In 1603 James, the new Scottish king on England’s throne, began the ‘Ulster Plantation’, colonising what’s now Northern Ireland with thousands of Scots. It changed Irish and Scottish history forever. Acclaimed historian Dr John Young tells all to our Writer at Large

IF Dr John Young is to be heeded, then unpleasant as it may be for modern Scotland, it’s time for the nation to face up to its role as a foot soldier in England’s first act of imperial conquest: the taking of Ireland.

For modern Scotland specifically, that means confronting the truth about “the Plantation of Ulster”, when tens of thousands of Scots were sent to colonise what is now Northern Ireland.

And Young really should be heeded. He is, after all, a leading historian on the intertwined histories of Scotland and Ireland.

In the crudest of terms, once Scotland’s King James VI became England’s King James I in 1603, he speeded up the colonisation of Ireland, dispatching thousands of Scots to Ulster to settle the land and “civilise” the Gaelic people there. By 1640, there were up to 30,000 Scots in Ulster.

It provided a template for colonisation that the British empire would follow in centuries to come.

The colonial “plantation of Ulster” had political consequences which run to this day, setting in train events leading to the Irish War of Independence and the partition of Ireland in the 1920s, and the “Troubles”. Modern Scotland’s sectarian problems also have their roots in this period.


Catholic demonstrators and British troops clash in what would become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. In response to terrorist attacks on British soldiers and Irish police, the British government flooded the province of Northern Ireland with troops,

Catholic demonstrators and British troops clash in what would become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. In response to terrorist attacks on British soldiers and Irish police, the British government flooded the province of Northern Ireland with troops.


However, Young, who teaches at Strathclyde University, believes there is resistance to confronting such issues. There has been increasing concern that addressing the legacy of empire doesn’t fit with how modern Scotland sees itself. It jars with the notion we’re a progressive, enlightened nation, and it upends the phoney narrative that Scotland was a “victim” of empire rather than England’s willing junior partner.

Young feels coming to terms with events like the Ulster plantation clashes with a “nationalist” view of history which paints Scotland as a land of romantic rebels. Young’s critique doesn’t stem from his own political position. He voted Yes in 2014. Rather, what inspires him is the desire to make Scotland understand its own history so we can better navigate the present and future.


Let’s start at the beginning. Although “the official plantation of Ulster” took place between 1610 and 1625, there was an earlier brief influx of Scots in 1606, the so-called “Hamilton-Montgomery settlement” when, under the direction of two influential Scottish lairds – James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery – whole communities from Ayrshire and southwest Scotland were sent to colonise the northern Irish counties, Antrim and Down, in Ulster. With that foothold secured, the plantations soon got under way in earnest.

The backdrop to the plantations was the Nine Years’ War, between 1593 and 1603, when Irish nobles rose up against England’s presence on the island. Since Tudor times, England had taken chunks of land along Ireland’s eastern seaboard. Much of the Nine Years’ War was focused in the north of Ireland where the powerful Gaelic O’Neill family held sway.

The conflict ended in defeat for the Irish Gaels, resulting in what became known as the “Flight of the Earls”, when Irish leaders like Hugh O’Neill escaped to Spain. Significantly, the Nine Years’ War took place at a time of conflict between England and Spain. The Armada had only been defeated in 1588.

As Young explains, “there was a geopolitical dimension” to the Plantations. “Spain had very close historical relations [with Ireland] due to Catholicism,” he adds. Mostly, England was Protestant, as was Scotland. Ireland was Catholic.


“JAMES in many respects regards himself as a British emperor” when he becomes King of England, Young says. “So on one hand we’ve a war which the native Gaelic Irish chiefs lose, and England wins, and then you’ve a new monarch coming in.”



King James


This new monarch was obsessed with the notion of “civilisation” as a “frontier policy”. He sees Gaels as “barbarian”. Previously, when he was King of Scots, James endeavoured to “civilise” the Gaelic Highlands and islands. Now, sitting on the English throne, as King of “Great Britain”, he could turn his attention to Ireland, specifically Ulster which had been the cause of so much trouble for England.

