Tranent Muir is the lesser known of two ballads by Adam Skirving about the Battle of Prestonpans; Johnny Cope is the other. The Tannahill Weavers have recorded both of them, although their version of Tranent Muir includes only six out of fifteen verses of this long and graphically violent song.
Both songs are discussed in Michael Brander's Scottish and Border Battles and Ballads, an interesting book which examines battle songs in the context of history. This book was my main source for the historical comments in this post, although I also consulted some documents online [1, 2, 3].
In the summer of 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, commonly known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie," mounted a campaign to take Scotland with an eye towards reclaiming what he considered to be his throne. Against long odds, and aided by the early support of Donald Cameron of Lochiel, chief of Clan Cameron, his party of ten raised an army which eventually numbered over 2000 Scots as they marched to Glenfinnan and then to Edinburgh.
Sir John Cope, the general commanding government forces in Scotland, was commanded to raise forces to stop the rising. He did so, but the vast majority of his recruits had no experience whatsoever, and he was hampered by a variety of other issues including the sickeness of his principal cavalry officer. Despite this, the officers apparently believed that the rebels would never attack a single force including both infantry and cavalry. They assured locals during their march that there would be no battle. In this they were almost right, but they incorrectly identified which side would back down! Skirving references this claim in verse three:
The bluff dragoons swore, blood and oons!
They'd make the rebels run, man:
And yet they flee when them they see,
And winna fire a gun, man.
Charles's army took Edinburgh with little or no fighting on the 16th of September; Cope, travelling by ship from Aberdeen, arrived too late to challenge them.
On 20 September Cope's forces encountered Charles's advance guard. Cope decided to stand his ground and engage the Jacobite army. Cope kept fires burning and moved his forces during the night as the Highlanders advanced under cover of darkeness. At the crack of dawn on 21 September 1745, Cope's dragoons beheld the spectacle of 1400 charging Highlanders accompanied, according to Brander, "by wild Highland war cries and the bloodcurdling skirl of the pipes...."
Cope's inexperienced army fled, despite Cope and his officers attempting to force them to charge at pistol point. The "battle" was over in five minutes with close to 1000 government troops killed or wounded and 1500 held prisoner. The Highlanders suffered only around 100 troops killed or wounded.
Despite the overwhelming defeat and the fact that Cope had to report it personally to the garrison commander at Berwick, 50 miles away, Skirving's lyrical accusations that Cope himself fled the battlefield appear to be incorrect. Cope and his officers were exonerated at court-martial. Martin B. Margulies, writing in History Scotland, notes:
The Report of the board's proceeding was published in 1749. Anyone who scrutinizes it closely can only conclude that the board was correct. What emerges from the pages is not, perhaps, the portrait of a military genius, but one of an able, energetic and conscientious officer, who weighed his options carefully, and who anticipated - with almost obsessive attention to detail - every eventuality except the one which he could not have provided for in any case: that his men would panic and flee.
It seems, then, that the two songs tell us as much, if not more, about Skirving himself as they do the battle. Brander writes that Skirving visited the battlefield in the afternoon, long after the conclusion of the battle itself. In the midst of that garish scene, he was by his own account mugged by the victors.
Verse nine features one Lieutenant Smith:
Lieutenant Smith of Irish birth,
Frae whom he call'd for aid, man,
But full of dread, lap o'er his head,
And wadna be gainsaid, man.
Lieutenant Smith... incensed by the publication of the comments on his behaviour visited Haddington subsequently and sent Skirving a challenge to a duel. The latter pawkily replied that he was too busy on his farm. "Gang awa back," he said, "and tell Mr. Smith I havena the leisure to come to Haddington; but tell him to come here and I'll tak a look o' him and if I think I'm fit to fecht him, I'll fecht him; and if no, I'll do as he did — I'll rin awa."
I've experimented with playing the song on the whistle — at least, the tune as the Tannahill weavers play it; I presume that they are playing a traditional melody rather than one they wrote themselves. I haven't yet managed to find notation for Tranent Muir, but I've tried to play it by ear and find that I keep needing to go up into the third octave on the whistle. When I saw them perform at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival, Phil did play the whistle but stopped playing during the highest part. But if the tune can be adapted for Scottish smallpipes, with their much more limited range, then I'm sure there's a way to do it on the whistle; I just haven't figured it out yet.
There is an ironic musical postscript to Tranent Muir: In spite of his decisive victory at Prestonpans, the tables were soon turned on Bonnie Prince Charlie and his half-starved army was defeated at the Battle of Culloden. He escaped Scotland, spending the remainder of his life in exile. His flight is commemorated in the Skye Boat Song.