Wyntoun, as “The Scottis wenche with hir ploddeill,” which Sir Walter Scott modernized to “that brawling boisterous Scottish wench.”
4. Isabella MacDuff
At the start of the 14th century, two Scots noblemen laid claim to the Scottish throne: Robert the Bruce and John Comyn III. In 1306, during a meeting at Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, Robert accused his rival of treachery and John was killed in the subsequent fight. In response, John’s cousin, who was confusingly also called John Comyn, joined with the English against the new King Robert. However, his 19-year-old wife, Isabella MacDuff, defied him.
MacDuff’s clan held the hereditary right to crown the Scottish king, so she rode to Scone in Perthshire for Robert’s coronation. She narrowly missed the event, but a second ceremony was held to preserve the custom—something that was especially important given the fact that the ritual had to be performed without the traditional coronation stone because the English had stolen it 10 years earlier.
MacDuff was captured just a few months later. King Edward I, a.k.a. Edward Longshanks, had her imprisoned in a cage that hung from the walls of Berwick Castle so that “she may be a spectacle and eternal reproach to travelers.”
5. Christina Bruce
Although Christina Bruce occupies a far smaller role in the history books than her brother, Robert the Bruce, she proved her skill as a military leader during the siege of Kildrummy Castle. In 1335, David III Strathbogie—the disinherited Earl of Atholl (his father had rebelled against Robert and joined the English)—besieged the castle with 3000 men. Bruce had been left in charge while her husband, Sir Andrew Murray, Guardian of Scotland, was away fighting. She had just 300 men with whom to defend the castle.
Andrew of Wyntoun reports that Bruce “maid stout and manly resistens” (“made bold and manly resistance”) against the attackers. Strathbogie’s forces were kept away from the castle walls with volleys of arrows and hand-to-hand skirmishes. When Murray heard of the siege, he led his army back to the castle, meeting Strathbogie in battle around 12 miles south at Culblean and securing a crucial win for the Scots.
6. Winifred Maxwell
The Tower of London had a formidable reputation. One of the only people to ever successfully escape its walls (most escapees were recaptured) did so thanks to Winifred Maxwell. She was English, but she met and married William Maxwell, 5th Earl of Nithsdale—a Scot and fellow Jacobite supporter—in 1699 while her family was in exile in France.
The couple soon moved to Scotland, and William was later captured during the Jacobite rising of 1715 and then imprisoned in the tower while awaiting execution for treason. Maxwell traveled to London and begged the authorities for mercy. Her pleas were rejected, so she came up with a courageous plan involving cross-dressing to break her husband out of prison.
First, she gave the guards money and alcohol and told them her husband was due to be freed to endear them to her. The next day, Maxwelll and a couple of her friends went to visit William. They sneakily dressed him in petticoats, a dress, and a riding hood. For a final flourish, they even painted his face with makeup. William then walked past the guards disguised as a woman while Maxwell returned to his cell to act as if he were still there. “I answered my own questions in my lord’s voice as nearly as I could imitate it,” she explained in a letter to her sister. “I walked up and down as if we were conversing together, till I thought they had time enough thoroughly to clear themselves of the guards.” She then pretended to say goodbye to her husband and left the prison as if nothing had happened. The plan went off without a hitch, and the couple fled to the safety of mainland Europe.