Gladsmuir and Prestonpans 1745: What’s in a name?

Arran Johnston’s book – On Gladsmuir Shall the Battle Be! – launches in September 2017 as Number 6 in the ‘From Reason to Revolution’ series and tells the story of the 1745 Battle of Prestonpans, so why Gladsmuir in the title and not Prestonpans? The author explains all:

The battle, which took place on the morning of 21 September 1745 between the rival dynasties of Hanover and Stuart, is one of Scotland’s most famous and best documented.

It is possible, as the book demonstrates, to build a detailed picture of precisely how events unfolded, but ever since the battle was fought, it has been known by a variety of names – the Battle of Tranent, Tranent Muir, Seton, Preston, Prestonpans and Gladsmuir – so what’s in a name?

The main battlefield area occupies a space between the villages of Preston, Seton and Tranent. Seton lay just behind the Jacobite lines when they formed up for their final charge, but the settlement was fairly minor in 1745 and would later disappear entirely. Besides, the Jacobites did not hang around its vicinity for very long, so it is easy to understand why the Battle of Seton failed to catch on popularly.

Tranent was a larger settlement, on high ground overlooking the battlefield. The Jacobites occupied several positions around the village the day before the battle, and the first shots of the battle were fired from here. It was not unreasonable therefore that the local poet-farmer Adam Skirving gave the town’s name to the battle in one of his ballads. The poem has proven a less enduring hit than his other work on the engagement, Hey Johnnie Cope!

The village closest to the government lines was that of Preston – a worthy old medieval market settlement. Chief amongst the inhabitants was the brother of the exiled Earl of Mar, whose grand house and gardens at Preston formed the western edge of the main battlefield. To the south was his neighbour Colonel Gardiner, who fell in the battle and was duly lionised after his death. Gardiner’s house at Bankton was used as a hospital for the wounded and has since become an iconic location. Preston has a strong claim therefore for lending the battle its name (and this was widely recognised at the time), but Preston’s importance was waning by 1745 in contrast to the growing coastal settlement to its north, Prestonpans. In time, the latter would totally subsume old Preston; however, there were already two famous Battles of Preston (1648 and 1715), and although they were fought in Lancashire, they both loomed dark in the Scottish – especially the Jacobite – consciousness.

It is no surprise therefore that the Jacobite soldiers who had fought and won the engagement were open to using an alternative title. Fortunately for the propagandists, just to the east of Tranent was a broad heath known as Gladsmuir. A medieval prophecy by Thomas the Rhymer foretold of a great victory to be won at a place of this name. A popular version in 1615 summarised the prophecy as ‘on Gladsmuir shall the battle be’. Surely now that had been fulfilled, and the two or three miles separating the battlefield from the real Gladsmuir were a trifling detail, but the people who actually lived around the battlefield were not impressed with the Jacobites’ choice. A fiery petition was sent to the Scots Magazine, which criticised its use of the name ‘Gladsmuir’. It could only signify, its signatories exclaimed, malice or stupidity. To mistake some of the most fertile fields in Lothian for barren moorland was ‘downright transubstantiation’! The cause of the concern was that the local communities were being ‘deprived of that honour and fame which of right pertains to them’. To the petitioners, said to be from all of the villages which surrounded the battlefield, it did not matter which title was used as long as it was that of one of the settlements – thus, it came to pass that (to paraphrase Lord Elcho, who had charged across the field with the Jacobites) the Prince and his men called it the ‘Battle of Gladsmuir’, but everyone else says ‘Prestonpans’.

Arran P. Johnston

 On Gladsmuir Shall the Battle Be! will be formally launched on the anniversary of the battle – Thursday, 21 September – at Cockenzie House & Gardens, 22 Edinburgh Road, Cockenzie, East Lothian, EH32 0HY. Doors open at 7.30pm, entry is free and refreshments will be provided.

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