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May Day and Flora MacDonald College

May’s arrival has been celebrated for millennia with dancing, food, and exuberance, the earliest known celebrations dating back to Floralia, the Roman celebration of Flora, goddess of flowers. In North Carolina, an institution that carried her name had celebrated the coming of May since its inception.

May Day at Flora MacDonald College. From the Albert Barden Collection, North Carolina State Archives.

Flora MacDonald College was located on the inner coastal plain of the state, a far cry from the native home of the Scots who founded the school. While Scottish culture is often associated with the highlanders of Western North Carolina, including the balladeers of Madison County and the Highland Games of Grandfather Mountain, its influence can be found throughout the state. During the second wave of Scottish immigration, around 1784, large groups settled in modern-day Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke, and Moore Counties, taking advantage of the abundance of pine, which they processed into tar, pitch and turpentine. Flora MacDonald College was founded in Red Springs, near modern-day Fayetteville. Originating in 1896 as Red Springs Seminary, in 1903 it became the Southern Presbyterian College and Conservatory of Music and in 1915 it was re-cast as Flora Macdonald College, an all-women school.

Flora MacDonald by Allan Ramsay c. 1749–1750; the roses are a Jacobite symbol. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

While the college carries the title of the Roman goddess of flowers, its true namesake is closer to us in history. Flora MacDonald sometimes referred to as a “bright and particular star,” was a Scottish heroine who, although having spent relatively little time in North Carolina, gained fame for her exploits in Scotland. There she protected Prince Charles Stuart after he suffered a defeat in his attempt to take the Scottish throne. Fleeing from the English, she dressed him in women’s clothes and smuggled him to safety on the Isle of Skye. Upon her return to Scotland, Flora was captured and sent to England to await trial. Legend holds that she charmed her captors en route, who sent her to school in lieu of jail. She never stood trial and would go on to raise a family in Scotland. In 1774, she arrived in North Carolina, seeking greater fortune and a new life. There she encountered a population that already knew her name and considered her a heroine for her loyalty to her native land.

May Day has been celebrated in Scotland for centuries, and the students at Flora MacDonald College continued this tradition, doing as their ancestors had done in the new and fertile land of the North Carolina coastal plain .After Flora MacDonald College closed in 1961, the school that took its place, Vardell Hall, continued the May Day tradition in its nine years of operation. Now Highlander Academy, the school that currently occupies the former college’s grounds, is one of the rare institutions that still celebrates the holiday that was widely embraced decades prior.

Based on the Celtic tradition of Beltane, one of eight pagan holidays, the first of May celebrates rebirth and honors agricultural pursuits, particularly those of herdsmen. The May Pole comes from this ancient celebration and was originally performed as a fertility rite, signifying the union between the masculine and the feminine. To a large extent, we no longer celebrate the pagan traditions of Beltane. But we can take comfort from the fact that while the world around us is changing rapidly and our daily lives have been disrupted, spring continues, its vivacity hardly dulled by our own quarantine.

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