The 'Canter of Coltbrig' occurred on the 17th of September, 1745.
There are several events in Scottish history that are subject to an enduring level of interest. Most recently, the life of William Wallace has come under renewed scrutiny and the story of Mary I, Queen of Scots, is one that will be no doubt forever told and retold. Another event that consistently captures the imagination is the 'Forty-five', the Jacobite Rebellion or the Jacobite Rising, according to preference. As stated in 'Historical Geography of the Clans of Scotland', by T. B. Johnston and Col. James A. Robertson, “It is full of incidents of personal daring and romantic adventure.” More to the point as Johnston and Robertson go on to illustrate, “it has all the pathetic interest which attaches to the last struggle of a lost cause.” But it didn't appear to be a lost cause at the outset.
Well, you might suppose if Cameron of Lochiel had stuck to his guns and refused to join the Bonny Prince, the story might have been stillborn at its very onset. Despite being a zealous Jacobite, Lochiel had no notion of there being any prospect of success. On his way to Borradale to advise Charlie to go back to France, Lochiel stopped in by his brother, John Cameron of Fassefern, advising the latter that the Prince had brought neither troops, nor money, nor arms. For those reasons if nothing else, Lochiel was determined not to be caught up in the affair, but when his brother said, “If this Prince once sets his eyes upon you he will make you do whatever he pleases,” he was right.
When Charlie said, “I will erect the royal standard and proclaim to the people of Britain that Charles Stuart has come to claim the crown of his ancestors, to win it, or to perish in the attempt,” Lochiel gave in, instead of biding at home to read about it “from the newspapers.” “I will share the fate of my Prince,” said Lochiel, “and so shall every man over whom nature or fortune hath given me any power.” The Cameron's example was followed by all the Jacobite clans and on the 19th of August, 1745, the Prince went from Kinlochmoidart to Glenfinnan, and there the standard of King James VIII was unfurled by the Marquis of Tullibardine.
In response, Sir John 'Johnnie' Cope, Commander of the Government troops in Scotland, ordered “as many men as could be spared from the garrisons” to concentrate on Stirling, with the intention of marching into the Highlands to oppose the Jacobites. By that time, the Prince’s force had grown to about 3000 Highlanders and it was clear his intent was to descend into the Lowlands, via the Corryarrack Pass. Cope, with limited numbers of men at his disposal knew opposition at that juncture would be fatal, but he had a dilemma. An attack up Corryarrack was out of the question as was staying put to be assailed by the Prince's greater numbers, but returning to Stirling on the other hand would aid the “insurrection” by encouraging sympathisers in the north. In those circumstances, Cope decided to march on to Inverness; to at least show willing. His token gesture made, Cope reached Inverness on the 29th of August, while the way to the Lowlands – and Edinburgh – was left clear for Charlie and Lochiel.
Charlie reached Perth and, on discovering that Cope intended to sail south from Aberdeen, determined to press on southwards to seize Edinburgh. On the 11th of September, the Jacobites vacated Perth and, via Dunblane and Doune, reached the Fords of Frew on the 13th, before arriving at Linlithgow on the 15th at six in the morning. The Jacobites were good at arriving earlie in the morning; just ask Johnnie Cope.
In Edinburgh, which was almost defenceless, confusion prevailed, but nevertheless, the Government did manage an attempt at raising a regiment of volunteers, after a fashion. Its purpose was to hold the city until Cope's arrival. Amongst the candidates were sixteen companies of civic troops, each of between 80 and 100 men. Those were known as the Trained Bands and, according to Sir Walter Scott, of dubious reliability. There were also the 126 members of the Town Guard or the old 'Town’s Rats' as they were called, but in terms of proper soldiery, there were few. The volunteers were formed into companies and did sensible things like add fortifications to the city walls, incidentally, under the direction of Colin Maclaurin, Professor of Mathematics at the University.
On the 15th of September, with rumours of marauding Highlanders having reached Kirkliston, Gardiner’s dragoons, who had retreated from Stirling ahead of the advancing Jacobites, and Hamilton’s dragoons, who had been encamped on Leith Links, were ordered by General Guest to march up to Corstorphine. The idea was for this force, supported by the city volunteers and ninety of the City Guard, to oppose the Prince in battle. However, as they marched down the Bow and through the Grassmarket, the volunteers had a change of heart and little more than forty-five of them (now there's a coincidence) made it to the West Port. By nightfall, they had all retreated back to their homes. The Hanoverian dragoons were left to themselves.
On the morning of the 17th, the Jacobites advanced to Corstorphine, where the dragoons had been drawn up by Colonel Gardiner, at Coltbridge, to halt their progress. When the Jacobites came within sight of the dragoons, some well mounted members of Charlie's force were ordered to ride out and reconnoitre the enemy. Those men rode up close to the dragoons, made faces at them and fired their pistols for good measure. Scared out of their wits and seized with a general panic, the dragoons turned and ran. Their pell-mell flight has since become known as the 'Canter of Coltbrig'.
The officers tried in vain to rally the men who galloped off through the fields by the Lang Dykes, now taken up by the New Town. The dragoons never stopped until they reached Leith, but only to let their horses take a breather, before continuing on by Musselburgh. They were prepared to bivouac for the night near Preston Grange, but someone cried out that the nasty Highlanders were coming, so they upped and ran again, stopping only when they reached Dunbar. As it happened, nobody had made any attempt to pursue them.
At midday on the 18th of September, 1745, King James VIII. was solemnly proclaimed at the Cross. Cope disembarked at Dunbar on the same day. Prestonpans came next, but that's another story.