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Movement of British Settlers into Ulster during the 17th Century

William Macafee (Guild member)

The aim of this paper is to examine the movement of British settlers into Ulster during the seventeenth century and their spread throughout the province. The first part of the paper discusses the sources which are available to reconstruct the numbers at various times throughout the century.

The second part of the paper considers the various phases of colonisation between 1600 and 1700 looking at the numbers involved, why they came, and where they settled. Table 1 gives details of the numbers of Scottish and English households in each of the nine counties of Ulster during the 1660s and Table 2 gives estimates of Ulster’s population, particularly the British component, at various times throughout the period.


The major thrust of immigration was initiated by the Plantation of Ulster which covered six of the nine counties of the province, Antrim, Down and Monaghan being excluded from the official scheme. This scheme made land available to undertakers and servitors from England and Scotland who were required to settle their estate with tenants from the mainland. Initially colonisation was slow and many undertakers were prepared to let their lands to the native Irish.

Perceval-Maxwell in his study of Scottish migration to Ulster during the reign of James I pointed to an acceleration in the rate of Scottish migration between 1613 and 1619. Gillespie’s study of settlement in east Ulster also agreed that settlement appeared to have expanded at a greater rate in the second decade of the century. Robinson’s study of the Plantation in Tyrone suggested that the influx of British settlers into Tyrone in the period 1618-1622 was possibly greater than, and at least on the same scale as the entire influx in the preceding seven years. Such a pattern of migration is consistent with other movements of population from the mainland, eg the number of English settlers migrating to Virginia was low during the period 1607-17 but by 1618-24 their numbers had increased sevenfold.

Despite this initial influx of settlers, their numbers do not appear to have been as great as the architects of the Plantation scheme would have desired. The Muster Rolls suggest a total British population of some 40,000 persons by 1630 with the Scots forming just over 60% of the total. Clearly, with a settler population at 40,000 the official Plantation was just beginning to make some impact on the ground.

The areas where the colonists chose to settle were influenced by two major factors. Firstly, there was the distribution of the estates of English and Scottish undertakers to which landlords and their agents encouraged or brought over settlers. The majority of settlers arriving in the province during the early years of the Plantation were probably of this type. However, as the century progressed more unaided settlers began to come. The places they chose to settle were often related to their point of entry which, usually, was one of the major ports viz. Derry, Coleraine, Carrickfergus, Belfast and Donaghadee.

In general, with the exception of Co. Down, the Scots were more numerous in the north of the province with the English more predominant in the area of the province stretching from the Lagan valley, through north Armagh, and the Clogher valley. The granting of the county of Londonderry to the London companies gave them a substantial foothold in the north of the province. Table 1 gives details of the estimated numbers of Scots and English households in each county by 1630. This data shows that Scots were most dominant in Antrim and Down where they formed 81% and 74% respectively, of the settler population. Within Co. Antrim two-thirds of the Scots were to be found on the lands of the Earl of Antrim in the north of the county. In Donegal three-quarters of the Scots were in the barony of Raphoe and in Tyrone they were concentrated in the baronies of Strabane and Mountjoy.


1642 saw the arrival in Ulster of Major-General Robert Monro with an advance force of Scottish troops. This force, to some extent, restored some order in parts of the province but was unable to defeat the Irish. This had to await the arrival of the Cromwellian forces in 1649. The 1640s, therefore, saw the destruction of many plantation settlements which, if they were to recover, required a new influx of settlers. The Scottish and Cromwellian armed forces supplied some of these settlers and the cessation of hostilities saw the return of some of the settlers who had fled in 1641. Moreover, a new influx of settlers began to arrive during the 1650s, attracted, particularly, by low rents and high wages. As in the 1630s, the majority of these new colonists were from Scotland, a country which, throughout the seventeenth century, was the major supplier of migrants to Ulster. Whilst the attraction of cheap land in the province acted as a pull factor on the Scottish migrant and the periodic occurrence of famine in Scotland often acted as the immediate push factor, there were a number of more general push factors which were also important in influencing the decision to emigrate. These were, in particular, a growing population, rent increases, and tenurial re-organisation

Scottish population had grown substantially during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This growth in population placed a considerable strain on fixed resources and both food prices and rents rose sharply. Although there had been considerable economic growth during the relative peace of the reign of James VI, it would appear that the Scottish economy had not expanded sufficiently to allow the country to accommodate its growing population and, throughout the seventeenth century, Scotland was ready and anxious to export people. In addition to these general factors there was one particular change in Scottish economy and society which had a considerable bearing on the decision to migrate. This related to the reorganisation of tenure on estates which was a consequence of the efforts of landlords to improve their estates.

