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Richard Annis, senior archaeologist at Durham University, spoke to the society about the Scottish soldiers who had taken part in the Battle of Dunbar on September 3, 1650.
Although General David Leslie, the Scottish commander, had an army of younger and less experienced men, he decided to make the first move against the English, led by Oliver Cromwell. After an hour, he had lost his entire baggage train, thousands of his troops were dead and thousands more were prisoners.
Cromwell would normally have released the injured on parole after removing their weapons, but Dunbar was in the grip of famine so he ordered supplies and sent the 3,500 prisoners to North East England. They would march the 110 miles to Durham.
They were hungry as the kirk ministers had said they would fight better if they didn’t eat before battle. After the first day those who hadn’t died on the road reached Berwick, where they were held in the castle overnight. Some were killed by their captors “to save the others”. Some may have escaped or killed themselves.
They stopped at Alnwick and Morpeth, having to eat cabbages growing by the wayside. When they reached Newcastle, they were locked in a church. During the Commonwealth, churches were used to store ammunition and as stabling or barracks. There were secure and ideal for prisons.
The Scottish military officers were sent to Tynemouth and funds were raised in Scotland for them. The other ranks now had daily bread rations, pottage and cabbage, but their bodies were too weak to cope.
The survivors, about 3,000 men, were marched to Durham where they not only doubled the size of the town, but ended up in the cathedral. Many had dysentery and they were still short of food. Major Clark reported on October 31, 1650, that 350 prisoners from the Highlands were reasonably well, but 1,600 had died, some by their own hand.
No one knew where the bodies had been buried until 2013 when it was mooted to build a café at Palace Green Library.
Builders moved into the area between the Bishop’s garden and stables. Almost immediately two skulls were uncovered, then bones, so archaeologists replaced the builders.
It was such a confined area that the work had to be carried out in segments. All the bodies were tightly packed and jumbled up, with no artefacts. They had been buried naked and in haste. Between 17 and 28 bodies were in two graves.
Skeletal analysis showed they were all male and predominantly in their teens or 20s. Young males buried hastily in a mass grave that wasn’t a plague pit is quite rare.
One had sucked a pipe for so long that he had worn a groove between his teeth. Thirteen of the skeletons had a full set of teeth. Isotopic analysis of the enamel showed that five had originated either from Scotland or the North of England. Three were from outside the British Isles, possibly the Low Countries.
Radiocarbon dating showed a 94.5 per cent certainty that the men had died between 1625 and 1660. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes from tooth dentine showed dietary stress in the men’s youth. Their diet had consisted mainly of milk, oats, wheat and leafy greens.
Some 1,600 of the men survived. Some were sent to Ireland or France to work in weaving, mining, or as labourers. Some went to work at the salt pans in the Forth, or to the biggest civil engineering programme of the age – the digging of the Fens, where they wore white coats and hats to be easily identified.
Some 150 men were sent by boat from Newcastle to join the ship Unity in the Thames. They were the fittest so that they might survive the journey. It sailed on November 11, 1650, for New England, although some were dropped off in Barbados or Virginia.
It took six weeks for 120 of them to make the crossing to Boston, from whence they were sent to Lynn or Hammersmith, the site of the first ironworks in the United States. They would work in the saw mills, chopping timber for building or for the ironworks.
A 1653 list of indentured servants included John Toish, whose job was to check ore and weigh the wagons, John Taylor, the constable, who also served on the grand jury, and Thomas Tower, the hammerman. These were all former prisoners from Dunbar.
After working for a specified number of years, all the indentured servants would become free men. However, there was some tension as the first swamp fight was recorded in 1675 when some settlers got into trouble with the Puritans.
The descendants of these prisoners have researched their histories, recorded gravestones and studied wills and inventories of their houses. In some instances, they have erected plaques where their original homes stood. John Waren, a Covenanter, has a plaque at the site of his house in Block Island and Michael McIntyre “settled here”, near South Berwick.
Others left very little. The Scots Charitable Society was set up in Boston in 1657, the oldest one in existence.
In 2016, the research team from Durham were invited to Massachusetts to meet descendants of the Scottish prisoners, give lectures and exchange information.
The work in Durham is now complete. Arrangements are being made to reinter the skeletons with rather more ceremony than initially accorded.
There will be an exhibition, Bodies Of Evidence: How Science Unearthed Durham’s Dark Secret, at Durham’s Palace Green Library from June 9 to October 7.
Our next lecture is on Monday, May 14, when Colm O’Brian, visiting fellow in medieval archaeology at Newcastle University, will describe how he discovered a lost Lindisfarne estate.
Mr O’Brian has excavated in Northumberland and has taught at Newcastle and Sunderland universities. He is interested in the Age of Bede, and co-directs the Bernician studies group, with projects in Northumberland and County Donegal.
The lecture will take place in Berwick Parish Church (Holy Trinity), off The Parade, Berwick, at 7.30pm.