The Battle of Falkirk Muir: A ‘Hollow Victory’ for the Jacobite Cause

Battle of Falkirk Muir
The Battle of Culloden, depicted by David Morier.

Fought on the 17th January 1746, the Battle of Falkirk Muir marked an impressive victory for the Jacobite cause, but one that would have little impact on the eventual outcome of the conflict.

In the latter months of 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart and the Jacobites came tantalisingly close to reaching London. Having secured victory at the Battle of Prestonpans in September of that year, Bonnie Prince Charlie marched south intent on taking the capital and seizing the throne.

Reaching as far as Derby, the advance faltered and eventually resulted in a lengthy retreat back to Scotland. It was during this retreat that the Battle of Falkirk Muir occurred.

Seeking to consolidate their position in Scotland, Jacobite commanders identified Stirling Castle as a key strategic target.

Stradling the Central Belt and the traditional route to the Scottish Highlands, the formidable fortress would enable the Jacobites to exert control over the region and inhibit British troops from piercing north into the Highlands.

However, while seizing the town of Stirling proved easy for Jacobite forces, the castle was a different task entirely. Dominating the local landscape and boasting a sizeable garrison, the siege of Stirling Castle would be no simple task for Jacobite commanders, with preparations beginning on the 8th January.

Marching out

Responding to the siege, government forces stationed in Edinburgh were ordered to relieve the Stirling garrison immediately. In total, a force of around 7,000 troops was marshalled under the command of Henry Hawley, government commander in Scotland, and General John Huske.

Arriving on the outskirts of Falkirk on the 15th January, the government army established a position outside the town.

It was to the south of the town, on Falkirk Muir, that Hawley’s army encountered a sizeable Jacobite force under the command of Lord George Murray. Comprised of seasoned Highlanders, Lowland infantrymen and a small contingent of English loyalists, the Jacobite force was well positioned and weathered initial charges by government dragoons on the right flank.

Advancing, the Jacobite right flank began sustaining heavy musket fire, and a vicious melee unfolded as the men of Clan MacDonald engaged the dragoons, slashing and hacking at beleaguered horses and dragging riders to the ground.

The weather during the battle is described as having been particularly bad, with strong winds and snow creating horrendous conditions in which to coordinate troops and engage the enemy.

The left flank of the government force began to waver under intense pressure and the aggressive advances of the Jacobite right. The dragoons began to flee, causing mass confusion as they made their way through other columns forming to the rear.

Battle of Falkirk Muir
A schematic map of the Battle of Falkirk Muir. Image: Hoodinski via Wikimedia Commons

At this stage, the entire left flank of the government army began to disintegrate rapidly as Jacobite troops pushed forward at pace, with MacDonald Highlanders rampaging on to sack the government camp.

Uneven terrain, the dying light and poor visibility meant that the Jacobites under Murray’s command could not immediately capitalise on this collapse. Three battalions under the command of Huske did hold firm despite the situation, repulsing a number of Jacobite charges.

Eventually, however, the remaining government troops began to withdraw before fleeing at pace.

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Exact casualty numbers are unclear, but it is believed that more than 70 government soldiers were killed at the Battle of Falkirk Muir. Similarly, between two to three hundred are said to have been wounded or declared missing, with many sustaining injuries during the rout.

On the Jacobite side, more than 50 were killed and several dozen wounded.

The aftermath

Although this marked another victory for the Jacobite cause, the Battle of Falkirk Muir has often been regarded as a failed opportunity.

The Jacobites failed to press home the advantage after what was a decisive victory. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the battle, it is believed that Jacobite commanders did not realise they had secured victory. This was largely due to the dying light, poor weather conditions and the confusion of the battle itself.

On 29th January, the Duke of Cumberland arrived in Edinburgh with another sizeable, battle hardened force at his heel and assumed command from Hawley.

Cumberland’s aggressive advance prompted the Jacobites to abandon the siege of Stirling Castle and withdraw to Inverness. It would be outside Inverness in April that Cumberland would meet them in the field – the ensuing battle would put an end to the ’45 rebellion once and for all.

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