September 21, 1745: From night to early morning, a thick mist continued to rise from the dank fields and marsh, shrouding the British army. Its commander, Lieutenant General Sir John Cope, belatedly discovered that the Highland clansmen had silently approached to within yards of his forces, and as the mist dissolved, the redcoats were stunned by the vision of some 2,500 kilted warriors, swinging broadswords and long-bladed axes, bearing down on them to the savage screams of Gaelic war cries and the unearthly skirling of the pipes. In minutes, the field at Prestonpans was littered with severed heads and limbs. It was a taste of hell the survivors would never forget.
First blood had gone to the Scots, and other victories lay ahead. Inevitably, however, the full force of English might would stop the rebellion, and in the process, put an end to a centuries-old way of life.
IN EARLY 1745 GREAT BRITAIN was battling its traditional enemy, France, in the War of the Austrian Succession. It was not going well. In May, England, along with its allies, had suffered a demoralizing drubbing in the Low Countries, at the Battle of Fontenoy. While Britain was weak, the young grandson of the last Stuart king of England seized the opportunity provided by Britain’s weakened state to launch a rebellion on behalf of his exiled father, James Francis Edward Stuart, who had been living under the Pope’s patronage in Rome. Charles Edward Stuart—24 years old, vain, ambitious, and limited—set a course to align the Scottish Highland clans under his banner and restore the Catholic Stuart line to the thrones of England and Scotland.
“Bonnie Prince Charlie,” as he would come to be known, arrived in Scotland in late July, along with seven followers. He was brought ashore at Moidart, in the ancestral lands of the Macdonald of Clanranald, where he was greeted, not with boundless enthusiasm for his cause, but with hard, practical Scots logic. After hearing Charles’s pitch, Alexander Macdonald bluntly advised the young prince to return home—to which the youth reportedly replied, “I am come home, sir….I am persuaded that my faithful Highlanders will stand by me.”
The Scottish Highlands were “home” to an ancient feudal society. To most Lowland Scots of the 18th century, the land to the north was a cold, craggy, numbingly unpleasant region, peopled by barbarians who found honor in murder and the reaving—stealing—of cattle, and who presented a constant threat to Lowland tranquility. To the English, these mountain people seemed little more than bearded, unwashed savages, who skirted themselves in bolts of particolored cloth (and little else!) and spoke an obscure and unrefined tongue. While there was an element of truth in these observations, to so dismiss the Highlanders was to discount centuries of loyalty to clan and kin, fierce pride in ancestry, epic sagas and bagpipe tunes, called pibrochs, played and sung in tribute to heroes long dead—persuasive elements of a national character.
Before 1745 the Highlanders had acknowledged no formal laws save those of the individual clan chiefs. The word and authority of those powerful men, to whom each member of their respective clans claimed blood ties and owed total allegiance, was indisputable. Over their people they possessed what was called “the power of pit and gallows”—or corporal punishment. An order from a clan chief would also send every man of his clan able to carry a sword, ax, or pitchfork on a cattle raid against a neighboring farm, on a bloody foray below the border, or on a march into England itself in support of a member of the House of Stuart. When a clan chief died, the title passed to his eldest son or closest male relation, along with the responsibility of maintaining the welfare of the entire clan.
The harsh geography of the Highlands defined the lives of its people. The rocky, sparsely covered soil made farming difficult at best; consequently, the earliest clansmen became tribal herdsmen. They took up the sword to protect their small herds of shaggy cattle and in the process became warriors as much as stockmen. Over time, raids on neighbors’ herds came to be viewed as affairs of honor, as clan bards composed rants memorializing these nocturnal forays. Honor, in fact, played a major part in Highland life. Should insults be exchanged by members of different clans, the matter might be settled by a dirk thrust in the night, by single combat, or by the mobilization of both clans.