And with the flight of the Earls, there was precious land to be claimed. Ireland was reeling. Politically, the country was decapitated, as if President Zelenskyy fled Kyiv today. James was also simultaneously establishing the first English settlement in North America at Jamestown in Virginia. So empire-building was a priority.

There was also a highly religious element to the plantation as most –though not all – of the Scots “planted” in Ulster were Protestant. Again, this would lay the ground for divisions which haunted Irish history, and echo in present-day Scotland.

“As an historian,” Young says, “there’s an obligation to tell the truth.” Yet Scotland talks so little about this period of our history. The plantations had terrible consequences within just years of the colonisation process beginning. In 1641, displaced Irish Gaels rose up and attacked settlers.


AFTER the uprising, the Protestant Covenanters, who then controlled Scotland, “put an army of 11,000 men into Ulster” to protect Scottish colonists. “The English Parliament was extremely worried about letting the Scots army in. They genuinely believed the Covenanters planned to annex Ulster.” The Scottish Parliament would later come to develop its own “Ulster policy”, Young notes.

The rebellion in Ulster saw some Scots colonisers flee back to Scotland as refugees from a “war zone”. It became a “humanitarian problem”. It’s also important to remember, says Young, the consequences for ordinary Irish people of Scottish colonisation and the “meaning of that loss”: displacement and the lasting damage to Irish culture.

Eventually, in the wake of the 1641 rebellion, Oliver Cromwell would lay waste to Ireland, with estimates that potentially 50% of the population died.Once again, the anti-Catholic sentiments held by Protestant Scots who lived in Ireland and later returned home can be seen in the sectarianism that remains in Scottish society to this day.


YOUNG wonders why Scotland obsesses so much on the Jacobite period, yet barely considers the Ulster plantation and the nation’s role in the events which followed. He feels it’s “quite disturbing”. There is “an unhealthy obsession in Scotland with the Jacobites ... It seems tied up with modern preconceptions of Scottish nationalism”.

There’s a sense that the Jacobites were “cool … that they were the ‘real Scots’. For some people, that’s what they’re arguing”. Clearly, studying the Jacobite rebellions, which begin in the late 1600s, is “really important”. Others have also expressed concerns that some in Scotland focus on history which suits modern tastes.

It’s equally important to remember that “there’s been movement of people between Ireland and Scotland for thousands of years”. In the so-called “Dark Ages”, a Gaelic empire called Dalriada spanned north-east Ulster and western Scotland. But what King James began was something entirely different

– a “game changer”, as Young says.

That’s why so many historians, particularly in Ireland, see this colonisation process as integral to the future of the British empire. It was a test bed which taught England what to do and what not to do.

The Hamilton-Montgomery settlement effectively created the people now known as the “Ulster Scots”.

It was their “Year Zero”, Young adds. Montgomery and Hamilton were their “founding fathers”. The Ulster Scots’ identity is intimately bound up in the Protestant loyalist community’s sense of self in Northern Ireland today.

There has even been discussion that in the event of a United Ireland, Northern Ireland could experience a “Donbasisation”, where some from the Protestant community retreat to an enclave around Antrim and Down – significantly where those Hamilton-Montgomery Scots settled in 1606.


'The Plantation of Ulster', 17th century, (1948). Map: 'Plan of lands belonging to the Companies of London in Ireland'. The Plantation of Ulster was the organised colonisation (plantation) of a province of Ireland by people from Great Britain during



SCOTS, however, weren’t alone in planting Ulster. English settlers were also involved, sent by James. “For James,” says Young, “plantation is biblical.” He felt it almost a moral duty to “civilise” the Gaels. Evidently, there’s deep historic irony here as it was Irish missionaries who brought the “light of Christianity” to Scots around 560 AD.