Instead of seeing their estates as the direct basis of political power in terms of the number of inhabitants it could support they began to consider their property as a source of profit. This profit could be increased, they thought, by more efficient management of their estates. As part of the way towards achieving this efficiency, they re-organised the tenurial structure of their estates. In short this meant the removal of ‘kindly tenants’ (tenants-at-will with no rights to the land other than tradition) or their conversion to leaseholders at a greatly increased rent. Such a change was designed to give the tenant more of a stake in the land thereby encouraging him to carry out improvements. Unfortunately many of the poorer tenants were unable to take advantage of this offer of more security and were driven off the land. These displaced, poorer tenants could, as Perceval-Maxwell has remarked, be expected to respond favourably when offered land in Ireland.

Of course the availability of cheap land in Ireland throughout the seventeenth century fluctuated in response to changing circumstances. Clearly an event like the 1641 rebellion had left much land bereft of British tenants so landlords, anxious to resettle these lands, were forced to offer good terms to attract prospective tenants. However, as the lands filled up again and the population increased, the low rents and high wages which had attracted settlers during the 1650s gave way, by the 1660s, to higher rents, static wages and falling agricultural prices. Cullen has suggested that because of these changes in rents, wages and prices, Scottish immigration, in particular, fell off temporarily during the 1660s, although he maintains that Quaker immigration from England held its own during this decade.

Economic motives, however, were not the only factors which encouraged or discouraged the prospective migrant; religious circumstances also played a prominent role. The arrival of the new Scots in Ulster under Monro had led to the establishment of Presbyterianism through the creation of the first presbytery at Carrickfergus on 10 June 1642. Shortly after this some fifteen parishes in counties Antrim and Down made applications to join the presbytery, electing elders and asking to be supplied with preachers. Under the Cromwellian Protectorate various schemes were proposed to curb the power of the Scots in Ulster, ranging from the decree that no Scots officer should be allowed to live in Ulster unless he took an oath of loyalty, to the proposal that the most dangerous Scots living in Ulster should be transported to counties Kilkeeny, Tipperary and Waterford. Neither of these particular measures were carried out but some action was taken against ministers.

In 1650 ministers were given the option of undertaking not to speak against the government or returning to Scotland. In this instance some stipends were confiscated and some ministers were imprisoned for a time. By 1654 the government, whilst not approving of the actions of the Scots in Ulster, decided not to pursue a policy of repression and this resulted in the spread of the Presbyterian religion throughout the province and, therefore, the attraction of settlers particularly from Scotland. By the end of the 1650s the original presbytery at Carrickfergus had been subdivided into four: Down, Antrim, Route (north Antrim) and Laggan in county Donegal. In 1653 it was estimated that there were twenty-four Presbyterian ministers in Ulster, by the end of the 1650s there were nearly eighty.

With the restoration of Charles II, Presbyterians in Ulster had to face further repression. This was particularly severe in 1661-3 under the primacy of Archbishop Bramhall. With the support of local gentry (a notable exception being the Massereene family of Antrim) Bramhall was able to assert the power of the established church: during 1661 sixty-one of the seventy Presbyterian ministers were expelled from their churches. A number fled to Scotland but many continued to preach in barns, houses and even open fields. Bramhall die din 1663 and his successor, Margetson, adopted a more tolerant attitude. Those who had been banished to Scotland returned and, according to Reid, in the four or five years after 1664 the Presbyterian Church in Ulster virtually recovered its former position in the province. By 1669 new churches were being erected ‘for the accommodation of those who refused to frequent their parish churches, now either exclusively occupied by the Episcopalian clergy or else so ruined as to be unfit for use’. Conditions in Ulster for non-conformists continued to improve throughout the remainder of the reign of Charles II.