Each clansman could trace his origins back hundreds of years, and time seemed to have no significant impact on the Highlands. Life in the early 18th century was little different from feudal life. The clan chief might well live in a castle, drink the finest wines, and send his sons to Paris to be educated, while his lowliest subtenant subsisted on the meanest fare. But their bond was unbreakable, and when the chief ordered his clansmen to arm and follow, they did so without question. As the number of clan heroes grew over the centuries, so too did the poems and songs about them, until ultimately, the clans marched to battle singing ballads of contemporary champions and of heroes long dead. It was on this time-tested sense of loyalty that Prince Charles was relying when he brought his cause to the Highland clan chiefs.
THE CLANS HAD TURNED OUT for Charles’s father 30 years before, in a pro-Royalist Jacobite “rising” that had ended in disaster. When Queen Anne died without heirs in 1714, George, ruler of Hanover in Germany, was invited to succeed her, prompting a wave of discontent and opposition in Scotland. In September 1715, supported by the major clans and with an army of some 10,000 men, the Scottish Earl of Mar staged a Jacobite rebellion with the intention of replacing George with James, son of the late exiled king. The rising lasted only months and fell apart after the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Sheriffmuir.
Now, the clans were being asked to fight for James yet again. This time, the prospect of risking their people, homes, and lands in what might well be another doomed endeavor caused some of the more significant clan chiefs to hesitate. Macdonald of Sleat, Macleod of Dunvegan, and the old Macdonald of Clanranald refused to come out. Undaunted, Charles pressed his suit, even managing to enlist Clanranald’s son, who swore allegiance to the young prince after hearing another young Highlander declare that he would join the cause, “though not another man in Scotland should befriend you.”
Charles’s cause was advanced significantly by the presence of Donald Cameron of Lochiel. He was widely respected as an honorable and intelligent man, and his willingness to join the fight won over other chiefs. “The Gentle Lochiel,” as he came to be known, sent several of his clansmen “to intimate to all the Camerons that if they did not forthwith go with them, they would instantly proceed to burn all their houses and hough their cattle,” according to one witness. Seven hundred clansmen responded, nearly all wearing the white cockade—a rosette of ribbons—in their bonnets, signifying allegiance to the cause. With the Jacobite ranks swelling, their red-and-white standard was raised at Glenfinnan on August 19. Charles proclaimed his father King James III of England and VIII of Scotland—and himself as prince regent. Then, with a fair number of the Scottish clans at his back, he marched south toward Edinburgh.
Word traveled fast. The London Gazette of August 3 had announced the posting of a £30,000 bounty on Charles’s head, and on August 20 Bonnie Prince Charlie responded by placing a like reward on the head of King George II. Meanwhile, the British army in Scotland, under the command of General John Cope, was dispatched to put a swift end to the rebellion. The 55-year-old Cope, a member of Parliament and career soldier, had established a solid if uninspiring record during the wars of the Spanish and Austrian Succession. However, with most of the British army committed on the Continent, he commanded fewer than 4,000 men scattered throughout the country—nearly all of whom were poorly trained and had never seen combat.
Cope resupplied his forces and marched them to Aberdeen, where they boarded ships south to Dunbar. On September 19, at the head of some 2,300 foot soldiers and dragoons, six 1½-pounder “galloper” guns, and six mortars, he marched west toward Edinburgh—too late to prevent Charles from entering the city. The Scots had swept south weeks earlier, securing Perth and Dunblane; on September 17, as Cope’s forces were setting out, they had captured Edinburgh without firing a shot. The city’s two regiments of royal dragoons had fled at their approach, in what has gone down infamously in British military history as the “Canter of Coltbrigg.”
