Battle of Prestonpans
|Battle of Prestonpans|
|Part of the Jacobite rising of 1745|
Cairn erected in memory of the battle
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
|105–120 killed and wounded||
300–500 killed and wounded|
|Designated||21 March 2011|
The Battle of Prestonpans, also known as the Battle of Gladsmuir, was fought on 21 September 1745, near Prestonpans, in East Lothian; it was the first significant engagement of the Jacobite rising of 1745.
Jacobite forces led by the Stuart exile Charles Edward Stuart defeated a government army under Sir John Cope, whose inexperienced troops broke in the face of a Highland charge. The battle lasted less than thirty minutes and was a huge boost to Jacobite morale, leading to the invasion of England.
The War of the Austrian Succession meant that by early 1745 the bulk of British forces were committed in Flanders; encouraged by French victory at Fontenoy in April 1745, Charles Edward Stuart sailed for Scotland in July, hoping to take advantage. When he landed at Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides on 23 July, most of those contacted advised him to return to France, but enough were eventually persuaded, notably Donald Cameron of Lochiel, whose tenants provided a large proportion of the Jacobite force. The rebellion was formally launched at Glenfinnan on 19 August.
Sir John Cope, government commander in Scotland, was a competent soldier with between 3,000 and 4,000 troops available, but many were inexperienced recruits. He was hampered by poor intelligence and advice, particularly from the Marquess of Tweeddale, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, who consistently underestimated the severity of the revolt. Once Charles's location was confirmed, Cope left his cavalry and artillery at Stirling under Thomas Fowke and marched on Corrieyairack Pass, the primary access point between the Western Highlands and the Lowlands. Control would allow Cope to block the route into Eastern Scotland but he found the Highlanders already in possession, and withdrew to Inverness on 26 August.
Jacobite objectives remained unclear until early September, when Cope learned they were using the military road network to advance on Edinburgh. Concluding the only way to reach the city first was by sea, his troops were loaded onto ships at Aberdeen. They began disembarking at Dunbar on 17 September but once again he was too late; Charles had entered the Scottish capital earlier the same day, although Edinburgh Castle remained in government hands.
Joined at Dunbar by Fowke and the cavalry, Cope was confident he was strong enough to defeat a poorly-armed Jacobite army of less than 2,000. At the same time, Charles ordered his forces to move east from Edinburgh and the two armies made contact on the afternoon of 20 September; Cope drew up his forces facing south, with a marshy area immediately in front, park walls protecting their right and cannon behind the embankment of the Tranent to Cockenzie Waggonway, which crossed the battlefield.
The court-martial set up in 1746 to review Cope's conduct agreed the ground was well chosen and the disposition of his troops appropriate. However, this was undermined by various factors, one being the poor quality of some senior officers, including James Gardiner whose dragoons fled in panic from a small party of Highlanders in the so-called 'Coltbridge Canter' of 16 September. In addition, much of Cope's infantry lacked experience; until May, Lascelles' Regiment had been employed building a military road near Loch Lomond. Finally, his gunners were so poorly trained that he sent a messenger to Edinburgh Castle asking for replacements, who never reached him.
Charles wanted to attack immediately, but Murray argued their charge would be slowed by the marshy ground in front of Cope's centre, exposing the Highlanders to his superior firepower. While his assessment was correct, it was the first in a series of fierce arguments between the two that would fatally undermine the Jacobite leadership. Murray convinced the majority that only an attack against the open left flank of Cope's army stood any chance of success, and Robert Anderson, a local farmer's son who knew the area well, told him of a route through the marshlands. At 4 am, the entire Jacobite force began moving three abreast along the Riggonhead defile, east of Cope's position.
To prevent a surprise attack during the night, Cope kept fires burning in front of his position and posted no fewer than 200 dragoons and 300 infantry as pickets. A company of Loudon's Highlanders under Macpherson of Cluny had deserted from Cope a few days before; the remaining three companies were detailed to guard the baggage park in Cockenzie and Port Seton, while some 100 volunteers were dismissed until the next morning and missed the battle. Warned by his pickets of the Jacobite movement, Cope had enough time to wheel his army to face east (see map) and reposition his cannon. As the Highlanders began their charge, his artillerymen fled, leaving the guns to be fired by their officers.
The two dragoon regiments on the flanks panicked and rode off, leaving Gardiner mortally wounded on the battlefield and exposing the infantry in the centre. Attacked on three sides, they were overrun in less than 15 minutes, with their retreat blocked by the park walls to their rear; some escaped when the Highlanders stopped to loot the baggage train. Government losses were from 300 to 500 killed or wounded and 500 to 600 taken prisoner, many later paroled to save the expense of holding them; the Jacobites estimated their own casualties as 35 to 40 dead and 70 to 80 wounded.
