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Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Times
Chapter IV. The Battle of Prestonpans


IN the year 1745 news travelled slowly from one district of Scotland to another. Prince Charles Stewart cast anchor in Lochanuagh in Moidart on the 19th of July; but his arrival was not known in Edinburgh until the 6th of August, and no additional intelligence reached that city until the 22d, when the skippers of two Glasgow ships, who had touched at the West Highlands on their passage from Virginia, confirmed the fact, and brought an exaggerated report of the number of the Jacobite army. Probably within a week or two afterwards, rumours, more or less mingled with fiction, had reached Tranent that a body of savage Highlanders with Prince Charlie at their head were on their march to Edinburgh; but very likely the Tranenters had little notion that the horrors of war would so speedily be exhibited at their own doors. Colonel Gardiner’s Regiment of Dragoons, which had retreated panic-stricken before the Highland host from Stirling, from Falkirk, from Corstorphine, and from Coltbridge, arrived at and encamped in a field near Prestongrange on the 15th of September; but one of the troopers, having, whilst gathering forage, fallen into an old coal pit, raised such a clamour that the whole Regiment was again seized with terror, and mounting their horses gallopped off to Dunbar, where they joined the army of Sir John Cope which had just arrived from Aberdeen. No doubt that little incident formed the theme of much lively conversation that evening on the streets of Tranent, but the inhabitants were soon to witness a spectacle which must have furnished them with an exciting subject of discussion for the remainder of their lives.

Cope’s army marched from Dunbar towards Edinburgh on the 19th, and taking the low road by St. Germains and Seton came near Preston next morning, the soldiers being in excellent spirits and confident of victory, should the Highlanders venture to meet them, which they doubted. They had just entered the plain between Seton and Preston, when information was received that the Highlanders were in full march towards them. The General, thinking the ground very suitable for receiving the enemy, called a halt, and drew up his troops fronting the west, with the sea on the right, and Tranent on the left.

The Highlanders left Duddingston Park, where they had been encamped, about the same time as the King’s army left Haddington. They marched by the road which passes Easter Duddingston and enters the main road near Magdalen Bridge, thence by the Market-gate of Fisherrow, across the old bridge which crosses the Esk, and by the road which winds to the south of the gardens of Pinkie-House, when Lord George Murray, who led the van, struck off through the fields to the right, and so reached the hill near Falside, the army following. It was then ascertained that Cope had remained in his position at Preston. The Highlanders commenced a slanting march down-hill towards Tranent, and halted when they were about half a mile from that town. When the Royal troops first observed the Highlanders they gave a loud shout, which was echoed by the latter. It was then about noon, and favourable weather for fighting; and Charles was eager for an engagement, a desire which Cope did not share in. On observing the Highlanders on Birslie Brae, the English General shifted his front to the south, so as to face them.

The ground which the Highlanders occupied was very suitable for their mode of attack, which was to rush down hill upon the enemy. But unfortunately a long stripe of marshy ground lay at the foot of the slope, and separated them from Cope’s army, which was a mile and a half distant. Prince Charlie was informed by the country people, who flocked around him in great numbers, that the morass was impassable except at great hazard, information which was confirmed by Colonel Ker, who, mounted on a little white pony, was sent to examine the ground, and was whilst so engaged fired at by the enemy. A considerable body of Highlanders were then detached to Dolphinston to make, or feign, an attack on Cope’s right, or west flank, and the English General observing the movement resumed his first position, with his front to the west. The Highlanders then returned to their old position near Tranent, the Royal army facing round at the same time. The whole afternoon was spent in these evolutions. Dougal Graham, who is supposed to have been in the Highland army throughout the campaign, and was subsequently bellman of Glasgow, wrote a metrical history of the Rebellion, which in the form of a chap-book was popular in its day, and is still considered a reliable authority, gives some graphic descriptions of Charles’ position.

The Duke of Perth and great Lochiel,
They choosed for ground that rising fell,
West from Tranent, up Brislie Brae,
A view both south and north to hae.

