On the most easterly shores of Ulster, with easy sea travel, the Ards Peninsula has long been a place of human settlement.  The first inhabitants were Stone Age hunter-gatherers; later Scrabo Hill was occupied in the Bronze Age between 2000 and 300 BC.  Christianity took root in 545AD when St Finian founded a monastery named "Movilla" which was subsequently destroyed by the Vikings sometime after 824AD. 

In the late 12th century, the Anglo-Normans appeared in Ulster - the stone castle builders: their legacy is still visible on the landscape; while the medieval period was dominated in East Ulster by the O’Neill clan.  It was Brian O’Neill who, in the 1570s, to prevent settlement in the area by English colonists, adopted a scorched earth policy and destroyed all the good stone buildings and farmland, leaving the Peninsula a desolate wasteland.  Such was the situation when two new landlords arrived in the early 17th century - a period now known as “the dawn of the Ulster-Scots”.

Migration between Ulster and Scotland had been ongoing for centuries, but it is generally accepted that the floodgates really opened when King James I of England approved a major land grant in east Ulster in 1606.  The king apportioned two-thirds of the former Clandeboye territories of the O’Neill clan to two Scottish lairds - Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton.  The background to this is discussed here.

Hugh Montgomery

Hugh Montgomery, from one of Scotland’s oldest and most powerful families, had enjoyed a long association with King James; while James Hamilton was also a loyal ally and spy for the King in Dublin.  Now possessed of hundreds of acres of prime Ulster real estate, they saw an opportunity to make a lot of money.  They advertised their Ulster lands, at enticingly low rents, to lowland Scots (largely Presbyterian) and opened up trading routes between Scotland and Ulster.  At this time, there was economic and social discontent among crofters and farmers in the Scottish lowlands and southern uplands.  The prospect of a new start in the sparsely populated lands of Ulster, was very attractive.

James Hamilton's influence

A steady influx began of farmers and artisans from Ayrshire, Kirkcudbright, Galloway and north England.  James Hamilton developed towns like Bangor, Groomsport, Holywood, Dundonald and Killyleagh; while Hugh Montgomery’s tenants built or restored towns like Newtownards, Greyabbey and Donaghadee.  Both men established settlements at Comber: Sir James Hamilton’s failed, Montgomery’s succeeded.  In a few short years Ards and North Down had been transformed and the success of this scheme  not only created a template for the future ‘official’ plantation of Ulster, but may well have influenced the early colonisation of America.

The Scots

The trickle of Scots became a flood - with tens of thousands of new arrivals bringing their culture, language, religious faith, folk culture, agricultural practices, surnames and Scottish language.  Ruined buildings were restored, new villages, farms and harbours were developed.  Music, sport, industry - all were quickly assimilated as the years passed, and the new arrivals became Ulster-Scots, mindful of their connections across the narrow sea but loyal to their new homeland.

History, centuries deep

In the four centuries since that ‘dawn’, the Ards and North Down has witnessed religious turmoil, massive social changes, the industrial revolution, political upheaval and cultural transformation: however, with physical views and deep-rooted genetic ties to the land across the narrow sea, it has remained very much an Ulster-Scots heartland where surnames, accents, customs and faith still connect the people to their Scottish heritage and identity.

Find out more about Ulster-Scots in Ards and North Down.

Do you want to explore and discover even more about Ulster-Scots in our place? Then why not follow our suggested itinerary, 'A 3 Day Ulster-Scots Itinerary of the Ards Peninsula' which takes you to all the key places in our rich heritage.

Blog written by Tour Guide Lolly Spence of Hidden Ulster Tours.