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Troubled Past - The Ulster Scots

Close links between Ireland and Scotland can be traced back to when historical records began. An understanding of this history can help us analyse the political legacy that is still with us. Chris Guthrie brings us the first of a two part article on the history of the Ulster Scots.

Around the fifth century, the Scots, originally from Ireland (whom the Romans had named Scotia) moved into the west coast and islands of what is now Scotland; so forming the one kingdom of Dalriada. These links were strengthened through the centuries by trade, inter-marriage and clan feuds. It was partly this Scottish presence, aided by munitions shipped from Scotland that helped resist the sixteenth century Tudor domination of Ireland being asserted in Ulster. This resulted in legislation being passed prohibiting the entry of Scots into Ireland or inter marriage between the two.

The English administration’s attitude to Scotland changed with the Union of the Crowns in 1603. With English imperial eyes being cast further afield some Scots were encouraged to Ulster in order to help subdue the Irish.

Sir John Davies, the then attorney general in Ireland, commented on Ulster at this time as being..,

“so obscure and unknown to the English here as the most inland part of Virginia is yet unknown”. (1)

While one of the main priorities of the colonies in the Americas was profit, the importance of (Catholic) Ireland was more strategic. It being perceived as a “stepping stone” for an invasion of (Protestant) England by (Catholic) European states.


The end of the sixteenth century had seen the land tenure system radically changed in Scotland, resulting in increased incomes for landlords (excess capital which could be invested in colonisation); and an increase in the numbers of dissatisfied and dispossessed tenants (potential settlers).

By the beginning of the seventeenth century there was already established a considerable Scottish presence in the counties of Antrim and Down, due to the proximity of, and consequent trade and relations with, Scotland. Many of these settlers had arrived in Ulster prior to the Reformation and had remained Catholic.

The flight of the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell in 1607, forced by harassment and forfeiture of their lands, left the counties of Fermanagh, Tyrone, Donegal and Cavan, open for plantation. In 1608 O’Dogherty, Lord of Inishowen, led a rebellion, which took Culmore, Derry and Strabane. The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh prevented help from Scotland reaching the rebels, and instead, in collusion with the English Parliament, sent troops to help put down the rebellion. This then helped make way for the settling of the counties of Coleraine (later renamed Londonderry) and Armagh. (2)

One of the methods of plantation used was to place selected Scots and English in key positions to retain control over the Irish; which was favoured by Sir Arthur Chichester, the then Lord Deputy in Dublin, who warned against using to many Scots,

“so that they will sooner grow wild with the Irish, than make the Irish civil.” (3)

An alternative, proposed by Sir John Davies, was to drive the Irish off the land altogether, as he claimed they would,

“quickly overgrow (the planters)as weeds overgrow the good corn.” (4)

In the end a complex grading system was adopted dividing the land into precincts, proportions and baronies: these then being allocated to consorts, servitors or undertakers - who in turn, received either patents, bonds or tenures - on condition that they fulfilled certain obligations in providing tenants, buildings etc. (5)

The majority of Scottish undertakers were lairds drawn from the wealthier central areas, (rather than the “unruly” Highlands and Islands) who could obtain tenants and had experience of running estates. After the union of crowns, 1603, ruthless attempts were made to pacify the troublesome Scottish/English border areas, thereby displacing potential settlers for the new Ulster frontier.

There was a levy in England to procure craftsmen for the towns, the Scots being mainly relegated to the rural areas. The town of Doire (Derry) was allocated to the city of London (hence Londonderry), but the proximity of a sea route to Scotland, resulted in many Scots settling there.

One of the differences between the Ulster plantation and others throughout Ireland, was the relatively smaller areas of land that were allocated in Ulster; and a custom of some limited tenants rights, as opposed to the vast areas designated elsewhere.

After an unsuccessful rebellion in 1615, anti-Scottish legislation, prohibiting entry or inter-marriage was repealed, which resulted in the increase of immigration from Scotland.

Religious Factors

At this time the majority of the Irish population nominally accepted Roman Catholicism, which had previously been imposed under the authority of the (first and last) English pope, Adrian. This being one of the reasons given for the first Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, when the old Celtic church was still out-with Rome’s (and London’s) authority. After the Reformation little effort was made at conversion in Ireland, although some Gaelic speaking Scottish ministers were imported to make an attempt.

