The battle fought on the south muir of the town on 17th January 1746 was the last Jacobite triumph on the battlefield and the last time the famous Highland charge swept the clansmen to victory. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to march on London had ground to a halt in Derby and the subsequent retreat harried all the way by Government troops had demoralized and depleted his army. Arriving in the Falkirk area from Glasgow in the first days of 1746, the man in effective command of the Jacobites, Lord George Murray spotted a opportunity to deliver a counter blow against the pursuing Government forces.
General Henry Hawley in command of nearly nine thousand men had made camp in Falkirk on land to the west of the town where Hope Street now runs down towards the present Dollar Park. The Jacobite commanders besieging Stirling Castle decided that a carefully planned attack might rout the redcoats and begin a revival in the fortunes of their luckless Prince. On the morning of January 17th aided by Sir Archibald Primrose of Dunipace – under duress, or so he claimed at his subsequent trial – the highland armies moved from Plean in a southward circle across the rivers Carron and Bonny towards the south muir of Falkirk
By late afternoon they were closing in on the high ground above the town. In the Jacobite ranks were were eight thousand men, highland infantry from all the major clans supported by cavalry of the lowland Jacobite gentry. The Earl of Kilmarnock husband of Lady Ann Livingston then resident in Callendar House was ‘out with the rebels’ and his Falkirk tenants were with him .
Two miles away, Lady Ann was entertaining the unsuspecting Hawley, who, on hearing the news, rose from the table in some disarray according to one account, found his horse and galloped towards his army to begin a belated response. Chevalier Johnstone was with the Prince and he later recalled the scene as the dragoons of Cobham, Ligonier and Hamilton led the Government forces up Maggie Woods Loan towards the advancing Jacobite lines in the foulest winter weather. After receiving a blast of fire from the highland lines which killed eighty men, the cavalry charged forward:
The most singular and extraordinary combat immediately followed. The Highlanders, stretched on the ground, thrust their dirks into the bellies of the horses. Some seized the riders by their clothes, dragged them down, and stabbed them with their dirks; several, again, used their pistols, but few of them had sufficient space to handle their swords …. The resistance of the Highlanders was so incredibly obstinate that the English, after having been for some time engaged pell-mell with them in their ranks were at length repulsed and forced to retire.
It was a ferocious clash with the highlanders on the right wing-charging hard downhill towards their fleeing enemy. On the other side of the line the clansmen met much stiffer resistance and the ravine which separated then from the enemy prevented a straightforward charge. Many fled westwards away from the battlefield and thought they had lost. However, although confusion reigned for a time, the overall outcome was a near complete Jacobite victory.
Government forces fled in disarray from the town, setting fire to their tents and abandoning great quantities of equipment. Later in the day three columns of highland soldiers entered through the town ports – Lord George Murray by Roberts Wynd, Lord John Drummond by the Cow Wynd and Cameron of Lochiel by the West Port. A century later the event was commemorated in the beautiful stained glass windows of South Bantaskine House on whose land the battle was fought. Now appropriately enough they grace the new shopping centre not far from the point where the Prince’s soldiers entered the town and where he spent several nights in the ‘great lodging’, the former home of Livingston of Westquarter.
Casualties were high among the redcoats with between three and four hundred killed and many more taken prisoner. The Jacobite losses were less, some say as few as forty men. As with the other battle centuries before, great pits were dug the following day and the naked bodies, stripped bare in the night by the country people or victorious clansmen, were laid to rest. A little copse beside Dumyat Drive is thought to mark one of these places and another lay close to the present High Station. Several prominent people were buried in the Falkirk churchyard including Colonel Robert Munro and his brother Dr Obsdale Munro, cut down by the Camerons in the rout after brave resistance, and the young officer William Edmonstone of Cambuswallace. The Church itself along with the tolbooth and the cellars of Callendar House were used to hold the prisoners.
Little depredation took place in the town and an old tradition suggests that the highlanders found the product of the ale and porter brewery founded sixteen years before very much to their liking!
The Battle of Falkirk Monument.
Photo : Ronnie Blackadder
The site of the battle on the south muir is today marked by an obelisk unveiled by the Duke of Atholl in 1927. It is a modest memorial of such a great encounter and a more chilling reminder of the battle can be found in the many eye witness accounts of the battle which survive. Among the most graphic was that of Chevalier Johnstone who was sent with a sergeant and twenty men to guard the captured cannons on the battlefield:
The sergeant carried a lantern; but the light was soon extinguished, and by that accident we immediately lost our way, and wandered a long time at the foot of the hill, among heaps of dead bodies, which their whiteness rendered visible…To add to the disagreeableness of our situation from the horror of the scene, the wind and the rain were full in our faces. I even remarked a trembling and strong agitation in my horse, which constantly shook when it was forced to put its feet on the heaps of dead bodies and to climb over them…..on my return to Falkirk I felt myself relieved from an oppressive burden: but the horrid spectacle I had witnessed was for a long time, fresh in my mind.
Only once more would British soil witness such carnage and that just three months later on Drumossie Moor at Culloden. On that day Lord Kilmarnock was taken, as the Jacobite cause perished. In August he was beheaded on Towerhill in London.
Ian Scott (2005)
For further information see: Geoff B. Bailey Falkirk or Paradise – the Battle of Falkirk Muir 17 January 1746 (John Donald,1995)