The Scots’ army, under the command of the able Lord George Murray, had grown as it marched and now totaled some 2,500 men divided into clan regiments. They carried a motley collection of arms, which included some farm tools but few muskets and no artillery. But what the Scots lacked in firepower they more than made up for in passion and skill with the blade. Their traditional edged weapons were deadly, and in the clansmen’s practiced hands, capable of inflicting frightful damage. The claymore—Scottish Gaelic for “great sword”—was a large, double-edged broadsword wielded in great sweeping arcs as its owner charged into the foe. The Lochaber ax was a long-handled halberd-style weapon, with a long, curved blade at its business end. Both weapons were designed to separate heads and limbs from bodies. Each man also carried a small, round, cowhide-covered and embossed shield, known as a targe. When they could approach within striking distance, the Highlanders were nearly unstoppable. Conversely, although Cope possessed a far more sophisticated arsenal, few of his troops had fired a musket in battle, and reportedly only one—an “aged gunner”—had any familiarity with artillery.
AT MIDAFTERNOON ON SEPTEMBER 20, the two armies sighted one another near the East Lothian town of Prestonpans, east of Edinburgh. Cope placed his forces in what he felt to be an unassailable defensive position, with two stone walls to his right, a seemingly impassable bog on the left, a deep ditch in front, and the sea behind. Meanwhile, a small contingent of Scots from Clan Cameron was ordered to the churchyard in nearby Tranent, but after attracting enemy fire, they withdrew. By nightfall no decisive moves had been made by either side.
During the night, a local farmer sympathetic to the Jacobite cause volunteered to guide the Scots along a narrow path through the bog. Moving silently by twos and threes in the dark, the Jacobite force wove its way forward, swinging around Cope’s left in the mist and drawing up for battle. Although they had posted pickets and maintained bonfires through the night, Cope’s men did not become aware of the Highlanders’ maneuver until around 5 a.m., whereupon the general hurriedly wheeled his forces to face the impending attack. He positioned the foot soldiers in the center, the artillery on the right, and the dragoons at either end of the line.
As dawn broke, the Highlanders charged out of the mist in two columns, falling in a wave upon the conventional British formation. The men of each clan had their own Gaelic battle cry, just as each clan had its own pibroch, and a deafening cacophony filled the air, along with the terrified screams of the British soldiers. The Scots fired what muskets they had at close range, discarded them, and then surged into the British ranks, literally cutting them to pieces with their terrible blades. They swiftly flanked Cope’s dragoons and foot soldiers, who panicked and ran—only to be impeded by the same ditch and stone walls to the south and west that had earlier offered the promise of victory. Nearly all the British gunners fled before the Highland charge, leaving only two officers to man the six cannons and six mortars, which the clansmen easily overran.
Cope and his officers tried desperately to stem the chaotic flight of their troops, in some instances at pistol point, but were forced to watch helplessly as their entire army disintegrated in a rout of stunning proportions. In the short, sharp fight, Prince Charles’s forces killed some 300 of the enemy, wounded 500 more, and took 1,500 prisoners. No more than 170 men accompanied General Cope on the flight across the border, to the safety of Berwick. Prestonpans, as one English chronicler of the fight dryly affirmed, “is not a battle honour for British Regiments.”
The Scots suffered around 30 dead, including Major James MacGregor, son of the legendary Rob Roy, and 70 wounded. They captured the British baggage train, which had been left at nearby Cockenzie, seizing £5,000 and a quantity of much-needed muskets, ammunition, and supplies, as well as most of General Cope’s personal property. It was a victory that offered much promise of future success.
AFTER TENDING THE WOUNDS of their foes—a courtesy the British never afforded the Scots—the prince’s army returned in triumph to Edinburgh. With this solid victory, several earlier holdouts now rallied to the prince’s standard. The earls of Kelly and Kilmarnock and Lords Nairne, Strathallan and Ogilvie, Elcho, Balmerino, and Pitsligo cast their lot with the Young Pretender. More promising yet, the French signed the Treaty of Fontainebleu, formalizing a military alliance with the Jacobites.
With his army swelled to 6,000 men, Prince Charles continued his campaign to seize London. Marching south, the Highlanders captured Carlisle, making them the first army to invade England in a hundred years. They reached Derby in early December, placing themselves some 120 miles from London and between the panicked English capital and the forces of the man newly responsible for protecting it, King George’s son, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. For the moment, at least, no obstacle stood in the Scots’ way.
