Siege, Military Occupation, and Dundee’s Last Witch Execution, 1650-70 – Part 1

Siege, Military Occupation, and Dundee's Last Witch Execution

“The most deadly conflict in the Scottish nation’s long history”

In previous articles we have looked at the history of Dundee during the so-called ‘Wars of the Three Kingdoms’, of the mid-seventeenth century. The following series of articles will continue this theme by looking at the town’s attempts to recover from the ravages of war, the response of Dundonians to English military occupation, and the role that these traumatic events played in the legend of Grizel Jaffray, the last Dundee ‘witch’ to be burnt at the stake.


On 30th January, the War of the Three Kingdoms entered its final and definitive stages when Charles I was executed by order of the English Parliament. In Scotland, news of the regicide was greeted with widespread shock and anger, and a parliamentary proclamation hailing the dead king’s son as Charles II of Scotland and England. Whilst the Scottish government was well within its rights to declare Prince Charles as King of Scots, giving him a British title also meant that Cromwell faced the prospect of a Scottish invasion in support of Charles’ claim to the English crown. Cromwell’s response was decisive: after the swift and brutal crushing of rebellion in Ireland, he commanded his Ironsides to invade Scotland.

Beheading of Charles I

When the English army crossed the border in late July 1650 they discovered a land stripped bare, with the corn harvested early and livestock driven beyond the reach of the invaders. The weather was unseasonably cold and wet and they lacked provisions and even tents, and so had to sleep out in the open. The Scottish covenanter army, under David Leslie, was content to shadow the invaders, without bringing them to battle. By late August, English ranks were being daily thinned through dysentery, and the Scots began to believe that victory was slowly being brought within their grasp. Then, as September dawned, Leslie became convinced that Cromwell was readying for an attempted breakout back into England, and ordered the Scottish army to advance on the invaders. By nightfall, the Scottish army had carried out a textbook military manoeuvre, which won them a strong position opposite the English lines on the high ground overlooking the coastal town of Dunbar.

Cromwell at Dunbar by Andrew Carrick Gow

Leslie settled back for the night, to wait for the new dawn and his planned full frontal attack on the English lines. Cromwell, though, had other ideas, and in the early hours of September 3rd, a surprise night attack was ordered, which successfully out-flanked the Scots, who suffered heavy casualties in the rout and disorderly retreat that followed. Leslie was, though, able to save a significant part of the Scottish army through another textbook military manoeuvre, thus limiting the Scottish losses to between 300 and 1,000 dead, a figure much smaller than claimed by contemporary English sources.[1] 

David Leslie

But, despite Leslie’s success in limiting Scottish losses, Dunbar was still a stunning victory, with around 5-6,000 Scots captured and marched south to confinement in Durham Castle and Cathedral: as many as 1,000 Scots POW’s are thought to have perished on the long march south, from malnutrition, disease and cold, with as many again dying whilst in confinement. Two months after the battle, 150 Scottish POW’s were transported to Charlestown, Massachusetts, as indentured servants, making a tidy profit for the shipmaster, Augustine Walker, who had paid £5 for every man, but had then sold them on for £20-30 per man.[2] When they arrived they joined many other Scottish POW’s, captured at Preston in 1648, so beginning an often illicit and always shady transatlantic trade in indentured labour that would last for over a hundred years – the subject of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic work, Kidnapped, where, in the aftermath of Culloden, the naïve young Whig, David Balfour, is ‘sold into slavery on the plantations.’[3] The most profitable of these colonies would become such a by-word for brutality that its name became an active verb: to be ‘Barbado’ed’, or put to work in the English-owned plantations was, due to the harsh climate, working conditions and prevalence of yellow fever, seen as a virtual death sentence.[4]

West Indies sugar plantation mill, 17c print

Sugar production in the West Indies, 17c print

Despite the defeat at Dunbar, Scottish patriotism soared in its immediate aftermath, but not amongst all ranks of society. When informed of the catastrophe Charles II was said to have danced a jig of joy as he exulted in the defeat of his ‘enemies’, a response also widely shared by royalists in both Scotland and England. In truth, the Scottish king in waiting had few illusions regarding the chances of military success: on the morning of the battle he had written to the Netherlands complaining of his plight; ‘Nothing could have confirmed me more to the Church of England than being here and seing theire (ie the Covenanters) hipocrisy.’[5] Taking no chances, he also asked the prince of Orange to arrange for a ‘herring smack’ to be sent to Montrose harbour, to provide him with a means of escape if his situation became untenable.[6]

