The Battle of Prestonpans 1745
by Dr. Douglas Files MD, NSC
M.R.J. Doyle, Hon. Managing Editor
The Battle of Prestonpans constituted the first major skirmish in the Scottish-Jacobite* Rising of 1745. (There had also been other Jacobite rebellions in Ireland and Scotland in earlier years.)
* Jacobitism (Irish-Gaelic = Seacaibíteachas; Scottish-Gaelic = Seumasachas) was the political movement in the Britain Isles dedicated to the restoration of the Stuart kings to the thrones of England & Scotland – later, following 'The Union', called the Kingdom of Great Britain – plus the Kingdom of Ireland. The movement took its name from Jacobus, the Latin form of James.
The town of Prestonpans has long stood as a center of industry, boasting extensive coal-mining, brickworks, glass making and salt panning. Locals organized a major re-enactment of the famous battle for its 250th anniversary in 1995. In 2006 locals near Prestonpans established a heritage trust to commemorate the 1745 uprising.
With participation by the Scottish Royal Society for the Arts and other organizations, officials created a national historic site for tourists to revel in Scottish martial glory. The grounds of the site now contain a visitor's center and a museum which host symposia and occasional re-enactments of the battle. In 2008 the Heritage Trust permitted Glasgow University archaeologists to excavate the battlefield and they found many interesting remnants of combat. The following year artist Dr. Andrew Crummy led a team of over 200 embroiderers to create the Prestonpans Tapestry, which visually recreates the story of this historic Scottish-Jacobite uprising. Its 103 panels were unveiled in July 2010 and the tapestry has already toured Scotland, which yet remains under the rule of a Royal family descended from England's Hanoverian kings.
Note: The primary co-author, Dr. Flies' Bower ancestors lived in Prestonpans, Scotland at the time of the 1745 battle. He does not know if they participated in the fighting, but given the family's history of arguments, it seems very possible.
As part of the War of the Austrian Succession, England's King George II (a German) had sent most of the British army to the continent of Europe to do battle with their long-time enemy, the French. In May 1745 at the Battle of Fontenoy*, both the opposing armies suffered heavy casualties, but the French carried the day and forced the allied British-Hanoverian and Austrian armies from the field. Maintaining the offensive, the French invaded and captured a number of Flemish towns through 1745, and kept the opposing British-Hanoverian and Austrian forces off-balance throughout.
* At Fontenoy, the British were weary from a long day's fighting, having been cut up by French cannon, infantry and cavalry charges, plus massed French musketry, and were then dispirited by the appearance of the Irish Brigade of France on their exposed flank. Still they gave and received their fire well and fatally; but they were literally stunned and shattered by the Irish charge. The English broke before the Irish bayonets, and tumbled down the far side of the hill disorganized, hopeless, and falling by many hundreds. The French (Irish) victory was bloody and complete. After the battle, French King Louis rode down to the Irish bivouac, and personally thanked them; and England's King George the Second (a German), on hearing the 'news', uttered that memorable imprecation on the anti-Catholic Penal Laws in Ireland, "Cursed be the laws which deprive me of such subjects"
The background to the Battle of Prestonpans was that, with only 6,000 inexperienced British troops left in England, and with the majority of the British army being on the continent, and having been recently defeated with heavy losses, Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") saw an opportunity to re-open the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland. Grabbing the bull by the horns, he mounted a campaign to seize both Scotland and England, with an eye towards reclaiming what he considered to be his father's two kingdoms ('Great Britain', England and Scotland having been formally united in 1707, plus Ireland).
Against long odds, and aided by the early support of Donald Cameron of Lochiel, 19th Chief of Clan Cameron, his party of ten (Irish and Scots officers from the French army) raised a Highland** army as they marched to Glenfinnan and then on to Edinburgh – which eventually numbered over 2,000 proud Scots.***
** the Gaelic-speaking Roman-Catholic Highlanders of Scot-land were viewed as barbarians by the English and the Lowlanders and, in those far-off times, were usually referred to as "Wild Irish", and were treated with about as much compassion, sympathy, or understanding as the Zulus were a century later
*** 'Scot' is derived from the Latin 'Scotus' & 'Scoti' (Scotus = an Irishman, singular / Scoti = Irishmen, plural), the term applied to all the Gaels, the people who occupied most of what is now Scotland and Ireland. The Dál Riata tribe originated from Ireland and invaded Scotland, displacing the Picts. Accordingly, the Latin word 'Scotia' ("land of the Gaels") was initially used to refer to all of Ireland and Scotland. By the 11th century, 'Scotia' was being used to refer to just (Gaelic-speaking) Scotland north of the river Forth, alongside 'Albania' or 'Albany', both derived from 'Alba', the Gaelic name for Scot-land. The use of the words 'Scots' and 'Scotland' to encompass all of what is now Scotland only became common during the 1300 AD to 1500 AD period.
