Prestonpans, 1745: the forgotten Jacobite victory

Overshadowed by Culloden the following year – the battle that finally terminated the century-old Jacobite cause – Prestonpans is little known. 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, ready to battle an enemy whom they regarded as savages. The Redcoats saw the Highland Scots, from the mountainous north of Britain, as little better than the indigenous natives whom some had encountered while campaigning in North America.

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.

The Dawn March through the Riggonhead Defile, 21 September 1745 by Andrew Hillhouse. The Jacobite army is seen on the move in the foreground. Note the Hanoverian army in the background, holding a strong defensive position protected by marshland plus the buildings and walls of two farms. The Jacobites were able to outflank the Hanoverian position when told of a path through the marsh that brought them onto the enemy’s eastern flank on the morning of the battle. Image: The Battle of Prestonpans (1745) Heritage Trust

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.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788), the Jacobite ‘Young Pretender’, aka ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. His father, James Edward Stuart (1688-1766), the ‘Old Pretender’, was still alive at the time of the Forty-Five, so it was in his name that the rebellion was raised.
The Old Pretender is proclaimed King James III at Edinburgh Cross after the Jacobites capture the city in September 1745.

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 Battle of Prestonpans, 21 September 1745, showing the route of the Jacobite night march, the realignment of the armies, and the deployment of units prior to the Jacobite charge. Images: Ian Bull.

A highland army?

The Jacobite army reached its greatest strength, some 9,000 men, at the beginning of 1746.

Figures suggest less than 50% of the Jacobite army in 1745 came from the Highlands, whereas 17-24% came from Moray, Aberdeen, and Banff, and between 17% and 20% came from Perthshire.

The areas where Jacobite support was strongest coincide with those parts of Scotland where Episcopalianism retained a powerful hold over the local population, and most of those areas were to be found north of the Tay in the north-eastern Lowlands – a strong recruiting-ground for Charles in 1745.

Episcopalianism had been associated with the Stuarts since the 17th century. The hierarchical structure of the church, with bishops directly appointed by the monarch, dovetailed neatly with Stuart theories of absolute monarchy and ‘the divine right of kings’.

Both James and Charles had been raised in the Catholic faith, and this fact undoubtedly attracted a number of Scottish Catholics to their cause in 1745 – notably the Glengarry and Clanranald MacDonalds.

A number of clan chiefs whose support Charles had hoped for failed to stir, however, most notably Lord Seaforth, head of the Mackenzies, Macleod of Macleod, and Sir Archibald Macdonald of Sleat. The latter raised two independent companies for the London Government, though these numbered just 200 men. Macleod of Macleod raised 450 (when he requested Government funds afterwards, he claimed it had been 1,400).

A majority of the population opposed Prince Charles, largely for religious reasons. The pro-Government side was demilitarised in the main, but it began to train and arm forces against the Jacobites as the rising got under way. The Government also benefitted from a chain of forts in the Highlands, control of major strongholds like Edinburgh, Dumbarton, and Stirling castles, and the presence of the Royal Navy off the coast, which made a French landing highly problematic (though many blockade-runners got through).

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.

A Highland army on the march in the 1740s. The scene had been witnessed in Flanders, and this series of engravings is captioned in French and German, but it presumably provides a fair impression of the appearance of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army.

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.

A Jacobite general

Lord George Murray was born the sixth son of the Duke of Atholl in 1694. As a young man, he joined the Jacobite army during the 1715 uprising. His elder brother, William, Marquis of Tullibardine, commanded the Atholl Brigade, with his younger brother serving as battalion commander. Lord George missed the major military encounter of the rising, the Battle of Sheriffmuir, because he was in Fife attempting to raise more men for the Stuart cause.

After the collapse of the rising, William and George fled first to South Uist in the Hebrides, then on to Bordeaux in France.

Lord George Murray (1694-1760).

In 1719 Lord George accompanied a small Spanish force that landed in Lochalsh in the Western Highlands, along with his brother and other Jacobite exiles. Joined by several hundred Highlanders, the Jacobite force set off towards Inverness, but were intercepted by Government troops at Glen Shiel.

Despite holding the high ground, the Jacobites were exposed to artillery fire, the Hanoverian troops attacked resolutely, and at 9pm the Spanish surrendered and the Highlanders fled into the fog coming down over the mountains.

