When human remains were found in Durham, archaeologists from Durham University discovered that they belonged to the long lost ‘Scottish Soldiers’ – prisoners of war from the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.
Developed in partnership with Durham University, ahead of their Bodies Of Evidence exhibition opening this summer, Woven Bones is a new play which brings to life the untold stories of these soldiers – offering a unique chance to walk in their shoes as it tours the route that these men marched, from Dunbar to Durham. We spoke to award-winning writer Laura Lindow (who has over 20 years’ experience making theatre in the region) ahead of opening night.
What was it about the story behind the exhibition that really captured your imagination?
Everything about this story spoke to me. Firstly, the soldiers themselves were so young and the elements really conspired against them. Chance was cruel. Also thinking about the impact that the capture had on the families of the dead, the survivors, and the people of Durham who lived with the legend of the missing bodies for so long. Then when you see the scorch marks that are still in Durham Cathedral from the fires that they lit to try and keep warm, and when you look at the pictures of the skeletons, these remains start to become more than bones. The care, passion and drive of the Durham University team, and the expertise behind the excavation, are inspiring. All of this in a story that spans hundreds of years, thousands of miles, in a true-life mystery solved.
You’ve researched local history in the past for your writing – is this something that you find particularly inspiring?
I really do. I feel very privileged to be allowed to imagine the stories of our past. I love joining the dots with the present day. We truly are shaped by what has gone before, and I’m continuously astonished by how we live amongst the crumbs and clues of the past, often without absorbing their significance.
You worked with the Forensic department at Teesside University a few years ago – how do you think that experience has impacted your writing?
That was part of a project with a fantastic theatre company called Club Adelphi. I remember the first time I held a human skull in my hands (apologies if you’re having your dinner!) Sadly, it belonged to a man who had drowned over 100 years ago. I held it and I thought what kindness we can show one another in death, even if we can’t get there in life. As a fan of TV shows like Silent Witness, I expected to feel pulled in by the ghoulishness of the field of work. Instead, it was the humanity of the act of piecing together the what, where, who and why that struck me.
Why do you think we have this need to discover the truth of what happened in the past?
I’m honestly not sure. Is it a sense of connection? Is there something grounding about following the lines of our descent? Or is it a laying to rest the questions that we’ve had? It’s a question that I’m fascinated with. Perhaps we can only answer it for ourselves.
What made you want to tell the archaeologists’ story, as well as that of the people they discovered?
The true story is epic. The piece could have followed many paths, and I have a feeling that the story of the soldiers, their descendants and the archeological team themselves will generate many more plays, books and films to come.
The production is touring the same route that these soldiers travelled over 300 years ago – what do you think that will lend to the performance?
We will have to wait and see! I hope we are honouring their journey. I hope that the audiences will feel (as I have) a more immediate connection, given their surroundings. The landscape played a crucial role in the happenings, so it seems only right that it forms the backdrop to the work.
What was the most interesting thing that you learned about the discovery process that was used to find out who these soldiers were?
We were invited right into the heart of the world – right into the lab where the remains were analysed. Although we didn’t actually see or touch the remains of the Scottish Soldiers, we found it incredible not just to learn how the teeth were sampled to learn the chemical compounds – telling of their diet or location of birth – but also to find out about the tools used to excavate a skeleton from the soil, or to be taken through how a 17th century match-lock (gun) would have worked. But we also wanted to know what they listen to in the lab when they wash the bones, what the best light is to examine remains, or if the archaeologists ever said anything to the soldiers when they were laid out in front of them.
Why do you think it’s important to tell this story through theatre? (As well as the exhibition)
I defer to the words of the incredible Hilary Mantel: ‘I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look… we sense the dead have a vital force still – they have something to tell us, something we need to understand. Using fiction and drama, we try to gain that understanding.’
What do you hope audiences will take away from Woven Bones?
I hope they will feel that they have really heard the voices of these soldiers from all of those years ago, who were lost in the past and then found again with the help of the hands, heads and hearts of the present.
Woven Bones will be touring the North East between 25th June–7th July.
25th June – Bleachingfield Centre, Dunbar
26th June – Elsdon Village Hall, Northumberland
27th–28th June – Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle
29th June – The Maltings, Berwick
3rd July – The Customs House, South Shields
5th July – Arts Centre Washington
6th–7th July – The Gala Theatre, Durham
To buy tickets visit: www.cap-a-pie.co.uk