He Wears a Blue Bonnet
by John Orton
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Malky Dalgleish and four highland Scots, who befriend him on the battle field at Dunbar, arrive in South Sheels in November 1650, as indentured servants (almost slaves) to work in the salt panns. After Cromwell’s victory in the battle, they had been marched from Dunbar to Durham in the infamous death march, the survivors of which were sold by General Haselrig; mostly to work in the colonies in the New World, but forty to go to Sheels. This is the story of five Scots lads who work and suffer in the salt panns. Malky and Davey find love of a sort with two Sheels lasses, and also become involved in smuggling from the caves of Harton and Marsden; Niall escapes to work on the keels; little Dougie, the boy fifer, is not strong enough for the work in the panns and is taken into service; Tomag distils his own usquebah (whisky).
He wears a blue bonnet gives a grim but authentic account of life in a riverside township at the mouth of the Tyne during the years of the Commonwealth: with tales from the salt panns, from the keelmen of Newcastle, from the toon-end of Sheels where the fishers live, and from the ale-houses. The Parliament forbade any frivolous or immoral activities and miscreants were whipped in the Market Place – and folk fled to their homes when they heard the drum of the press gangs on the high and low ways of Sheels, – but life went on.