A proposal from a Scottish bishop, Andrew Knox, to banish Catholicism and impose Protestantism in Ireland with the threat of excommunication, provoked the comment, “This clause of excommunication may be left out, lest it grow to over great a multitude” (5)

The fundamentalist interpretation of the bible necessitated the reading of the bible for access to the true word of god and encouraged Presbyterians to be enthusiastically in favour of the spread of literacy. In 1725 the Society for Propagation of Christian Knowledge stated that their object,

“ was to extirpate Gaelic” (6)

Some of the Scottish settlers in Ulster had come originally from Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland – for example the Glens of Antrim had been settled by Catholic Highlanders of the MacDonnells, lords of the isles.

By 1767 the S.P.C.K. had changed its policy and removed its ban on teaching and reading in Gaelic.

“ for two generations they had prostituted what is supposed to be one of the fundamental principles of Protestantism, that every man shall have the opportunity of searching the scriptures in his own language.” (7)

The religious persecution of Presbyterians in Scotland added to the influx to Ulster where they were also to encounter hostility from the Anglican/Episcopalian establishment. Competition among undertakers, tenants and the indigenous population increased these religious antagonisms.


In 1637 Charles I attempted to impose a new liturgy on the Scottish Kirk. This was strongly resisted and resulted in the renewal of the Solemn League and Covenant to defend what was perceived as the “true religion”; understood as a compact directly between God and his people. This led to episcopacy being overthrown in Scotland.

This is the religious basis of the conflict between fundamental Protestantism and Catholicism. The main principles of the fundamentalists was (is) the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and that the bible is the literal word of god. Protestantism took on a particular Anglo-British characters as it was perceived as being threatened by Catholic forces in Europe and Ireland. Protestantism developed many different forms, and in Scotland it produced Calvinist Presbyterianism. The Presbyterian was perceived as being a free individual in a free contract with god. Therefore, the Catholic was seen as being “unfree” - under the authoritarianism of the pope, bishops and priests. To put it simplistically, Presbyterianism was religiously radical, being egalitarian and democratic in its internal organisation, (and anti-Catholicism could be seen as part of that religious radicalism); whereas Catholicism was (is) religiously reactionary, being hierarchical and authoritarian. It was when that religious anti-Catholicism of the Presbyterians was carried into the social and economic spheres that religious radicalism became politically reactionary. That this became inevitable could be argued as Presbyterians saw their mission in life to be to promote the one “true religion” wherever possible, which also coincided with colonial supremacist ideology.

Civil Wars

In the early 1640’s, Charles I was on his way to losing his head. In the ensuing turmoil, a confederation of Anglo-Irish (Old English Catholics) and indigenous Irish rose in rebellion in 1641. With the outbreak of Civil Wars in England and Scotland, Charles was faced with conflict on three fronts : - against the parliamentarians and puritans in England, Presbyterians in Scotland, and Catholics in Ireland.

Ulster Presbyterians allied themselves with their Scottish counterparts and were in favour of coercing Charles to sign the covenant, and to establish the Presbyterian religion. When Charles was executed, the Ulster Presbyterian synod issued an outspoken protest; to which John Milton replied on behalf of the English parliamentarians, denouncing them for sending, “such defiance from a ground which is not their own to the sovereign magistracy of England, by whose authority and in whose right they inhabit there have with worse faith than those heathen, proved ungrateful and treacherous guests....” (8)

Cromwell to Charles II

The turmoil of the 1640’s continued unabated, and to quote the historian, J.C BECKETT, commenting on this period,

“ the political and military position on Ireland quickly reached a state of confusion that defies accurate description” (9)

This was, in part, due to divisions between, and among, the (Catholic) Old English and indigenous Irish , and the more recent (Protestant) English and Scottish settlers. Intermittent warfare continued throughout Ireland, until Cromwell’s arrival and brutal re-conquest.

