A Narrow Sea

A Narrow Sea

A Narrow Sea is a 60-part series tracing the history of Ulster’s connections with Scotland. There are a limited number of promotional booklets available to accompany this series. To obtain your copy, please email with your name and address. Please note booklets will be sent out on a first-come, first-served basis.

The coming and going across the narrow sea – known today as the North Channel and in the past as the Waters of Moyle – did much to shape the history of Ulster and Scotland. At first the migration was from east to west. The earliest known habitation site in Ireland (Mount Sandel in Coleraine), is dated around 7,500 BC, a thousand years after the earliest site in Scotland, at Cramond just outside Edinburgh. In early Christian times the flow reversed as Gaelic-speaking people from Dalriada in north Antrim – known to the Romans as Scots – began to colonise Argyll, and spread out from there. They penetrated deep into territory held by the Picts and Strathclyde Britons. They brought with them their Christian beliefs - and Columcille, founder of Derry, made Iona the most famous centre of Christian learning in the north west of Europe.

The kingdoms of the Picts and Scots merged and in 843 Irish annals record that Kenneth mac Alpin, King of Dalriada, was ‘the first king from among the Gaels that assumed the kingdom of Scone’: in short, he was the first King of Scots. Attempts by the Norman rulers of England to conquer both Scotland and Ireland led again to the reversal of the flow across the narrow sea. Robert the Bruce, after his victory of Bannockburn, sent a great Scots army to Ulster in an attempt to carve out a kingdom in Ireland for his brother, Edward. The Bruces failed, but the Hebridean warriors they brought with them continued to come to Ulster to serve Irish chieftains as mercenaries. Many settled here including MacSweenys, MacDowells, MacRorys and – in the Glens of Antrim – the MacDonnells.

The complete conquest of all Ireland was accomplished by Elizabeth in 1603. Her successor, James I, set about confiscating land from the Gaelic lords of Ulster and settling them with British colonists who were both Protestants and loyal to the Crown. This was the most ambitious colonising programme in western Europe in modern times. Scots were treated equally with the English in this ‘Plantation of Ulster’ and were particularly successful in settling Antrim, north and east Down, the north coast, and the Laggan district of north Donegal. Tension between the native Catholic Irish and Protestant British frequently erupted in violence, but for the remainder of the seventeenth century Scots continued to cross the narrow sea especially during a terrible famine in Scotland during the 1690s.

The flow of Scots into Ulster almost ceased in the early 1700s. For the next century and more, restless Ulster-Scots moved on, crossing the Atlantic to carve out new lands for themselves in British North America. Their experience in Ulster made them accomplished frontiersmen and their fiercely independent spirit led most of them to take up arms against the government of George III and help create the United States of America. These Ulster-Scots backwoodsmen, ruthless Indian fighters known as the ‘Scotch-Irish’, kept pushing back the frontier. Back in Ulster, those of Scottish ancestry had divided loyalties: some, mainly in mid-Ulster, created the Orange Order and supported the Crown; and others, mainly in Antrim and Down, fought for Irish independence in 1798.

Though there was a great deal more intermarriage than is often realised, the tensions going back to the Ulster Plantation led to sectarian conflict and bitter disagreement over whether or not Ireland should continue to be ruled from Westminster. These divisions, leading to the heartbreak of lost lives and economic stagnation, for long made Northern Ireland an object of unenviable media attention. There is little doubt, however, that people from both sides of the narrow sea made a remarkable contribution to the culture, leadership and character of many places across the globe.

A Narrow Sea Production Team

  • Author - Dr Jonathan Bardon
  • Readers - Cherrie McIlwaine, James Bryce & Sean Crummey
  • Radio Series Producer - Alison Finch
  • Ulster-Scots Producer - Laura Spence
  • BBC Advisor - Rev Dr Bert Tosh


Scotland and Ulster

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