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Migration back and forth across the narrow North Channel between Scotland and Ireland, which at its narrowest point (between Torr Head and the Mull of Kintyre) is only 13 miles apart, has been ongoing from time immemorial, Scotland owing its very name to Roman times and the settlement of Irish-speaking gaels in Argyle who were known as Scotti.

County Antrim and County Down were essentially the majority of the Anglo-Norman Earldom of Ulster, founded by Hugh de Lacy in 1205. Walter de Burgh succeeded de Lacy and became the first Earl of Ulster in 1264. Walter was succeeded by his eldest son, Richard Og de Burgh “The Red Earl”.

Richard de Burgh’s daughter Elizabeth became the second wife of King Robert the Bruce in 1302.  After Bruce had killed his rival Comyn in Dumfries on 10th February 1306, he fled Scotland for Rathlin Island, just off the coast of North Antrim. He sought refuge on Rathlin from autumn 1306 until spring 1307 where according to legend he was inspired by the determined spider in the cave.

Bruce’s father in law, the Red Earl, was the most powerful Earl in Ireland and he sided with the English King Edward I in the wars which eventually led to the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314. Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn and won Scottish independence.

At a later stage, Edward the Bruce, brother of Robert, was to become High King of Ireland in 1316, meeting his death at the battle of Faughart in 1318.  For several centuries beginning in the middle ages, Scots mercenary forces known as gallowglass were hired by Irish chieftains, many of them settling in Ireland, spawning ‘Irish’ names such as MacSweeney and Gallogly (a surname directly deriving from ‘gallóglaigh’, the Gaelic plural term for gallowglass).

Scottish involvement in Ulster entered a new phase in the fourteenth century with the marriage of Margery Bisset, the Anglo-Norman heiress to two-thirds of the Glens of Antrim, to John Mór MacDonnell (McDonald), Lord of the Isles. By the sixteenth century the MacDonnells had consolidated their grip on much of Co. Antrim, while Scottish settlers had expanded further south into parts of Co. Down. In addition, marriage alliances saw Scottish links with the powerful O’Neills of Tyrone and O’Donnells of Tyrconnell (Donegal).

With the expansion of Tudor rule in the sixteenth century, Crown officials became increasingly concerned about further penetration by the Scots in Ireland. The Reformation had further complicated matters, as the Scots settlers and their kinsmen in the Scottish Isles had remained Catholic. Several efforts were made to uproot the Scots in Ulster by force, meeting only with temporary success. In the end, by 1586, when this was recognised as an impossible task, the Crown authorities adopted a policy of granting the Scots legal right to the territories they occupied in an attempt to bind them to allegiance to the English Crown.

If this was the expectation, the events of the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603) were to prove that it was misplaced. The MacDonnells of Antrim supported the military campaigns of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone. By the concluding stages of the war, however, Randal MacDonnell was supporting the English crown against his former rebel ally. By the time James VI of Scotland succeeded as James I of England in 1603 Randal was playing an important part in helping James ‘pacify’ the Scottish isles. Rewarded with legal title to lands totalling a staggering 300,000 acres (though much of it was the mountainous Glens of Antrim), Randal exercised considerable influence at the new Jacobean court in London. He consolidated his position further by promoting the settlement of Lowland Scots on his lands.