Visit to Battlesite 21st September 1924 with late Dr Blaike,
East Lothian Antiquarian and Filed Naturalist Society Vol 2,
Two visits were made to this locality. The first was under the leadership
of the late W. B. Blaikie, LL,D., the well-known authority on the
'45 Rising. It took place on 20th September 1924, and was for the
special purpose of going over the ground on which the Battle of
Preston was fought on 21st September 1745. The second was under
the leadership of Mr J. S. Richard- son. It took place on 21st September
1929, and had for its object a return visit to that part of the
battlefield on which the thorn tree after referred to is situated,
and visits to Preston Tower, Preston Cross and Northfield House.
First Visit. - While no detailed account of the battle can be entered
into here, a few outstanding points referred to by Dr Blaikie may
be set down.
Sir John Cope reached the battlefield early in the afternoon of
20th Sep- tember 1745, having left Haddington in the morning. Prince
Charles left Dudding'ston that morning, and reached the high ground
west of Tranent shortly after Cope had arrived on the lower ground
between Tranent and the sea. All Cope's operations took place in
the field which lies N.W. of the west end of Meadowmill hamlet.
From the west end of the hamlet runs northward a path which at the
time of the battle was a tram way used for carrying coal to Cockenzie
harbour (this should not be confused with the road running from
the east end of the hamlet), and all Cope's movements were to the
west of this tram way. Cope's first formation faced westwards. When
Prince Charles was seen at Tranent a position facing south was taken
up, but when what appeared to be an attempt to turn Cope's right
flank was observed, a position facing south-west was assumed. This
threat being re- moved, a position facing south was again adopted
for the night, but just before dawn on the 21st the Highlanders
were heard approaching from the east, and Cope in consequence hurriedly
changed front to face east. This position was formed within a few
yards of the line of the tram way.
Meanwhile the Highlanders had left Tranent moving eastwards; they
then bore north through Riggonhead Farm, crossed the morass (which
then occupied the present position of the railway) by a little-known
path, and formed up facing west about 250 yards west of Seton Castle.
A-s soon as they were in line they rapidly advanced westwards to
attack Cope, reaching his lines just as the beginning of daylight
came. Cope's troops at once broke and fled. Most of the cavalry
escaped, some to the north and some to the south of the high wall
(much of which still stands) bounding what were then the gardens
of Preston House. But this wall was fatal to most of Cope's infantry.
The Highlanders in pursuit caught them before they could climb over
it, and at this wall some 1600 of them were killed or taken prisoners.
Of Cope's infantry less than 200 escaped.
Leaving Prestonpans Station, the members of the Society walked up
the road leading south below the railway bridge to the main Edinburgh-Tranent
road. With the exception of the last part (for which a short cut
was taken) this was the route taken by most of Cope's survivors
in their retreat after the battle. From the main road the whole
battlefield was seen, and the land- marks were pointed out, Dr Blaikie
exhibiting for the benefit of his audience a number of old prints
and maps. The party then walked into Tranent and down to the churchyard,
where the Highlanders had posted a small detach- ment in the afternoon
before the battle. This detachment was driven out by fire from two
of Cope's small guns. To the manse, which still stands on the south
of the churchyard, Colonel Gardiner was carried after the battle,
and died there in a room in which there is a brass plate recording
the event. He was buried on the west side of the old church (demolished
1797; present church opened 1801), but his burial place is included
in the site of the new church, and no stone marks his grave.
The party then followed the old road to Meadowmill and visited the
remains of the old thorn tree which was standing there at the time
of the battle and near which tradition says Colonel Gardiner fell
wounded. At one time in living memory the tree had three limbs,
but on the occasion of this visit only one remained, and it was
Second Visit. - On this occasion the thorn tree was visited first,
and Mr Alex. Burnett, in the absence of Major Baird, gave a clear
and concise ac- count of how the dead and blackened stump which
the members saw before them had a special interest in connection
with the history of the battle. It marks the spot not only where
Colonel Gardiner fell but where the fiercest of the fighting took
place, and although it is the remains of the identical tree which
was there in 1745 its surroundings are now very different. It is
not easily seen from the Mid Boad and is about 150 yards distant
between a service roadway and a colliery waggon lye. Thirty or forty
years ago, he said, the tree was alive and had three limbs.
Mr Bichardson thereafter entered into a very full description of
movements before the battle and of the battle itself, and dealt
with the question of a memorial to be placed there. It was resolved
that the matter of the memorial should be left to the Council.
