The Camerons are coming! Charles Stuart made his way south from the Highlands to Corstorphine near the Scottish capital. The Hanoverian red coats retreated. Sir John Cope, Commander-in-Chief of Scotland, had no desire to fight the clans on their own territory.
Bonnie Prince Charlie gave the citizens of Edinburgh and ultimatum whilst Sir John landed with his troops in Dunbar. The city council sent a deputation to see the Jacobite leaders late in the night. Charlie sent them a way with a flea in their ear without meeting them. The Camerons were instructed to take the city.
In the early hours of the 17 September 1745 the tired and no doubt worried councillors arrived back in Edinburgh – with the Camerons right behind them. By six in the morning the city was theirs apart from the castle. Edinburgh was knee deep in burly men playing the bagpipes and where white cockades. Bonnie Prince Charlie made his way to Holyrood where he did a very modern thing – he appeared at an open window to wave at the crowds.
There was small the matter of Sir John Cope and his troops. What followed is recorded in folk history in the ballad of Johnnie Cope. It does not paint the man in a very charitable light. Cope should have been victorious when it came to a confrontation. He had cavalry, infantry and artillery. The Highlanders had an elderly field-piece called “the mother of muskets.” Someone kindly directed the Highlanders through the marshy grounds to Prestonpans where Cope was camped. They also had the advantage of a thick mist and the fact that Cope regarded them as a “parcel of brutes.” He hadn’t yet encountered the Highland charge. The sight of the highlanders running towards them three deep was sufficient to make the redcoats break ranks and run. Cope distinguished himself by running even faster.
He was court marshalled for deserting his men but found innocent of the charges by the Board of Enquiry that took five days in its deliberations. Cope had been with his men on the field rather than sleeping comfortably in a feather bed elsewhere as some of his detractors suggested but the public were not impressed that Cope’s arrival in Berwick-Upon-Tweed made him one of the few generals to actually bring news of his own defeat! It wasn’t long before all sorts of rumours abounded – that Cope had only managed to get five rounds off from the artillery before his men were overwhelmed, that he’d run before his men etc but the evidence suggests that he was just luckless rather than cowardly.
The song meanwhile alludes to correspondence between Bonnie Prince Charlie and Cope – apocryphal but why let truth get in the way of a jolly good story or song. For more about singing warfare including a version of the song by The Corries follow the link to open a new window https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlyCSlAYECA
The drums of war were sounding far,
When Johnnie Cope cam tae Dunbar,
When Johnnie Cope cam tae Dunbar,
Upon a misty Morning
Cope Sent a a Message tae Dunbar
Said; ‘Charlie meet me if you daur,
‘And I’ll learn you the arts of war,
‘If you’ll meet me in the morning’
Hey Johnnie Cope are you wauking yet,
Or are your drums a- beating yet?
If you were wauking I would wait,
Tae gang tae The Coals in the morning
When Charlie looked this letter upon,
He drew his sword the scabbard from,
Come follow me my merry men,
And we’ll meet Johnnie Cope in the morning.
When Johnnie Cope he heard o’ this,
He thought it wouldna be amiss,
To hae a horse in readiness,
To flee awa’ inthe morning.
Fye now Johnnie, get up and run,
The Highland bagpipes mak a din,
It’s better tae sleep in a hale skin.
For ’twill be a bloody morning.
When Johnnie Cope tae Dunbar came,
They spiered at him, ‘where’s a’ your men?’
‘The Deil confound me gin I ken,
For I left them a this morning.’
Now Jonnie troth, ye were na blate,
Tae come wi’ news o’ your ain defeat,
And leave your men in sic a straight
So early in the morning.
‘Faith’, quo Johnnie, ‘I had sic fegs,
Wi’ their claymores and their philabegs,
If I face them again Deil brak ma legs,
So I wish you a’ good morning.’