The English controlled much of south east Scotland, and the Lothians were now being referred to as ‘New England’

The remaining Scottish forces that Leslie had marshalled in the aftermath of Dunbar retreated to Stirling, where defensive positons were hurriedly thrown up, whilst detachments were despatched to Fife to deprive the English of a clear road north. In the following months, the English constantly prodded and poked at the Scots in a constant search for weak points. The English controlled much of south east Scotland, and the Lothians were now being referred to as ‘New England’. But, despite victory at Dunbar, much of Scotland remained unconquered, and the English generals knew it was only a matter of time before the Scots raised fresh levies.

The Forth crossing remained closed to the English and the still understrength but heavily dug in Scottish army showed no inclination to be drawn into battle, choosing instead to keep the invaders bottled up in the Lothians and south east Scotland, where Scottish ‘moss troopers’ were busy carrying out guerrilla raids on vulnerable English supply trains and military detachments. With the autumn almost upon them, and the supply lines struggling to keep the English army provisioned, some Scots began to believe that perhaps the tables were beginning to turn on the invaders.

The Moss Trooper by Thomas Jones Barker

Cromwell was well aware of the urgent need to bring the Scots to a final decisive battle, but, there appeared to be few opportunities for such an outcome, as the Scots chose to wait on ‘General winter’ to come to their aid. Then, on 1st December 1650, English forces succeeded in drawing the radical covenanters of the Western Association (named in tribute to Cromwell’s ‘Eastern Association’) into a carefully laid ambush at Hamilton, which effectively finished them as a credible military force: a defeat that was again celebrated by Charles II probably more so than it was by Cromwell, who viewed the radical covenanters as in error but as essentially ‘godly’, to the extent that he had hoped to reach agreement with them.[7] Cromwell, however, had failed to grasp that for many radical Protestants, defeat at Dunbar represented the judgement of heaven for offending God, not because they had fought Cromwell, but because they had done so in the king’s name.[8]

Then, on 24th December, Edinburgh castle fell when its governor, Walter Dundas, suddenly surrendered the stronghold, with no pressing military need to do so, for which he was declared a traitor and excommunicated by the Kirk. A few days later, Charles was crowned at Scone, in a ceremony where he was pointedly reminded that he ‘hath not the absolute power to do what he pleaseth’, and that if he did so against the wishes of his ‘covenanted people’, he ‘must be opposed, by force if necessary, for obedience to a king is subordinate to obedience to God.’[9] The nature and tone of this ceremony only served to highlight that Charles II remained a virtual prisoner of the moderate covenanters, but it was an indignity he was prepared to endure, confident in the knowledge that future events could yet bring him success.

Following the capture of Edinburgh castle, English forces were now free to move north, and in January 1651, General Monck attempted to take Burntisland from the sea, but the attempted landings foundered in the face of a murderously effective bombardment from the Scottish coastal batteries. Then, in February 1651, Cromwell fell seriously ill from exposure, which delayed any further large-scale military operations until the early summer.

George Monck

On June 28th, the entire Scottish army was moved forward into a new position at the potently symbolic Torwood, where the Bruce had famously concentrated his forces prior to Bannockburn. In response, Cromwell moved the majority of his forces to Linlithgow, in the hope that he could draw the Scots into battle. The two armies were now separated by only a few miles, but the Scots were strongly dug in, and still showed no inclination to be drawn into battle. Three days of reconnoitring and small scale skirmishes followed, but Cromwell still found no way of getting at the Scots.[10]

Cromwell realised that if the deadlock was to be broken it would require a major flanking operation or the opening of a new front. Scottish attention was still focussed on Fife as the most likely candidate for such an operation, but Cromwell ordered a heavily armed flotilla to launch a surprise attack on Arbroath, which, unlike the nearby ports of Dundee and Montrose, was virtually defenceless. The situation facing the Scots was now becoming increasingly threatening: if successful, the taking of Arbroath would bring the English within striking distance of Dundee and Perth, whilst depriving the remaining Scottish army in the field of any possibility of being supplied from the north.

