What began with the Glorious Revolution in 1689 had almost reached its end by the time the Jacobite forces marched against General Hawley’s army at Falkirk Muir. The last of the Jacobite Risings had been instigated by the grandson of James II, the once deposed king whose name became a rallying cry for rebellion. Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie; call him what you will but the last of the pretenders to the British throne managed to raise the support for an ambitious attempt to retake the throne. After a failed invasion attempt in 1744, the second and last Jacobite Uprising was destined to be remembered as ‘The Forty-Five.’
After sailing with a small force to the Scottish island of Eriskay in August 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie joined with several Highland clans and began to march south. The Jacobite force, which swelled to almost 3,000, was aided by the fact that a large portion of the British forces was tied up on the continent with the War of the Austrian Succession. Sir John Cope, the British general, managed to muster a force of 4,000 troops but laboring under the mistaken impression that the Jacobite force was larger than it actually was, the British purposefully avoided engaging the Jacobites. The British hesitation allowed the Jacobites an early advantage. Perth, Coatbridge, Edinburgh, and Holyrood Palace all came under Jacobite control. The British defeat at Prestopans resulted in a change of command with Lieutenant General Henry Hawley taking charge.
The Jacobite victory at Prestopans prodded them into a brief foray south. It ended quickly at Derby and the partial force returned north to rejoin the Jacobites who had remained behind to besiege Stirling Castle. The British under Hawley had entrenched themselves at Falkirk, and though the Jacobites had expected to be advanced upon they quickly decided to turn the attack on the British. On 17 January 1746, the Jacobite forces began their march onto Falkirk Moor. Hawley had not expected the Jacobites to go on the attack, and his forces were caught unprepared. By the time Hawley finally gave the order to prepare for battle–when he was interrupted during his lunch–the Jacobite attack had drawn perilously close to the British camp. Supposedly Hawley arrived on the field of battle at a gallop and with his napkin still tucked under his chin.
Falkirk Moor lay atop a hill, and as the day of 17 January had turned rainy, the Battle of Falkirk Muir took place on a waterlogged moor. The British artillery was stuck in mud at the bottom of the hill, and the British regiments hurried to form ranks on the moor. The Battle of Falkirk Muir itself was a short, confused affair. The British, numbering about 7,000, relied heavily on cavalry forces, while the famed Highlanders, numbering around 5,000, lent their skill to the Jacobite cause. In the end, the Highlanders routed the British cavalry, and the remainder of the British dragoons fled down the hill and began a retreat to Edinburgh. As the conditions worsened over the course of the battle, the Jacobite forces became dispersed to the point that they did not even realize the extent of their victory. By the time their victory was apparent, the next morning, they had missed the chance to take advantage of their triumph.
The Battle of Falkirk Muir ended with the British having lost around 350 men. Another 300 were captured. The Jacobites, in contrast, had lost some 50 dead and 70 wounded, a considerably smaller number. The British forces that had retreated to Edinburgh took the opportunity to regroup, and by the end of January another commander had taken over, this time the Duke of Cumberland. Cumberland would lead the royalists to victory at Culloden only three months later and bring ‘The Forty-Five’ to an end.