The forgotten Jacobite victory
Overshadowed by Culloden the following year – the battle that finally terminated the century-old Jacobite cause – Prestonpans is little known. How did an army of Highland Scots outmanoeuvre the Redcoats at the marshes of the Firth of Forth? Chris Bambery researches the story.
In September 1745, an army of British regulars mustered near the village of Prestonpans on the shores of the Firth of Forth.
The commander of the Redcoats was Sir John Cope. He was supremely confident of victory. Although the two sides were equal in number, Cope had more cavalry and artillery, and his infantry was trained to deliver well-aimed volleys. Facing west, moreover – towards Edinburgh, from which his opponents had marched – there were the walls and dykes of two grand houses providing protection for his men.
Cope’s opponents were the Jacobite army raised in rebellion some weeks before by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the ‘Young Pretender’; he was the son of James Edward Stuart, the ‘Old Pretender’, who was in turn the son of King James II, ousted in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. Charles’s shock troops were Scottish Highland clansman, most of whom spoke Gaelic, and were regarded as barbarians by most Lowland Scots and the English.
What was to happen at Prestonpans on 21 September 1745, however, was a signal humiliation for the British Army.
The Jacobite Army
On 19 August, Charles had raised the Jacobite standard at Glenfinnan in Lochaber in the Western Highlands. Some 1,500 Highlanders had mustered in his support, mainly from Clans Cameron, MacDonald, and MacDonnell.
The latter had already fought a skirmish with Government forces near Spean Bridge to the east (where today a monument stands to the Commandos of the Second World War who trained there). A hundred men of the Royal Scots sent to reinforce the garrison at Fort William had been ambushed en route and forced to surrender.
The commander of Government forces in Scotland, Cope had advanced north into the Highlands, but had chosen not to fight Charles’s army as it headed towards Perth, marched on to Inverness, and then passed down the coast to Aberdeen, where it took ship to Dunbar on the Firth of Forth, arriving there on 17 September. The Jacobites had taken Edinburgh virtually unopposed, though the Castle had refused to surrender.
The Jacobite army, supplied with 1,000 muskets found in the city’s magazines, mustered at Duddingston, then a village outside Edinburgh. The total number of men was 2,500, with just 50 cavalry and one artillery piece, too old to be of much use but kept to bolster morale. They also had an able commander in Lord George Murray. Sir John Cope had roughly the same number of men, but, with more cavalry and six artillery pieces, was confident of victory.
The Jacobite flank march
As the Jacobite army marched eastwards, Cope ordered his men into a line running north to south, from the Firth of Forth to the edge of high ground, with cavalry and artillery on each flank and infantry in the centre.
The Jacobites positioned themselves on the high ground to the south, but discovered that a bog lay between them and the enemy. A council of war failed to come up with an attack plan, and Charles and his men lay down to sleep in the open. During the night, a local man serving as an officer in the Jacobite army, Anderson of Whitburgh, came to Murray to tell him of a path through the bog.
At 3am, the Jacobite army filed along the narrow path. It brought them to a position east of Cope’s army, with firm ground between the two forces.
On the morning of 21 September, the Jacobite army lined up facing the enemy flank. The Redcoats were forced to redeploy to meet the threat. Cope ordered his artillery to open fire, but the effect was to trigger an immediate full-scale charge by the Jacobite army. The pace of this caught the Hanoverian troops by surprise, and gave them little time to reload their muskets after the first discharge.
The Jacobite attack
The centre of the Jacobite line was slowed by soft ground, but the contingents on either flank surged forwards. They attacked Cope’s dragoons, who fled – first to Edinburgh, where the governor of the Castle refused to admit them, threatening to open fire on them for their cowardice.
Back on the battlefield, the Hanoverian infantry found themselves pinned by the advance of the Jacobite centre and under heavy attack on both the left and right flanks. Resistance began to crumble. Most of the Government losses occurred as the troops tried to flee the battlefield, and found themselves trapped between the walls of Preston and Bankton Houses.
Just 170 of the infantry escaped, with 400 killed and the rest taken prisoner. A mere 30 Jacobites were killed and 70 were wounded. The Jacobites captured Cope’s artillery, supplies, and treasure chest.
Cope and the Earls of Loudon and Home fled first to Coldstream and, on the following day, to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Cope was ridiculed as the commander who brought the news of his own defeat. A Jacobite song made fun of his flight:
Hey! Johnnie Cope are ye waukin’ yet?
Or are your drums a-beating yet?
If ye were waukin’ I wad wait,
Tae gang tae the coals in the morning.
King George II was left with no sizeable force in Scotland, and in Edinburgh Prince Charles was left celebrating a stunning victory.
Chris Bambery is a TV producer and presenter, a journalist, and an author. His books include A People’s History of Scotland and The Second World War: a Marxist history.
This is an extract from an article that appeared in issue 62 of Military History Matters (formerly Military History Monthly), published in October 2015. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.