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Hark! The Herald .....

Mark Smith, Feature Writer for The Herald, writes November 30th 2019

HIGH up on the hill we can see the past. Over there, at the bottom of the slope, was where the British army was camped out, and there, on the horizon, is where the Jacobites gathered, and down there, in the ordinary-looking fields, is where many of the dead are buried. The year 1745 is still here. We can see it.

But we can see the future from here too. At the top of the sloping land leading away from the hill, mechanical diggers are gouging earth out of the land. In a few weeks, the foundations for hundreds of houses will be laid here and eventually a new town will emerge. Many of the houses will stand on the line that the Jacobites followed as they marched into battle. To that extent, it is the future erasing the past.

For Dr Arran Johnston, who’s standing on the hill surveying the scene ….


….. it is all very disturbing.

Dr Johnston has been Director of the Scottish Battlefields Trust since its establishment in 2014. It campaigns to protect battle sites from destruction or unnecessary development, and he is deeply concerned about what is happening in parts of the country.

Take the site of the Battle of Prestonpans for instance, where we’re standing now. The battle in September 1745 was Bonnie Prince Charlie’s first encounter with British Government forces and it could not be more important, historically, socially and culturally. It was short and bloody and brutal and ended with the Jacobite force triumphing over the British army led by Sir John Cope. In the years that followed, the battle has also been celebrated and mythologised in songs, poetry and books, including Walter Scott’s Waverley right up to the television series Outlander. It may not be as famous as Culloden or Bannockburn, but it matters just as much.

Up on the hill at the centre of the site, Dr Johnston tells me why. Above us is a flagpole flying Bonnie Prince Charlie’s personal battle standard, a square of white on a blood-red background. The flag would have been flown on the battlefield to alert the Prince’s men to his whereabouts. It wasn’t common in the 18th century for kings, or kings-in-waiting, to lead on the battlefield in this way, but Charles knew he had to win hearts and minds. He knew he had to be down on the ground with his men.

The men would have been volunteers, says Dr Johnston, people inspired by the Prince’s PR, and they came from a huge range of social backgrounds. They would have been almost exclusively Gaelic-speaking though and they came mainly from the Outer Hebrides and central Highlands. Some people in the local area of Prestonpans supported them and secretly helped; others were deeply opposed. This wasn’t England versus Scotland, this was Scots against Scots.

His arms sweeping across the landscape, Dr Johnston tells me what happened on the day of the battle. 'The core of the battlefield is the fields down there,' he says, pointing towards the open land near the railway line. He slowly turns round, speaking as he goes. 'The Jacobite army arrived there and moved across into Tranent. The British army was down in the fields and overnight, guided by a local lad, the Jacobites moved across into the fields on the lower ground. Most of the killing was done down there and the British army survivors were squeezed to where the railway line is now.' The British casualties were some 300-500. For the Jacobites, it was much lighter – only around 40.

In many ways, the landscape is still much as it was on the day of the battle, although there have been some pretty profound changes as well. At one time, there was an open cast mine here, right behind the main road through Prestonpans, and there are still signs of its industrial past, including the pylons that cut a line across the fields and housing. What really worries Dr Johnston though is the new town being built up on the hill.

'Three thousand houses will cover the line of the Jacobite march,' he says. 'I would prefer them not to be built there, but we were never going to win a fight to stop it, so we worked from a very early stage in the process to make sure there was acknowledgement in the planning of the significance of the site. There should be something physical there to mark the battle and at the very least there should be echoes in the naming of some of the town.'

'The bigger problem', says Dr Johnston, 'is the almost complete lack of protection given to Scotland’s battlefields'. Since the Prestonpans housing scheme was given the go-ahead some decade years ago, Historic Environment Scotland has published an inventory of important battlefields, but it effectively amounts to little more than a list. Many campaigners are also concerned that Historic Environment Scotland, which is a government agency, doesn’t have the independence needed to fight for battlefields; and there’s a fear that the development at Prestonpans, and at other battle sites such as Killiecrankie and Pinkie Cleugh, demonstrate that the planning system is not up to the job.

This is certainly what Dr Johnston believes and he would like to see significant changes to offer greater protection for battlefields".

'Battlefields in Scotland are not legally protected,' he says. 'That’s the baseline and ‘why not?’ is the question I keep asking.

'There are a lot of challenges involved with battlefields,' he goes on. 'They are landscapes, not structures, so there’s an interpretation challenge. It’s a big area so inevitably there are all sorts of developments and changes that will be constantly happening. There’s also a huge diversity of sites so it’s hard to come up with a policy that fits everywhere.

'But also, you’re dealing with relatively slippery things – people don’t stand still for long during battles so that means that one part of a battlefield is very important during the fighting and then becomes less important 10 or 15 minutes later. There can also be differences of opinion. Where do you define a battle? Do you start with the first shot being fired? Armies don’t magically appear – they will have had to camp there the night before so they are difficult things to delineate.'

All of this can make it hard for historians to define the area of a battle; it can also be hard to engage local people and make them care about the site."

