Scottish Prisoners of War in Durham Cathedral: An Interview with Chris Gerrard

This is part of our special feature on Crime and Punishment.

Between June 9th and October 7th, 2018, the Palace Green Library of Durham University hosted the exhibition “Bodies of Evidence: How science unearthed Durham’s dark secret.” This display forms part of a much larger, interdisciplinary research project investigating the remains of seventeenth-century Scottish prisoners of war discovered in the grounds of the cathedral square in November 2013. EuropeNow caught up with the Scottish Soldiers Project’s research team leader, Professor Chris Gerrard (Durham), to discuss the soldiers’ experiences and the project’s success. 

— Christopher P. Gillett for EuropeNow


EuropeNow For those who are unfamiliar, could you give a brief synopsis of who the Scottish soldiers were and how they wound up in Durham?

Chris Gerrard In the summer of 1650, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland. On the face of it, this was a curious strategy because the Scots had been allies to the Parliamentarian cause up to this point. But now that Charles I had lost his head on the scaffold, the Covenanter Scots had sided with his son, the future Charles II. After a cat-and-mouse military campaign, which stretched the supply chain of the English army to breaking point, Cromwell eventually retreated to the coastal harbor at Dunbar, south-east of Edinburgh. The Scots were a much larger army, perhaps double the size of the English, and they were able to cut off Cromwell’s escape route south. Against the odds, on the morning of September 3rd, the English won a wholly surprising but overwhelming victory, taking about 9,000 prisoners. Of these men, about 3,900 Scots were marched south across the border. Some were shot along the march, others escaped but conditions were brutal, in particular because disease infected the prisoners. Around 3,000 men reached Durham eight days later and were locked inside the cathedral.

EuropeNow Why were the Scottish soldiers held in the cathedral?

Chris Gerrard Quite simply, Durham Cathedral was the largest secure building south of the border with Scotland. Most jails at this time were small, housing a few dozen men at most, so a different solution was required once so many prisoners had been captured. Cromwell had spared the defeated Scots—there were no executions as there had been in other battles during the Civil Wars, but he did need to get them away from the battlefield quickly. Durham Cathedral was empty and had not used for worship since 1646, so this was an ideal location.

EuropeNow Parliamentarian forces sometimes allowed their defeated enemies to go home if they swore never to take up arms against Parliament again. On other occasions, the New Model Army incorporated former royalist soldiers into their own ranks. What made the Scottish soldiers different?

Chris Gerrard We can never know the answer for sure because Cromwell does not tell us and there are no surviving accounts on the Scots side. My view is that Cromwell had not contemplated such a crushing victory. He was more intent on making a break for the border, so the sheer number of prisoners taken was a complete surprise to him. He had to make contingencies quickly, so he immediately sent home the old, the very young and the wounded – or so he tells us in his letters to Parliament. He himself wished to drive his army further into Scotland and did not wish to be detained, so he passed responsibility for the prisoners over to Sir Arthur Haselrigge, the Parliamentarian commander in Newcastle, and made only some brief recommendations as to what might be done with them. It is clear from Cromwell’s remarks, even within only a few hours of the battle, that he was thinking of involving the men in his campaigns in Ireland and using them in labor-intensive schemes such as the draining of the Fens near Ely. Both were projects with which he was very familiar.

EuropeNow How long was their imprisonment?

Chris Gerrard The last Dunbar prisoners were released to return home in July 1652, though most were sent into other employment well before that date. Those who were sent as indentured servants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, were given permission to set sail from the Thames on the 11th of November 1650.

EuropeNow The death-rate for the prisoners seems stark to modern sensibilities. Of roughly 3,000 initial prisoners, 1,600 died while imprisoned in the cathedral. What were the conditions of imprisonment like for the soldiers? Were they exceptionally poor for the standards of the time?

Chris Gerrard Even the most sympathetic interpretation would agree that the prisoners must have been cold and tired. It had also been a very wet summer and a long campaign so the conditions for an eight day march were undoubtedly difficult. Some of the Scots had been fighting on and off for many years. In addition, the ordinary soldiers had been separated from their officers, who were held in Tynemouth Castle near Newcastle. They had no idea what would become of them and must have been anxious and low in morale. Once more, the cathedral was extraordinarily cramped. Even during a large modern event only about 1600 can be seated inside the cathedral nave and aisles, so it is hard to imagine how so many men were accommodated. There would not have been enough space for everyone to lie down so perhaps they took it in turns to sleep.

That said, if Haselrigge’s letters are to be believed then the men were given braziers and coal and fed too. The scorch marks on the walls and paving stones of the cathedral would support that claim in part. Milk was brought in from villages around the city, which had almost doubled overnight so provisioning such a large number of men at such short notice would not have been without its challenges. Overall, there is nothing to suggest that the conditions themselves were unusually poor and it was certainly Parliament’s intention to move the prisoners out and into other tasks as quickly as possible. Haselrigge was not slow to deploy some men in his own coal mines and in local industries like salt works and textile manufacture.

