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After the Battle

The defeat of a Scottish army at the 1650 Battle of Dunbar was just the beginning of an epic ordeal for the survivors

May/June 2017

Dunbar Cromwell Painting


On September 3, 1650, between Doon Hill and the London Road in Dunbar, Scotland, the English Parliamentary army led by Oliver Cromwell battled the Scottish Covenanting army. By this time, the series of conflicts known as the English Civil Wars had raged, off and on, for eight years. At the outset, Cromwell and the Scots had been on the same side, opposed to the royalists who backed King Charles I. The king had been beheaded the previous year, and now the Scots were supporting the royal claim of his son, Charles II.


The Scots are thought to have had as much as a two-to-one advantage in men, and held a superior position on the hill. However, many of the Scots were novices who had been recruited over the summer to replace more experienced soldiers purged from the army for their dissenting political views. When the Scots set out to attack at first light, Cromwell’s forces pounced and made quick work of them. The Battle of Dunbar was over in an hour, with the Scots suffering the overwhelming majority of casualties.


“I imagine it was quite chaotic. Cromwell’s men were trained professionals, and the Scots weren’t in good condition when they went into that battle,” says Chris Gerrard, an archaeologist at the University of Durham. “They had been at war for many years, and the clans were tired of giving up their best to the army. It was just men against boys.”


In the aftermath, several thousand sick and wounded Scottish soldiers were allowed to go home, but some 4,000 others deemed a potential threat were taken prisoner and marched south into England toward Durham, 100 or so miles away. These captives, many still teenagers and away from home for the first time in their lives, were in for a series of horrific travails. Already malnourished, they would suffer extreme privation and languish in unsanitary confines. Those who survived would be dispersed throughout the British Isles and as far afield as North America, where some would go on to lead improbably prosperous lives, with countless descendants living in the United States today. Although generally aware of their Scottish ancestry, many of these descendants knew little of what their seventeenth-century forebears had gone through—until an archaeological excavation produced new evidence of the harrowing events of more than 350 years ago.


As they made their way south toward Durham, the Scottish prisoners were in the charge of Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Cromwell’s governor at Newcastle. He explained what became of them in a letter to the English Council of State for Irish and Scottish Affairs dated October 31, 1650. The captives hadn’t been given a morsel to eat, and 30 miles into the march a number collapsed, claiming they could not go on. Parliamentary troops shot several dozen protesters, and the rest, resigned, continued on their way. Penned into a walled garden for the night farther along, the famished captives dug up raw cabbages and wolfed them down, muddy roots and all, so that they “poysoned their Bodies,” Hesilrige wrote. Based on his account, it seems that around one in four of the captives died on the march to Durham from starvation, exhaustion, execution, or an intestinal condition that he termed “the Flux.”


There is evidence that the Scots thought men would fight in a more “kingly” fashion if they were hungry, Gerrard says, so they probably hadn’t eaten much even before the battle. “They then were marching for six or seven days, and that is quite a time to go without food if you are walking a hundred miles.”



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