Soon, however, other factors conspired to halt the invasion. Despite Charles’s expectations, few English Jacobites had joined the cause. Worse, away from home and in a strange land, the men of the various clans—many of whom had fallen to quarreling among themselves—began deserting in droves. At the same time, the Duke of Cumberland’s force had grown to twice the size of the Scots’ army. The French, who had been assuring Charles of support since the beginning, failed to make good on their promises. And the towns that the Scots had captured, including Carlisle and Edinburgh, fell back into British hands. The only viable option was retreat.
But on the march north, Charles’s force was joined by thousands of fresh Scottish volunteers, increasing it to 8,000 men. The Scots besieged Stirling Castle and roundly defeated Lieutenant General Henry Hawley, Cope’s replacement, at Falkirk. Then, the prince’s luck ran out again. His powder magazine exploded, and the army was plagued by more desertions. Cumberland was drawing inexorably closer, with an army that now outnumbered Charles’s.
Listening to bad counsel, and against the advice of Lord Murray, the prince elected to meet the British in open battle on a rain-driven moor at Culloden, outside Inverness. Here, facing British grapeshot and canister with nothing but a few fieldpieces and muskets, their claymores and axes useless against artillery and their numbers severely depleted, the Highlanders stood helpless as the well-trained British artillery devastated their ranks. The clansmen soon ran out of powder and, as the Duke of Cumberland himself later stated with amusement, “they threw stones.” Finally, while some of the clans huddled cold and wet in consternation, others charged the British ranks, screaming in Gaelic and brandishing their fearsome claymores. But this time the troops facing them were battle-hardened veterans who did not run. The Highlanders got shot to pieces. A dazed Prince Charles Edward Stuart, his face streaked with tears, was led from the field by his clansmen.
The Scots’ wounded were bayoneted where they lay. Many of those who fled the field were hunted down and slaughtered. Of the some 3,000 who were captured, many were executed, most of them on charges of treason. The prescribed punishment for this offense entailed hanging, drawing, quartering, and beheading. Hundreds more were transported to America or Canada. Meanwhile, Bonnie Prince Charlie was sheltered repeatedly in the simple crofts of his defeated Highlanders—none of whom succumbed to the temptation of the £30,000 reward. Eventually, he escaped to France, where many years later, in 1788, he died a hopeless alcoholic.
After the victory at Culloden, the British enacted a series of laws that irreparably shattered the clan system and with it, the Highland way of life. Among other restrictions, they banned the wearing of the kilt, the playing of the bagpipe, and the carrying of the claymore and targe. They also reduced the status of the hereditary clan chief to that of landlord.
Deprived of their ancient rights and privileges, no longer permitted the power of life and death over their people, the old chiefs came to consider themselves property owners rather than leaders of men. Seeing money to be made from large-scale sheep farming, they cleared the lands of their own tenant clansmen, often with the assistance of troops and police, and brought in managers, called factors, from England and the Lowlands, to oversee the raising of the “woolly clansmen,” as the displaced tenants bitterly called sheep. As one Argyllshire man bemoaned, “I have lived in woeful times. When I was young, the only question asked concerning a man of rank was, ‘How many men lived on his estate?’ But now it is, ‘How many sheep will it carry?’”
With the implementation of these so-called Highland clearances, the betrayal was complete. Dazed and displaced Highlanders moved to the Lowlands for factory work, joined the hated British ranks, or sailed across the sea to begin life anew in Canada or the Carolinas or Virginia.
Their numbers irreparably thinned, driven from their ancestral homes, and disowned by the very men who had called them forth to battle in the family name, the Highland Scots could take satisfaction in the knowledge that they had briefly defeated the most powerful nation in the world, slaying hundreds of its soldiers and sending thousands running in terror. In memory and in song, they still had their stunning victory at Prestonpans.
Ron Soodalter has written more than 150 articles for publications that include the New York Times, Military History, Wild West, and Smithsonian. His most recent book is The Slave Next Door.