On July 2nd, Brechin Kirk-Session recorded that there was ‘no session, neither sermon, this Wednesday, by reason [that] all within this burgh was called to go to Aberbrothock, to assist them against the pursuing enemy by sea.’[11] The same notices appeared throughout Forfarshire, as militia men from all over the county rushed to Arbroath to face the invaders. But, Arbroath ‘was a naked town, wanting walls, men and skill’, which is precisely why Cromwell and his advisors had targeted it in the first place. The chief men of the burgh were acutely aware of just how vulnerable their town was, and made a successful appeal to the Dundee ship owner, Alexander Carmichael, who loaned them a battery of heavy cannon.[12]

‘Prospect of Arbroath’ by John Slezer, late 17c 

The guns proved crucial in foiling the invasion, as was recognised following the Restoration during a pleading before the Scottish Courts when it was recalled that ‘Aberbrothock did owe to the said guns the resistance they made to Cromwell’s ships in three several attacks, wherein if they had wanted guns their town [would have] been burnt.’[13] In fact, the successful defence of Arbroath didn’t just save the town, it also meant the English had failed in their attempt to open a new front, and, as a result, their war ships were forced to withdraw and their commanders to content themselves with little more than harassing the north-east Scottish coast.[14]

The English, however, were not to be so easily denied, and a fortnight later, after a short but vicious engagement at Inverkeithing, they successfully pulled off the decisive flanking operation they had failed to achieve at Arbroath. Fife was now blown wide open, and Cromwell required no prompting in pressing home the advantage. By the end of July roundhead cavalrymen were watering their horses in the Tay, and on the 1st August, Cromwell and his army of 14,000 Ironsides appeared before the walls of Perth, which duly surrendered the next day ‘eftir a lytill slaghter on both sydes.’[15]

Faced by two separate English armies to their east and their north, the Scottish army at Torwood was now in an increasingly untenable position. Charles II and his advisors unwittingly took the bait prepared for them by Cromwell, when they successfully called on the commanders of the Scottish army to invade England, with the intention of re-launching the royalist cause south of the border. Cromwell was still at Perth when rumours of the Scottish army’s southerly march reached him, but made immediate preparations to pursue the Scots south, whilst General Monck was left behind with a force of around 6-7,000 to finish off the military conquest of Scotland.

Seventeenth century English siege artillery

Monck wasted little time: on 13th August, Stirling was taken, which now left Dundee as the last major strategic objective not controlled by English forces. Monck arrived before Dundee on 26th August, and over the next few days the town was ringed with entrenched artillery positions, whilst the English frigate, Speaker, bombarded the town from the Tay. Then, on 1st September, at;

…four o’clock in the morning our great guns began to play before Dundee round about the line. The enemy for two or three hours answered us gun for gun, besides small shot from their works, til such time as large breaches were made in two of their most considerable forts.[16]


around 800 Dundonians, including ‘sevin scoir women and young chyldrene’, lay dead, scattered throughout the town

With the town defences breached, the siege was brought to a quick but grisly end with savage fighting on the walls and in the streets.[17] The town governor, James Lumsden, who had fought with some distinction alongside the Dundee levies at the successful defence of Burntisland, three times refused the English terms of surrender, an act of defiance for which he and Dundee paid a heavy price. Monck reported that the ‘stubborness of the enemy enforced the soldiers to plunder the town’, and Lumsden was summarily shot and beheaded when attempting to surrender.[18] When the acrid smog of gunpowder and cannon shot finally cleared a pitiful sight was revealed: around 800 Dundonians, including ‘sevin scoir women and young chyldrene’[19], lay dead, scattered throughout the town, whilst an English officer later claimed that ‘the spoil is like to prove very great; were you here, you would not know a private soldier from an officer, divers of them having got gallant apparel.’[20]

Seventeenth century Scottish soldiers

English troops were given twenty-four hours leave to pillage the town, but the next day Monck was forced to issue a proclamation against any further plundering, along with a stern warning that his troops should allow grieving townspeople to bury their dead. Ten days later, however, another proclamation had to be issued, and yet another three days later, which warned all English ‘soldiers and camp followers not to steal from the citizens of Dundee on peril of court martial and severe punishments.’[21] But, despite these warnings the looting continued apace: one contemporary described the refugees from Edinburgh as having been ‘stripped even to the sark’, whilst the total losses suffered by the town topped £200,000.[22] Indeed, two years after the siege the town and surrounding countryside was still reported to be thick with wandering groups of displaced and desperate people.[23]

