The Battle of Prestonpans

Hghlanders at the Battle of Prestonpans
The Battle of Prestonpans was the first major conflict of the second Jacobite Risings, and it was a victory for an army of clansmen over a professional, Government force. 

Scotland had been ruled by catholic Stuarts for more than 300 years, but in 1688 James Stuart had lost his English and Scottish crowns to the protestant Dutchman, William III. 

Many in Scotland had never accepted the change and Jacobite supporters wanted James VII back on the throne, leading to a full rebellion in 1689. The Jacobites were defeated but continued to agitate for change. 

By 1745, there was only a single British Government force covering all of Scotland. It was based in the capital, Edinburgh, and led by Sir John Cope. 

When Cope heard that Charles Stuart, the son of James VIII and famously known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, had raised his standard in the Highlands, the British army moved north to meet the challenge. 

At the same time the Jacobite army, which was a collection of shepherds, farmers and volunteers from the Highland Clans, marched south. The two forces managed to bypass each other, allowing Bonnie Prince Charlie to take Edinburgh unopposed. 

Cope brought his army back down the coast by sea and started his march to the capital. The Jacobites rode out to meet them and the two forces met at Prestonpans in East Lothian, overlooking the Firth of Forth. 

Both had taken different roads to suit their strengths. Cope had chosen a low road with space for his cavalry and artillery. Stuart had taken a high road so his Highland forces could charge downhill into their foe. 

However the land between the two armies was boggy and impassable, and Cope’s forces were positioned behind large walls that would create a bottle neck if the Jacobites advanced. Bonnie Prince Charlie couldn't find a clear route to attack.

After a day of tactical manoeuvring but little fighting, the British army made camp for the night. One of the Jacobite soldiers, a local who knew the land well, informed his commanders of a shepherd's path across the marsh that would allow Stuart's men to change position overnight and face the British across a clear battlefield. 

Under the cover of darkness they crept along the route and prepared to deploy. 

When Cope realised the Jacobites had a new position he swung his troops round in a long line but had no time to spread his cannons, which remained mustered on one flank. 

The Highlanders started their attack by firing a single shot from their muskets and then charging at their foes, throwing down their guns. 

Cope's army was made up of professional soldiers, but they were used to exchanging musket and cannon shots across a battlefield.

The Highland Charge saw the clansmen crash into the Government troops with broadswords, axes and weapons cobbled together from farm tools, inflicting horrific injuries on the soldiers. 

Cope's men retreated but were held up by the walls that had earlier given them defensive cover, but now created a barrier to escape. Hundreds were killed and more than a thousand taken prisoner. 

In less than 20 minutes the Jacobite army of clansmen had annihilated the Government force, leaving Scotland under the control of the Jacobite rebels and giving Bonnie Prince Charlie a clear route into England. 

Are you fascinated by the story of the Jacobite Risings? Join our small-group short break to explore the military, social and political history of this period with expert Barry Hilton. We visit the battlefields of Killiecrankie, Glencoe, Fort William and Culloden to take in events from the first and second rebellions in the 17th and a18th centuries. 

The Jacobite Risings


More articles about the Jacobite Risings
>> The Battle of Killiecrankie

Picture credit: Highlanders at the Battle of Presonpans, copyright Mary Evans Picture Library