As there is no FMQs today I thought I would tell the little-known story of the Dunbar Martyrs. It touched me deeply when I first read about it more than a year ago.
On 3 September 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 onto 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 5,000 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 8-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 through the night) and with no food or water, other than what could be scavenged. Of the estimated 5,000 who started the march only around 3,000 were left at the end when they reached their destination on 11 September.
Of the survivors, Durham Cathedral and Castle were used as a makeshift prison and an equivalent disgraceful episode commenced. The condition the Scots were kept in were utterly appalling. Records indicate that the Scots died at an average of 30 a day between 11 September and 31 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 1600 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 desperate 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 for one item - a clock embossed with a carved Scots Thistle, which remains to this day.
Only 1400 of the estimated 5,000 men who started the march from Dunbar were still alive less than two months later, when they were sold as slave labour by their captors. Nine hundred 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.
According to research and a paper written by past Cathedral employee John Cole in 1991, 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. 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 Scots soldiers during works on Palace Green, just outside of the Cathedral. The Cathedral has recently (2008) cast doubt on their earlier conclusions, however, as yet no geophysical survey of the Cathedral landscape has been undertaken to ascertain the existence of the mass grave.
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 have been imprisoned, far from their homes and the graves of their loved ones.
A gentleman called George Wilson has taken up the cause of seeking to have an appropriately inscribed memorial erected to the Scots who perished at Durham. He has worked tirelessly to achieve this and continues to do so. He is also hopeful that a geophysical survey will be undertaken and discussions with the current Cathedral administration have been positive and are ongoing. If anyone should wish to support George’s campaign (non-financial support) please go here and send him an email (scroll down to end). He deserves all the support he can get for such a worthy cause and you’ll get an email now and again with updates.