‘Dunbar 1650’ is a phrase that still rings down the years. The backstory is well known: Oliver Cromwell had brought the English Parliamentary army to Scotland, which had dared support Prince Charles’ claim to the throne. Cromwell’s intention was to force the Scots into line. But David Leslie, placed in command of the Scottish forces, had as much, if not more battle experience. Like many of the Scots Leslie had gained his knowledge fighting in Europe and was well used to a long campaign.
Leslie’s tactic was top keep his army in being while denying Cromwell both resources and room to manoeuvre – and he succeeded brilliantly in that strategy. Cromwell was forced back to Dunbar, which he secured as a foothold for resupply, while Leslie blocked him from full retreat by holding his army in the heights of the Lammermuir while holding forces sat over the narrow coastal route southwards. The run up to the battle has been well discussed – most of Leslie’s experienced officers and NCOs were purged from the army owing to ‘ungodliness’; a storm prompted a night-time move to lower ground; and Cromwell exploited the opportunity to concentrate on the Scots’ right-wing and ‘roll-up’ the deployed force in detail. The aftermath is still, at the time of writing and on the 365th anniversary of the battle, in the news!
Cromwell found he had thousands of prisoners after the battle. Some were paroled and released but the majority were marched to England, an event remembered as a Death March. They only got as far as Durham, where the survivors were kept for the winter in the Cathedral. Many more died – through disease and poor treatment as arrangements for their care appear to have broken down under corrupt administration or simple incompetence. It’s long been known that those who died must have been buried near the Cathedral – and now the evidence has been found and widely circulated.
East Lothian, and Dunbar in particular, suffered greatly before and after the battle even if, as it seems, the levies and regiment due to be raised by the county did not participate in the concluding engagement. Some East Lothian troops may have been involved in skirmishes running up to the battle and others were involved in a guerrilla campaign in the aftermath. But in Dunbar itself, they were more pragmatic. An appeal must have been made to the authorities, the result being that a body of notaries public took evidence from the householders and property owners of Dunbar to account for the losses that they sustained during Cromwell’s occupation. And a large part of this evidence has survived: we’ve already noted our holdings here. We now have a digital set of the documents and are working on the transcriptions. A few things seem pretty clear already. For example, almost all the claimants (the townspeople) were small scale farmers as well as householders with a trade: grain, malt and livestock feature strongly as do spoilage of ‘yards’ and ‘kaill’. Thomas Maissoune’s account is below – he claimed nearly £300 Scots (whether the inhabitants realised the full sums claimed – or even any – is unknown).
A few years afterwards Dunbar found itself in trouble again. A storm in 1655 rendered the harbour useless and the town appealed to London for assistance. It has entered local folklore that this appeal ‘to Cromwell’ resulted in a donation of ‘£300’ to repair the harbour, which as since in memory been known as Cromwell Harbour. As is often the case, the situation seems to be more complicated, but holds a grain of truth.
It is likely that this account will grow – there are stories from the period before the Battle and the aftermath waiting to be unearthed in the archive collections and in the resources here at the John Gray Centre.