EuropeNow Given the death rate, how seriously should we take the pleas of Parliamentarian leaders, like Oliver Cromwell and Sir Arthur Haselrigge, that the soldiers should be, and were being, treated humanely?

Chris Gerrard It was in no-one’s interests to keep so many men locked up for a lengthy period and that was never the intention. The situation inside the cathedral slipped out of control. Once the ‘flux’ took hold, dysentery as we would call it, disease spread quickly. The cramped spaces, of course, did little to help. Vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea are just some of the symptoms and although Haselrigge brought in physicians and nurses and moved the sickest to the castle, 1,600 were dead within six weeks. That is a rate of about 30 men a day.

EuropeNow How were the remains found in the first place?

Chris Gerrard The 29 skeletons were found in two mass graves during routine construction for a new café on University property. The site lies within Durham’s World Heritage Site but nothing of significance had been found during recent groundworks in the immediate vicinity and it was only when deeper excavation was required for a new fire exit that human remains were identified by the archaeologist present. She immediately recognized the bones as human and work on the foundations was then halted for a few days while the remains were excavated and removed.

EuropeNow How did you determine that the remains were in fact soldiers, rather than plague victims?

Chris Gerrard Mass graves are often an indication of plague pits and it was only when the human remains were back in the laboratory in the Department of Archaeology and carefully cleaned that the bioarchaeologist undertaking the analysis realized that all the skeletons were of men. Once their individual ages were estimated it also became clear that they were mostly aged between 13 and 25 years of age. If this had been a plague pit then we would have expected the very young, more mature adults and women too. We then developed some new dating techniques, which enabled to refine the radio-carbon dating of the men to around 1650 and, taken together, that enabled us to pinpoint the human remains as some of the Dunbar prisoners.

EuropeNow Despite being members of a Scottish army, some of the soldiers were actually not Scottish. Some have been identified as being from northern Europe. Can you offer some insight into what techniques you used to identify the origins of the skeletons?

Chris Gerrard We undertook an analysis of the oxygen and strontium isotopes present in their teeth. This provides a kind of GPS signal which pins down the location of the men at different times in their lives. Oxygen is found in drinking water, which in the 17th century we can safely assume to have been locally sourced, while strontium is present in the plants we eat in our diet and taken up from the underlying geology. This demonstrated their origins to be Scottish or from northern England in most cases, something which has more recently been confirmed by DNA work. Some of [the] men, as you say, did not fit that pattern and they had been raised outside the British Isles, probably somewhere around the Baltic coastline. They could be mercenaries, foreigners who fought in the Scottish army and we know of several cases where that happened. Alternatively, they might be the children of Scots living abroad in Denmark, Sweden or Poland who returned “home” to fight. There were sizeable communities of Scots across Europe at this period, some of whom had gone to fight in the Thirty Years War.

EuropeNow I was chatting with one of the docents at the exhibition, and she said the following: “In Durham, everyone knew the tale of the Scottish soldiers, but it turns out they didn’t know the tale at all.” How much was the story of the Scottish soldiers part of the popular imagination before the discovery of the remains?

Chris Gerrard The story of the Scottish soldiers has never gone away. There have been rumors of mass graves somewhere near the cathedral and various claims have been made in the past as to their possible location. So the Scottish soldiers have always been part of the history of this city and particularly of its cathedral, which of course attracts large numbers of visitors. On the day that the first human remains were found the driver of the digger was quick to identify them as Scottish soldiers and many people in Durham will have learnt about the Dunbar prisoners in school. What’s fascinating is that the graves we discovered had in fact been seen before on several occasions in the 18th to 20th centuries. We found the scar of a shovel blade…on one of the skeletons. Perhaps these earlier workmen assumed that the bodies they had found were part of the cathedral cemetery or perhaps they thought it was better not to say anything. We will never know.

EuropeNow Has the exhibition challenged popular views about the soldiers? I’ve heard others explain that they used to be referred to colloquially as the “wicked” Scottish soldiers.

Chris Gerrard It is often claimed that the soldiers did damage to the tombs in the cathedral as well as burning all the woodwork inside. It is precisely this damage which was condemned at the Restoration (of the monarchy) in 1660 and has been remembered ever since. From our research we believe that the men did burn some of the cathedral fittings but we have to remember that the cathedral had been unused since 1646 and that the Scots had been in Durham on more than one occasion over the previous decade. The date 1647 can be seen on one of the late medieval tombs in the south aisle which must have been etched into the alabaster when the cathedral was empty and perhaps being used for other purposes such as storage. Events over that decade may well have become conflated and perhaps there was a tendency for the English to blame the Scots for damage they were innocent of. Unfortunately, documentary evidence for this period is thin.

