Pre Ulster Scots

Ulster, the northernmost of Ireland’s four provinces, had been ruled by Gaelic chieftains for hundreds of years when the Anglo-Normans arrived in the late 12th century. They transformed the landscape of Ulster, building abbeys, forts, castles and mansion houses. Over the centuries they intermingled with the Gaelic clans, often becoming as troublesome to the English Crown, who saw themselves as overlords of Ireland, as the native Irish.

Clandeboye O’Neill’s

Towards the end of the 14th century a branch of the powerful Gaelic O’Neill family moved from West Ulster into what is now Antrim and Down. Becoming known as the Clandeboye O’Neill’s, they became increasingly powerful and were seen as a growing threat by the English monarchs, especially Elizabeth. Not only did Gaelic chieftains and powerful Anglo-Norman families contest English rule in Ireland but the country was also seen as a back door into England for her great rivals, France and Spain.

Sir Thomas Smith’s failed colony

In 1571, Elizabeth, a great believer in colonization, granted her Secretary-of-State Sir Thomas Smith a huge 360,000 acres of East Ulster to plant English settlers in an effort to seize control of the Clandeboye O’Neill territory and control the native Irish. The grant included all of the area we know of today as North Down and the Ards, apart from the southern tip of the Peninsula, which was controlled by the Anglo-Norman Savage family.

Destroying the land

Unfortunately for Smith, the booklet he printed to advertise his new lands was read by the Clandeboye O’Neill chief, Sir Brian O’Neill, who just a few years earlier had been knighted by Elizabeth. Furious at her duplicity in secretly arranging for the colonization of O’Neill territory, he burned down all the major buildings in the area, making it difficult for the plantation to take hold. Launching a wave of attacks on these early English settlers, the O’Neill’s scorched the land Smith claimed, burning abbeys, monasteries and churches, and leaving Clandeboye, ‘totally waste and void of inhabitants’.


With the subsequent collapse of the Smith colony – mismanagement and the death of Smith’s son also contributed to its failure – Elizabeth was forced to agree to a peaceful compromise with Brian O’Neill’s successor, his grandson Con O’Neill, in 1587.

Hamilton and Montgomery

Over the next few decades the English stepped up their campaign to rule Ireland, particularly in Ulster. Despite Smith’s failure, the concept of colonization, or plantation of settlers, continued to appeal. But it would take a Scot, King James 1, to give the go ahead for the first successful plantation, and two Scots, Sir Hugh Montgomery and Sir James Hamilton, to oversee it. Perhaps even more importantly, the settlers this time would not be English, but Scots, far hardier and temperamentally suited, King James believed, for the task ahead.


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Image Gallery

Coming from Donaghadee on the coastal road (Whitechurch Road) turn right at Dunover Road. The cemetery is about a mile down on your right.
On the coastal road about two and a half miles east of Portaferry.
Sketrick Castle stands on an island site reached by a causeway on the west coast of Strangford Lough, near Whiterock.
Enter through Portaferry Tourist and information Centre in the Stables Building in Castle Street.
From Newtownards High Street, turn right into Old Cross Street and left into Court Street. Look out for the Old Market Cross on the way.
This townland is on the coastal road (Newcastle Road) between Cloughey and Kearney.
The castle is about 1.5 miles north of Cloughey village.


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