The History behind the Battle of Prestonpans 1745

The Battle of Prestonpans was the first significant conflict in the second Jacobite Rising. The battle took place on September 21, 1745. The Jacobite army loyal to James Francis Edward Stuart and led by his son Charles Edward Stuart defeated the army loyal to the Hanoverian George II led by Sir John Cope. It was initially known as the Battle of Gladsmuir but was fought at Prestonpans, East Lothian, Scotland on that town’s borders with Tranent, Cockenzie and Port Seton. The victory was a huge morale boost for the Jacobites, and a heavily mythologized version of the story entered art and legend. The overall message was one of Hope and Ambition in the breast of a young man and his followers…

The Battle

On 20 September Cope’s forces encountered Charles’s 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. A Highlander supporter Robert Anderson was a local farmer’s son who knew the area well and convinced Charles’s Lieutenant General, Lord George Murray of an excellent route through the marshlands. Commencing at 4 a.m. he moved the entire Jacobite force walking three abreast along the Riggonhead Defile in total silence well to the east of Cope’s army. Although Cope kept fires burning and posted pickets during the night as the Highlanders were making their move they were not spotted by the pickets until around 6 a.m.

Highlanders into BattleAt the crack of dawn 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 had just wheeled round from facing south to facing east in great haste but could only fire their canons and muskets just once before the Highlanders were upon them. Then they fled despite Cope and his officers attempting to force them to charge at pistol point. Cope’s army facing east to confront the Jacobites had the ditch and walls of Preston House behind them blocking their panicked retreat. Colonel Gardiner, a senior Hanoverian commander who stayed at Bankton House close by the scene of battle, was mortally wounded in a final heroic skirmish that included by his side Sir Thomas Hay of Park who 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. He was taken to The Manse at Tranent where he died in the arms of the visiting Minister’s daughter, Beatrix during the night. The Colonel became the unchallenged hero of the day and an obelisk to his memory was raised in the mid 19th century.

The “battle” was over in less than fifteen minutes with hundreds of government troops killed or wounded and 1500 taken prisoner. The Hanoverian baggage train at Cockenzie was captured with only a single shot fired and it contained £5000, many muskets and ammunition. The Highlanders suffered less than 100 troops killed or wounded. The wounded and prisoners were given the best care possible at Prince Charles’ insistence. A cairn to their memory 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 to the site to gain the fullest appreciation of the battle as it unfolded through interpretation boards.

Please visit Battle of Prestonpans for more information


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Filed under Prestoungrange, Scottish History

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