As to their “wickedness,” this is a term used by Haselrigge as he sought to explain why so many of the prisoners had died. He felt some of the Scots were brutal towards each other and this may have been the case, there were certainly Gaelic speakers, English-speaking lowlanders and probably foreigners incarcerated in the cathedral and many reasons why arguments might have broken out among the men. The English guards were not blameless either; one was accused of making off with the lectern. Ultimately, neither Cromwell nor the Scots would have regarded Durham Cathedral or any other church as a sacred space. Both sides used these buildings as convenient warehouses and billets and, ultimately, if the Commonwealth had endured then the cathedral buildings would have been converted into a new university. Indeed, New College was established in Durham in 1656 but closed again at the Restoration. Ironically, it was probably because of these proposals that the cathedral buildings survived so well.

EuropeNow What institutions did you work with internationally? How important is the international component to the project?

Chris Gerrard Archaeologists tend to be team-players and like to work with historians, historic buildings specialists, geographers and all kinds of scientists to get to the answers they need. That is particularly the case for those archaeologists working in the historic periods as we were here. Although the Durham Department of Archaeology did undertake the isotope and DNA research for the project, we asked colleagues at Bradford, Liverpool John Moores and York [Universities] to help out with aspects of the skeleton science which we could cover. This brought wholly new perspectives to the project. In addition, there were specialists in 17th century British history who we talked to and who commented on our work and we had considerable help from the other side of the Atlantic too, both from independent researchers and institutions such as Salem State University and the US National Parks Service. We visited some of the US-linked sites in 2016 and gave a series of public lectures in the Boston area. Without the enthusiasm of all these people we would not have been able to proceed.

EuropeNow At the exhibition, I overheard two different visitors chatting to each other and both claimed descent from former Scottish prisoners: one was from the south of England and the other was from Massachusetts. Has the level of international interest in the project and the exhibition surprised you in any way?

Chris Gerrard I remember receiving the Google analytics for the number of hits on the Scottish Soldiers website in the days after the announcement of the results and seeing a big red circle over the east coast of America. Since then I have had an email or two most days from the US descendants of those survivors who were transported to Boston in late 1650. I was also contacted by the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? and ended up filming a program with them in December 2017 with the actor Jon Cryer, best known for his role in the comedy sitcom Two and A Half Men. Over 11 million people watch that series in the US and the associated social media brought a number of new contacts of Dunbar descendants. Over the last 18 months we have been able to establish a reasonably reliable list of the men who we think sailed to Boston in 1650, and we hope to define that list further if we can. The descendants themselves are an incredible bunch and very active researchers in their own right. So far though we have been less successful in tracing what became of the 500 men who were sent to fight in France, and the 500 men who were sent to the Fens to dig drains, but we have high hopes that something will come to light and we will not give up trying.

EuropeNow The project has proven to be truly interdisciplinary: various dimensions of the project have included the initial discovery and excavation, the exhibition, school outreach, creating an online course, and even the writing and production of a play about the Scottish soldiers’ experiences. Have you had much experience with projects this wide-ranging before? How has this project taken you out of your “comfort zone” as a scholar?

Chris Gerrard I think I left my comfort zone behind on Day 1! I have been involved in many different archaeological projects over the years, some of which may have more academic impact than this one, but I have never experienced such engagement and impact. Someone said to me that if you push the wheel of any project hard enough and long enough if you have a little luck then eventually the wheel will begin to move by itself. It’s one way of saying that many other people have committed time and energy to this project, sometimes just by coming forward and offering to help and expanding the project in a different direction, sometimes because we have deliberately sought out like-minded individuals and asked them how to get something done . It’s been a combination of ideas which, on the one hand, we feel we would like to take forward ourselves, like the online course, and on the other, people more creative than me sensing that the Dunbar story has modern relevance and resonance, perhaps particularly around themes such as identity, immigration, warfare, memory and loss. The Brothers Gillespie, for example, visited the exhibition and have written several extraordinary tracks inspired by the soldiers, Cap-a-Pie a local theatre group performed a moving play which focused on their personal stories and we helped out with the writing and production where we could. For the exhibition we had Durham students editing videos and writing music. We could have done none of this without the support of some marvelous people in Culture Durham, the support of Durham University and my academic colleagues in the Scottish Soldiers research team. Although I have coordinated large projects before (I was in commercial archaeology before I became an academic) it’s rare to find a project which runs for so many years and is still coming up with new directions and ideas.

EuropeNow Apart from working with other departments, you had to liaise with a number of government ministries. Can you describe that aspect of the project?