Deserted by his gunners, the artillery commander, Lt-Colonel Whitefoord, made his escape after being spared by Stewart of Invernahyle; he later returned the favour by obtaining a pardon for him after Stewart was captured at Culloden. Cope also escaped and Lascelles fought his way out, although most of his regiment were captured; with Fowke and the dragoons, they reached Berwick-upon-Tweed the next day with 450 survivors. Gardiner was later carried from the field to Tranent, where he died during the night and an obelisk commemorating his death was set up in the mid-19th century. In 1953, a memorial to the dead of both sides was erected near the battle site, with a coal bing providing a vantage point for visitors.
Several hours after the battle, Cope wrote to Tweeddale, disclaiming responsibility for the defeat; "I cannot reproach myself; the manner in which the enemy came on was quicker than can be described...and the cause of our men taking on a destructive panic..." Along with Fowke and Lascelles, he was later tried by a court-martial; all three were exonerated, the Court deciding defeat was due to the 'shameful conduct of the private soldiers' but Cope never held a senior command again.
The Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 showed even experienced troops struggled with the ferocity of the Highland charge, a lesson reinforced at Prestonpans and Falkirk Muir in January 1746. Its weakness was that if the initial charge failed, the Highlanders were not equipped to hold their ground; by the time of Culloden in April, Cumberland's troops had been drilled in countering this tactic and inflicted heavy losses on the Scots as a result.
Victory meant the rebellion was now taken more seriously; in mid-October, two French ships arrived at Montrose, bringing money, weapons and an envoy, the Marquis d'Eguilles. Cumberland and 12,000 troops were recalled from Flanders, including 6,000 German mercenaries who arrived in Berwick-upon-Tweed a few days after Cope. These were immediately available, having been captured at Tournai in June, then released on condition they did not fight against the French.
The argument prior to the battle between Prince Charles and Lord Murray was the first episode in an increasingly fractious relationship and the Jacobite Council spent the next six weeks arguing strategy. Reversing the 1707 Union was a significant factor in Scottish Jacobite support, which now appeared possible and they wanted to consolidate their position. Charles and his exile advisors argued only the removal of the Hanoverian regime could ensure the end of the Union, and that meant an invasion of England. The Scots eventually agreed after Charles assured them of substantial English and French support; they left Edinburgh on 4 November, entering England on 8 November; and government forces under General Roger Handasyd retook Edinburgh on the 14th.
On the march south, the Council met daily to discuss strategy, and at Derby on 5 December, its members overwhelmingly counselled retreat, the only significant dissenter being Charles. There was no sign of the promised French landing, and despite the large crowds that turned out to see them, only Manchester provided a significant number of recruits; Preston, a Jacobite stronghold in 1715, supplied three. News of another French supply convoy arriving in Montrose seemed to validate the original preference for remaining in Scotland, and the Jacobites turned north the next day. The rising ended with defeat at Culloden in April 1746.
In 2006, the Battle of Prestonpans 1745 Heritage Trust was established locally to provide information on the battle, while the battlefield site is included in the Inventory of Historic Battlefields in Scotland and protected by Historic Scotland under the Scottish Historical Environment Policy of 2009.
Popular perception of the battle and Cope's role has largely been set by accounts by third parties, none of whom were present and in one case not yet born. In his 1747 book Life of Colonel Gardiner, nonconformist minister Philip Doddridge portrayed Gardiner, a convert to evangelicalism, as a hero, doing so largely by ridiculing Cope; this is an enduring myth which is still recycled today.
Gardiner also features in Sir Walter Scott's 1817 novel Waverley, whose hero is an English Jacobite; Gardiner's heroic death helps convince him that the future lies not with the Stuarts but in the Union. The often-quoted comment by Lord Mark Kerr that Cope was the first general to bring news of his own defeat was another embellishment by Scott which also appears in the song "Hey Johnnie Cope".
The best-known legacy comes from Skirving, a local farmer who visited the battlefield later that afternoon where he was, by his own account, mugged by the victors. He wrote two songs, "Hey, Johnnie Cope, Are Ye Waking Yet?" and "Tranent Muir"; the former is quite well known, and is a short, catchy, and mostly historically inaccurate insult to Cope. The tune is still played by some Scottish regiments for Reveille and was also played as the 51st (Highland) Division disembarked on Juno Beach in Normandy on 6 June 1944. While Cope's troops fled the battle, he himself did not; nor is it true that he slept the previous night. Poet Robert Burns later wrote his own words to the song, but these are not as well known as Skirving's. The participants included Allan Breac Stewart, a soldier in Lee's Regiment; he switched sides after being taken prisoner and joined the Jacobite Stewart of Appin's regiment. Scots author Robert Louis Stevenson used him as a lead character in his 1886 novel Kidnapped.
In 2019, a new visitor centre was proposed for the battle site. It was to permanently house the Prestonpans Tapestry, a depiction of the events leading up to the battle. The site has been partly developed for housing and the former Cockenzie power station.
- Murray's Regiment, 580; Lascelles & Guise Regiments, 570; Lee's Regiment, 291; Highlanders, 183; Gardiner & Hamilton dragoons; 567
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- James Gardiner
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- Digitised copy of the Sites of the Battles of Pinkie and Prestonpans, and other interesting historical ... from National Library of Scotland
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