Victory at Prestonpans – the Battle of Prestonpans.
Wounded Jacobites gaze through the breaches in the walls of Preston House as local people bury the dead of the battle they won that very morning. The Battle of Prestonpans was fought on the morning of 21st September, 1745, and was the first encounter of the ‘45 Jacobite Rising. This gruesome and bloody battle was well documented by both sides so we have a good understanding of the events of that day. The Jacobites rushed into the government lines at dawn after a brief exchange of musket and cannon fire. This would have been where the first casualties were sustained, on both sides, and where the majority of the Highlanders 40 – 60 dead would have fallen. The subsequent Highland charge would have crashed into the government lines, roughly where the coal road is now, where yet more men would have fallen in savage hand to hand fighting. The British line disintegrated and fleeing soldiers were hacked to death over an extremely large area of farmland by the pursuing Jacobites. The majority of the estimated 300 British dead occurred whilst fleeing west through these fields towards Preston House. “Fewer men were lost on the field of battle than in the subsequent flight”. Some soldiers tried to escape along the narrow roadway between the Preston and Bankton estates but this was soon blocked with fleeing dragoons and panicking foot soldiers. Others tried to pass through breaches knocked through the high walls of Preston House gardens the previous day. But these breaches were too small to allow the passage of so many and the walls trapped many soldiers who were slain or captured. The Jacobites caught up with many “along the walls of the enclosures where they killed without trouble those who attempted to climb them.” There are reports of many soldiers “lying in heaps along the Park wall”. The remainder of the redcoats fled to the north of Preston walls, where the ground dips towards Prestonpans. It is said that “the field of battle presented a spectacle of horror, being covered with heads, legs, arms and mutilated bodies…” Adam Skirving, who wrote “Hey Johnnie Cope”, writes of visiting the battlefield ‘that afternoon’ where he saw ‘many slain lay on the plain’ in the area around the thorntree. Another witness claims seeing around two hundred bodies on the field as he rode from his father’s house in Prestonpans and headed ‘along the field to Seaton.’
Before Bonnie Prince Charlie left Prestonpans he gave orders for the “dead to be buried and all arms secured.” Orders were sent to the neighbouring villages commanding that houses be provided for the wounded and “the inhabitants shou'd come wth speads [spades] & other instruments, to bury the Dead.’ The local people dug the grave pits for the slain and these work-parties made their grim task easier by burying the bodies close to where they lay thickest.
Some reports state that the corpses were looted. The fatally wounded Colonel Gardiner was apparently ‘plundered of his watch and other things of value, but also stripped of his upper garments and boots.’ Others say the dead were respected and buried fully clothed. One eye witness was ‘surprised to see the dead all fully dressed,’ but adds that he later heard they had been ‘subsequently stripped by the women who followed the English Army.’ However, around sixty years after the battle, bodies are reported to have been found by workers when the fields around Thorntree Mains were being drained. Their clothing was well preserved, so, not all the corpses had been fully stripped prior to burial. Further remains are said to have been found in this general area in the twentieth century. Historic Scotland have stated in their Inventory listings for Prestonpans battlefield that ”there is high potential for more burials and possibly mass graves to be located within this area”. Those burials may contain, probably in mass graves, around 300 serving British soldiers who died in arms at Prestonpans, and potentially their Jacobite opponents as well.
And yet, despite many campaigns and petitions from many concerned and angry locals and literally thousands of people around the world, East Lothian Council continue to earmark the site for industrial development. They are a disgrace to the people they were elected to represent. But they should know, the fight will go on.