Seventeenth century Dundee

With Dundee firmly in English hands, the remaining east coast burghs still in Scottish hands hurried to come to terms. Aberdeen quickly fell, followed by Montrose and then Inverness, whilst Colonel Okey’s cavalry regiment, which had occupied Forfar, was forced to keep their horses saddled overnight so that they could quickly react to any emergency.[24] Arbroath was also occupied, a governor appointed, and orders given to transform the Abbey into a fortalice.[25]

The siege left large parts of Dundee in ruins: the Cowgate now resembled a quarry and many of the town’s principal buildings were missing roofs and chimney

The siege left large parts of Dundee in ruins: the Cowgate now resembled a quarry and many of the town’s principal buildings were missing roofs and chimneys as a result of the intensive shelling that had preceded the frontal assault, and some of these scars can still be seen. Abutting the rear of the Reform Street tenements is an odd looking building that dates back to at least the seventeenth century. Viewed from the car park adjoining the Keillor Centre, it gives the impression of a once magnificent town house. But, if you look upwards, evidence of extensive siege damage is still visible in the peculiar cut-down windows of its upper storey, whilst its gable end also bears the marks of extensive repair work.

17c mansion at rear of Reform Street – note the cut down windows on upper storey

The nearby Gardyne Land tenement also shows evidence of extensive damage. Burnt timbers and stonework, still visible in the loft space, are testament to the fact that at one time it also stood at least a storey higher than it does today. Such tell-tale signs of significant changes to the upper storeys of the burgh’s older buildings used to be much more widespread, before systematic demolition removed most of them in the 1960s and 1970s.[26]

Gardyne Land from rear – note how the height of GL is shorter than surrounding buildings

The years of war siege and plague had effectively ended Dundee’s status as Scotland’s second city

The many trials that Dundee faced during the 1640s led to a major decline in its population and status: in 1633 the town’s population was around 12,000, but in the immediate aftermath of Montrose’s siege in 1645 it fell to around 11,200, and by the 1690s it was only around 8,200 – almost a third below the pre-war figure.[27] Long-term recovery would receive a huge set back with the imposition of the English navigation Acts of 1651 and 1660, whilst the second Dutch War, of 1665-67, only added to the woes of Dundee’s hard-pressed merchant class.[28]  The years of war siege and plague had effectively ended Dundee’s status as Scotland’s second city, and it would be more than a generation before the town fully recovered.

Whilst the Wars of the Three Kingdoms took a heavy toll on all the nations of the British Isles, Scottish losses were truly catastrophic, amounting to an estimated 28,000 troops killed on home soil and another 20,000 who fell in England and Ireland. It is also estimated that around 15,000 civilians died as a direct result of the conflict, whilst around 30,000 also succumbed to the plague of 1644-8.[29] The population of Scotland at this time is thought to have been somewhere between 1.2 and 1.4 million, meaning that just under 5% of the entire Scottish population were directly claimed by the conflict, which, when compared with the 3% death toll that accompanied World War One, makes the War of the Three Kingdoms the most deadly conflict in the Scottish nation’s long history.[30]

Remains of dead Dunbar POW, from mass grave at Durham Cathedral

the ships were being cast away in sight of the town, and the great wealth perished without any extraordinary storm… ill got, soon lost.

In the immediate aftermath of the siege, Monck’s officers attempted to claim the shipping in Dundee harbour as war booty, but were over-ruled by senior English commissioners who ordered their sale for the benefit of the Commonwealth. They were also tasked with the delivery of war booty to London, comprising sumptuous tapestries and fine furniture, to adorn the official chambers of leading English figures, including Cromwell. But, following the Restoration, Thomas Gumble, Monck’s private physician, made the sensational, but totally unfounded, claim that the siege booty – the ‘best to be had’ in the three Kingdoms defeated by Cromwell – was collected together and loaded onto sixty ships, seized in Dundee harbour, before being transhipped to London. However, according to Gumble, ‘the just judgement of God’ was visited on the besiegers, when, ‘the ships were being cast away in sight of the town, and the great wealth perished without any extraordinary storm… ill got, soon lost.’[31]

