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Days Out in the Past – Dunbar

For the good people of Dunbar, 3 September 1650 must have seemed as if the end of days had arrived. It was a wild stormy night of howling wind and rain, and then in the early hours of the morning came the crash and thunder of battle, as Oliver Cromwell’s army of Parliament fought a Scottish force just outside the town.

This was to be one of Cromwell’s greatest victories. His army had been forced to retreat to Dunbar, a dishevelled and outnumbered force that expected to escape in ships waiting in the harbour. But instead Cromwell spotted a weakness in the Scottish positions and ordered his army to attack. It was said that he rode about his regiments on a pony, biting his lip until it bled in nervous anticipation of the battle to come. Then when victory was certain, Cromwell was seen laughing uncontrollably as sheer relief began to set in.

The events of that day will be reenacted on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 September as part of East Lothian Archaeology & Local History Fortnight. There will be encampments to explore and activities for all the family, before the two sides battle once again with the sounds of musket and cannon.

The aftermath of the battle was brutal, with Cromwell’s cavalry troopers mercilessly pursuing the fleeing Scottish soldiers. Some were taken prisoner and marched away to captivity in Durham, where gruesome evidence of their fate came to light a few years ago, with the discovery of mass graves.

An exhibition at Dunbar Town House Museum explains the back story of the graves, how they were discovered and the painstaking process of uncovering their history. The exhibition is open daily  between 1 – 5pm, until 30 September. A special event, CSI 1650, will reveal some of the techniques used by archaeologists and scientists to identify the bodies and piece together their story.

Dunbar itself has a real sense of place, with a wealth of historic buildings and a maze of narrow medieval closes leading off the High Street. One of these unique and atmospheric spaces will be opened up to the public, as part of an event on Wednesday 11 September. In Black Bull Close derelict buildings are being brought back to life by local social enterprise The Ridge. Recent archaeological investigations have revealed the fascinating story of these historic buildings, from their medieval origins to the Victorian period.

The Cromwell and New Harbours are also well worth visiting, still home to working boats bringing in the catch, and with many nooks and crannies to explore. The picturesque ruins of Dunbar Castle still dominate on the cliffs above the old harbour, but also look out for the Battery. Built in the 1700s to defend the town from the French, it has recently been restored as an outdoor venue. The Battery will provide the setting for a dramatic event commemorating the Battle of Dunbar on Friday 13 September.

Something to eat? There are lots of cafés to choose from on the High Street. A stone’s throw from the harbour are Creels Restaurant and the Volunteer Arms pub, both historic buildings built in the early 1800s.

How to get there? By bus – East Coast Buses X7. By train – Dunbar railway station is close to the town centre, served by Scotrail and CrossCountry trains. By car – off the A1 on the A1087.

Event details:

  • Battle of Dunbar 1650 Re-enactment Weekend, off Spott Road Dunbar, Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 September, 11am – 5pm, Adult £5 Child £3.
  • Bodies of Evidence from the Battlefield of Dunbar to Durham, Dunbar Town House Museum, exhibition until 30 September, open daily 1pm – 5pm.
  • CSI 1650, Dunbar Town House Museum, Saturday 14 September, 1pm – 4pm, for booking phone 01620 820699 or call in at the Dunbar Town House.
  • Restoring Buildings Restoring People: Community Archaeology at Black Bull Close, Wednesday 11 September, 7.30pm
  • The Soldiers of Dunbar 1650, Dunbar Harbour Battery, Friday 13 September, 7.30pm – 8.30pm.

Words: David Hicks

Written by StephanieL

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