Of Scotland’s forty-one battlefields, the three from the Jacobite Rising of 1745 where Bonny Prince Charlie commanded his troops in person are among the most interesting because each tells its own story and as part of a living landscape today faces continuing challenges.

Even enemies of the Jacobites were impressed by the physical presence of the 24-year-old Prince who radiated natural charm and energy. Having pledged to his father that he would regain the British throne for the House of Stuart, he set about the task by raising funds and hiring two ships with which he set sail to Scotland, raising his standard on 19 August 1745 at Glenfinnan and nine days later heading south over the wild Corrieyairack Pass. The British Army commander General Sir John Cope declined to follow, getting his officers to co-sign his decision, and instead set sail from Inverness landing his 2500 troops at Dunbar. 

Showing a consultative leadership style in which however the final decision was down to him, the Prince was joined at Perth by the Duke of Perth and by Lord George Murray whom he made his Lieutenant-Generals. Edinburgh fell to him without a struggle, but now he needed to prove himself by winning a battle – while Cope had to avenge the loss of the capital by engaging with the enemy.

Prestonpans was already a busy landscape with grand houses and estates, the adjoining settlements of coastal Prestonpans and medieval Preston, the mining community of Tranent and the saltpans of Cockenzie already linked by the 1722 Waggonway. Contrary to stories that it was all over very quickly, a two-day battle ensued with the British Army in front, the Jacobites on the higher ground above from where they surprised Cope by marching off to the east and attacking from that direction. Comparatively under-resourced, they could succeed only by their speed against a foe used to the slower pace of conflict with the French. Surgeons were on hand since, win or lose, there were bound to be casualties and the order was soon given to stop killing and start taking prisoners, with Bankton House serving as a field hospital – all this was in great contrast to what would happen at Culloden.

The Prince was kept in the second line so as to avoid the fate of Claverhouse at Killiecrankie and, having been seen to get himself dirty while on duty, retired to Pinkie House so as not to be seen to be celebrating victory in Edinburgh. Thus far he had not done a great deal though proving himself willing to be visible, and while taking Scotland might have been enough for some, he resolved to secure his inheritance by heading south at the head of 6000 men, taking Carlisle and getting as far as Derby before his army’s confidence began to sap. The view prevailed that they might be better to await a French invasion that never came, so on a vote of the commanders it was decided to retrace their steps northward.

At Falkirk on 17 January 1746 a Jacobite army containing troops raised in Scotland while the Prince was heading south came together only 48 hours before the battle so he had to learn rapidly how to deploy his forces. The British commander Henry Hawley was again taken in by diversionary tactics which allowed the main force to arrive from the west overlooking his camp. Visibility was restricted by the fighting taking place in a terrible storm, causing confusion which denied any advantage from the outcome, but the casualties were similar to Prestonpans – 400 British dead, compared to 50 or 60 Jacobites.

Hawley was now replaced by the King’s son the Duke of Cumberland, and the fighting thus became more personal. The Prince saw retreat as destructive to the Jacobite cause, but was opposed by clan chieftains anxious to get home. They nevertheless took Ruthven Barracks and Fort Augustus and laid siege to Fort William, but only part of their Army arrived at Inverness as Lord George Murray was still awaiting arms from the French. A slow erosion had occurred of the Prince’s authority, which now rested solely on his royal claim and no longer on kudos won in battle: options had run out, and in poor weather at Culloden on 16 April 1746 a march across country on a dark night was accompanied by confusion and disorder, and his troops retreated without telling him. He had to be dragged off the front line, with several of his generals badly injured and up to 2000 dead, and while great cruelty was being meted out to his supporters he took until September 1746 to get out of Scotland, believing on returning to France that people could not ignore him - but the delay in starting to raise a new force killed momentum. 

A curious court established while the Prince was in Edinburgh gave an insight into how he might have governed. Had he pressed on, there might have been an orderly transfer of power - King George II was already planning an exit to his other domain at Hanover, and there was the precedent of 1688, when the commanders quit on the landing of William of Orange. The British Government believed that Edinburgh had been complicit in the Prince’s advance, and the Lord Provost was put on trial twice; it was even suggested that Glasgow should be made the official capital since its authorities had proved more loyal.

As the last battle fought on British soil. Culloden is the most internationally-renowned, but all three are part of our story, and all face development pressures from which they should not be immune - yet there is no legal protection and their significance cannot be appreciated without continuing access. Despite operating a popular visitor centre, the National Trust for Scotland owns only one-fifth of the Culloden battlefield. Falkirk has no visitor centre, but Prestonpans has just acquired in the Old Town Hall which will serve until a purpose-built facility can be provided in future years.