The Scottish and Ulster Presbyterians refused to acknowledge Cromwell and instead recognised Charles II, who had pledged himself to the Covenant in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1651. In 1653 the government proposed, as a precautionary measure, the dispersal of Scottish settlers from Antrim and Down, where they were dangerously close to unrest spilling over from Scotland. One of the differences between the situation in Ulster and England at this time was that the puritans in England were relatively few and divided, whereas the Presbyterians in Ulster were relatively numerous and united, and had a claim to be recognised as an established church similar to their brethren in Scotland.

From the 1660’s, England imposed trade restrictions on Ireland. In 1660 a Cattle Act was introduced which prohibited the importation of cattle from Ireland into England, and in 1670 a navigation act was passed which required all imports from the colonies to be landed in England first. Throughout this period the discontent of the dispossessed Irish continued to be expressed through the unrest of wandering bands, who were called, in Irish, toiridhe, meaning pursuers. (This was anglicised as tories, as supporters of James II were to become known).

James II And William of Orange

The next crucial confrontation in Ulster came with the succession to the throne of (Catholic) James II. After the defeat of the Scottish Covenanters at Bothwell Brig in 1687, a new wave of Scottish refugees came to Ulster.

A religious Declaration of Indulgence was introduced, which the Ulster Presbyterians strongly resented,

“ such a body of men, so placed, were little likely to welcome an indulgence, when they thought themselves entitled to an establishment.” (10)

James II had despatched Talbot, earl of Tyrconnell, to Ireland, who set about raising a Catholic based army.

With the replacement of James by the Dutch William of Orange on the British throne, Ireland became the battleground for the two contenders for the crown.

After the victory of William in 1691, the Ulster Presbyterians continued to be discriminated against under the penal laws and felt a deep sense of grievance, as they had been the mainstay of securing Ulster for the new monarch. It was under these, and similar, circumstances that the Presbyterians invoked a Lockean notion of contractual government, enabling them to withdraw their “loyalty” from a government they disagreed with; while retaining their “loyalty” to the crown, providing it remained Protestant and upheld the settlement of 1688.

The Episcopalian establishment could rely on Presbyterian acquiescence in the face of the common enemy of Catholicism.

After the restrictions imposed on the cattle trade, Ulster Presbyterians, like other Irish landowners, had turned to sheep and wool production. Again, fear of competition, led the English parliament to prohibit the export of wool from Ireland in 1699.

Not content with commercial restrictions the English government refused to extend a religious toleration act to Ireland in the early years of the eighteenth century. Instead a Sacramental Test Act was introduced in 1704, which required every person holding civil or military office under the crown to qualify by taking the sacrament in their parish church. Although this was mainly aimed at Catholics, and the still potential Jacobite threat, Presbyterians also fell foul of its requirements. It was also seen by the gentry of the Episcopalian establishment as a means of curbing an ecclesiastical rival, the Presbyterians - who although they had no formal political power, exercised a great deal of social influence in Ulster. The act was also a useful check on the aspirations of an emerging Presbyterian middle class of the eighteenth century. That there was some prosperity in the North can be seen by this quote from Jonathan Swift, in 1726,

“ the whole country, except the Scottish plantation in the north, is a scene of misery and desolation....” (11)

(Some went to look for their “deliverance” in this world elsewhere across the Atlantic).

This article concludes in the next issue of Frontline.


(1) M.Perceval-Edwards: Scottish Migration to Ulster in the Reign of James 1st. (R.K.P. 1973) page. 14

(2) These then were the six counties that were taken at this time. Not the same as the “Six Counties” which are partitioned now. Antrim and Down were not included in this plantation as there was already a considerable Scottish presence there. Donegal and Cavan, which were included in the plantation, (and Monaghan, which wasn’t, though still a county of the province of Ulster) were not included in the partioned “State” of Northern Ireland in 1920, as their inclusion would have meant Unionists being denied there in built majority.

(3)(4)(5) M.Perceval-Edwards

(6)(7) P.O’Snodaigh : Hidden Ulster Clodhanna Teoranta (1973) page. 33

(8) N.Mansergh: The Irish Question 1840-1921 Allen and Unwin (1965) page. 184

(9) J.C.Beckett: Making of Modern Ireland Faber (1966) page. 99.

(10) J.C.Beckett: Protestant Dissent in Ireland Faber (1948) page. 2

(11)(12) J.C.Beckett: Making of Modern Ireland.