Following the trail of the 1650 Scottish Prisoners

A Summary of the Battle of Dunbar and the Scots of Berwick, Maine

Map from Old Berwick Historical Society collection.  In January, 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s anti-Royalist forces executed King Charles I of England in London. Until that time, Scotland had sided with Cromwell in the English Civil War. But the king had been born in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and his murder dismayed his northern countrymen, who later that year defied the English Commonwealth by proclaiming as king his son, Charles II.

Above, a map in the Counting House Museum archives shows the Scottish coast at about this period. Edinburgh, far left, is about 20 miles (32 km) from Dunbar, at far right, where armies of Scotland and England would clash over the fate of the monarchy. (Berwick-upon-Tweed and the English border are another 20 miles (32 km) further along the coast to the southeast, beyond the right edge of the map.)

 In the summer of 1650, Cromwell marched an army of 11,000 soldiers and 5,000 horsemen to Scotland to seize control of the castle at Edinburgh. In 2005 the view from the castle of the terrain where Cromwell would have appeared 355 summers earlier could still be seen looking east toward the Firth of Forth.
 Cromwell’s army reached Musselburgh, but was unable to capture Edinburgh in July or August.
 An army of 22,000 Scots, led by David Leslie, pushed Cromwell’s much smaller force back to Dunbar on the Firth of Forth. Here English supply ships moored, but the English army suffered from disease and starvation. The coast north of Dunbar today is bleak, as it must have been then.
 Dunbar’s High Street in 2005.
 On September 1 and 2 the Scots, having chased the English to Dunbar, took up a safe position on a hill south of town, but abandoned it to launch an attack during stormy weather on September 3. When the English counterattacked, about 3,000 Scots were killed and 10,000 captured. Today the Highway A1 winds through the battlefield area south of Dunbar.
 After the battle, Cromwell moved on to Edinburgh and seized the castle, where some 17th century defenses are still preserved today. Charles II invaded England with a Royalist Scottish army, but was crushed by Cromwell at Worcester in September 1651. The king fled, and Cromwell ruled a United Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland for nine years.
 Meanwhile, in September, 1650, Scottish soldiers captured at Dunbar who were found to be fit for labor were rounded up for servitude in such English projects as salt works, the weaving industry, and colonies in America. Largely unskilled and aged between 19 and 25, these men had been conscripts raised by the Scottish Parliament from villages and clans all over Scotland. They first were marched south from Dunbar toward the English border, following the approximate route of today’s Highway A1. For many of these young men, the panorama of Berwickshire’s wide rolling hills, with the North Sea off to the east, was they last ever saw of Scotland.
 At the English border, the Scottish covenanters were taken through Berwick-upon-Tweed, shown here in 2005. They had now marched over 20 miles (32 km) from Dunbar, and were hungry and thirsty. Many drank unsafe water along they way and began to succumb to disease.
 About 90 miles (145 km) from Dunbar, an estimated 3000 Scottish prisoners reached Durham on September 11 after a week of marching with little food or water. Arriving from Newcastle, they likely crossed the River Wear over the 12th century Framwellgate Bridge that still stands today beneath Durham Castle. In 1650 the castle was already almost 600 years old. It served as a hospital for some of the dying soldiers.
 Durham’s Norman cathedral, which had been built between 1093 and 1280, served a Benedictine monastery until 1540 and is now an Anglican church and tourist landmark in the midst of the University of Durham, became a prison for the Scottish captives in the late autumn of 1650. Prisoners and guards stripped the cathedral interior to fuel their fires. Deaths from starvation and dysentery continued, at times reportedly as high as 100 per day. Altogether, the death toll among the Dunbar captives has been estimated at 1600.
 About two months after the battle of Dunbar, about 150 surviving Scottish captives were sent by sea to London, and on November 11, 1650 they were put aboard the ship Unity bound for Boston. Southern Maine, then part of Massachusetts, was an important timber source for the British Navy and the English colonies. There, not far from today’s forest in Vaughan Wood’s State Park in South Berwick, water-powered mills were being built on the upper Piscataqua River, a tidal estuary known as the Newichawannock (today Salmon Falls) River, and its tributaries. Laborers were needed.
 Iron sawblades and other iron tools were also needed to process lumber for English shipbuilding and trade. About 60 Scots who made the long sea voyage were sent to work at the Saugus, Massachusetts, iron works, then called Hammersmith, an important source of New England’s iron. Some of its iron was likely already in use at Humphrey Chadbourne’s Maine sawmill on a tributary of the Newichawannock. Many iron tools and sawblade fragments have been recently found at the Chadbourne Archaeology Project and are displayed today at the Counting House Museum.
 About 25 of the Scots were brought up the Newichawannock River with an English engineer named Richard Leader, who had directed the Saugus Iron Works. Leader was granted 400 acres that included an abandoned mill upstream from Humphrey Chadbourne’s mill on the tributary, in a gorge below the present-day Brattle Street bridge in South Berwick. Here in 1634, Chadbourne’s father had helped build some of the first mill works in America under John Mason. In early 1651 Leader set his Scottish laborers to work on a gang of 20 saws. The increased output inspired the name Great Works for the site and the tributary. A woolen mill later stood here, and electricity is generated to this day.
 After gaining their freedom, James Warren, Peter Grant, David Hamilton and other Scottish veterans lived the rest of their lives 3600 miles (5,793 km) from home, along the tidal Newichawannock (Salmon Falls) River, where waters flowing in from the ocean formed the boundary of Maine and New Hampshire.
 The names Berwick and Great Works can be traced to the forces and fate that roiled Britain in the mid-1600s and swept some young men across the Atlantic along with a new technology.


      (Text and photos by W. Pirsig with research assistance by Bruce Tucker, Emerson W. Baker, and Norma Keim. Sources: The Scots at Hammersmith by Stephen P. Carlson, 1976; National Library of Scotland, “Scotland’s Pages; Scotland’s Written History”; Downeast Ancestry; Dunbar, 1650: Cromwell’s Most Famous Victory, by Stuart Reid, 2004; Pocket History of Scotland, by Dr. James Mackay, 2004; “The First Permanent Settlement in Maine,” by Everett S. Stackpole, 1926; Ironworks on the Saugus by E. N. Harley, 1957; “A Short Guide to Durham Cathedral,” 2003; The Chadbourne Family in America: A Genealogy, 1994, compiled by Elaine C. Bacon for The Chadbourne Family Association, and edited by Deborah L. Chadbourne; archives of the Saugus Iron Works; From Kittery to Kansas: One Line of the Grants Traced through 400 Years by W. D. Grant, 2000; York Deeds, Vol. III, Preface.    Updated December 2020.)