[1900:] There is, perhaps, no humorous Scottish song more generally esteemed than this, even if it has to be confessed that the charm it possesses lies more in the music and the subject than in the poetry. It was composed by one Adam Skirving, a wealthy farmer of Haddingtonshire, who for many years held the farm of Garleton, about two miles from Haddington, on the road to Gosford. He was born in the year 1719, and received his education at Prestonkirk, in East Lothian. Skirving is spoken of as a very athletic man, with a sharp and ready wit, and not much addicted to verse, but who excelled in all manner of manly sports, and exercises, and particularly a keen golfer and curler. Further, he had the repute of being an upright man, a foe to all shams and impostures; generally a favourite. He died in April, 1803, and was buried in the churchyard at Athelstaneford [...]. He wrote this song, and the still more graphic ballad of Tranent Muir, both in the same year, and both in celebration of the same subject, namely, the battle of Prestonpans, sometimes called the battle of Tranent, and sometimes described as the battle of Gladsmuir, which was fought on the 22nd September, 1745.
Sir John Cope, as is well known, made a precipitate and disgraceful retreat from the field here, followed by his raw and undisciplined dragoons, and did not stay his flight, forsooth, until he reached Dunbar. His conduct on the occasion formed a subject of triumphant scorn to the Jacobites, and, indeed, was spoken of generally in a spirit of derision. It brought him under the investigation of a court-martial too, although he was acquitted. The muses, however, did not acquit him, but set to at once and rendered him immortal in song as a runaway - Adam Skirving, as already stated, being poet executioner-in-chief. Among the various personages referred to in the ballad - which is of considerable length - was a certain Lieutenant Smith, an Irishman, who displayed very conspicuous cowardice on the occasion. [...]
The satire there is as biting as need be - sufficient to rouse a donkey, surely! Immediately on the source of its emanation being communicated to the heroic(?) Lt. Smith, that gentleman despatched a junior officer to farmer Skirving bearing a challenge that demanded the poet to meet him, and try the quarrel hilt to hilt. The rustic bard's reply was of a piece with the attack, "Gang back," said he, "and tell Lt. Smith that I have nae leisure to come to Haddington; but tell him to come here and I'll tak' a look at him, and if I think I am fit to fecht him, I'll fecht him; if no, I'll do as he did - I'll rin awa'." This evidently settled the matter; here, anyway, the history ends, so far as Lt. Smith is concerned. [...]
The familiar air to which Johnnie Cope is sung is much older than Skirving's song, and was associated with a set of verses, some of which Burns remembered, the refrain being -
Will ye go to the coals in the morning?
Some editors have held that the word 'coals' in Skirving's effusion should be 'hills'. But it is worth noting that the battle ground of Tranent lies in the midst of a coalfield, from which Edinburgh had for centuries been supplied with most of the fuel which it required; and that being so, the expression
To gang to the coals i' the morning
embraces a withering sarcasm which, by the use of the word 'hills', or any other, could certainly not have been achieved.
Sir John Cope, it may be told in closing, died a Knight of the Bath, Colonel of the 7th Dragoons, and a Lieutenant-General, on the 28th July, 1760. He was thus not without honour in his day. But while it may easily be concluded, and proved, perhaps, that he was a brave and more valiant general than the single engagement at Prestonpans revealed, it will not, surely, be denied that his fame owes more to that farceful defeat, and especially to the song celebrating it, than to all else associated with his military and personal career. So much for the power and the influence of the lyric muse! (Ford, Histories 227ff)