Chris Gerrard We had a dedicated period of stakeholder engagement during which we made contact with all the relevant bodies who might have had a view on the commemoration of the burial site and the reburial of the human remains. This list included UNESCO (because this is a World Heritage Site), Scottish members of Parliament, local authorities and many experts in the field of human remains. This work was supported throughout by the Vice-Chancellor’s office at Durham University, in part because of the added dimension that the “developer” of the site in this case happened to be University. We also had public and invited meetings in Dunbar and Durham, opened up channels of communication through social media, a blog, a series of videos and a dedicated website where we placed all the details of our research. We worked hard to keep the online information as up-to-date as possible and we will continue to do that over the coming years as new results come forward.

EuropeNow On a practical level, as research team lead for the project how did you manage the different concerns of various involved parties? Were there occasions where you had to serve as a “translator” between different sets of expectations and/or emphases of those involved in the project?

Chris Gerrard Some people do expect instant results and archaeological science and historical research takes time and careful consideration. For instance, DNA analysis might take 6 months to complete and I appreciate that, if you have been waiting to answer questions about your family history for 40 years, these delays are frustrating when the answers might seem so close. Most projects do not generate this volume of public expectation and just answering emails can sometimes feel like a full-time job. My inbox has taken on a life of its own at times in the past three years. In addition, everyone on the research team has other jobs as teachers, researchers and administrators in a big Archaeology department and we have had to fit this project around our already busy lives. So there were expectations to be managed on all sides. For my own part, much of my own research has had to be placed to one side for the time being in order to meet deadlines around books and exhibitions but I feel the project is worth it. It has been a hugely rewarding experience.

EuropeNow The exhibition is forthright about the fact that the issue of where the soldiers’ remains were to be reburied raised a lot of impassioned and divergent opinions. Some felt quite strongly that they should be returned to Scotland. But they were ultimately buried at Elvet Hill Road Cemetery in Durham. How did the decision ultimately get made? What was the reasoning behind choosing this location?

Chris Gerrard Particularly in Australia, New Zealand and North America, the repatriation of human remains is (rightly) a subject of active debate in archaeology. In this case, there was a petition of more than 1,000 signatures asking for reburial in Scotland. Some expressed the view that Dunbar was the proper place of burial, while others suggested Edinburgh or Stirling. We decided on a burial in Durham for several reasons. First, none of the burials was complete and we felt that reburial should minimize the distance from the undisturbed burials which are still in the ground. Second, we had excavated 28 individuals from a total of at least 1600 who were dead by the end of October 1650. This is a tiny proportion of the whole prisoner cohort affected and one opinion routinely voiced during the consultation period was that the dead should not be widely separated given that they had fought and marched together. Finally, current practice for archaeology and human remains in the UK is that the nearest cemetery to the findspot should be used where practicable. The ‘GPS’ I mentioned when discussing the isotope results is certainly not accurate enough to indicate a particular place of origin. On that basis, human remains retrieved during archaeological excavations in the UK are not ‘repatriated’ to, for example, Iraq in the case of The Roman soldiers who manned Hadrian’s Wall, or Switzerland in the case of the Bronze Age “Amesbury Archer”. It is, however, an ongoing discussion and as our ideas about science and ethics evolve and change so too will public expectation.

EuropeNow What next for this project? What do you hope is the lasting impact?

Chris Gerrard Next for me and this project will be to develop the online learning package which we hope will tell the Scottish Soldiers story to a much wider audience. At the same time there will be new research by others on the soldiers who were sent to the Fens (we are partners in a successful HLF bid there to bring the story to local communities) and those who went to France in 1651 and disappeared off the historical radar. Several US descendants have also offered their time and energy to help to fill some of the gaps in the story there, in particular those who seem to have been sent as indentured servants to Barbados and Virginia. In terms of archaeological science, we are thinking now about new research we might do on their DNA and perhaps a more ambitious US/UK partnership which brings together research on both sides of the Atlantic into the 17th century diaspora.

Perhaps the lasting impact of the Dunbar story is to allow these unidentified men a chance to tell their own story through their remains. We do not know their names, of course, we never will, but we have shown that the past is very much alive in the present and we hope that their stories, however humble, are not forgotten again.


Chris Gerrard is a Professor of Archaeology at Durham University and research team leader for the Scottish Soldiers Project. A book about the discoveries, “Lost Lives, New Voices”, is available now. He has recently co-edited “The Oxford Handbook of Later Medieval Archaeology in Britain” and is directing a major Leverhulme Trust project on historic earthquakes.

Christopher P. Gillett is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Scranton and Thoits Visiting Fellow at the Durham Residential Research Library for autumn 2018. A specialist on seventeenth-century religious and political history in the British world, his chapter “Probabilism, Pluralism, and Papalism” will appear in James Kelly’s and Hannah Thomas’s edited volume Jesuit Intellectual and Physical Exchange between England and Mainland Europe, c.1580-1789: ‘The World is Our House’? (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming 2018).

Published on November 8, 2018.


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