'There are people who say, there are immense pressures for housing, so does it matter if we’re creeping into a battlefield? and I have a great deal of sympathy with those arguments,' says Dr Johnston. 'But you have to say: can you demonstrate that what you are trying to achieve, or develop, cannot be achieved somewhere else, on a brownfield site? We are not trying to stop stuff happening and turn the clock back. What we’re saying is can we have a respectful relationship between the future and the past.'

What particularly saddens Dr Johnston is that the future has so often won out over the past. Look at the Battle of Langside for example, which was fought in 1568 between forces loyal to Mary Queen of Scots and an army acting in the name of her son James. Drive through the Battlefield area of Glasgow now and – other than the name and a monument at the top of the hill – you would never know the battle had been fought there.

Similar pressures have been felt elsewhere. 'Where’s Bannockburn?' says Dr Johnston. 'There’s a museum but it’s not the battlefield, it’s not where the fighting took place. So a visit there is about a visit to the statue and the museum, but to me, that puts more layers between you and reality rather than bringing you closer in. It’s much easier to tell that story when you’re on a site and you’re saying, ‘it was here’.'

Could the answer be a moratorium on development? Dr Johnston doesn’t think that’s practical, but he does think the law needs changing. Currently, councils are required to consider the battlefield during the decision-making process, but it is a consideration only. There’s no pressure, for example, to consider alternative sites for the development.

Dr Johnston would like to see that changed. One idea is that battlefields could be zoned so that a central, important area cannot be developed or built on at all. The Scottish Battlefields Trust would also like to see a presumption against development of battlefields rather than the current situation where councils are only obliged to consider the impact on the site. Another idea is the creation of a sort of battlefields tsar: a truly independent person charged with protecting battlefields nationally and standing up for them to councils, developers and the Scottish Government.

According to Dr Johnston, the dangers of not doing any of this can be seen all over Scotland. He is very concerned, for example, about the plans to widen the A9 at the site of the Battle of Killiecrankie. Much of the damage to the site of the Jacobite victory in 1689 had already been done by the original building of the road but Dr Johnston and others, including Historic Environment Scotland, believe the widening of the road will further damage and undermine the battlefield. 'It’s a textbook case of what is wrong with the current system,' says Dr Johnston, 'and a demonstration of what happens when insufficient consideration is given to the effects of development on battlefields.'

There’s another example of the damage that can be done to battlefields just five minutes down the road from Prestonpans at the site of the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh near Musselburgh. Pinkie Cleugh is one of the lesser-known conflicts of Scottish history, but its importance is undeniable: some 10,000 men died. Fought in 1547, it also came at a time of military transition – the men at Pinkie Cleugh fought with handguns but also longbows.



Standing by the side of the road in the middle of the site, Dr Johnston talks me through what happened. Mary Queen of Scots was a toddler. The king of England, Edward VI, was also a child and the English court decided this was the perfect opportunity to unite the crowns. The Scottish Parliament said No, however, so the English sent an army led by the Duke of Somerset with 17,000 men to force the marriage. In response, the Scots raised an army of between 20,000 and 30,000 and the two armies met at Pinkie.

Dr Johnston asks me to imagine what it was like to be there on the day of the battle. If we were standing where we are now in 1547, he says, we would be standing in the middle of thousands of armed English horsemen rolling straight past us, smashing into lines of Scots. The aim was to slow down the Scots enough so the English were able to deploy their guns, and they succeeded. It was a catastrophic defeat for the Scots. It was protracted, furious, physical fighting and the estimates of the dead vary from 6000 upwards.

Standing facing the east coast, you can see the open ground where the Scots were hunkered down, but turn around and face the upper ground that the English held and all you can see is – you’ve guessed it – hundreds of houses being built. Until six months ago, you could still see where the English were camped; not only that, you could stand where they stood and know that it was pretty much unchanged. But now there is scaffolding and a long line of generic houses. We could be anywhere in the UK.

'There are two big disappointments for me,' says Dr Johnston as he looks up at the houses. 'These houses have been put in with absolutely no consideration for the landscape, or the heritage, without any sense of the impact it all has on understanding the rest of the landscape. But by doing it, they have also weakened the defensibility of the rest.' His fear is that if we come back to the site in 20 years’ time, the rest of it will have been built over. 'You won’t be able to read the landscape any more. You won’t be able to feel any connection to the events.'

Dr Johnston still hopes this won’t happen, and what we have left can be preserved. The country that we are now, he says, and our perception of it, our social norms, and even some of the political divisions that still linger hundreds of years later – it’s been a long evolution and it’s often been driven at key moments by conflict and battle. He quotes Churchill: battles are punctuation marks in our national story. They matter. They should be saved.

As for how to win the battle to save them, Dr Johnston says further development of Scotland’s battlefields will only be prevented and controlled if the rules are changed and changed quickly.

'It’s not about saying we are drawing a line around a landscape and it must stay as it was in 1547 or whatever,' he says. 'It’s about taking a sensitive approach to our landscapes – the landscape is important and if you take it away, it’s no different from saying I’ve just knocked down a castle. We’ve got an obligation to the past,' he says, 'but we’ve got an obligation to the future too.'

Published Date: December 3rd 2019


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