Scottish Soldiers' Mass Grave

This week I visited the mass grave at Palace Green, Durham, of Scottish soldiers after Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar in September 1650. 3000 prisoners of war had been marched down from Scotland to Durham where they could be held without their being able to re-join a Scottish army.

The cathedral was no longer used for public worship under the Commonwealth and it was the largest lockable building in the area. It therefore became the Scotsmen’s prison. Remains were discovered in 2011 while constructing a café near Windy Gap. In an area little larger than a car bonnet, a number of bodies were found, jumbled together without clothing or funerary objects.

Windy Gap; the grave found was the other wide of this wall, and presumably under the pavement. 

The university’s Archaeology Department set to studying the remains. 17-28 bodies were examined (it wasn’t clear how many there were on account of the jumbling) and they had to establish whether these were the Scottish prisoners or just the denizens of a medieval plague pit. The following conclusions were drawn:

  • Dental evidence suggested that 5 were aged 13-17, 7 were 17-19 and few were older.
  • Teeth all showed evidence poor diet and stress, corresponding to the famines in Scotland over the previous two decades (interesting, one would have been unborn when his teeth enamel first recorded the stress of starvation)
  • They were all male or unsexed (ie impossible to tell)
  • There was plenty of evidence of scurvy, smoke and dust pollution and even evidence of textile work- one tooth had been marked by frequent threading as well as pipe smoking.
  • Isotope analysis showed 5 were from Scotland, 5 from Scotland or Northern England 3 from the continent.
  • Radiocarbon dating placed them 1612-1754, with a 95% certainly of their living 1625-1660.

This allowed researchers to say with certainty that these men were the poor Scottish prisoners. Of the 3000 initially incarcerated, 1700 of them died in the city and are there buried. The remaining 1,670 are still underground; those exhumed are to be given formal burial next month complete with a memorial stone from a Dunbar quarry.

Let’s not forget: puritan England was in many respects a grim place. English puritans thought nothing of imprisoning thousands of Presbyterian Scots, some as young as thirteen. It also raises questions about reburial: these are human remains not mere artefacts. The University of Durham consulted widely on whether the remains should go home to Scotland. It was decided to keep them in Durham so they might rest with their comrades, but not perhaps in the Cathedral, the place of their captivity.

You can read more about it here: