Today, the 21st of September is a historic date in Scottish history. It was on this date in the year 1745 that the first large scale engagement was fought in the final Jacobite Uprising (or Rebellion dependant on your point of view). The battle was fought near the village of Prestonpans a few miles to the east of Edinburgh. The Jacobite army loyal to King James Francis Edward Stuart and led by his son Prince Charles Edward Stuart defeated the British army loyal to the Hanoverian George II led by Sir John Cope.
On 20 September Cope’s forces encountered Charles’ 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 their right flank. He mounted his cannon behind the low embankment of the Tranent colliery waggonway, 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 highland charge would flounder in the marshy ground in front of the Royalist army’s centre and 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 to move the entire Jacobite force at 4 am walking three abreast along the Riggonhead Defile far to the east of Cope’s 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. He 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 Loudon’s Highlanders were detailed to guard the baggage park in Cockenzie. Some 100 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.
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. At the crack of dawn however, at 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 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 most of his artillerymen (most of whom were aged or “invalids”) fled, the two officers in charge of them opened fire as soon as the Highlanders were in range. Undaunted by the light, inaccurate guns, the Highlander army continued its charge; however, the 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 wings on either side met the inexperienced dragoons on either side of the British centre, and the dragoons immediately fled the field.
This left the British centre, containing the experienced royal infantry, facing the centre of the “V” on their front, and the two unopposed wings on either side. The effect of this unplanned flanking manoeuvre meant that the royal 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 1500 taken prisoner. Cope’s baggage train at Cockenzie was captured with only a single shot fired. It contained £5000 in English currency, a Scots pound was valued at 1/12 of its English equivalent, many muskets and ammunition. 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. This was not a gesture returned by the Hanoverian forces at later battles.
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 away, the following day, causing scandal by arriving ahead of the troops. Out of the 2,300 men in the royal army, only 170 troops managed to escape.
Colonel James Gardiner, a senior royal 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 thorntree 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
Now we find ourselves in 2013 and come the 21st of September 30,000 Scots once more march through the streets of Edinburgh. This time they march not to war although the skirl of the pipes and the rattle of the drums stills leads them forwards. They march in preparation for next year’s referendum which will decide whether Scotland chooses to remain part of the United Kingdom or whether it will go it alone as an independent nation as it was prior to 1707 and the Act of Union.
From 1745 to 2013 and beyond the 21st of September is linked by hopes for a future which for the Jacobites ended in blood and death on Culloden Moor only a few months later. The marchers for Independence will have to wait until September 2014 to see if their hopes and dreams will come true or whether they will end up crushed as thoroughly as those on the killing field of Drumossie.