However, this situation was soon to change. Running short of drink, Con made the fateful decision to send some men to the nearby village of Belfast to replenish his stock of wine. Returning, they came into conflict with English troops, killing at least one. Con was arrested and thrown into Carrickfergus Gaol. Fearing for his life, his wife, Ellis, decided to approach an old ally for help.
Hugh Montgomery, from one of Scotland’s oldest and most powerful families, had enjoyed a long association with James VI of Scotland, soon to be crowned as James 1 of England too. Knowing his influence, Ellis offered Montgomery one half of Con’s land if he could secure his release and a royal pardon. It was enough to tempt the ambitious Scot, who arranged Con’s escape from Carrickfergus,
But, Montgomery, who had travelled with James’s entourage to London prior to his coronation, discovered he had an influential rival for the ear of James, one who had his own designs on Con’s land. A fellow Scot, James Hamilton had been appointed by King James as his agent to Elizabeth’s court and was involved in negotiations for James’s accession to the English throne. Indeed, it was he who brought the news of Elizabeth’s death to the Scottish court.
Using his influence with James, Hamilton muscled in on Montgomery’s deal and eventually a furious Montgomery was forced to accept a compromise deal decided by James. The Clandeboye O’Neill land would be divided into thirds between the three men.
Con, now pardoned, returned to Castle Reagh to rule over his much diminished territory. Meanwhile Hamilton and Montgomery laid plans for the private plantation of their lands in Ards and North Down. So successful would they be that they would not just create a template for the future ‘official’ plantation of Ulster, but may well have influenced the early colonisation of America.
The two men advertised their Ulster lands, at enticingly low rents, to the lowland, and largely Presbyterian, Scots, as well as to their extended families, and opened up a trading route between Portpatrick in Scotland and Donaghadee. In May 1606, the first settlers arrived at Donaghadee harbour. They seem to have encountered little resistance or hostility from the tiny population of native Irish. Soon a trickle became a flood and the Ards and North Down area became populated by thousands of Scots, bringing their own culture and language. Ruined abbeys, churches and houses were restored, and new farms, harbours, and villages and towns sprang up.
Hamilton’s tenants built towns like Bangor, where he built his first house on the site of Bangor Castle, Groomsport, Holywood, Dundonald and Killyleagh. Montgomery restored the ruined Newtownards Priory and converted the adjoining building to his family home. He started a great school in the town, creating a football pitch and golf course there. His tenants built towns like Newtownards, Greyabbey and Donaghadee. In a few short years Ards and North Down had been transformed and Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton would earn their place in history as the ‘founding fathers of the Ulster-Scots’.