‘BONNIE Prince Charlie” is preparing to inspect his troops. Next weekend he will lead them to victory in the Battle of Prestonpans. They’ll win, but the audience watching will be reminded that the war will ultimately be lost.

When Charles Edward Stuart’s Jacobite army faces up to General Cope’s government forces on Saturday, it’ll be for the first time in two years as history buffs re-enact one of the most famous battles of the 1745 rebellion.

“I’ve always found Prince Charlie fascinating,” says Dr Arran Johnston, the man stepping into the Stuart figurehead’s buckled shoes. “Even after hundreds of years, he can still excite some quite different opinions.”

The Battle of Prestonpans (1745) Heritage Trust has been running the living history events for years and it’s become one of the biggest and best-known in Scotland, with spectators from all over the UK travelling to experience a taste of the pivotal fight held at the East Lothian town 276 years ago.

Over six hours, there are cavalry displays, Redcoat manoeuvres, war councils and a royal pavilion where visitors can speak to the Pretender himself, or at least the historian pretending to be him.

But 2021 marks the first time it’ll be run under Covid regulations, after a 2020 cancellation. Final preparations are under way and the trust is trying to keep things as true to life as possible, but the pandemic has butted up against the history, forcing a redesign of the Redcoat and Jacobite camps to prevent bottlenecks and help people stay distant. Are the re-enactors matching facemasks to their costumes? “It’s been a difficult one this year,” says Johnston, “but fortunately we don’t have to go that far.”

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Johnston, the founding director of the Scottish Battlefields Trust, has been fascinated by the Jacobites since his days as a Derbyshire schoolboy. He’s now passing that interest on to his children, with son Archer donning his own blue bonnet and kilt for publicity photos.

The three-year-old won’t be on the battlefield next weekend, but he’ll be a part of the action, which will see around 100 volunteers don 18th-century replica clothing to bust myths about the period and its politics.

Some of these, Johnston says, are the result of 18th-century propaganda aimed at undermining the Stuart claim to the throne, while others emerged 100 years later: Highland soldiers are seen as burly, rugged and unsophisticated; Charlie is seen as alien, ineffectual and effeminate. Jacobites are always Catholic and Scottish; Redcoats are always English Protestants.

Johnston hopes the trust’s work will help people understand that none of these ideas captures the complexity of the era or its players.

“We are so familiar with the pictures of Prince Charlie that we forget he was a young and inexperienced man trying to do a really extraordinary thing with very little preparation or experience,” says Johnston.

“A lot of what went right for the Jacobites was down to Prince Charlie, and some of what went wrong was too.”

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Prestonpans certainly went right, with Cope’s infantry cut down within as little as 20 minutes.

Of course, we know that by the following April, it was all over for the campaign of James VII’s grandson after the devastating defeat at Culloden. The Young Chevalier himself survived but was pursued through the Highlands and Islands before escaping to France and travelling on to Rome, where he died in 1788.

The fall of the third and final Rising cut down Stuart hopes of unseating the ruling Hanoverian dynasty and triggered the brutal “pacification” of the Highlands, the legacy of which – changes to dress and restrictions on language – is still felt today.

“We read the Jacobite story from the end,” says Johnston. “We know that they lose, we know about the terrible events that occurred as a result. There’s a sense of ‘was it doomed from the beginning, was it Prince Charlie’s fault?’ When they won at Prestonpans there wasn’t a sense that this was doomed. It looked like it might just happen.

“What the Jacobite command was trying to do was create a disciplined, modern-style army with a lot of fire power that was much more like the standard European model. The Jacobite manifesto was forward-looking. They knew they had to be a political movement as well as a modern military movement.

“This was a complex political issue being fought out. Ultimately, it was about ‘who do you want to be the ruling dynasty and what do they stand for?’”

The Prestonpans Re-enactment Weekend takes place at Greenhills, Prestonpans, September 18-19, 11am - 5pm