Aletho News


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.

September 24, 2010 - Posted by | Subjugation - Torture, War Crimes


  1. My immigrant ancestor, John Hamilton, was a survivor of the Battle of Dunbar, the forced march, and Durham Cathedral. He was exile to Massachusets in 1651.

    Comment by Teresa Rust | May 15, 2011 | Reply

  2. I am disgusted at the way this site has been treated,these brave young men fought to keep the stewarts on the throne,they didn’t even get a christian burial.
    Charles the second was saved and this meant that the monarchy as we know it now had been made secure.
    East Lothian Council have let this battle field to be destroyed!!!WHY?
    Someone must have gained something out of this,this council did nothing to try and save anything to do with our heritage.
    The town history has been demolished the heart and soul of this town is no more.
    When this braw wee toon lost its autonomy by centralisation,we were all led to beleive that it would give better governance and openness,this has proved to be anything but.
    I live in the East Lammermuirs in ward 3,the local councillors representation is abysmal,its as though we were on another planet!!Why are things the way they are,we pay our local council taxes just like anyone else in East Lothian County.
    We are surrounded by all of the most deadliest of pollututants you could name,this must have been known by our local councillors when they stood for election to take care of the publics interests,this they have failed to do?

    Comment by Alexander Lough | March 16, 2012 | Reply

  3. My ancestor George Darling fought at Dunbar, possibly with at least one brother, fate unknown. George survived capture, the death march, Durham, and was sold to a foundry in Mass.

    Comment by Suzanne | February 6, 2013 | Reply

    • Hi Suzanne.
      Thanks for making contact its been awhile since i put my views across on this subject,i am angry at the way this has taken place.
      Someone has been well payed for giving permission to quarry the very spot the battle was fought,these brave men died for their king and country and didn’t get a christian burial.
      Those that died on the field were the lucky ones,they didn’t suffer the treatment the survivors did.
      I could send you pictures of the site to let you see exactly where it was,this land i used to plough when it was farmland,we would bring up old musket balls and fragments,i have some of these balls in my possesion,i found them as i walked with my dog on the seashore near the battle site,they were lying in rock pools and they were white in colour because of oxidisation through the hundreds of years.
      There is so much to say about how this site wasn’t given the recognition it rightfully deserved however i will leave that out meanwhile.
      Now that we have made contact we perhaps could continue on that matter,in the meantime keep in touch i would like to hear more of what you have to know about,did the people that were transported there say anything about what happened and was it recorded in the American history.
      Yours sincerely
      Alexander Lough
      Tel 01368 840607.

      Comment by Alexander Wilson Lough | February 8, 2013 | Reply

      • Just to say thanks for the reply,i could send you downloads of the site.

        Comment by Alexander Lough | February 8, 2013 | Reply

    • Hello Suzanne, we share the same ancestor George Darling. We have traced our connection through John Darling of Winchendon, MA from the 1750’s and Elisha Darling of Charleton, MA of the 1840’s… Which line are you connected with and where do you currently reside? We are in Worcester, MA USA

      Comment by | March 25, 2014 | Reply

  4. Well said. I have a good knowledge of Scottish history from my dad who was eventually able in the 70’s to become what he had always wanted to be a history teacher who had studied our history for himself before entering teacher training and imparted me along the way while also if possible visiting the sites with his extensive knowledge from his research. And thank goodness he did cos I got none at school and I got my O grade history it was all foreign stuff about Cortez American revolution and Russian revolution and of course WW1 I went to St Brides in East Kilbride from 1976 to 1980/81

    Comment by Mags Brown | June 6, 2015 | Reply

    • Things have changed now, since the O Grade was dropped and replaced by different exams which have a stronger Scottish History content. The Scottish Government has ensured more Scottish history is taught as well as our rich heritage in literature.

      Comment by Hugh McMillan | June 8, 2015 | Reply

  5. Reblogged this on Mindhacker8’s Blog.

    Comment by AP | June 8, 2015 | Reply

  6. my 9x great grandfather Ninian Beall was at Dunbar and survived this. he was sentenced to Barbados. He arrived in Maryland in 1652, served a 5 year term of indenture. He became Colonel of the Maryland Militia. He was instrumental in bringing the Presbyterian Church to the colonies. It is his land that makes up the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.

    Comment by Lisa | November 1, 2015 | Reply

    • did he arrive in barbados before or after Maryland?

      Comment by Yvonne Ridley | May 26, 2016 | Reply

  7. My Greaves ancestors came to America from Barbados in the early 1900’s. It wasn’t until I began researching our family history that I found this history. My family name was the Greaves and they lived in St Lucy Parish.

    Comment by Steven Wampler | July 11, 2016 | Reply

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