The history of Scottish migration to Ireland can be traced to the middle ages when Scottish gallowglass or mercenary soldiers were employed by Gaelic lords. Some settled permanently in Ulster, a process which was intensified in the late 14th century when the MacDonnell clan acquired property in the Glens of Antrim through marriage to a local heiress. The increasing Scottish settlement in north east Ulster in the first half of the 16th century alarmed the Tudor monarchy concerned that a Scottish-Franco alliance could invade Ireland as part of a wider continental war against England.
Following a series of failed military expeditions aimed at dislodging the Scots from Ulster, Queen Elizabeth agreed to support an English colonial settlement in the region. In 1571 Sir Thomas Smith, the Queen’s Principal Secretary of State was given a royal grant in Clandeboye and the Ards Peninsula. Smith envisaged a settlement led by the younger sons of English gentlemen who would develop the urban and commercial infrastructure of the Ards and exploit its natural resources of fish and timber. The indigenous Irish community were to be employed as labourers in the colony. The scheme was financed partly through private investment and partly through state sponsorship, largely in the form of military support. Smith’s natural son, Thomas, was given the task of implementing his father’s plans and he travelled to the Ards Peninsula in August 1572. Smith encountered considerable local opposition particularly from Sir Brian MacPhelim O’Neill, the Gaelic lord of Clandeboye who was supported by other lords in Ulster, notably Turlough Luineach O’Neill. In October 1573, Smith was killed by a supporter of Sir Brian having failed to make any progress with his father’s colonial scheme.
Plans to establish an English colony in Ulster were not, however, abandoned following Smith’s murder. In 1573, Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex received a grant of land in north east Ireland from Queen Elizabeth. Like Smith, Essex agreed to invest his own money in his colonial project but his ambitions were wider than those of Smith as he envisaged taking control of an extensive territory from Belfast to Coleraine and establishing himself as Captain General of Ulster. Essex recruited 400 adventurers for his colony but only a small number of them travelled to Ireland and Essex spent most of his time in the province engaged in military encounters with Gaelic lords opposed to his plans. Frustrated by his lack of progress, Essex in 1574 seized Sir Brian MacPhelim O'Neill, his wife and brother and arranged for their execution in Dublin Castle. The following year, aware of the Queen’s increasing impatience with his failure, Essex authorised a notorious raid on the Scottish settlement on Rathlin Island by John Norris and Francis Drake. Shortly afterwards, the Queen relieved Essex of his command in Ulster.
Despite the failed colonial projects and the massacre on Rathlin, Scottish migration to north east Ireland continued throughout the late 16th century and intensified in the early 17th century when Sir Hugh Montgomery and Sir James Hamilton acquired property in the Ards Peninsula which they developed as a private Plantation.