The majority of the new settlers lived in rural areas and earned their living through farming. The main form of agriculture was pastoral with cattle and sheep being grazed on unenclosed lands. Some land was tilled, mainly for the cultivation of oats that formed a staple part of the diet of the settler community. In Antrim and Down, the economy was a little more progressive but on the whole the new tenant farmers continued the existing agriculture economy of Gaelic society. This is not surprising given that most of the Scottish tenants would have been familiar with a similar form of agriculture in their home areas and that the natural environment of the escheated (confiscated) lands was more suited to pastoral than arable farming. It should also be remembered that the poverty of the incoming tenants hindered the introduction of any major innovations in the form of new agricultural methods.
The distribution of the settler population on the Plantation was uneven with the more fertile lands and the hinterland of the port towns, particularly of Derry and Coleraine, attracting a higher density of settlement than more remote and poorer lands. A striking feature of the early years of the Plantation was the mobility of tenants as they moved from unattractive areas (to which they may have been brought initially by an undertaker) to regions which they identified as more likely to bring them greater prosperity.
Although agriculture formed the mainstay of the Plantation economy, urbanisation was central to the ideology underpinning the Plantation scheme. The planners envisaged a network of large and small towns, distributed throughout the province. Lack of adequate economic resources meant, however, that the growth of large urban centres was slow with only Derry, Coleraine and Armagh achieving the status of medium-sized towns by 1641. Nevertheless, in the long term the Plantation initiated the emergence of an impressive urban network in Ulster and by the late 17th century, it has been estimated that there were over 100 towns in the province.
Small market towns serviced the rural hinterland with a range of commercial and administrative services. Craftsmen plied their trades as cloth makers, shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, butchers and malt makers while weekly or monthly markets provided an outlet for surplus agricultural produce. Tradesmen in the towns also sold a miscellaneous collection of manufactured goods, which they imported from English and Scottish towns. The list of items imported into Ulster towns in the early 17th century testifies to the consumer revolution which was taking place in the province. Among the goods imported were a wide range of household goods such as brass pots, frying pans, glasses, tables, sheets and pillows as well as food including marmalade, spices, prunes, wine and whisky; and large quantities of tobacco. The new settler population, particularly the women, also dressed differently from the local Irish population and Spanish silk, bone lace, as well as less exotic cloth and a miscellaneous collection of accessories such as gloves, hats and shoes regularly feature in the import list.