I’m starting to wonder: every time a shovel digs down into English soil, does it hit treasure or skeletons? Three years ago, the University of Durham in northeast UK planned a new extension to the library but came up instead with a huge archaeological find: two mass graves appearing to date back to 1650.

They are believed to be the final resting place of Scottish soldiers who’d fought against Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar. Afterward, many of the Scots fell ill and died, and more along the way as Cromwell marched the prisoners to the former monastery at Durham, which later became the University. The story of the 3000 able-bodied young men was well documented but the actual gravesites were unknown.

Durham Castle and Cathedral Photo available via Wikimedia Commons
Durham Castle and Cathedral
Photo available via Wikimedia Commons

The relatively small mass graves hold skeletons piled one on top of another. If the historical estimate is accurate, the number could reach sixteen hundred. Foreign bodies within the graves have already been discovered, likely a few Dutchmen who had fought alongside the Scots.

Imprisoning large groups was rare in medieval days. Lords captured were often ransomed, but usually the vanquished were either executed or enslaved. It was much more common for whole towns and villages to be enslaved to the conquering army. But in this case, Cromwell could not allow the Scots to continue to fight against him for their choice to the throne, King Charles II. Yet, Cromwell agonized over their suffering and demise, explaining in a letter to his peers that everything was being done for the soldiers. The officers fared better, as did the Highlanders, but they still succumbed up to 100 a day. Scientists now believe that the Scots were suffering not from dysentery but refeeding syndrome. They had gone without food for 3 days prior to the battle, and by the time they reached Durham, they had not eaten properly for 8 days.

One hundred and fifty Scottish soldiers who survived this ordeal were put on a ship bound for the English Colonies. Fulfilling Cromwell’s original intent, they were sent to work in the lumber industry and iron works in support of English ship-building. Eventually, the Scots earned their freedom and many chose to remain in New England.

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Sgian Dubh, a black or hidden dagger worn in the hose/sock with the Scottish National Dress
Sgian Dubh, a black or hidden dagger worn in the hose/sock with the Scottish National Dress

No good Scotsman would be caught without his sgian dubh  (/ˌskiːən ˈduː/skean-dhuScottish Gaelic pronunciation: [s̪kʲɪnˈt̪uh]) a small knife that was carried in the top of the boot or hose. In Gaelic, sgian means “knife or blade” and dubh means “black”.

History varies on this weapon. Some researchers believe the black refers to the wooden handle that was often made of bog wood, which is dark brown to black in color; others believe that it was carried as a concealed weapon, thus making the intent dark. This is interesting when it is well-known that baring a blade in someone’s house to which one was invited was seen as a threat.

The custom of revealing a concealed weapon and placing it in plain sight in the top of your boot was meant as a sign of peace to the household, that is, no secrets and no intent to harm.

In the Old West, this was like checking your guns at the door.

Modern day sgian dubhs can be very ornate with decorated hilts, pewter caps or stones, and engraved blades. But in medieval times, the people leaned toward the practical. Sgian dubhs were single-edged utility knives with three to four inch blades used for skinning animals, cutting bread, and the like, but could be used in defense as a last resort. You might think it makes sense that if it was carried in a boot or hose top, it would have a flat hilt so as to lay more securely against the leg, but since antler horn was also used, it is more likely it had a rounded grip.

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