The party then visited the old tower of Preston, the property of
Mrs Fraser. Preston was in the possession of one of the oldest cadet
branches of the house of Hamilton from the later part of the 14th
century, and the tower, with the exception of the two upper storeys,
was built in the 15th century. It continued in the hands of that
family till 1682, when it passed from Sir William Hamilton, the
first Baronet, to James Oswald, Merchant, Edinburgh, his cousin
and brother-in-law. When the Earl of Hertford invaded Scotland in
1544 both the village and the castle were burned. The upper two
storeys of the tower were built by Sir John Hamilton about 1625.
In 1650, however, the castle was burned by Cromwell's forces. As
at that time the charter chest was also destroyed, a new charter
was obtained by Sir Thos. Hamilton in 1663, but in that very same
year the castle was burned for a third time - on this occasion by
accident. It was never occupied or restored after that and since
then has remained a ruin.
The tower is L shaped, and, including the 17th century addition,
stands 67 feet in height and measures 34 feet from north to south
and 39 feet 6 inches from east to west. The walls of the main block
are 6 feet 9 inches thick and those of the wing about 4 feet thick.
The entrance is on the east side. The base- ment is barrel-vaulted
and lighted by narrow window-slits. The hall above the basement
is ceiled with a semi-circular barrel-vault, and in this hall there
is a fragment of what must have been a beautiful 15th century fireplace.
Entering the market garden of Mr Wm. Wright, a visit was made to
Preston Gross. This cross was at one time the centre of the old
village of Preston. Markets were held round it twice a week, and
the Fair of St. Jerome took place there annually in October. It
also formed, from the 17th century, a special meeting place of the
chapmen of the'Lothians. Standing as it now does in the midst of
a market garden, it is difficult to associate it with the daily
life of a village, but it has been kept by the consecutive pos-
sessors of the ground in excellent preservation. It dates from the
early 17th century, and consists of a drum of masonry from which
rises an oval sectional shaft surmounted by a unicorn supporting
a cartouche. The drum is divided vertically into eight panels or
compart- ments by pilasters. Each panel contains a niche. Two of
the niches form doorways, one leading to a small dome-vaulted chamber
on ground level, while from the other a narrow stair ascends to
a platform within the parapet. On the parapet above every pilaster
is a socket to hold a flagstaff.
The company then visited Hamilton House, which stands at the angle
formed by the West Loan leading to Prestonpans and the high road.
View- ing it from the high road, the dormer windows commanded admiration,
the pediments being elaborated and having horizontal cornices. The
middle pediment bears the date 1628. The courtyard to which entrance
is gained from the West Loan shows a fine elevation including the
original entrance, which, however, is now built up. Internally the
house is completely mo- dernised, but the ground floor chamber of
the main east wing still contains a large 17th century fireplace.
The excursion terminated with a visit to Northfield House, the property
of Miss McNeill. This fine old house, with old-world garden, is
situated on the south side of the road towards the west end of Preston
village. It was once the residence of the Marjoribanks of Northfield,
to which family, Mr Rich- ardson remarked, the late Revd. George
Marjoribanks of Stenton and the late Eevd. Thomas Marjoribanks of
Prestonkirk belonged. The building is of late 16th or early 17th
century construction. L shaped in plan it has two storeys and an
attic and garret. The entrance has a moulded Renaissance architrave
on which are the words - EXCEPT THE LORD BVLD INWANE BVLDS MAN.
The building measures 37.5 feet along the west wall by 74 feet along
the south wall, the walls varying from 2.5 feet. to 4 feet, in thickness.
The re-entering angle in the north contains a comparatively modern
turret, within which is a geometrical stair. The turret probably
replaced an earlier and smaller one, containing a wheel stair with
a solid newel. The original entrance was through the turret but
is now disused. The south entrance admits to a lobby
west of and entering from which are two inter-communicating cellars.
The kitchen and cellars have semi-circular barrel-vaulted ceilings.
The upper floors are modernised. On the first floor of the main
wing is a finely painted ceiling of timber in the dining-room, concealed
by a modern plaster ceiling. The upper landing of the staircase
has a " honeycomb" paving beneath the modern floor.
For full particulars in regard to Preston Tower, Preston Cross,
North- field House, and Hamilton House, consult the Inventory
of Ancient Monu- ments for the County, and Macgibbon & Ross's Castellated
and Domestic Architecture of Scotland.