By the beginning of the 17th century, there was already a significant Scottish presence in Ireland. From the late 1200’s to the 1500s, Scottish mercenaries known as “gallowglass” had been brought over by Irish leaders to supplement their own armies. The gallowglass were typically paid with clan land from the clan chief they had served. Naturally, they settled in Ireland, bringing with them such Scottish names as MacSweeny and MacDowell.
During the 16th century a new wave of Scottish mercenaries flooded into Ireland from the Isles and Highlands; however, this group was paid in currency rather than land, and most returned to Scotland. A branch of the Macdonnell clan didn’t leave. They instead settled in the northeast corner of Ulster (in modern day Antrim county), and quickly dominated the region politically. The government in Dublin viewed this Scottish settlement as a serious threat, however, and in 1556 legislation was passed banning all Scots from Ireland.
A mere 50-odd years later, James VI of Scotland ascended the thrones of England and Ireland, bringing an about-face in the Irish perspective on Scottish settlers. Knowing that Northern Ireland was typically hostile to English rule, James conceived the idea of a Protestant colony as a means of establishing the royal hold on the region.
James found his opportunity when the Roman Catholic Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell fled Ireland to take refuge in France. Their lands were quickly seized by the crown and divided up amongst new owners. These seized lands included the counties of Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Coleraine (later renamed Londonderry), and Donegal. Plans were drawn up, dividing the counties into precincts, and each of those precincts was assigned to Irish servitors or English or Scottish undertakers (so called because they “undertook” the commission of building fortifications and establishing settlements).
By 1610, the Scots were awarded nine separate precincts. Greater nobles received up to 3000 acres of profitable land, while fifty Scottish chiefs received grants of 1000-2000 acres. The government hand-picked each recipient to ensure that the noblemen had the means to meet the costs of establishing a profitable settlement.
In 1630, a military muster was conducted, and these records show the progress of the various settlements. Certain precincts, such as those in Donegal, had seen little to no growth by the time of the muster. Elsewhere, however, small communities of Lowland Scots were established and thriving. According to the muster of 1630, the adult Scottish population of Ulster had nearly reached 14,000.
Though no surveys were conducted in the years after the muster of 1630, the incoming Scots established a strong presence not only in Ulster, but also further afield. Counties Cork, Mayo, Sligo, and Wexford all show signs of a significant Scottish presence at the time. In fact, so strong was Scottish establishment in Ireland that they posed a serious threat to Charles I when he faced disputes with the Scots in the late 1630s.
Those very disputes brought Scottish migration to a near halt for almost a decade. When Charles tried to force the Prayer Book of the Church of England on them, denying the Scots their own form of worship, many simply pulled up stakes and went home. Charles added insult to injury in 1638 by demanding that Scots in Ulster take “The Black Oath” – a solemn vow to never take up arms against the King. Many sorely insulted Scots simply chose to return to Scotland rather than being subjected to Charles’ whims.
Finally, in 1641 an Irish rebellion broke out. Men, women and children were slaughtered, and many survivors rushed to return to Scotland. In 1642, however, ten thousand Scottish soldiers flooded in to quash the rebellion. Thousands of the soldiers stayed on in Ireland, renewing the Scottish population.
It is estimated that in all, as many as 200,000 Scots crossed the North Channel throughout the 17th century, though not all remained or survived. Exact figures vary greatly; however we know that Scottish presence throughout the time of the Restoration was substantial. Sir William Petty estimated the Scottish population to be around 100,000 in 1672, and that number continued to grow significantly until around 1715.