The Battle of Falkirk Muir took place on the 17th of January, 1746.
The Battle of the South Muir of Falkirk was the second battle to take place near Falkirk and, from an essentially Scottish point of view, it was a case of having lost one; win one. The Scots under Wallace famously lost the first match at Falkirk in 1298, but in 1746, under Lord George Murray, the result was reversed and a modicum of revenge gained. In truth, the war of 1745-6 was more of a civil war than a Scotland vs. England affair, with its primary purpose being to restore the Catholic succession of the Old Pretender (James VIII he hoped, in vain). Falkirk Moor is remembered more for being the Jacobite’s final victory than a redressing of the balance after the Wallace débâcle.
A problem that presented itself to the Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie after it returned from its excursion to Derby – a short story of there and back again, which achieved precisely nothing – was that Government forces were closing in around Stirling and Edinburgh. By mid-January, 1746, Government forces were well entrenched in Edinburgh and the Navy were blockading the ports, notionally preventing the resupply or reinforcement of Charlie’s army by his French allies. Notionally that is, primarily because the idea of tangible support from the intransigent French was a bit of a myth.
The cockaded Jacobite army had marched out of Glasgow “in a handsome manner” on the 3rdof January. Six Highland battalions, under Murray, marched off in the direction of Falkirk, to make it appear as if they were heading towards Lieutenant-General Hawley’s Hanoverian army in Edinburgh. Instead, Murray’s column turned north for Bannockburn. Meanwhile, the ‘Young Pretender’ had arrived at Bannockburn, where he had set up his headquarters. In reality, the Jacobites were destined for a rendezvous at Perth, but they decided to tarry at Stirling, not because it was a strategic fortress that had to be reduced, but because Charlie couldn’t bear to see it remain in enemy control. Instead of French reinforcements, a number of cannon had been shipped to Glasgow and these were used to besiege Stirling Castle. What a waste of time that was.
Following the earlier defeat at Prestonpans, which took place before the Jacobite Army embarked on its futile march down and back up through in England, General 'Hey Johnny' Cope had been replaced as Commander in Chief of the Royal forces in Scotland, by Henry Hawley. Hawley led his Hanoverian army out of Edinburgh to relieve Blakeney, under threat at Stirling. A protégé of the Duke of Cumberland, Hawley as far as Falkirk. According to Horace Walpole, Hawley was illiterate and, from the evidence, he was also a brutal disciplinarian, with the nickname of ‘Hangman’ Hawley – a great name for the disciple of the 'Butcher'. Hawley also proved to have been incompetent, which must've cheered up wee Johnny Cope, who is reputed to have ₤10,000 in a bet, because Hawley, his successor , was beaten by the same Highlanders that had unceremoniously woken him up at Prestonpans.
Unlike Prestonpans, where untested government troops had broken in the face of the Highland charge, Hawley had well trained troops at his disposal. However, his handling of that army, mostly veteran regiments of foot from the Flanders war, was grossly inept. The arrogant Hawley had also formed the view, from his experience at Sheriffmuir in 'The 15', that the Highlanders would not stand against cavalry. He thought “these Rascalls“ of Highlanders weren't worth worrying about.
Those 'Hielant Rascalls' numbered approximately 8000 men. Around half were the combined Clans of MacPherson, Mackintosh, MacKenzie and the MacDonalds, plus the Appin Stewarts. The remainder of Murray's army were Lowland infantry militia, led by the Duke of Atholl and my Lords Gordon and Ogilvy, plus a few hundred horse led by Lord Elcho. The Jacobites marched out to do battle on the 15th of January and were then drawn up on Plean Muir, two miles south-east of Bannockburn. Eager to do battle, they waited in vain for an attack. They did the same on the next day, but again Hawley did not come. Murray then suggested that they took the initiative and occupy the rough upland of the South Muir of Falkirk. To deceive Hawley, Murray also proposed that Charlie's standard be left flying on Plean Muir and that a diversionary force under Drummond be sent up to Falkirk.
About noon on the 17th, Murray had drawn up his army on a ridge west of Falkirk, blocking Hawley‘s route to Stirling. However, confusion reigned on both sides. Murray and John O‘Sullivan, an Irish mercenary with the ear of the Prince, argued over the positioning of the troops. This led to Lord Drummond not being in place to command the Jacobite right at the start of the battle as Murray wished. Hawley, reminiscent of Cope, was taken by surprise at the presence of the Jacobites and struggled to get his 9000-strong army formed up in proper battle order. Hawley's army was made up of 6500 regular infantry, 700 dragoons, the mounted infantry, plus the Glasgow Militia and 2000 men of Clan Campbell. He also had artillery, but these became stuck in the mud, caused by heavy rain and took no part in the battle.
As the light faded in the worsening weather, Hawley ordered Colonel Ligonier to take three regiments of Dragoons against the Jacobite right wing. Without Drummond in command, the MacDonalds and Farquharsons fired an eager musket volley and this had a devastating affect on the Dragoons. As one observer noted, “in one part of them nearest us I saw daylight through them in several places”. The remains of both Ligonier‘s and Hamilton’s decimated regiments promptly fled. Cobham's regiment charged into the Highlanders, but were no match for the Scots, whereupon they too scarpered, to be pursued by the Clansmen.
The fleeing Dragoons rode straight through the waiting Hanoverian infantry regiments, causing more confusion and preventing effective fire on the pursuing Highlanders. Their rain sodden gunpowder didn't help either as one in four muskets failed. The MacDonalds were upon them with cold steel before they knew what had hit them and as the rest of the Clans joined in, the Government forces, with the Glaswegians in tow, turned tail and ran. Cluny MacPherson led a charge from the Jacobite left towards the Hanoverian right wing to complete the rout.
The Hanoverians lost around 350 men killed, wounded and missing in a battle that had lasted a mere twenty minutes. Some 300 were captured. The Jacobites lost less than 50 dead and had 70 wounded. The wretched Hawley fled, unharmed, to Linlithgow, where he penned his excuses to Cumberland in a letter that began, “Sir, my heart is broke...” The site of the battle is marked by an obelisk, which was unveiled by the Duke of Atholl in 1927.