Wednesday, October 26, 2016

University of Durham Team Is Reaching Out to the Descendants of 17th Century Scottish Prisoners

The Scottish Prisoners of War research team from the University of Durham, UK

Last night in Saugus, Massachusetts a group of ordinary Americans met up to discuss an archaeological dig in Durham, England.  What did these folks have in common?  Not a common interest in archaeology per se,  but each one had an ancestor who had been forcibly brought to New England in chains as a Scottish prisoner of war in 1650 or 1651 during the English Civil War. 

In 1650 in Dunbar Scotland a force of Scottish soldiers faced the English army led by Cromwell and lost the battle.  Over 6,000 men and boys, mostly between the ages of 13 and 25 years old, were taken captive.  After the wounded were released about 5,000 soldiers were marched towards Durham, in Northeast England for imprisonment.  After the 120 mile march, only 3,000 of these starving men arrive and were locked inside the Durham Cathedral.  The rest had died along the way.  Within the next six weeks, another 1,600 soldiers would die.  Their final resting place would remain a mystery for the next 350 years.  Of the survivors, some were sent to Ireland, some to fight in France, and the rest were sent into forced servitude in the New World.

About 250 of these men were placed aboard the ship Unity, which brought them to labor at Hammersmith, the place now known as the Saugus Ironworks.  They arrived in Massachusetts and were divided up – some sent to the iron works, and others to lumber mills in New Hampshire and Maine.  All were sent to do hard labor in the New World.  These young men never went back to Scotland, but eventually made their way to communities scattered over New England and left large numbers of descendants.

In 2013, during an expansion project at the Durham University, a mass grave was found between the cathedral and Durham castle. The excavation site revealed human remains which have been studied by the Durham University team which examined about 17 – 28 bodies, and partial bodies.  They were all male, all between 13  to 25 years of age, all dated scientifically to the time period of incarceration in the Durham Cathedral in 1650.  It appeared to be the bodies of the Scottish soldiers, which had been tossed into a pit by the castle wall.  The findings were released to the public 2015. 

And so the team from Durham University came to Saugus, Massachusetts last night to explain the science and history behind this discovery.  They met early with the descendants of the Scottish Prisoners of War in New England to discuss the discovery, DNA projects, plans for reburial in Durham, and commemoration plans (a plaque near the discovery site and an upcoming 2018 exhibition in Durham).  This was followed by a public lecture co-sponsored by the National Park Service’s Saugus Ironworks.  It was standing room only, and extremely interesting to descendants, Saugus residents and the general public.

Descendants filled the room during a pre-lecture discussion group.
The lecture itself was standing room only!

Members of the Durham University team
answered questions from descendants
and the general public

If you think you might be descended of one of the Scottish Prisoners of War from the Battle of Dunbar, you could be part of this project.  See the links below for more information and for contacts.
The Durham team will be next visiting Berwick, Maine; Harvard University; Brown University and then Chris Gerrard, the project leader, will be back to the Old Berwick Historical Society for another public lecture (similar to the Saugus lecture) on November 2nd, at 7:30pm at the Berwick Academy’s Whipple Arts Center, in Berwick, Maine). 

Contact information:

Twitter:  @durham_uni    or  @arcDurham  #ScotsSoldiers


Video of the talk given in Saugus 25 October 2016:


For more information on the Scots Prisoners of War sent to New England:
My 2015 blog post:  “Discover of Scots Prisoners of War at Durham Cathedral in England!  How is this important to New England Genealogical Research?”

2016 blogpost:  “City Square Charlestown, Massachusetts – and so many ancestral connections!”

My SPOW ancestor, William Munroe “Surname Saturday ~ Munroe of Lexington, Massachusetts”  

Another SPOW ancestor, Alexander Thompson, “Surname Saturday ~ THOMSON/ THOMPSON of Scotland and Ipswich, Massachusetts”

Scottish Prisoners of War genealogy website:

Scottish Prisoners of War Facebook community


eather Wilkinson Rojo, "University of Durham Team Is Reaching Out to the Descendants of 17th Century Scottish Prisoners", October 25, 2016,  ( accessed [access date]).


  1. Great post, Heather! It was a real pleasure meeting you in person last night, as well!

  2. It was a great presentation. I am glad I made the trip from Western MA.