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Nowadays, in my old age, I’m accustomed to waking up in the ordinary way, with a slightly fuzzy feeling, in a vague discontent, and my old broken shoulder aching, and twinges in my calves and ankles. And sometimes, if my thoughts turn that way, I can think smugly that one of the compensations nowadays is that there are no tables to scrub, or men of ill-will hitting the coal bunker with the poker, or hounding me out into the ablutions through the snow – and then I feel sad, because never again will I hear ‘ Johnnie Cope’ in the morning. – George MacDonald Fraser.
Whether it is Johnny Cope, or Johnnie Cope it all refers to the battle of Prestonpans in 1745. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders defeated Sir John Cope’s Redcoats. The song’s lyrics has some myth in it, but the truth is that the Highlander’s charge defeated Sir John Cope, and his troops were overrun in about 15 minutes.
To prevent a surprise attack during the night, Cope kept fires burning in front of his position and posted no fewer than 200 dragoons and 300 infantry as pickets. A company of Loudon’s Highlanders under Macpherson of Cluny had deserted a few days before; the remaining three companies were detailed to guard the baggage park in Cockenzie, while some 100 volunteers were dismissed until the next morning and missed the battle. Warned by his pickets of the Jacobite movement, Cope had enough time to wheel his army to face east and reposition his cannon. As the Highlanders began their charge, his artillerymen fled, leaving the guns to be fired by their officers.
As at Killiecrankie in 1689, the government infantry was over-run by the Highland charge.
The two dragoon regiments on the flanks panicked and rode off, leaving Gardiner mortally wounded on the battlefield and exposing the infantry in the centre. Attacked on three sides, they were over-run in less than 15 minutes, with their retreat blocked by the park walls to their rear; some escaped when the Highlanders stopped to loot the baggage train. Government losses were from 300 to 500 killed or wounded and 500 to 600 taken prisoner, many later paroled to save the expense of holding them; the Jacobite’s estimated their own casualties as 35 to 40 dead and 70 to 80 wounded.
To this day ‘Hey Johnnie Cope’ as played on bagpipes of the Highland Regiments is reveille for the soldiers of Highland Regiments, and was also played by pipers of the 51st (Highland) Division as the soldiers of the 51st disembarked from their landing craft onto Juno Beach in Normandy on D-Day.
Cope sent a challenge from Dunbar saying:
“Charlie, meet me if you dare,
And I’ll teach you what the art of war really means
If you’ll come to the coals in the morning.”
Hey, Johnny Cope, are you awake yet?
Or are your drums beating yet?
If you were awake I’d wait
To go to the coals in the morning.
When Charlie looked at the letter
He drew his sword from the scabbard:
Saying, “Follow me, my merry men,
And we’ll meet Johnny Cope in the morning.”
“Come on now Johnny, be as good and your word;
And meet me there with fire and sword;
And don’t fly away like a frightened bird,
That’s scared from its nest in the morning.”
When Jonny Cope heard of this,
He thought it wouldn’t be remiss
To have a horse in readiness,
To flee from the skulls in the morning.
Come on now, Johnny, get up and run;
For the Highland bagpipes make their noise;
It’s best to sleep safe in your own skin,
It will be a bloody morning.
When Johnny Cope came to Dunbar,
They questioned him, “Where’s all your men?”
“The Devil confound me, I don’t know,
I left them all in the morning.”
“Faith,” said Johnny, “I got so scared
With the big claymore and the kilt;
If I face them again, Devil break my legs!
So I wish you all good morning.”
“Truth now, Johnny, you’re not so stupid
As to come with news of your own defeat,
And to leave your men in such a state
So early in the morning.