Lost lives, new voices: the fate of Scottish prisoners from the Battle of Dunbar, 1650


27 April 2022
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1631ScottishSoldiers-04542.png 17th-century Scottish soldiers
Andrew Millard, a member of the investigation team on the Battle of Dunbar Scottish Soldiers Project, charts the fate of those prisoners who survived the battle and were sent overseas.

On a wet Thursday afternoon in November 2013 construction work on a café in the centre of the Durham World Heritage Site came to a halt when human remains were uncovered. Archaeological excavation followed, and over the last 4.5 years I have been part of a team of researchers investigating these remains. The 28 skeletons recovered from two disorderly mass burials proved to be all male, mostly aged 13-25, dated between 1630 and 1660, and of diverse geographical origins.

Forced march south

From this evidence we concluded that these were men from the Scottish army at the Battle of Dunbar (3 September 1650) who were captured by the English under Oliver Cromwell. To remove them from the conflict in Scotland, they were marched south into England. At that time Durham Cathedral had been closed as a place of worship and the large empty building was used as a prison for 3,000 men.


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“The flux” (almost certainly dysentery) had been rife in both armies before the battle and very rapidly the prisoners started dying from it. Between arriving in Durham on 11 September and a report written on 31 October – a mere 50 days – about 1600 men had died. Their burial location was unrecorded, though an account written a few years later says they “were thrown into holes by great numbers together in a moste Lamentable Manner”.

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Exploring the lives of the soldiers

A second phase of research on the skeletons has looked at the lives of these men in more detail. 

Some 366 years after their lives were lost, one day in November 2016, our team of archaeologists was to be found tramping around the woods in southern Maine in the USA. Why? Because our research had branched out from the remains of those who died to examine the lives of those who survived their captivity.

From historical records we established that some 500 Scottish prisoners were sent in January 1652 as labourers to work for the Company of Adventurers who were draining the fens of Cambridgeshire. There they joined Scottish prisoners from the Battle of Worcester (3 September 1651) in constructing what is now known as the Bedford Level.

Earlier, in March 1651, 500 prisoners had been sent from Durham to fight as soldiers in France, where the English Parliamentarians were supporting Marshal Turenne in the civil war known as the Fronde. They may have been at Reims in Champagne by May or June, but after that they disappear from the historical record.

New England

The men of most interest, however, are 150 who were deported to New England in late 1650. They were transported under the auspices of the Company of Undertakers for the Iron Works in New England. Some 60 were employed as bonded servants by the company, and the others sold to work for terms of six to eight years. Once released from their servitude they established new lives in New England.

This work is part of the Scottish Soldiers Project based at Durham University. 

(Originally published 22 Mar 2018, reviewed July 2022)