Sir John Cope (pictured right), the general commanding the government forces in Scotland, actually commanded less than 4,000 men, in two regiments of dragoons and three and a half regiments of infantry. Most of his troops were recently raised and inexperienced. He was hampered by a variety of other problems including the sickness of his senior cavalry officer (Colonel James Gardiner), the lack of any gunners to man his artillery, and poor advice from the civilian government officials in Scotland. Acting on this unreliable advice, Cope marched with his infantry and artillery towards Fort Augustus in the central Highlands, to overawe the Highland clans and "nip the rebellion in the bud". However, he found that supposedly "well-affected" clans were evading calls to take up arms on behalf of the British government, using a variety of excuses.
On 25 August Cope heard that the rebel army, whose strength he overestimated, was preparing to oppose him at Corryarrack. He turned about and marched instead to Inverness.
Prince Charles' officers briefly considered pursuing Cope, but instead they decided to march into the Lowlands, which Cope had left almost undefended. They reached Perth on 4 September, where the Jacobite army was joined by two prominent Highland nobles, James Drummond the 3rd Duke of Perth and Lord George Murray (who was appointed as the Jacobite Lieutenant-General). On 11 September, Prince Charles' army resumed its advance south. The British regiment of dragoons opposing them retreated in disorder to Edinburgh.
Brigadier Thomas Fowke had recently arrived at Edinburgh to take charge of the cavalry and some reinforcements. He decided that the two regiments of dragoons he took over were in no state to face the Jacobite army and so he ordered a further retreat, which was marked by unnecessary panics and alarms. This left the city of Edinburgh unprotected. On 16 September, some of Prince Charles army captured Edinburgh with little or no fighting, though Edinburgh Castle was still defended for the government by Lieutenant-General Joshua Guest.
Cope meanwhile had marched to Aberdeen, where he had urgently ordered ships to proceed and embark his army. On the day the city of Edinburgh was captured, his government troops began to disembark at Dunbar, where they met up with the disordered British dragoons.
Despite the poor state of his cavalry and artillery, Cope was determined to engage the Jacobite army. He had good intelligence that the Jacobite army numbered just under 2,000 men, mostly composed of fit and hardy men, but poorly armed. His officers apparently believed that the rebels would never attack a combined and consolidated force that included both infantry and cavalry. The British assured locals along the route of their march that there would be no battle.
On 20 September Cope's forces encountered Prince Charlies' advance guard. Cope decided to stand his ground and engage the Jacobite army. He drew up his army facing south with a marshy ditch to their front, and the park walls around Preston House protecting his right flank. He then mounted his cannon behind the low embankment of the Tranent colliery wagon-way, which crossed the battlefield.
Although the Jacobite army had secured the high ground to the south of Cope's army, they were dismayed by the natural advantages of Cope's position. A frontal attack by means of the famed 'highland-charge' would flounder in the marshy ground in front of the British army's centre, and was likely to be shot to pieces by musket and cannon fire. Although there was much argument among the senior Jacobite officers, Lord George Murray was convinced that only an attack against the open left-flank of Cope's army stood any chance of success.
Jacobite Lieutenant Anderson was a local farmer's son who knew the area well and convinced Murray that he knew an excellent route through the marshlands. Following his advice, Murray began moving the entire Jacobite force at 4 am, walking three abreast along the Riggonhead Defile, far to the east of Cope's defensive position.
Cope meanwhile had observed some eastward movement of the Jacobite army as it grew dark (though this move was the result of confusion in the Jacobite ranks and was abandoned). Cope then feared an attack against both his flanks, and realigned his army on a north-south front, in the position in which they would fight on the next day.
Three companies of Earl of Loudon's Regiment of Foot – "Loudon's Highlanders" (a Presbyterian Lowland-Scot regiment fighting for the British, against the Catholic Highland-Scots) – were detailed to guard the baggage and supplies at Cockenzie.
Some 100 local Volunteers were dismissed, and ordered to report again the next morning … thus missing the ensuing battle.
