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US historian honours Scottish soldiers imprisoned in Durham Cathedral during English Civil War

15 September 2023

Geoff Kitson

Megan Olshefski (holding flowers) pays her respects

Megan Olshefski (holding flowers) pays her respects

A HISTORIAN has retraced an infamous “death march” by thousands of Scottish soldiers who were taken prisoner during the English Civil War and incarcerated in Durham Cathedral.

Megan Olshefski, a Californian studying for a doctorate at Durham University, first learned about the Scottish soldiers in 2018 when she researched one of their descendants, the American actor John Cryer, for the US version of the genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are?

The soldiers were captured by the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Dunbar, in 1650, and force-marched to Durham. Of the 4000 prisoners, about one quarter died or escaped on the 90-mile journey, and many more died of disease or starvation in the cathedral. Two years later, some of the survivors were transported to the American colonies.

Miss Olshefski, whose doctorate examines the captives’ story, said: “We know about the 150 or so who went to New England. They served their time as indentured servants, and then chose to stay in the colonies. They can be traced in historical records, and their descendants today are fiercely proud of their Scottish heritage.

“But I have often wondered about those we don’t know: those lost on the walk and during the imprisonment. They are just numbers. There has been a question mark there for me. Who are these men?

Geoff KitsonMegan Olshefski (holding flowers) is welcomed at Durham Cathedral with her cousin Alison Pieper (left) who accompanied her on the last leg into Durham

“This hike was a way to put myself in their shoes as much as I can, and honour them. Few details exist of where any were buried. There is just one known graveyard, in Newcastle.”

She set out on 3 September, the 373rd anniversary of the battle, stopping overnight in the same locations where the captives camped — Berwick, Belford, Alnwick, Morpeth, and Newcastle — and arrived in Durham a week later. The original route followed the approximate line of today’s A1, but she diverted to more minor roads to get a flavour of the terrain the marchers had covered.

“It allowed me to get know in a strange way the Scots we don’t know about; knowing that every step was on a path they had walked and the landscape was the landscape they had seen.

“I was overwhelmed as I approached the cathedral’s north door,” she said. “People from Durham and Dunbar had turned out to greet me. I made a speech of thanks, and then said a prayer at the memorial to the soldiers. It was very touching.

“The walk was an incredible experience. What made it was the people I met along the way. They expressed interest, curiosity, and lots of support. It was a great physical achievement for me, but also a big achievement in keeping the story alive; sharing the information with people. I was surprised to find many of them knew the story already, and those who didn’t were excited to learn it.”

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