Academic to complete 17th Century Scottish prisoner of war 'death march' from Dunbar to Durham

Megan Olshefski will be completing the 100-mile journey in honour of her Scottish Ancestors. Credit: Durham Cathedral

An academic is retracing the steps of thousands of 17th Century Scottish prisoners-of-war who were put through a 100-mile death march.

Hundreds of captives were marched from the Battle of Dunbar to Durham Cathedral, where many of them died in horrific, unsanitary conditions under Oliver Cromwell’s victorious army.

Some of the survivors were eventually sent around the world, including to the US, settling in New England.

Academic Megan Olshefski has spent years researching the hour-long bloody battle and the week-long march south to Durham that followed.

The 29-year-old Californian will follow the route forced on the 4,000 soldiers, crossing the border at Berwick-upon-Tweed, then on to Belford and Alnwick in Northumberland.

When the famished troops reached Morpeth they took cabbages and root vegetables from walled gardens after days without food.

Via a stop in Newcastle, around 3,000 were eventually kept prisoner at Durham Cathedral and were held there for months.

A lot of the stonework in Durham Cathedral was damaged by the Scottish prisoners of war who were held captive there. Credit: Durham Cathedral

They were kept in squalor and diseases spread in the cramped conditions, and they faced starvation, hypothermia and murderous squabbles over possessions.

Many of the stoneworks in Durham Cathedral today were damaged by the Scottish prisoners of war during the 17th Century. For example the heads of the stone figures (shown in the image above) are missing.

Sixteen hundred prisoners-of-war survived, with the remains of those who died being buried around the cathedral – only to be discovered during building work 10 years ago.

Ms Olshefski, who is studying for a doctorate at Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, has almost completed her research into the captives’ struggles, and their eventual freedom.

Many of the remains of those who died were buried around the cathedral – only to be discovered during building work 10 years ago. Credit: Durham County Council

Setting out on the day of the battle, 3 September, she will follow their route from Dunbar to Durham.

She said: “I plan, where possible, to spend each night on the site of each stop-over and follow a traditional 17th century Scottish diet of the period, which includes oats, peas, fish, brassica and kale.“

Conditions in the cathedral were truly horrific for captives whose ages ranged from just 15 to their mid-20s.

“They used the east end of the cathedral as a toilet and slept when and where they could in the west end because of the chronic lack of floor space.

“My intention in making this trip is to honour all those involved – particularly the ones who did not survive.”

Ms Olshefski will be walking the 100-mile route in honour of her Scottish ancestors.

Ms Olshefski first became immersed in the soldiers’ story when she was a researcher and producer on the American equivalent of the British television programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” when an episode tracked the life of one survivor.

John Adams was sent from captivity to work in a New England ironworks, where prisoners were indentured workers for five to seven years before they were freed to start new, and often long and successful, lives in the US.

Research into this poignant piece of history has been keenly followed by tens of thousands of Americans who are fiercely proud of their Scottish heritage.

Some plan to relive their ancestors’ story by coming to the UK and visiting Scotland and North East England.

The Battle of Dunbar was one of the shortest and most brutal battles of the 17th century civil wars.

In less than an hour, the English Parliamentarian army, under the command of Oliver Cromwell, defeated the Scottish Covenanting army who supported the claims of Charles II to the Scottish throne.

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