Dunbar soldiers to be reburied 400 years on

One of the skeletons found in Durham. Picture: Richard Annis/Durham University
One of the skeletons found in Durham. Picture: Richard Annis/Durham University
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An event to discuss what should happen to the remains of Scottish prisoners of war who died after being captured by Oliver Cromwell’s troops nearly 400 years ago will be held on St Andrew’s Day.

Between 17 and 28 skeletons discovered in a mass grave close to Durham Cathedral in 2013 were found to be the bones of prisoners from the 1650 Battle of Dunbar, some 111 miles north.

They were naked and had been buried without ceremony, and when experts announced the results of their research in September, the possibility of repatriating the remains was raised.

After Cromwell’s unexpected victory over Scottish forces who supported Charles II, around 6000 were captured, with 1000 of the sickest being freed.

Around a further 1000 of the hungry, defeated soldiers died on the gruelling march south, many of them suffering from dysentery, then known as “the flux”.

Some escaped and some were shot for refusing to walk further.

Around 3000 Scots were imprisoned in Durham’s Castle and Cathedral, which were abandoned at the time and would have provided bleak and austere shelters.

Experts have estimated around 50 of the prisoners died every day, with 1700 being buried at locations around what is now a Unesco World Heritage site. Of the 1400 survivors, the majority were eventually transported as convict labourers to English colonies.

Now Durham University is holding a public meeting in Dunbar to share its findings and discuss what should happen next.

The bodies must be reburied as a condition of the exhumation licence granted by the Ministry of Justice.

Professor Chris Gerrard, head of the department of archaeology at Durham University, who led the research team, said: “There has been a huge expression of interest in the project.

“We have been engaging with people and organisations from Scotland and throughout the UK and globally, some of whom have a view on what happens to the remains of the Scottish soldiers.

“From the outset we have expressed our commitment to consulting widely on the next steps.

“Given the strong historical links with Dunbar we thought it fitting to bring our event there to give local people and interest groups a chance to hear from the researchers involved in the project and to give their opinions on further research, reburial, and commemoration.”

The Battle of Dunbar was one of the most brutal, bloody and short battles of the 17th century Civil War.

In less than an hour the English under Cromwell’s command defeated the Scottish Covenanting army.

Andy Robertson, Archaeology Officer at East Lothian Council, Scotland, said: “The work of Durham University adds an exciting new element to the story of the Battle of Dunbar and to our understanding of the events surrounding the battle.

“This public consultation is a great opportunity to find out more about some of the participants in this famous battle.”

The meeting will be held at 7pm at the Dunmuir Hotel, Dunbar, on November 30.