The song commemorates the Battle of Prestonpans, fought on 21 September during the Jacobite rising of 1745. Forces led by the Stuart exile Charles Edward Stuart defeated a government army under Sir John Cope, whose troops broke in the face of a highland charge. The battle lasted less than fifteen minutes and was a huge boost to Jacobite morale, while a heavily mythologised version of the story entered art and legend. Cope and two others were tried by a court-martial in 1746 and exonerated, the court deciding defeat was due to the «shameful conduct of the private soldiers».
Adam Skirving, a local farmer, visited the battlefield later that afternoon where he was, by his own account, mugged by the victors. He wrote two songs, «Tranent Muir» and the better known «Hey, Johnnie Cope, Are Ye Waking Yet?», using well-known tunes which still feature in Scottish folk music and bagpipe recitals.
Cope sent a challenge frae Dunbar,
Sayin 'Charlie meet me an' ye daur;
An' I'll learn ye the airts o' war,
If ye'll meet me in the morning.'
Hey! Johnnie Cope are ye waukin' yet?
Or are your drums a-beating yet?
If ye were waukin' I wad wait,
Tae gang tae the coals in the morning.
When Charlie looked the letter upon,
He drew his sword its scabbard from,
'Come, follow me, my merry men,
And we'll meet Johnnie Cope in the morning.'
Now Johnnie, be as good as your word,
Come, let us try baith fire and sword,
And dinna flee like a frichted bird,
That's chased frae its nest i' the morning.
When Johnnie Cope he heard o' this,
He thocht it wouldna be amiss,
Tae hae a horse in readiness,
Tae flee awa in the morning.
Fye now, Johnnie, get up an' rin,
The Highland bagpipes mak' a din,
It's better tae sleep in a hale skin,
For it will be a bluidie morning.
When Johnnie Cope tae Dunbar cam,
They speired at him, 'Where's a' your men?'
'The de'il confound me gin I ken,
For I left them a' in the morning.'
Now Johnnie, troth ye werena blate,
Tae come wi' news o' your ain defeat,
And leave your men in sic a strait,
Sae early in the morning.
'In faith', quo Johnnie, 'I got sic flegs
Wi' their claymores an' philabegs,
Gin I face them again, de'il brak my legs,
So I wish you a' good morning.'