In many ways, despite the periodic attempts to curb Presbyterianism, religious persecution of non-conformists was less severe in Ulster at this time than it was in Scotland and England, thereby making the province very attractive as a haven from the intolerance on the mainland. Religious persecution was particularly acute in south-west Scotland, the major supply areas of Scottish immigrants to Ulster. The Covenanters who inhabited this region refused to accept the religious policy of the Restoration government and, as in Ulster, many of their ministers were expelled from their churches. Unlike Ulster, where conditions improved after 1664, the situation got worse in Scotland, leading eventually to a rising in 1666. In England the Act of Uniformity passed in 1662, which required all ministers to use the revised Prayer Book in their services or resign their livings, probably resulted in some emigration. However, the fact that many English settlers in Ulster appear to have remained members of the established church, suggests that, with the possible exception of the Quakers, economic rather than religious motives were more important in influencing the decision to move.


The early 1670s saw a dramatic worsening of the economic situation in Ulster, the most difficult period being during the Dutch wars of 1672-74. There was probably fairly widespread famine in Ulster in 1674-75. Scotland also suffered famine at the same time. By the late 1670s economic conditions had begun to improve and a period of economic growth ensued in Ulster until confidence was shattered under James II. These improved economic conditions probably led to a resumption of sustained Scottish emigration to the province. The Scottish Privy council Register, by 1678, was referred to ‘sundry tenants who, of late have gone over to Ireland.’ The upsurge of repression of Covenanters after the Bothwell Bridge uprising in 1679 probably helped to swell numbers crossing the North Channel during the early 1680s.

However, immigration during this period was not confined to Scots. There is also evidence of a contemporary influx from England, particularly into the Lagan valley corridor. As mentioned earlier, these areas had been settled by English colonists in the earlier part of the century and Quakers had been arriving since the 1650s, and were probably accompanied by other nonconformists fleeing from persecution by the established church. Morgan’s analysis of the register of baptisms, burials, and marriages for the parish of Blaris (which includes the town of Lisburn) confirms this movement and also points to further immigration, particularly in the late 1670s and early 1680s.

However, the economic and associated population growth of Ulster experienced a sharp setback in the late 1680s and early 1690s. Undoubtedly the Williamite war was an important factor but economic confidence had slumped before this, following the accession of James II in 1685. The war of itself led to some devastation but since Ulster was a theatre of hostilities for only a relatively short period of time the direct consequences of war were not as catastrophic as those of the earlier 1641 rebellion. In a sense the main economic effect was to heighten the crisis which was already in existence before war broke out. It also led to the exodus of many settlers, particularly ministers, to Scotland.

With the cessation of hostilities these refugees began to return and were joined by a new wave of immigrants from Scotland, attracted by cheap land. Landlords, with rentals heavily in arrears, were anxious to have these new tenants. According to one pamphleteer, writing in 1712:

the church proprietors, who for some small advance in the rent of their lands, preferred numbers of those Presbyterians, who had swarmed from Scotland after the late revolution. These new adventurers were in many respects able to out-bid the old tenants, who had been in great measure ruined in the late troubles.

However, cheap land was not the only factor which caused the migration of the 1690s. As Cullen has suggested, the immigration of the early 1690s would have quickly lost impetus, as on previous occasions, had it not been boosted by a further and concentrated influx following the exceedingly bad seasons of 1695-98 in Scotland. Of all the famines in Scotland that of the 1690s is the best documented and it was also the one which burnt itself into the memory of the people much as the Great Hunger of the 1840s was to do in Ireland. It was given various titles, such as ‘King William’s dear years’ and the ‘seven ill years’. In fact the bad years lasted for five years from the harvest of 1695 until that of 1700. It appears that Ulster did not suffer from famines during this period so the province must have seemed attractive to persons wishing to run away from the horrors of famine.

