It is perfect weather for cycling, just now in Scotland. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to tempt Fat Mac on to his bike, so today I went searching for the Riggonhead Defile by myself.
The Battle of Prestonpans took place on 21st Sept 1745. 271 years later to the day, by amazing coincidence rather than planning, I went cycling looking for the Riggonhead Defile down which the Jacobite army walked from Tranent, very early in the morning of the 21st, to outflank the British government forces led by Sir John Cope. Riggonhead Defile was a path through swampy ground which took the Jacobites down towards Port Seton, to the east of Cope’s army.
I have an old map of the battle sites of Pinkie (1547), and Prestonpans (1745) on the wall in our front room, with a ‘line of march’ past Riggonhead faintly marked. There’s a clearer map here. Here is a print showing the Jacobites at the top of the Defile. This map seems to show the path. Here is a description of the battle which mentions a path through the marshland. Here is a nice interactive map. Last year there was a reenactment of Riggonhead March.
I’m not sure where the reenactment went, last year, and there wasn’t a reenactment this year, or at least if there was one they had finished by the time I got there, but I couldn’t find the exact site of the original defile.
The tracks have changed over the years, and there has been in the past a lot of shale mining in the area. The land is no longer boggy.
One thing which surprised me when reading about the battle was the relatively small size of the armies. The number varies according to different sources, but there may have been about 2,000 Jacobite Highlanders. Cope’s army may have been larger (up to 4,000), though many were untrained raw recruits. The battle didn’t last long. Cope’s light, inaccurate artillery got off a few rounds and then fled, whilst his main body of men fired one volley, which didn’t stop the Highland charge, and then fled. Cope’s baggage train at Cockenzie containing £5,000 was captured, along with muskets and ammunition.
Lessons from the defeat at Prestonpans were learnt by the government and when the two sides met in battle at Culloden seven months later, Cumberland had a much better trained force, able to reload and trained to withstand the Highland charge. At Culloden, the armies were larger but still relatively small. The Jacobites had been strengthened by French, Irish and Royal Écossais units, and sources reckon numbered about 7,000. The government troops were about 8,000.
When you consider that, according to Trevor Royle, only thirteen years later in 1759 the Duc de Choiseul gathered an army of 100,000 in Brittany with a view to invading England, it makes the armies at Prestonpans and Culloden seem very small.