Thomas Gumble’s claims regarding heavenly activity on the Tay was nothing more than a clumsy attempt by a former parliamentary placeman to curry favour following the Restoration. But, the legend of the lost treasure fleet still has a hold on the imagination of many folk both locally and from much wide afield, including many treasure hunters: in July 2002, a typically breathless report in the Scottish Sun announced the opening of ‘a £1 million operation to find a lost fleet’ in ‘the muddy estuary of the River Tay’, which looked to set to make up to £2.5 billion for the architects of this unlikely sounding endeavour.[32] The treasure trove, which was believed to include gold coins and gold and silver religious artefacts, but not so much as a single sovereign was ever found, and the salvage firm who carried out the hapless search were left red-faced and many thousands of pounds out of pocket.


In the next article we will draw on the Court-Martial records of Dundee’s English garrison to learn how the local population coped with the sometimes traumatic experience of being under military occupation.


Article written by Dr. Anthony Cox, a lecturer with Life Long Learning Dundee.



[1] See Stuart Reid, Dunbar 1650: Cromwell’s Most Famous Victory, Oxford, 2008, p. 81, which provides a comprehensive re-examination of the evidence relating to the casualty figures at Dunbar.

[2] See

[3] See Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped, Edinburgh, 1886, p. 62.

[4] See

[5] David Stevenson, Revolution and Counter Revolution, 1644-51, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 152.

[6] Ibid.

[7] David Stevenson, Revolution and Counter Revolution, p. 161.

[8] David Stevenson, ‘Cromwell, Scotland and Ireland’, p. 160, in, David Stevenson, Union, Revolution and Religion in Seventeenth Century Scotland, pp.160-80, 1997, Aldershot.

[9] David Stevenson, Revolution and Counter Revolution, p. 165.

[10] Stuart Reid, Crown, Covenant and Cromwell: the civil wars in Scotland, 1639-1651, London, 2012, p. 184.

[11] Quoted in, George Hay, History of Arbroath to the Present Time, Arbroath, 1876, p. 154.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Works of Sir George Mackenzie, ‘Pleadings’, p. 35. Quoted in ibid., p. 155.

[14] Although Carmichael’s cannon were ultimately captured by an English landing party who intercepted them at Elliot sands as they were being transported back to Dundee. See ibid.

[15] John Nicoll, A Diary of Public Transactions and Other Occurrences, Chiefly in Scotland, 1650-67, ed., Laing, D, Edinburgh, 1836, p. 55.

[16] See, George Monck, ‘A Narrative or Diary of the Proceedings of the Forces under Lt. General Monck’, entry for 1st September 1651.

[17] For a fuller account of the 1651 siege of Dundee, see

[18] Quoted in, G. Davies, ‘Dundee Court-Martial Records’, Scottish Historical Society, vol. III, 19, 1919, p. 5.

[19] John Nicoll, Diary, p. 85

[20] Quoted in G. Davies, ‘Dundee Court-Martial Records’, p. 5

[21] Quoted in, Peter Reece, The life of General George Monck: for King and Cromwell, Barnsley, 2008, p. 80.

[22] Quoted in, Michael Lynch (ed.), The Early Modern Town in Scotland, London, 1987, p. 7.

[23] A. J. Warden, A History of Old Dundee, Dundee, 1884, p. 132.

[24] Maurice Ashley, General Monck, London, 1977, p. 91.

[25] Quoted in C. H. Firth, Scotland and the Commonwealth, Edinburgh, 1895, p. 17.

[26] It must be added, however, that some of this damage in Dundee may have occurred during the Marquis of Montrose’s siege in 1645.

[27] McKean, Harris, Whatley, Dundee: Renaissance to Enlightenment, Dundee, 2009, p. 65.

[28] McKean et al, Dundee: Renaissance to Enlightenment, p. 64.

[29] See

[30] For figures see

[31] Gumble Dr. T., Life of General Monck, London, 1671. Quoted in, John Robertson, Dundee and the Civil Wars, 1639-1660, Dundee, 2007, p. 60.

[32] See