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Issue 76 - Reliving History

Scotland Magazine Issue 76
August 2014


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Reliving History

Roddy Martine meets Arran Paul Johnston of The Alan Breck Prestonpans Volunteer Regiment

Over a weekend centred on 4th December, the English town of Derby annually commemorates the invasion of the Jacobite army in 1745.

At the head of the procession, with his Lifeguards resplendent in their blues and scarlets, is the ‘Young Pretender’, Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

Had the Jacobites surged forward a further120 miles to London, the history of the United Kingdom would have been entirely altered but persuaded by his generals, the Prince and his army returned instead to Scotland and ultimate defeat.

Standing in the crowd and watching the spectacle during the 1990s, the imagination of a ten -year old boy was inspired.

Arran Paul Johnston grew up in Derby and often wondered why there was an equestrian statue of the Bonnie Prince on Cathedral Green in the town centre but nowhere else in Britain, not even in Scotland.

At school, he embarked upon a course in local history and discovered that the Jacobite soldiers were quartered in very same Grammar school he attended. Although remaining only three days in the town, their presence made an undeniable impact on the townsfolk, so much so that its commemoration in the 21st century has lived on to become a major visitor attraction.

Arran subsequently visited the Causeway where the decision to turn back to Scotland was made and he soon became sufficiently intrigued by the character of the 25 year old Prince to sign up with the local re-enactment group, The Charles Edward Stuart Society.

History is documented by the winners and Prince Charles Edward Stuart is nowadays popularly designated a failure, described by the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as an ‘Italian Dwarf!’

However, nothing could be further from the truth.. Standing 5’ 8” tall, contemporary accounts describe him as athletic and blue eyed with curling blond hair. He spoke seven languages fluently, and must have been possessed of an astonishing personal charisma to have rallied the Highland Clans, not least the Clan Chiefs, many of them still reeling from the repercussions of the 1715 Jacobite Rising in support of his father.

But all of that is another story.

Fast forward 263 years and, having taken on the role of Prince Charles Edward Stuart in his local re-enactment group. Arran found himself at Edinburgh University where he was surprised at the scarcity of Jacobite events taking place anywhere.

One day he set off for a walk on the Battlefield of Prestonpans, east of the city and, entirely by accident, encountered a group of people led by the Baron of Pretoungrange, who were in the process of setting up the Battle of Prestonpans 1745 Heritage Trust.

“How do you do?” he introduced himself. “I'm Bonnie Prince Charlie. Nice to meet you!”

They welcomed him with open arms and since then the Trust, which is centred on the people of Prestonpans' determination to create a world-class and accessible ‘living history’ interpretation of the Prince's victory, has embarked upon an inspiring programme of re-enactments , publishing books, funding plays such as Andrew Dalmayer's
The Battle of Pots 'n' Pans and Colonel Gardner: Vice and Virtue, and visiting many schools throughout Scotland.

As a community initiative, the Trust in 2010 created The Prestonpans Tapestry, which inspired the author Alexander McCall Smith to commission
The Great Tapestry of Scotland. Earlier this year, the Trust unveiled The Scottish Diaspora Tapestry featured in this issue of Scotland Magazine.

The formation of The Alan Breck Volunteer Prestonpans Regiment was inspired in 2007 by the hero of Robert Louis Stevenson's hero in
Kidnapped and Catriona, who admits to having fought for the redcoats in Prestonpans, 'but changed to the true side afterwards.'

“For a couple of years we organised our re-enactments informally, but when I moved
permanently to live in Scotland and became Chairman, I set about creating a formally consituted non-profit making society. The real challenge has been to raise funds to cover the expenses and insurance.”

Since then, however, The Alan Breck Regiment has made appearances at a string of events – beginning with gala days and fêtes throughout Scotland but now hosting immersive living history weekends for the likes of the National Trust for Scotland and the Highland Folk Museum at Newtonmore.

Of course they are also always on display at Prestonpans for the anniversary of the battle, as well as holding events at nearby Cockenzie House, where the surrender of the British army actually took place in the garden. As a historian, Arran obviously enjoys his role as Chairman, General and Captain enormously.

“What I set out to do is to create a programme with an accompanying narrative so that the value is not solely visual but also educational.”

“Happily we have succeeded in recruiting members from all over Scotland, from Aberdeen to the Borders,” he says with evident satisfaction.

“Most recently we've created a redcoat unit of the Edinburgh City Guard to combat our Jacobites!”

In 2010, Arran published
Valour Does Not Wait, a detailed study of Charles Edward Stuart and in 2013, Blood Stain'd Fields – The Battles of East Lothian. (


The Alan Breck Prestonpans Volunteer Regiment will be on parade:

7 September RIDING OF THE MARCHES, Edinburgh The Edinburgh City Guard on parade

19 to 21 September THE BATTLE OF PRESTONPANS 2014 (Major Event) Greenhills, Prestonpans

6 to 7 December BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE WEEKEND - Swarkstone and Derby Parades and skirmishes. As guests of the Charles Edward Stuart Society