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Department of Archaeology

Reburial and Commemoration

Durham University is responsible for deciding where the remains should be reburied and how best to commemorate the soldiers.

After a period of consultation and consideration the University’s Project Team concluded that the remains, discovered on the City’s UNESCO World Heritage Site in November 2013, should be reburied in Durham. It is intended that the remains of the soldiers will be laid to rest at Elvet Hill Road Cemetery in Durham City, which is less than a mile from the original exhumation site. The University has also decided that a plaque should be installed near to the site where they were originally discovered as a permanent commemoration to all the soldiers.

When taking these decisions the University had to consider its ethical, moral and legal responsibilities in relation to the remains. The decisions taken have been approved by both the University’s Executive Committee and the University Ethics Advisory Committee.

In-depth consultation

To ensure that the decisions taken by the University were fully informed, an extensive period of consultation was undertaken. This included two public meetings, one in Dunbar and the other in Durham, which were attended by approximately 250 members of the public. At these events the University’s Project Team presented its research and listened to the views of those present on the options for further research (a programme of which has now begun), reburial and commemoration.

The University also hosted meetings with key groups and individuals interested in the project, relevant academics, local government and council representatives. These meetings helped the team to understand the range of considerations regarding reburial and commemoration, as well as the case for support relating to each of the options being considered.

Finally, the University also consulted with relevant professional bodies and experts in the field of archaeology.

Professor Chris Gerrard, Head of the Department of Archaeology, at Durham University, said: "All those we consulted with agreed that a respectful and dignified reburial of the remains and a fitting commemoration to all the Scottish soldiers was vital.

"Extensive consultation has helped us to make a fully informed decision regarding what should happen next both in terms of reburial and commemoration."

Reburying the remains

A number of different options regarding reburial were presented to the project team including:

  • Reburial in Durham at the nearest lawful burial place to the site of exhumation
  • Reburial elsewhere in Durham
  • Reburial in Scotland

In considering the options the University had to be sure that its final decision was ethically and morally sound, as well as legally compliant.

Reburial in Durham at the nearest lawful burial place to the site of exhumation

Reburial in Durham, at the nearest lawful burial site to where the remains were originally found, was seen as both ethically and morally responsible.

The remains of the soldiers were found in a mass grave during construction work on Durham University’s Palace Green Library café in November 2013. None of the skeletons exhumed is complete as, in keeping with archaeological best practice, only those remains directly affected by the construction work were exhumed.

Identification of the remains as those of Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar answered an almost 400-year-old mystery as to where those soldiers who died had been buried. As an estimated 1,700 prisoners from the battle died and were buried in Durham it is very possible that there are more mass graves under buildings on Palace Green which have been constructed since.

As none of the skeletons exhumed is complete there were ethical concerns about separating these skeletons from the remainder of their bodies any further than necessary.

Furthermore it was felt that, morally, keeping the exhumed skeletons as close as possible to their comrades, who remain buried on Palace Green, would be appropriate.

Legally, reburial in Durham is in accordance with the standard terms of an exhumation licence granted by the Ministry of Justice. There is also established precedent around this approach, with the remains of King Richard III of England, which the team took into consideration. In that case, following a judicial review, it was ruled that the remains of King Richard III should be reburied in Leicester, rather than being moved to York. Reburial of the remains in the closest lawful burial site is also in line with archaeological best practice.

Professor David Cowling, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Arts and Humanities, at Durham University, said: "The decision on where to rebury the soldiers was very complex.

"As a project team, we were acutely aware of the strength and depth of interest amongst many about the fate of these soldiers, whilst at the same time recognising our ethical, moral and legal obligations.

“All options were explored fully by the project team and in the end it was felt that the case for reburying the remains in Durham was strongest.”

Professor David Cowling

Durham University will be working with Durham Cathedral and all interested parties, including the local church and churches in Scotland to plan a suitable reburial service. During consultation it was suggested that Scottish soil be used for the reburial which is something the Project Team is keen to take forward.

Reburial in Scotland

Returning the remains to Scotland for reburial was another option considered by the University. During consultation the University Project Team was presented with case studies from other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and the USA, where remains have been returned for reburial. A number of locations for reburial in Scotland were also suggested.

In considering this option the University was mindful of legal precedent, such as that set by the case of England’s King Richard III discussed above, as well as archaeological best practice. English law differs from that of the other countries where case studies were highlighted and therefore direct parallels could not be drawn.

The moral case put forward for reburial in Scotland was to ‘bring the soldiers home’. However, our analysis has shown that not all the remains exhumed were Scottish and therefore the concept of ‘home’ is not simple.

Ethically, there were also concerns raised through the consultation about the separation of these remains from those which are still buried in Durham.

With these considerations in mind the team decided that reburial in Scotland would not satisfy the legal, moral and ethical responsibilities they had.

Reburial elsewhere in Durham

During consultation it was also suggested that the bones should be reburied elsewhere in Durham, such as at Durham Cathedral or on Palace Green. However, neither option was suitable.

Palace Green is not a lawful burial site and therefore legally could not be considered.

There have been no interments of bodies at Durham Cathedral since 1938 and it therefore does not represent a lawful burial site, either.

Commemorating the soldiers

Durham University agreed that, in addition to a dignified and respectful reburial, it was important that the Scottish soldiers be permanently commemorated.

On 12 May 2017 a plaque was dedicated to the soldiers in the courtyard of the café at the University’s Palace Green Library, close to the site where the remains were originally discovered.

An existing plaque within Durham Cathedral which is dedicated to the soldiers was also updated to remove the reference to the soldiers’ place of burial being unknown. Special prayers and a blessing were offered during the Cathedral’s Evensong service on 12 May 2017.

Get involved

The University’s Project Team is keen to work with all interested parties in planning for the commemoration and reburial. If you would like to work with us on this, please get in touch at

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