Re-enactor prepares for battle after two years of planning

Arran Johnston as the Earl of Arran, circa 1547
Arran Johnston as the Earl of Arran, circa 1547
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My heart pounding in my chest, my lungs tight from running, I dropped behind the roots of a fallen tree and hoped I could not be seen.

The shouts of my pursuers seemed all around me.

My trews were badly torn from leaping that last embankment – my jacket had been traded with a decoy. I was running out of both energy and ideas, and could only now hope that the thin enemy line would sweep on past me.

And then, directly ahead of me, I saw a new and unexpected misfortune – an American tourist with his telephoto lens, revealing my position as he snapped the perfect shot.

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the modern world, but, during this time of year, I probably spend more time in period clothing than in modern.

It is supposed to be a hobby, but is more of a lifestyle I certainly own more pairs of Roman shoes than I do trainers, and more 18th century breeches than jeans.

For more than half of my life, I’ve been crossing the centuries to bring history alive for audiences large and small, young and old.

I’ve grown from being a passive participant to the organiser of events, but still enjoy being ‘in the ranks’ as much as leading them.

People often ask why I do battle re-enactments, and the answer is probably individual to each re-enactor.

For me (a historian by profession) re-enactment is a chance to put knowledge into action and bring the story to a wider audience. Not everyone who comes to my shows would read my books, but they should leave an event with a picture in their minds of how their ancestors lived and dressed. They come to be entertained and they leave informed – at least that’s the aim.

Both public and performer know it isn’t real, however good our hand-stitching might be. To pretend otherwise would be a disservice to those who truly experienced the horrors of the battles which forged our nations – the reverse of our objective.

Sometimes, an experience can almost feel real, but authenticity can only go so far – nobody is actively trying to kill me, and I’ve not met an enemy yet who would refuse a pint at the end of the day.

Some say re-enactment is just grown men playing at soldiers, and the fancier the dress the better. There may be a smidgeon of truth there. But don’t be deceived – re-enactment is a powerful mode of interpretation. Audiences engage so much more readily with a history they can see, hear and – for better or worse – smell.

On 16 and 17 September this year, my friends and I will be re-enacting the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in Musselburgh for the first time, after two years of research and planning.

It was the biggest battle ever fought in Scotland but remains little known. After that event, thousands more will know its story.

If just a handful of them remember it, the history has a future.

The Battle of Pinkie is set to be fought again for the first time since 1547, as part of a spectacular weekend of events on 16 and 17 September.

Presented by the Scottish Battlefields Trust as part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, visitors are invited to step back in time for two days of activities, taking place at Newhailes Estate in East Lothian.

For more information, tickets to the re-enactment and full programme, visit eastlothianbattles.com