With colony came “blue-sky thinking”. Ulster was rural and shattered by the Nine Years’ War, so Scots settlers had an almost blank canvas with which to work. New towns were founded, street design improved, and markets and churches built.

The opportunities offered by James’s plantation policy came at a perfect time for Scotland. In the early 1600s, Young explains, there were just “too many young men. Scotland was spewing people out everywhere”. During the same period as Scots were colonising Ulster, they were also moving as economic migrants to Poland and Scandinavia. “Scotland was a mobile society,” Young adds.


IT was also a time of religious tension in Scotland. There was antipathy between Presbyterians on one hand and the Crown and Church of Scotland on the other. James’s religious policy – encapsulated in what’s known as The Five Articles of Perth in 1618 – “was really controversial”.

Among the demands were the order that people knelt for communion. “For Presbyterians that was a no-no.” Many of these “non-conforming Presbyterians” decided to take part in the Plantations, as they believed they would be more free in this “frontier” land. “That religious radicalism goes into Ulster,” Young adds. Clearly, the effects of transporting such ideas into the north of Ireland echoes to this day.

Later, when famine hit Scotland in the 1690s, there was another wave of migration into Ulster. “Ulster was seen as a land of opportunity – the possibility of getting land is a major pull factor for people at different times.” In the 1690s, about 41,000 Scots arrive in Ulster.

“It’s the high point,” says Young. When the wars of William of Orange end in Ireland in 1691, the so-called Protestant Ascendancy across Ireland really kicks in as soldiers are handed parcels of land.


WE need to ensure we keep the Plantation of Ulster by Scots in perspective, however. Scots, says Young, “took part in a process of colonisation” in Ireland, but it was England that masterminded it. Ulster, as part of Ireland, was an English “owned” colony, even though it was Scots who settled the land. “Ireland doesn’t belong to Scotland,” Young explains.

“From the perspective of Irish historians – very good Irish historians – there’s a strong, cohesive argument made that Ireland was England’s first colony, that provided the blueprint for future settlement.” Scots were “part of the process” of colonisation.

That Scottish colonisation of Ulster was part of an “ideological blueprint for a new type of society” that’s going to be created in Ireland. England’s colonisation of Ireland also importantly “predates the plantation” of Ulster by Scots. So, ordinary Scots were once again “part of a process” – an ongoing process – of colonisation, rather than the instigators. But clearly that doesn’t detract from the benefits accrued to Scots settlers or the suffering of displaced Irish people in Ulster. And it can’t be forgotten that the chief colonial ideologue was a Scottish king sitting on England’s throne.

Young notes the famous Irish history book Making Ireland English and suggests it’s maybe time for another text called “Making Ulster Scottish” – although he says it’s historically wrong to call Ulster a “Scottish colony”.

It was an English colony that was colonised by Scots – and others from England, significantly – on behalf of the Crown. “The Scots are involved – they get land – but they’re not the prime movers or in command … Scotland is involved but in a subordinate role, which isn’t to diminish that role. The Ulster plantation fits into a bigger picture … It’s an accelerated process.”

The Scottish plantation of Ulster was a “massive step in a much longer process” involving the colonisation of the entire island of Ireland. However, Scots were importantly “willing participants”, there was nothing “forced” about their involvement.


Aerial of Belfast City Center looking towards Belfast Lough and the Titanic Quarter Docklands..

Aerial of Belfast City Center looking towards Belfast Lough and the Titanic Quarter Docklands.


YOUNG cautions against what he calls “victim history”. There is a widespread belief – or claim – in modern Scottish society that Scots were actually the victims of “England’s empire”. That’s just wrong. “Scots were involved in the British empire. They benefited from it, they were up for it,” Young adds.

He views anyone who refuses to accept this as “pretty disturbing – Scotland was involved in the slave trade, which was global. Scotland benefited from it.”