Lord George Murray, who had commanded the Jacobite right wing, had been wounded in the battle but succeeded in escaping, eventually reaching Rotterdam. It is widely believed that, while in exile, he served in the army of the House of Savoy, rulers of Piedmont and Sardinia.

The Government in London determined to strengthen their hold on the Highlands by creating a stronger chain of forts connected by military roads (built by General George Wade), but at the same time attempted to detach some of the prominent Jacobite nobles through a policy of clemency. Thus, when the Duke of Atholl died, Lord George Murray was pardoned and allowed to return, having taken the oath of allegiance to George II in 1739.

A sceptical ‘Forty-Fiver’

When Prince Charles Stuart landed in 1745, Lord George Murray was sceptical about the chances of Jacobite success, despite the fact his brother, the Marquis of Tullibardine, was with the Prince. Indeed, Murray accompanied his other brother, now the Earl of Atholl (William had forfeited his inheritance because of his loyalty to the Stuarts), to visit the Government commander in Scotland, General John Cope, who appointed Murray Deputy Sheriff of Perthshire.

Yet, when Prince Charles arrived at Blair Castle, ancestral home of the Murray family, Lord George joined the Jacobite army, saying his conscience allowed him to do no other. His brother, the Duke of Atholl, stayed loyal to King George, however.

Lord George Murray was made Lieutenant-General of the Jacobite army, along with the Duke of Perth, and his brother, Tullibardine. But Murray was the real commander, taking charge of the army at Prestonpans.

After that victory, he opposed any advance into England, arguing the French would not be able to land an army in support, and that few English Jacobites would join the venture; but he was overruled by the Prince, who won a majority of the Jacobite council.

Murray did succeed in defeating Charles’s proposal for an advance down the east coast to Newcastle, where General Wade had based a Hanoverian army. Instead, the Jacobites used the western route, leaving Wade in their wake.
Invading England

The Jacobites took Carlisle after a two-day siege, and then marched south through Preston and Manchester before reaching Derby.

There Lord George Murray argued for a retreat, pointing to the fact that Wade was to the north, Cumberland was in the Midlands, and that militia had been raised to defend London. The Jacobites could not defeat three armies, and they were too weak to hold London even if they took it. Few English Jacobites had joined the rising, and the French had no plans to land in the south-east.

Charles argued passionately, but did not prevail, and the army turned north. At Clifton in Cumberland, Murray defeated elements of the Duke of Cumberland’s force which had caught up with them (this was the last battle on English soil), and the retreat continued to Glasgow.

At Falkirk on 17 January 1746, Lord George Murray attacked and defeated a Government force of 6,000 led by Lieutenant-General Henry Hawley.

Hawley had ordered his dragoons to attack, but they were met with heavy musket-fire, and those riders who reached the enemy line found that the Jacobites ignored them and struck at their horses instead.

The dragoons retreated, and the Jacobites charged, routing Hawley’s centre and left flank. The Hanoverians then retreated south to Linlithgow, leaving over 300 dead on the battlefield.

The Battle of Culloden, 16 April 1746. David Morier’s famous painting captures the ‘asymmetrical’ character of the clash between Highland clansmen and Hanoverian regulars.

Lost cause

Despite their victory, the Jacobites continued to retreat north, Charles marching from Perth to Inverness directly, while Murray marched up the east coast via Dundee and Aberdeen. But with Cumberland in pursuit, the Jacobite army had no choice but to turn and face him.

After an abortive night march in the failed hope of launching a surprise attack, the tired and hungry Jacobite army lined up on Culloden Moor east of Inverness. Murray opposed this choice of ground, preferring high ground to the south, pointing out that the flat ground benefitted Cumberland’s artillery and cavalry. He was overruled, but proved right.

The result is well known. The Jacobite attack was delayed, failed to break through, and then retreated under attack from Cumberland’s cavalry, who were ordered to take no prisoners.

Murray eventually succeeded, in December 1746, in escaping, making his way to Rome. There he was received by Charles’s father, James the Old Pretender, and awarded a pension. But when he visited Paris the following year, Charles refused to see him.

Lord George Murray settled in Holland, dying aged 66 in 1760. He was buried in the church at Medemblik, where his grave can still be found, marked with a stone laid by the 7th Duke of Atholl.

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.
Images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.