The fields are plain around Tranent,
Besouth the town grow whins and bent,
Where Charles kept his men secure,
Thinking on battle every hour.’

The people of Tranent must have gazed with astonishment at the Highland army, which according to Dugald Graham—

Numbered one thousand eight hundred men,
But badly armed as you may ken;
With lockless guns and rusty swords,
Durks and pistols of ancient sorts,

Old scythes with their rumples even
Into a tree they had been driven;
And some with batons of good oak
Vowed to kill at every stroke ;

Some had hatchets on a pole,
Mischievous weapons antick and droll,
Was both for cleaving and for clicking,
And dtirking too, their way of speaking.

The Highland dress, too, was curious. Although the kilt or philabeg was then in use (as is proved inter alia by its being included in the prohibitory Act—called Lord Hardings Act, passed in 1747)? it was not considered an essential part of the Highland dress, which consisted chiefly of a long shirt and plaid. The latter was laid aside when the wearer went into action, and he fought in his shirt; and probably Prince Charlie’s men marched from Edinburgh in that airy costume with their plaids slung across their shoulders. The breacon an fheile or belted plaid was kilt and plaid in one. In Graham’s description of the battle of Falkirk it is mentioned that

‘Their plaids in heaps were left behind,
Light to run if need they find.’

Elsewhere he states:

‘Their uniform was belted plaids,
Bonnets of blue upon their heads,
With white cockade and naked thie,
Of foot as nimble as may be.’

Chalmers, in his History of the Rebellion, is puzzled to reconcile two statements that seem to him at variance. One account he quotes says, ‘The Prince called for a dram in the first place, of which he seemed in much need, as the rain was streaming down from his plaid and he had no trews or philabeg.’ Another account says that the Prince got a full Highland suit from Kingsburgh. The explanation is that the kilt was not in 1745-46 a part of the Highland dress. This is confirmed by a remark made by Doctor Johnston in 1773, to the effect that he had only seen one man in the Highland dress, although philabegs were common. But to return to the battle of Prestonpans.

Sir John Cope’s position was so strongly guarded on three sides (some wise heads thought it was too securely fenced and not unlike a trap), with a ditch, morass, and stone walls, that it was deemed unassailable excepting from the east, and the Highland army, when it had became dark, moved to that side of Tranent with the intention of attacking Cope at break of day. That General, afraid of a night attack, kept large fires burning around his camp, and fired off a few cohorns to show the enemy he was on the alert. The. Highlanders, wrapped in their plaids, slept in a stubble field, and not a light was to be seen or a sound heard in their position.

Guided by a young East Lothian gentleman, named Robert Anderson, the Highland army began to move about three o’clock on the morning of the 21st of September old style (being the 2d of October of our calendar), which was about three hours before sunrise. In a column of three men abreast they marched down a hollow or valley that winds through the farm of Rigganhead. They were at first concealed by the darkness, and afterwards by the mist, and not a whisper was heard until they neared the morass, when some dragoons on the other side called ‘Who’s there’? and seeing who they were fired their carbines and gallopped off to give the alarm.

The Highlanders, not without difficulty, crossed the morass and the broad ditch that flowed through it on its way to Seton-mill, and Charles, in leaping across the dam fell upon his hands and knees, which his superstitious soldiers must have considered a bad omen. The column marched towards the sea until those at the head calculated that all were over the morass, when a line was formed upon the firm and level ground.

The great clan Colla, or Macdonalds, formed the right wing, the Camerons and Appin Stuarts composed the left, whilst the Duke of Perth’s Regiment and the Macgregors stood in the centre. The Duke of Perth, as oldest Lieutenant-General, commanded the right wing, Lord George Murray the left.

Behind the first line a second was formed at a distance of fifty yards, consisting of the Athole men, the Robertsons, the Macdonalds of Glencoe, and the MacLauchlans under the command of Lord Nairn. Charles took his place between the two lines. His army was rather larger than Cope’s, numbering 2400 men; but as the second line never came into action the number engaged was only 1456.

