Lost lives, New Voices: the fate of Scottish prisoners from the Battle of Dunbar (1650)

On 11 November 1650 the ketch Unity left London carrying 150 Scottish prisoners of war who had been purchased as bonded servants by the Company of Undertakers for the Iron Works in New England. There is no surviving passenger list, so who were these unnamed men and what can we learn about them?

British records show that these men were part of a Scottish army mustered in the spring of 1650. We do not have the names of those recruited, though we have some idea of the places they came from. The army was raised to support the claim of Charles II to the crown of England, where the Parliament had executed his father Charles I and proclaimed a republic.

The English, pre-empting any Scottish invasion, invaded Scotland in July 1650. The two armies skirmished but did not engage in battle until 3 September at Dunbar, when the English won a resounding victory over the Scots. Thousands of prisoners were taken. Cromwell released many because they were wounded or old, but over 4,000 were marched south to England to remove them from the conflict. Some 3,000 were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral, which at that time was merely a large, empty building, as the Puritan government had closed all cathedrals.

“The flux” (almost certainly dysentery) had been rife in both armies before the battle and very rapidly the prisoners started dying from it. Between arriving in Durham on 11 September and a report written on 31 October – a mere 50 days – about 1600 men had died.

Thus we can be sure that the men on the Unity had been through a lot. A battle. An eight day march without food. Imprisonment. Possibly illness. All followed by a six week voyage across the Atlantic.

An inventory of the Iron Works from 1653 names 37 of the men and other records of the Company name a further nine. Others were sold on as servants to English colonists. They have to be identified indirectly, using a combination of their names, records denoting them as ‘Scotch’, and their date of first appearance in New England records. Their fates were varied.

One unlucky man, “Davison ye Scot”, died in Massachusetts before reaching the Iron Works, and the Company bought a winding sheet for him.

Some, having completed their servitude, became settlers on the limits of European settlement in North America. At least a dozen of the men settled in what is now South Berwick, Maine. Here the ‘frontier lot’ was allocated to Micum McIntire. There were also numerous skirmishes with Native Americans. The traces of the houses of several of these men, in the form of collapsed cellar holes, are visible in the woods of southern Maine today.

One of the wealthiest of the Scots was John Upton, whose estate was valued at £981 after his death in 1699. He had accumulated a significant amount of land, a large house, numerous livestock, and ‘a negro boy about 13 years old’. He supported other Scots, by administering their wills, being guardian of their children, and offering hospitality. The latter once landed him in court as his visitor turned out to be a runaway servant who had stolen his master’s clothes!

In 1685 one of prisoners from Dunbar was said to be ‘living now in Woodbridge [New Jersey] like a Scots laird, wishes his countrymen and his native soil well, though he never intends to see it’. Like many of his comrades he seems to have made a better life in exile than he could have anticipated at home.


This work is part of the Scottish Soldiers Project based at Durham University. The results of the project will be fully presented in the book Lost Lives, New Voices, to be published in Spring 2018 and an exhibition Bodies of Evidence at Palace Green Library in Durham from June to October 2018. https://www.dur.ac.uk/scottishsoldiers

Andrew Millard is Associate Professor in Archaeology at Durham University, where he has worked for over 20 years. He has been researching his family tree since he was 10. He is currently Chair of the Trustees of Genuki and Academic Coordinator for the Guild of One-Name Studies. In archaeology he specialises in dating and chemical analysis of bones and teeth to study diet and migration. The project he will talk about has combined his work in archaeological science with 17th century genealogy and history.

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