The Dunbar Martyrs
“March of shame” and incarceration at Durham Cathedral
On September 3rd, 1650 Scottish defence forces suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s invading English army at the Battle of Dunbar. Cromwell went on to ruthlessly ransack Edinburgh and other Scottish towns and cities and take control of the country south of the Highlands.
Immediately after the battle, Cromwell’s forces rounded up around five thousand Scottish prisoners and embarked on the ‘march of shame’. You will hear little about this in the history books probably because it marks a profound disgrace in the annals of English military history. The battle weary Scots were brutally forced on an eight-day, 118 miles march south to the English cathedral city of Durham with virtually no rest (the first 28 mile stage to Berwick being undertaken non-stop and through the night) and with no food or water other than what could be scavenged. So starved, en route, raw cabbages and roots were pulled from fields in a desperate effort to gain some sustenance, however, this only served to cause dysentery like symptoms. Of the estimated five thousand who started out the march, only around three thousand were left at the end when they reached their destination on September 11th.
Of the survivors, Durham Cathedral and Castle was used as a makeshift prison and an equivalent disgraceful episode commenced. The conditions the Scots were kept in were utterly appalling. Records indicate that the Scots died at an average of 30 a day between 11th September and 31st October and it seems this reached over 100 a day with virtually no food, clean water or heat and the linked spread of disease and infection.
By the end of October 1650, approximately 1,600 Scots had died horrible deaths in Durham’s much-revered House of God and Durham Castle. This was a desecration of the holy Cathedral. The military leader appointed by Cromwell to take charge of the prisoners (Sir Arthur Haselrigge, Member of the English Parliament for Leicester) later claimed in a letter to the Parliament that adequate food, water, bedding and fuel for heating had been provided, however, the facts speak for themselves that this was merely an attempt to excuse his own conduct during the horrific weeks in September and October 1650. The Scots in a desparate effort to create some heat and reduce the death toll stripped the Cathedral bare of all wooden items, including pews and the organ for the making of fires, save as for one item – a clock embossed with a carved Scots Thistle, which remains to this day.
Only 1,400 of the estimated 5,000 men who started the march from Dunbar in September were still alive less than two months later, when they were sold as slave labour by their captors. Nine hundred of those survivors were sold to the New World, mainly Virginia, Massachusetts and the Barbados colony in the Caribbean. Another 500 were forced the following spring to serve in the French army, and were still fighting seven years later against the Spanish, side by side with a contingent of English soldiers sent over by Cromwell. Those who profited from the slave trade grasped every opportunity to earn money from this evil practice which wasn’t abolished in Britain until 1807.
Discovery of mass grave at Durham Cathedral?
According to research and a paper written by past Cathedral employee, John Cole, 1991, “The Scottish Prisoners from Dunbar Held in Durham Cathedral”, when a central heating system was installed in The Music School at the Cathedral in 1946, the trench for the pipes cut into a mass grave on the north side of the Cathedral. The conclusion was that it held the bodies of the Scots who had perished. That they had been, “buried without coffins and had been tossed in on top of one another.”. Separately, a Cathedral gardener spoken to in 2008 recalls seeing the corpses of Scot’s soldiers during works on the lanscape. The Cathedral has recently (2008) cast doubt on their earlier conclusions.
To this very day, there is no memorial of any kind to these unknown Scottish soldiers who died such horrible deaths at Durham Cathedral and Castle. It would appear that they lie in anonymity and without Christian burial in what they would have regarded as foreign soil in the place they had been imprisoned, far from their homes and the graves of their loved ones.