This “certain type of Scottish mindset” also comes to the fore in discussions today around the Act of Union. Young scoffs at “the Ladybird book view of history which says it was bribery”. The union was “a freely negotiated treaty”. Some may not like that fact, he says, but Scotland wasn’t forced into union.

Nor was Scotland in such dire financial need that it had to accept union. “Scottish commercial networks were so active in England’s colonies in north America in the early 18th century that they were perceived as an [economic] threat.”


SIGNIFICANTLY, many of the most successful immigrants to America were Ulster-Scots: settlers who lived in the north of Ireland for a few generations before heading to America. Once in America, these Ulster-Scots became known as the “Scots-Irish”. “Many played a leading role in the American revolution,” Young points out. Many US presidents trace their lineage back to Ulster-Scots, including Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S Grant, and Teddy Roosevelt.

The irony, Young notes, is that while today’s Ulster Protestant community celebrates their historic role in US history, many of their ancestors “took up armed struggle against the British crown and won” during the American War of Independence.

Scotland’s relationship to Ulster is just one of the many “gaping holes” in how some Scots see history. Does Scotland recognise its historic relationship with Ulster and the island of Ireland? Young worries about “how little people know about Northern Ireland and the historical events which affected us and that we were part of”.


BELFAST wouldn’t be the city it is without Scots. “Once you get to the 1680s,” Young says, “Belfast is described as a Scots town. Most Belfast merchants are either Scottish or of Scottish descent. They’ve made it big there.”

The Scottish plantations in Ulster also played into the “Williamite War” following the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Significantly, this conflict wasn’t fought in Scotland. William of Orange

– also King of Scotland – told key advisers Scotland “must not become a field of blood”. So the war was focused in Ireland. The Battle of the Boyne, where William defeated James II, was pivotal in creating the sectarian conflict that has blighted Ireland’s history. Without the Battle of the Boyne, there is no Orange Order marching season, for instance.

Ironically, plantation was so successful that “by the time you get to the early 18th century, the Scots in Ireland are being perceived as a threat to English hegemony”. Tensions arose between Scottish presbyterians and the Church of Ireland.


YOUNG, who takes part in academic post-conflict peace and reconciliation work in Northern Ireland, says that the understanding of Scottish-Irish historical relations is sophisticated in Ireland whereas it is “totally immature” in Scotland. “The interaction between England, Scotland and Ireland is complex,” Young says. “England has always been dominant historically, and Ireland’s quite clearly been on the receiving end. In many respects, Scotland has been a willing participant.”

So, why is modern-day Scotland so reluctant to engage with this past? “The Troubles,” Young speculates. He isn’t impressed at the way the Scottish Government and media have failed to engage in any national conversation about this aspect of our past, particularly as Scotland’s history is hijacked often for political or sectarian purposes.

He baulks at the sight of Saltires flying over Northern Ireland’s loyalist areas. Young adds that he comes from a Protestant tradition himself.

“It makes me feel uncomfortable. This flag belongs to anyone who lives in Scotland.”

Young notes many Scottish university students come with little or no knowledge about this Irish dimension to our past. A lack of historical understanding was highlighted during the Queen’s funeral when one media commentator claimed “John Knox cleared out all the Catholics from Scotland”. Young adds: “That didn’t happen”. He worries this kind of “ignorance” can fuel the sectarianism which still festers in Scotland today.

There’s a deep irony in the fact that so few Scots know that Glasgow was a staunchly British/Protestant city. It was very “anti-Jacobite”, and backed the British Hanoverian monarchy. “Glasgow was the first Scottish city to declare for William of Orange.” That’s why a statue of William of Orange stands in Glasgow’s Cathedral Square.

Young feels such historical facts clash with the view some Scottish nationalists have of the past. “It’s just history, but someone out there living in a backroom in Forfar in a kilt is going to say ‘that’s not true, you’re a traitor’. To fully understand modern day Scotland and how it developed, we need to understand the Ulster connection.”