Cope also made a last-minute attempt to get some artillerymen from Edinburgh Castle. Some half-dozen gunners left the castle disguised as tradesmen, but their guide became lost and they never arrived.
To prevent a surprise attack during the night, Cope kept fires burning in front of his position and posted no less than 200 dragoons and 300 infantry as pickets. However, at the crack of dawn – 6 am on 21 September 1745 – Cope's dragoons beheld the spectacle of 1,400 Highlanders charging through the early mist, making "wild Highland war-cries and with the bloodcurdling skirl of the pipes....".
Cope's inexperienced army wheeled to its left by platoons to face the Highlanders, who were charging in from the east following their night march. Cope managed to scramble some cannon up onto his right flank. Although nearly all of his artillerymen fled (most of whom were aged or "invalids"), the two officers in charge of them opened fire as soon as the Highlanders were within range. Undaunted by this light and inaccurate artillery, the Highlanders continued their charge; however, the Highlander's centre became bogged down in marshy terrain, and as they continued forward their different speeds of advance caused them to form into a 'V'. The Highlander 'wings' on both sides of the 'V' met the inexperienced dragoons on either side of the government centre … where upon the British dragoons immediately fled the field!
This unexpected development left the British centre, containing the experienced government infantry, facing the centre of the Highland 'V' to their front, and the two unopposed Highland 'wings' on either side. The effect of this unplanned flanking manoeuvre meant that the British foot soldiers were effectively sandwiched. They suffered heavy casualties and gave way. The battle was over in less than 10 minutes, with hundreds of government troops killed or wounded and 1,500 taken prisoner. Many British troops had attempted to surrender, but he Scots could not understand them, as most spoke only Gaelic. Bewildered by the pleas of the English and with their 'blood-up' from their ferocious attack and the desperate close-quarter-fighting, the Highlanders slaughtered the greater part of the redcoats where they stood.
Cope's baggage train at Cockenzie was captured with only a single shot fired. It contained £5,000 in 'cash' plus many muskets and ammunition, which the Scots seized with relish. By the end of the battle, the Jacobite army suffered fewer than 100 troops killed or wounded. The wounded and prisoners were given the best care possible at Prince Charles Stuart's insistence.
Cope tried to rally his men, but could only lead about two hundred stragglers up a side lane (Johnnie Cope's Road) to reorganize in an adjacent field, where they refused further engagement. Cope and his aide-de-camp had no choice but to travel southwards to Lauder and Coldstream and then on to the safety of Berwick-upon-Tweed, 50 miles (80 kilometres) away. The following day, Brigadier Fowke caused a scandal by arriving ahead of the troops. Out of the 2,300 men in the British army, only 170 troops managed to escape, including Cope himself who led the few straggling soldiers to Berwick Castle. General Lord Mark Kerr is said to have met him there, taunting him that he must be the first general in history to personally bring news of his own defeat. Popular songs poked fun at Cope's failure, such as "Hey Johnnie Cope, are Ye Waking Yet?"
Despite initial claims that General Cope had run from the enemy, a court-martial later exonerated him. The report of that board, published 4 years later, stated that Cope could not have known that his soldiers would run at the first sign of combat. Later on Cope wagered £10,000 that his successor would also be beaten by the Scots. The Battle of Falkirk proved him correct and the wager made him a wealthy man.
Colonel James Gardiner, a senior British commander who stayed at Bankton House close by the scene of battle, was mortally wounded in a final heroic skirmish that included Sir Thomas Hay of Park who fought by his side and survived. Colonel Gardiner's fatal wounds were inflicted beneath a white thorn-tree of which a portion is today in Edinburgh's Naval and Military Museum. Gardiner was stripped to the waist after his possessions were looted by the Highlanders. A servant took the mortally wounded Colonel after the battle to 'The Manse' at Tranent where he died in the arms of the parson's daughter during the night. The Colonel became the unchallenged hero of the day to the British, and an obelisk to his memory was raised in the mid 19th century.
A cairn to the memory of those who died in the battle was erected in 1953 close by the battle-site and a coal bing, using the remains of the area's coal shale shaped as a pyramid, now provides a vantage point for today's visitors.
The Battle of Prestonpans improved morale of Jacobites everywhere and they gained many more recruits in Scotland. After advancing as far south into England as Derby, though, their army halted, after hearing that a large Hanoverian army stood in their way. The intrepid Scots won one more victory at Falkirk before being completely demolished at the Battle of Culloden near Inverness.