Day had begun to dawn, although thick masses of mist still covered the ground and hid the two armies from each other, when the two lines of Highlanders, like waves of the sea, rushed rapidly westward to dash upon the enemy. The front rank men stooped as they went, shielding their heads and bodies with their targets, and the other ranks kept close in the rear.

Sir John Cope, who had slept at Cockenzie, hearing that the Highlanders were moving, joined his troops in all haste; and although he seemed to have a difficulty in believing that the enemy would attack him so early in the morning, he considered it proper to form his lines to front him. The centre consisted of eight companies of Lascelles’ Regiment and two of Guises’. On the right were' five companies of Lees’, on the left the whole of Sir John Murray’s. These infantry were protected on the right flank by Whitney’s and Gardiner’s Dragoons, and on the left by Hamilton’s. The whole force amounted to 2100. Six cannons were placed near to the old railway or tramway, that still runs between Tranent and Cockenzie. Cope had just time to ride along the front to encourage his men, when through the mist the clans, which some at first fancied were a hedge, were seen advancing swiftly and silently towards him. The Highlanders fired their guns at the English, and then tossing them away bounded through the smoke with the broadsword in the right hand and the target and dirk in the left. When a thrust was made at them by the bayonet they caught the point of that weapon on their target, and raising it up left the poor soldier defenceless. A stroke with the claymore settled him, and in a moment the furious Highlanders were within Cope’s lines and slaughtering right and left with sword and dirk. One volley of musketry passed along the English lines from right to left, and a discharge from the cannons arrested for an instant the impetuous rush of the Camerons, but all in vain. In four minutes the battle was lost and won. A few shots from Charlie’s men made Whitney’s Dragoons fly, and they were quickly followed by Gardiner’s. Hamilton’s troop at the other end of the line caught the infection, and fled without firing a carbine. The infantry, deserted by the cavalry, on whom they had relied for support, gave way, threw down their guns and begged for quarter. One small party alone had the courage to resist for a time, and Colonel Gardiner, deserted by his own troop, placed himself at their head and fought until he was cut down by numerous wounds. Cope’s army was now all panic-stricken and flying from the field. The dragoons hurried like a disorderly mob through the vennel or narrow road to the south of the enclosures (carrying Cope with them), ducking their heads to escape the bullets that were sent after them by the Highlanders. About 400, with their General at their head, reached Coldstream that night, and next morning they arrived at Berwick. The infantry fell back upon the park walls of Preston, where, having thrown away their muskets that they might run more lightly, they were all huddled together without the power of resistance, and slaughtered without mercy by the ferocious Highlanders.

‘Had not their Officers and Chiefs
Sprung in and begged for their relief,
They had not left one living there,
For in a desperate rage they were,

’Cause many clans were hacked and slain.
Yet of their loss they let not ken
For by the shot fell not a few,
And many with bay’nots pierced through.’

Nearly 400 of the English were slain and 700 were taken prisoners. A thorn tree (or more strictly speaking three thorn trees), marks the spot where the brave old Gardiner is said to have fought and fallen. He was struck and stripped after he was mortally wounded and lying on the ground. His man servant went to the Meadow-mill (the present village did not exist at that time), and disguising himself in a suit of clothes, borrowed from the miller, he returned to the field and carried his dying master to the manse of Tranent, where he soon afterwards died. His body was buried, beside eight of his children in the north-west corner of the church, and his wife, Lady Frances Erskine, placed a tablet on the wall, over his remains; but this monument was removed or destroyed at the time the alterations were made on the church. Surely the basest sort of theft and the vilest kind of destruction is that of memorials to the dead (although it is too common now a days), and the enormity of the offence is beyond all expression when the victim is such a hero as Colonel Gardiner, whose dust would confer an honour on any town or church.

