The Battle of Falkirk Muir, 17 January 1746

17 January 2021
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An account of the Battle of Falkirk Muir, the final major military victory for the Jacobites. By Geoff Bailey, keeper of archaeology and local history at Falkirk Museum.

An account of the Battle of Falkirk Muir, the final major military victory for the Jacobites. By Geoff Bailey, keeper of archaeology and local history at Falkirk Museum.

The Battle of Falkirk Muir was fought on a sleety afternoon on 17th January 1746. After days of manoeuvring the forces finally clashed on the common muir of Falkirk, just a mile to the south-west of the town. The Jacobite forces had been in the town since just after Christmas – the longest time they had been in any one place, and their leader, Lord George Murray was familiar with the terrain. They had abandoned it just two days earlier.

About 8,000 of them faced a roughly similar number of Hanoverian or government troops under General Henry Hawley – making it the largest battle of the ‘45. The government troops had made a tented camp just west of the town (now Dollar Park) and the population of central Scotland had waited expectantly. Indeed many of them came to witness the encounter that they knew must ensue and the town was flooded with intended spectators – food brought a high price. They came from as far away as Beith in Ayrshire.

Battle commences

The battle commenced about 3.45pm, just as the light was fading and the main engagement lasted a mere 20-30 minutes. Watching from the steeple in Falkirk an observer noted the time when he saw the first puffs of smoke from the discharge of the muskets, and then when he saw the rout of the government left wing.

The action began when the three ranks of Macdonalds, forming the right wing of the Jacobites, started to advance up the hill towards the government dragoons – a procedure not recommended in the military terms. In response the cavalry, almost one thousand strong, broke into a gallop and charged the Macdonalds - the seething mass of horse flesh looked like it would carry all before it.  

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A lone shot sounds...

Lord George was standing just in front of his men and had place them on their honour not to discharge their firearms until he gave the signal. Now he raised his own musket and a lone shot disturbed the air. That was the signal and was quickly followed by a peal of gunfire, starting on the right and proceeding along the line. At the same time there was a sharp gust of wind and the smoke blew into the faces of the frightened horses, Spooked, they fled in all directions. Dragoons broke over the Glasgow militia which had been placed to their rear to support them.

The militiamen shot their own cavalry in order to stop them riding over them. Chaos and disorder ensued and Lord Hume, their commander was in Linlithgow several hours before his men! In the centre of the line the dragoons burst through the first rank of the Jacobites. Then through the second and were brought to a halt by the third rank.

Fierce hand to hand fighting took place. The Highlanders fell on their backs and pierced the stomachs of the horse with their dirks, spreading their entrails. The chief of the Clanranalds was trapped under a dead horse and was saved by a clansman. For a while it looked as though the dragoons would win the day. Then the Farquharsons formed a chevron and moved forward to plug the gap. Their chief was at the point of the formation and was injured. “Three men to carry their chief to safety” cried the second in command. “Three men to carry their father into the thickest of the battle” he retorted!  The tide was turned. The Macdonalds were elated and chased the fleeing enemy.

The tide turns

The Camerons on the Jacobite left heard the shouting and wanted their share of the glory. They advanced with loud yells, swords in hand, and the Hanoverian infantry decided they had seen enough. Colonel Munro was left behind in the retreat and was cut to pieces, as was his brother, a doctor, who went to render him first aid. But three Hanoverian regiments stood their ground and fired volley after volley into the flank of the advancing enemy. Conceiving it to have been a trap, the left wing of the Jacobites retreated. The rout of the Hanoverian foot was checked by Lt-Col Cholmondeley and the army was able to fight a rearguard action.

The weather worsened and it was imperative that the Jacobites should not spent a freezing night in the open. Murray declared that he would either sleep in Falkirk or paradise that night – not that there’s much difference! Falkirk was a walled town, one of very few in Scotland, and the Jacobites approached it in three columns. Lord John Drummond, in charge of the column advancing up the Cow Wynd had a horse shot from under him and was hit in the arm. After severe street to street fighting it was 7.30pm by the time that Bonnie Prince Charlie was able to enter the town.

The Hanoverian camp was ransacked and gunpowder and equipment captured. Many firearms were picked up from the battlefield. It was whilst cleaning one of these that young Glengarry was shot on the High Street when a Highlander pointed a pistol out of an open window in order to clear the charge gunpowder. Unknown to him it had been double loaded and the son of Glengarry happened to be walking past was mortally wounded. His death caused a major rift.


Murray, Drummond and the Prince were commemorated in a beautiful stained glass window which is now on display in the Howgate shopping centre in the town. Back in 1996 the protection of the battlefield was incorporated into the Council’s local plan – one of the first in Scotland. The following year an application to opencast the site was rejected!

Part of the battlefield is owned by Falkirk Council and forms South Bantaskine Park, but most of it is in the ownership of Callendar Estate. These two, along with the 1745 Society, the Scottish Battlefield Society and Falkirk Community Trust got together a couple of years ago and agreed to establish a trail around the battlefield highlighting the main elements in that initial encounter – the charge of the dragoons, the charge of the Camerons, the killing of Colonel Munro and his brother, the rearguard action, etc.

Funds were obtained from the Forestry Commission, Falkirk Environment Trust, the Heritage Lottery, etc. As well as upgrading the footpaths three interpretation panels and numerous information posts were erected (see Guy Wedderburn’s material). The whole was formally opened on Saturday 20th January 2018 when the landscape was blanketed in snow. At the same time a plaque was placed on the High Street to commemorate young Glengarry.