Estimates of the numbers involved in this migration during the 1690s vary considerably. Contemporaries estimated that 80,000 Scots had come to Ireland since the Battle of the Boyne. Whilst it is generally that these estimates were exaggerated at the time, it is now clear that this post 1690 movement was substantial and made a major contribution to the figure of some 270,000 British in the province by the early eighteenth century. Table 2 gives estimates of the population of Ulster at particular times throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.


It is now clear that without the influxes of immigrants after 1650 the Plantation in Ulster would, undoubtedly, have suffered a similar fate to the less successful attempts in the remainder of Ireland. If the Plantation had relied exclusively on its initial period of colonisation it is unlikely that by the early eighteenth century the British population in Ulster would even have reached 100,000. This figure is based on a hypothetical calculation of the 40,000 population of 1630 increasing naturally at say 0.8% per annum (a relatively high figure for a pre-industrial population). Furthermore this calculation does not take account of the disruptions caused by the 1641 rebellion. Similarly even if the 120,000 population of 1670 had grown naturally at around 0.8% per annum if would still only have produced a population of 170,000 by 1712. Thus if immigration had ceased after 1630 there would have been a shortfall in the British population in 1712 of at least 170,000 and if it had ceased after 1670 the shortfall would have been some 100,000.

Similarly, the spread of the British population in Ulster although partially controlled by the distribution of Scottish and English undertakers also reflected the basic geography of the province. Londonderry, Coleraine, Carrickfergus, Belfast and Donaghadee were the main ports of entry into the province with the Lagan, the Bann and the Foyle valleys acting as the major arteries along which the colonists travelled into the interior. In general the southern half of the province was dominated by English colonists with the Scots more prominent in the northern half – a fact which is still evident today in the very different dialects spoken in north Antrim and north Armagh.

Bibliography and References

Primary Sources:

  • Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
  • Muster Ross, c.1630; Co. Antrim, D.1759/3C/3; Co. Armagh, T.934; Co. Down, D.1759/3C/1; Co. Fermanagh, T.934; Co. Londonderry, D.1759/3C/2; Co. Tyrone, T.934.
  • Hearth Money Rolls: Co. Antrim, 1669, T.307; Co. Armagh, 1664, T.604; Co. Donegal, 1665, T.307D; Co. Londonderry, 1663, T.307A; Co. Tyrone, 1666, T.307A.
  • S. Pender (ed), A Census of Ireland, circa 1659 (Dublin, 1939).

Secondary sources:

  • L.M. Cullen, ‘Population Trends in Seventeenth Century Ireland’, Economic and Social Review, 6 (1975), 149-165.
  • R.J. Gillespie, Colonial Ulster: The Settlement of East Ulster 1600-1641 (Cork, 1985).
  • G. Hill, An Historical Account of the Plantation of Ulster at the Commencement of the Seventeenth Century, 1608-1620 (Belfast, 1877).
  • R.J. Hunter, ‘The Settler Population of an Ulster Plantation County’, Donegal Annual, X (1972), 124-53.
  • W. Macafee, ‘The Colonisation of the Maghera Region of South Derry during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, Ulster Folklife, 23 (1977), 70-91.
  • W. Macafee and V. Morgan, ‘Population in Ulster, 1660-1760’, in P. Roebuck (ed), Plantation to Partition: Essays in Ulster History in Honour of J.L.McCracken (Belfast, 1981).
  • W. Macafee, ‘The Population of Ulster, 1630-1841; evidence from Mid-Ulster’, Unpublished D.Phil Thesis, University of Ulster, 1987.
  • V.Morgan, ‘A Case Study of Population Change Over Two Centuries: Blaris, Lisburn 1661-1848’, Irish Economic and Social History, III (1976), 5-16.
  • M. Perceval-Maxwell, The Scottish Migration to Ulster in the Reign of James I (London, 1973) (Reprint U.H.F. Belfast 1990).
  • P.S. Robinson, ‘British Settlement in County Tyrone, 1610-1666’ Irish Economic and Social History, V (1978), 5-26.
  • P.S. Robinson, The Plantation of Ulster: British Settlement in an Irish Landscape, 1600-1670 (Dublin, 1984).
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