Short biographies on some of the key players in Ulster-Scots history: Robert Blair (1593 - 1666), William Steel Dickson (1744 - 1824), Sir James Hamilton (1559 - 1644), Rev James Hamilton (1600 - 1666), John McClelland (dates unknown), Sir Hugh Montgomery (1560 - 1636), Con O'Neill (Circa mid-1500s - 1618), Archibald Hamilton Rowan of Killyleagh (1751 - 1834), David Baillie Warden (1772 - 1845)

Robert Blair (1593 - 1666)

From Ayrshire in Scotland, Blair was invited to Bangor by Sir James Hamilton in 1623. He became minister at Bangor Abbey, despite his strong Presbyterian sympathies. He suffered a number of personal tragedies, including the death of his first wife Beatrix. He was effectively the leader of the Ulster-Scots at this point. With the Established Church making life harder for Presbyterians, he was deposed from the ministry and in 1636 was one of four ministers to commission the Eagle Wing, the first emigrant ship to leave Ulster for America. After its failed voyage, during which his baby son William died, he returned to Scotland, where he briefly became Moderator of the Presbyterian Assembly and Chaplain to the King.

William Steel Dickson (1744 – 1824)

A charismatic and much respected Presbyterian minister, William Steel Dickson became a member of the Society of United Irishmen following its formation in Belfast in 1791. Minister of Portaferry from 1780, he was a great believer in Catholics being granted the right to vote and spoke out against the abuse of power by government. It is likely that he became Adjutant General of the County Down United Irishmen in 1798, though this cannot be confirmed. However, he was arrested on June 5th, two days before the start of the rebellion. Imprisoned on a ship in Belfast Lough he was later sent to Fort George in Scotland.

He was freed in 1802, later returning to Ulster to become a minister in Keady. He died in 1824 and is buried in the Clifton Street cemetery in Belfast. A blue plaque outside Portaferry Presbyterian Church, on the site of the church where he preached for many years, commemorates his life.

Sir James Hamilton  (1559 - 1644)

The co-founding father of the Ulster Scots was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of a Protestant minister. Educated at St Andrews University, he became renowned as a great scholar. He established a school in Dublin and later became bursar of the recently formed Trinity College. Back in Scotland he was appointed an agent for King James V1 of Scotland and Scottish agent to the court of Elizabeth 1. He was involved in the negotiations around James’s succession to the throne and brought the official news of Elizabeth’s death to him. He was able to use his influence with James, now James 1 of England, to intervene in Sir Hugh Montgomery’s plan to take half of Con O’Neill’s lands in North Down and the Ards. Eventually he was able to secure one third of these lands for himself.

Rev James Hamilton (1600 - 1666)

The nephew of Sir James Hamilton, he was born in Scotland and was heavily influenced by Robert Blair at Glasgow University. He became estate manager at Bangor, where he was re-united with Blair, who tutored him for the ministry. He became minister at the restored church at Whitechurch, Ballywater. Despite his influential uncle, Hamilton suffered for his Presbyterian views and was deposed from his church in 1636. He set sail on Eagle Wing, alongside Blair and two other Presbyterian ministers, John McClelland and John Livingstone. He returned to Scotland where he continued to preach. He ended his days in poverty.

John McClelland (dates unknown)

A Presbyterian lay preacher, McClelland arrived in Newtownards from Scotland around 1620, to become the schoolmaster of Montgomery’s great school there. Described by his colleagues as a zealous man who knew no fear in the cause of God, he suffered from the anti-Presbyterian views of the Established Church. He was one of four Presbyterian ministers to sail on the Eagle Wing, the first ship to leave Ulster for America and what the passengers hoped would be a more tolerant religious climate. After the failure of the voyage he returned to Scotland.

Sir Hugh Montgomery (1560 - 1636)

Montgomery was born into one of Scotland’s most powerful families, whose titles and estates dated back to the 12th century. His father, Adam, was the Fifth Laird of Braidstane in Ayrshire. A soldier, Montgomery fought against King Phillip II of Spain (whose troops included Guy Fawkes!). He was imprisoned after a duel nearly led to the death of a rival and his escape would mirror a plan he later used to rescue Con O’Neill from prison. He had considerable influence with King James V1 of Scotland and accompanied him to his coronation in London in 1603, when he became King James 1 of England.

Following his deal with the wife of Gaelic chieftain Con O’Neill to take half the clan’s lands in return for springing him from jail in Carrickfergus and organising a royal pardon, Montgomery’s hopes were frustrated by the intervention of Hamilton. He was responsible for settling thousands of Scots in North Down and the Ards. He was knighted in 1605. He founded a ‘great school’ in Newtownards with a green for golf, archery and football.

He had what could be said to be the equivalent of a Scottish state funeral when he was buried in Newtownards Priory in 1636.

Con O’Neill (Circa mid-1500s - 1618)

The area now known as Ards and North Down had long been in the hands of the Clandeboye branch of the Gaelic O’Neill clan when Con O’Neill inherited them in 1586. Con’s grandfather, Sir Brian O’Neill, had devastated the territory in 1572, burning abbeys, priories and other major buildings as part of his successful campaign to sabotage the planned English colony of Sir Thomas Smith.

Based at Castle Reagh, overlooking Belfast, Con was arrested and imprisoned in 1602 after his men killed an English soldier. Fearing his execution his wife, Ellis, negotiated a deal with Sir Hugh Montgomery - one half of the O’Neill lands in return for Con’s liberty and a royal pardon. Ultimately he would lose two thirds of his land to Montgomery and Hamilton. He died around 1618 and is believed to be buried in what is now east Belfast.

Archibald Hamilton Rowan of Killyleagh (1751 - 1834)

A founding member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen in 1790, he was jailed in 1794 but escaped first to France and then America, where he remained during the failed 1798 Rebellion. He inherited Killyleagh Castle from his father in 1805, returning from exile the next year. He remained politically active until his death in 1834.

David Baillie Warden (1772 - 1845)

A young Presbyterian who had just qualified for the ministry, Warden became the local leader of the United Irishmen after the arrest of William Steel Dickson. After the Battle of Ballynahinch, where the rebels were comprehensively defeated, he was among many who were arrested and imprisoned. He was fortunate in being allowed to emigrate to America where he became a citizen in 1804. A man of great learning, he acted as American consul in Paris, where he remained for most of the remainder of his life. He was an American observer at the Congress of Vienna in 1814. He was for many years a regular correspondent with Thomas Jefferson, the third president of America.


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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.
In Portaferry’s Conservation Area, at the junction of Steel Dickson Avenue and Meeting House Street.
Enter through Portaferry Tourist and information Centre in the Stables Building in Castle Street.
At the east end of High Street, around the corner from Newtownards Priory.
About five miles from Newtownards on the road to Portaferry.


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