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Department of Archaeology

The History

Cromwell at Dunbar by Andrew Carrick Gow (1886)

The Scottish soldiers imprisoned at Durham were involved in one of the most brutal, bloody and short battles of the 17th Century civil wars.

At first light on September 3, 1650, the better trained and more disciplined English Parliamentarian army, under the command of Oliver Cromwell, defeated the Royalist-supporting Scottish Covenanting army, led by General David Leslie, in less than an hour at the Battle of Dunbar on the south-east coast of Scotland.

Contemporary reports suggested anywhere between 300 and 5,000 soldiers were killed. Modern calculations suggest that an estimated 6,000 Scots were captured with about 1,000 sick and wounded released to go home.

The remaining 4,000-plus undernourished and battle-worn prisoners were marched 100 miles south to Durham, in North East England, via Newcastle upon Tyne.

En route to England 1,000 men are believed to have died from hunger, exhaustion and gastric problems, probably dysentery. Others were executed, while some escaped.

Of the remaining 3,000 sent for imprisonment in Durham Cathedral and Castle, it is estimated that 1,700 died and were buried in the City.

Timeline of Events


Dr Pam Graves, of Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, compiled the historical report into the background and aftermath of the Battle of Dunbar.

She said: "Despite claims that prisoners were supplied with bread and milk and given straw to sleep on, the deaths continued due to illness, starvation and poor sanitation, with many of the sick housed in Durham Castle.

"Cold was a factor and it is commonly believed that to keep warm, prisoners burned woodwork from the Cathedral, which at the time was not functioning as a place of worship, its Dean and Chapter having been evicted."

It’s not clear how long the surviving prisoners were held, but historical accounts say some were ordered to work in the salt-pan, linen and coal mining industries or as general labourers in North East England.

It is thought that around 500 were sent to Ireland to serve in the Parliamentarian army with others shipped to France, Barbados or Virginia. Some of the sick who had survived were forced to drain the Fens in Norfolk.

About 150 prisoners boarded ships for the New England region of America where they were sold for £20 to £30 each to work in sawmills or ironworks as indentured servants.

They were able to gain their freedom if they saved enough to redeem their sale price or if they worked the full term of their indenture and a number went on to become successful farmers in Maine.

Scottish Soldiers Project - Dr Pam Graves and Canon Rosalind Brown Interviews

Scottish Soldiers Project - Dr Pam Graves and Canon Rosalind Brown Interviews

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Dr Pam Graves from Durham University's Archaeological Department and Canon Rosalind Brown from Durham Cathedral discuss the historical background and aftermath of the Battle of Dunbar.

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