THE remains of 17th-century Scottish soldiers discovered in a mass grave near Durham Cathedral will be reburied close to where they were found, despite a campaign to have them returned north of the border.
The decision by Durham University follows extensive consultation both in the city and in Scotland. The remains of up to 28 Highlanders were unearthed in 2013 during work at the University’s Palace Green Library. They were among 1700 Scots supporters of Charles II, captured during the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, and held in squalid conditions at the cathedral, which had been suppressed by Oliver Cromwell. Many died from starvation, disease, and cold.
Their identification attracted widespread interest in Scotland, and 1000 people signed a petition by the Scottish historian George Wilson for their return.
But on Wednesday, the University announced that the remains would be buried in the cemetery of St Oswald’s, only a few hundred yards from where they were found. The original burial site will be marked with a plaque made from Dunbar stone.
In a statement, the University said that, given the incomplete nature of the skeletons, “limiting the distance between those remains that have been exhumed and those still in the original mass graves was the most ethically responsible course of action”. Also, keeping them as close as possible to their comrades “would be morally appropriate”. The Ministry of Justice exhumation rules require reburial in the closest site available.
The University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Arts and Humanities, Professor David Cowling, said: “We were acutely aware of the strength and depth of interest amongst many about the fate of these soldiers, whilst at the same time recognising our ethical, moral, and legal obligations. In the end, it was felt that the case for reburying the remains in Durham and also commemorating them here with a plaque was strongest.”
A plaque in Durham Cathedral dedicated to the soldiers, which was installed in 2011, will be updated to reflect the fact that the final resting place of the soldiers is now known.
The reburial will be late next year, after further research by the University, which will also retain some teeth for future research when new techniques are developed.
Canon Rosalind Brown, of Durham Cathedral, who was involved in the consultation, said: “I am in touch with the Episcopal Church and the Church of Scotland, and I think they will lead on a memorial service which will be for everybody who fought in the battle, not just the few prisoners whose remains have been found, but we don’t yet know where it will be.
“Meanwhile, the remains will be buried in a simple graveside service. Research that we have done on 17th-century burial rites indicated that during the Commonwealth period, bodies were buried with dignity, but you didn’t have readings or prayers because you could do nothing for the dead. You might adjourn to the local church to hear an exhortation to remember your own death, but there was no burial liturgy at all.
“We will work with St Oswald’s to ensure there is a dignified ceremony which will involve people from Scotland, possibly using Scottish soil.”