The ground-breaking legacy of the Scottish Soldiers and the mystery surrounding their lives and death is explored through 'Bodies of Evidence', the newest exhibition at Palace Green Library along with a series of in-depth events, talks and even a walking tour throughout the summer in Durham City. 

Palace Green Library

(C) North News and Pictures

The Discovery

“That’ll be one of them Scottish Soldiers then” The words of an ordinary Durham Digger Operator who was the first to uncover human bones under Palace Green Library in November 2013....

Little did he know that this discovery would set in motion a 2 year investigation, involving teams from Universities and Institutions across the UK who would work together to finally solve the mystery of the Scottish Soldiers, a story that would reach right across the Atlantic Ocean. 

In November of 2013 2 mass burial pits were unearthed in an area being developed as a new café for Palace Green Library in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, left undiscovered for over 350 years. 

Palace Green Library

The Bones tell a story 

The bodies were not laid out in a normal Christian burial manner but appeared to be thrown on top of one another with no trace of clothing or possessions, which ruled out plaque burial pits and so pointed to the likely hood that there were indeed the long forgotten Scottish Soldiers.

Through the work of Durham University’s archelogy team it was confirmed the skeletons were mostly all young men, aged 17 – 23 who more than likely knew one another. 

29 individuals were unearthed in the mass graves and from their bones it was concluded they most likely came from the North of England and Scotland, were all male with no major injuries meaning they all likely died from ill health and not injuries sustained in the Battle of Dunbar. 

Through radiocarbon dating it was confirmed there was a 94% chance the men all died between 1625-1660, which further supported the theory that these were the men marched to Durham after the battle of Dunbar in 1650.

Palace Green Library

Why were they fighting? 

The English Civil War broke out in 1642, caused by the power struggle between King Charles I and Parliament. Events moved quickly with England split into those who supported the king and those who supported Parliament, with towns and villages across the country taking up arms against each other. 

In 1638 Charles tried to impose changes on the Church of Scotland which led to covenanting Scots becoming allies with the English Parliamentary forces, fighting the King throughout the following years. 

In 1649 King Charles I was found guilty of treason and was executed, which altered the dynamics of the Civil War in Scotland as Scots viewed Parliament as heretics who had no right to kill a king. 

The Scots and the Crown united in opposition of Cromwell who had emerged as Lord Protector of England after the execution of King Charles I and supported the claims of Charles II who vowed to uphold and defend the practice and customs of the Church of Scotland. 

The Battle of Dunbar 

It was over in an hour, an hour which would change the lives of all the Scottish Soldiers.

 Cromwell’s superior army defeated the Scottish army, which was mainly made up of inexperienced young men. Around 3000-5000 men were taken prisoner and marched to the then dis-used Durham Cathedral to be held as prisoners of war. 

Across England Cathedrals were put to different uses throughout the Civil War including prisons and work houses with grave yards leased out for grazing. 

Approximately 3000 men made it to Durham after the eight day march with many men dying on route due to illness and malnutrition, some also managed to escape.  

Palace Green Library

(C)The Bigger Picture Agency Ltd

Prisoners of Durham 

When the men arrived in Durham it doubled the population of Durham which was only around 3000 at the time. 

Conditions inside Durham Cathedral were terrible and cramped, with dysentery spreading quickly. It’s believed around 30-40 men died every day and so led experts to believe that the mass grave discover under Palace Green Library may have been just one day’s dead. 

1600 men died within 50 days of arriving at Durham Cathedral. 

Palace Green Library

The Survivors 

Those that were lucky enough to survive the conditions within Durham Cathedral were put to work in industries across England, sent to fight in the French Civil War and 150 men sailed to the edge of the world across the Atlantic as indentured servants.

Of the 150 men who travelled to America, some were involved in Native American attacks, some worked in America’s first Ironworks and one even gave evidence during the infamous Salem Witch Trails. 

There are over half a million decedents of the Scottish soldiers in America alone, including Jon Cryer of ‘Two and a Half Men’ fame who discovered his amazing connection to the Scottish soldiers through filming the TV programme ‘Who do you think you are’.     


We may not know their names, but though this fascinating exhibition and event programme we can finally hear the Scottish Soldiers voices and gain a better understanding of their lives and how a terrible tragedy led to a remarkable legacy which spans the globe.


To learn more about Palace Green Library and the Bodies of Evidence exhibition and events programme click here. 

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