Plantation of Ulster

You are here: Heritage | Timelines | The Plantation of Ulster

The Plantation of Ulster

It was the first great Scottish venture overseas - and its effects were so powerful and far reaching that they continue to influence British and European history right up to the present day.

The plantation of Ulster was one of the most important policy objectives of James VI's reign. It was also one of the very first initiatives he embarked on after he became the monarch of both England and Scotland following the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

James' aim was a relatively simple one - to subdue the Catholic Irish and by taking the Protestant faith across the Irish Sea and rebuilding the local economy for the benefit of Great Britain through the use of Scottish settlers.

His plan turned out to be one of the most successful movements of population in European history - and at the same time, one of the most tragic.

It effectively created two different tribes in Ireland - Protestant Unionist and Irish Catholic - and led directly to the troubles which still plague the island today.

James may have been the first British monarch, but he was not the first ruler on this side of the Irish Sea to have found his neighbours to the west troublesome.

Incursions into Ireland had taken place for hundreds of years, and James' predecessor on the throne of England, Queen Elizabeth, had found herself having to deal with various small scale rebellions against her rule.

By the time James came to the throne, Ireland was effectively a vassal state of England. It had its own parliament meeting in Dublin, but this was told what it could and could not do by London. Historically Ireland had been ruled by its own lords, but since 1541, when Henry VIII was on the throne, the monarch of England had also called himself king of Ireland.

Almost as soon as James VI came to the English throne, he decided that the best way to deal with the Irish was to colonise them.

One of his main worries was that the Spanish, who were one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in Europe and England's historic enemies, would use Ireland as an attempt to conquer Britain by the back door.

When Spanish troops teamed up with Irish rebels in a rebellion at Kinsale in 1603, it appeared to give weight to this argument. The rebellion was quickly put down but two of its main instigators, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone and Rory O'Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, were dealt with benevolently and allowed to keep most of their lands.

However, the English officials who ruled Ulster at the time saw an opportunity to create friction and spread a rumour that the two Earls were planning another rebellion. The result was that O'Neill and O'Donnell were summoned to London for questioning.

The pair feared for their safety and decided that the best course of action was to flee both Britain and Ireland. So, in a move now known as the Flight of the Earls, they left for continental Europe, abandoning their lands behind them.

The exile of the two men afforded James a major opportunity. He was able to seize their lands in six of the counties of Ulster - Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Fermanagh and Tyrone - and make them available for his plantation plan.

In colonising Ulster with Scots settlers, James had one principal aim in mind. Ireland had escaped the influence of the Reformation and remained stubbornly Catholic. As a Protestant monarch, James had a near-evangelical zeal to see that changed.

Since the Irish clearly could not be relied on to convert to the Protestant faith by themselves, James thought the best thing to do was to press them into it by importing staunch Reformers from Scotland - where the movement against Catholicism had been strongest - who would then spread the word.

James also hoped that, by persuading Scots to cross the Irish Sea and giving them the opportunity to make money by working hard on the land , he would boost the economies of both Britain and Ireland.

Ted Cowan, Professor of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow, explains: "In essence, James wanted to replace the Catholics of Ireland with Scottish Protestants. The idea was to offer land there to lowland Scots, mainly from Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Galloway. Basically, as he saw it, civilised people would spread out and improved the uncivilised who were around them."

It was not the first time the idea of settlement had been attempted in Ireland - Elizabeth had tried it without a great deal of success - but it was by far the most carefully planned and well organised.

Land was offered to settlers through Scottish nobles and landowners, who persuaded local people of good character to make the journey and try to forge a new life for themselves.

They probably didn't take much persuading. Scotland was almost an impoverished nation at this time, and it would have been hard to eke out a living in what was effectively a peasant economy. Another problem was that there were too many people living in the lowlands for the Scottish economy to sustain them.

Ireland was, of course no wealthier, but at least it offered opportunities. The land was probably considered more fertile and better for farming and the low rents on offer would have been a major attraction.

Scottish settlers were not allowed to have Irish tenants, and were expected to build fortified houses to keep the natives out. Estates were divided into three sizes - 810 hectares, 607 hectares and 405 hectares.

Settlement was slow but steady, with many Scots building new lives for themselves on lands close to the Galloway coast in areas such as Upper Clanaboye in present day North Down.

This land was not part of the forfeiture resulting from the flights of the Earls, but had been gifted by a prominent Irish chieftain, Con O'Neill, to the Scot regarded as the main player in the plantation, Hugh Montgomery. Montgomery had helped O'Neill escape from jail in Carrickfergus and received the land in return.

The early settlers from Scotland took to the hard work needed to make a living. They showed enormous energy and determination and soon produced so much in terms of crops and livestock that they soon began to export back to the British mainland.

Economically, then, the plantation could probably be measured as a success. Where it utterly failed, however, was in converting the native Irish to Protestantism.

Part of the problem was that the Scots settlers stayed well clear of locals, refusing to admit to any Irish customs or to intermarry. The Irish, in turn were driven off their land and forced to starve or emigrate. The seeds of bitterness which would characterise the history of the area for hundreds of years were being sown.

During the first few decades of the plantation, trouble involving the two sides was only sporadic, since the Irish found it difficult to co-ordinate any attacks. However, everything changed dramatically in 1641,when the resentment and bitterness boiled over and a full-scale rebellion finally took place.

When the Irish attacked, they did so in force and with terrible violence. In the struggles that followed, a large number of settler families were slaughtered in battles at places such as Portadown, and the final death toll among the settlers is reckoned to have been more than 10,000.

The Scots Protestant settlers of Ireland were kept subdued by the Irish until the arrival of Oliver Cromwell in 1649, whose savagery towards the Catholic population amounted to a policy of wholesale ethnic cleansing and allowed the settlers to begin expanding again.

However, religious animosity was not just a problem in Ireland. Back in Scotland, the seeds of discontent were being sown and would finally lead to a struggle which would tear the whole of Britain apart?


Meanwhile...

  • 1541 Ignatius Loyola is elected General of the Jesuits
  • 1608 The Dutch use the first cheques or "cash letters"
  • 1641 Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, writes his, "Meditations metaphysiques"
  • 1649 The Holy Roman Empire esablishes a standing army in Austria
  • 1649 The first British naval frigate, Constant Warwick, is constructed
  • 1650 The first coffee house opens in London
  • 1650 The population of the world is estimated at 500 milion. By 1850, it is 1.1 billion.
  • 1690 French engineer, Denis Papin, devises a pump with a piston powered by steam

 Print  Email

SEARCH 30 WEBSITES FOR THE BEST PRICE FOR YOUR STAY
SEARCH 30 WEBSITES FOR THE BEST PRICE FOR YOUR STAY