Warriors are generally mendacious braggarts, and in their attempts to magnify their victories often over-vault themselves and fall on the other side. Probably the Highlanders were not so poorly armed at Prestonpans as they said,—1400 or 1500 of them were provided with fire-locks and broad-swords before they invaded the Lowlands; and as the arsenal of the trained bands in Edinburgh fell into their possession, the rest might have been supplied with muskets had it been considered advisable. Probably the scythes with which some of them were armed were considered more formidable weapons. One young Highland rascal boasted that he had killed fourteen Englishmen with his broad-sword, but a few more heroes like him would have left the great bulk of his countrymen nothing to brag of.

When the enemy had been routed, Prince Charles stood amongst the dead and dying, and refreshed himself with a slice of beef and a glass of wine. He was exceedingly merry, and twice cried out with a hearty laugh, ‘My Highlanders have lost their plaids.’ When one remembers that the kilt and plaid were at that period in one piece, and that his men were all in their shirts, one can understand what tickled his fancy. The Highlanders did not waste time in pursuing the fugitives, but returned to the field to plunder the dead and wounded. Colonel Gardiner’s house was also pillaged. Sir John Cope’s baggage was secured by the Prince, as well as tents, cannon, and a military chest containing £4000. When this was done, he rode to Pinkie House, where he lodged for the night. The Highlanders fixed their mess-room in a house in Tranent, and numbers went to the neighbouring parks and caught the sheep for food. The Camerons entered Edinburgh in less than three hours after the battle, playing their pipes, and exhibiting the colours they had taken from Cope’s dragoons. The main body of the army marched in triumph to Edinburgh the next day (Sunday), and paraded the streets to the sound of the bagpipes, with colours flying, and with the prisoners and spoil in the rear.

Any further account of the Rebellion would be out of place in this book; but perhaps the following reflections, suggested by a general review of the affair, may be excused. Many in these latter days are in the habit of sneering at sentiment; but this rising of the ’45 shows the extraordinary power of sentiment. Through it, a few thousand Highlanders, undrilled, undisciplined, and, as some say, badly armed, took cities, made regular troops fly before them in pitched battles, like chaff before the wind, penetrated to the very heart of a powerful kingdom, and all but knocked the King off his throne. It was their devotion to Charles that impelled them to this—mere sentiment! True this feeling was mingled with ambition, hope of plunder, and other baser qualities; but passionate affection for the Prince was the ruling motive. Men gladly gave their own lives to preserve his, and women kept the sheets that he had slept in for their shrouds. ^30,000 did not tempt any one to betray him. This veneration was possibly unmerited; but, besides heroic deeds, it inspired some of the finest songs and music that Scotland possesses.

The whole field of Prestonpans is visible from the window of the room where this is written, and this is the very month and day when the battle was fought 136 years ago. There is the sloping ground down which the Highlanders were eager to rush upon the enemy, but were prevented by the morass at the bottom. The morass was drained a few years since, and a ball, no doubt fired from one of Cope’s cannon, was found in the peat, and is now kept as a witness of the fight. The horns of a deer were also unearthed, and speak of a more remote period. There is the thorn tree where the hottest part of the contest occurred. Five generations of men have passed since then, but the thorn tree, or triplet, is still vigorous, although having lost a limb or stem lately. The Earl of Wemyss (all honour to him!) has caused it to be girded and stayed with iron to guard the interesting relic from similar disasters. The white walls of Colonel Gardiner’s house peep through the trees ; and there is the church where his bones (robbed of their monument) repose. Claymores (two of them at present in private hands) have been picked up in the fields.

The position of Cope’s army was, as some allege, with every show of reason, parallel with, and close to, the east side of the old railway; with the Meadow-mill on the right, and not, as is generally supposed, in a line with the thorn tree. This was the opinion of the late Mr. Cadell (expressed in a letter to the Rev. Mr. Parlane in 1850), whose grandfather was a boy when the battle was fought, and had pointed out the position to him. This opinion agrees with the plan published in Dugald Graham’s chap-book.


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