13 March, 2015

On the Trail of the Ulster Scots

David McIlreavy and Paul Duffy reminisce on a summer of discoveries during the Ulster Scots survey.


Since 2012 IAC have formed part of the research team for the Ulster Scots Archaeological Project. Our input involved conducting three research community-based excavations at key sites and an extensive survey of 17th century sites throughout Northern Ireland. The aim of the project is to raise awareness of Ulster Scots history, heritage and culture and to provide a clearer understanding of the impact that the Plantation had on the landscape, peoples and architecture of Ulster. The survey, which included over 600 sites in 6 counties, was carried out by two field teams. One of the teams consisted of David McIlreavy and Paul Duffy who were tasked with visiting and assessing 300 sites in Counties Derry, Tyrone and Antrim.

Paul: The BBC couldn’t really have designed a better premise for a documentary – two men in a car traversing the highways and byways of Northern Ireland on a dedicated survey of sites relating to the Ulster Plantation. The plantation has, in the past, been a charged subject in the history of the island. As a southerner, I certainly had some preconceptions regarding the historical and physical landscape we were to traverse. My colleague however was on home turf and, although the 17th century has been a specific period of study for me, Dave’s particular insights into the political and physical realities of the time were to prove both invaluable and instructive. The variety of sites visited, and the encounters we had with landowners from across the spectrum of Northern Irish society, often enriched our understanding of the sites and their legacies. Gaining access to an upstanding 17th century hipped house in on Straid Road in Ballytromery was a very memorable experience. A personal highlight however occurred while visiting a castle site in Tamnaderry, where we learned from the landowner that the Early Modern settlers had not only constructed a bawn and castle (portion of which we discovered hiding behind later render and brick infill) but they had also sowed what is regarded by experts as possibly the first sycamore tree ever to have been planted in Irish soil. Over the centuries the sycamore has spread throughout the country becoming naturalised and, in the process one of Ireland’s best loved trees – an Ulster plantation of a different kind!

David: This was an excellent opportunity to record a society in flux, from the earliest planters as part of the Jacobean Plantation, through the Cromwellian maelstrom, to the long and bitter siege of Derry. In fact, standing on the walls of the Maiden City herself in one of the rare rainstorms that summer, looking into the Bogside with all its ubiquitous resonances of modern conflict, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was to be a subject as sombre as the grey walls that had echoed with the shout of ‘No Surrender’ to the demands of James II in 1689.

The dramatic architecture of conflict was hard to ignore, from bawns such as Brackfield in Derry and Castle Derg in Tyrone, with their distinctive rounded corner bastions, to the imposing outline of Mountjoy Fort. We visited dozens of encampment sites, artillery platforms and skirmish sites that formed the backdrop to the most blood-soaked period in Ulster history. And yet what arose from the survey sheets and the numerous photos of musket loops, defensive walls, fortified houses and churches, was the often overlooked sophistication of cultural identity that these remains exhibit.

From the delicate rounded corbelling of corner towers at Enniskillen Castle’s Water Gate in the Scottish Baronial Style, through the distinctive stair turret supports at Tully Castle, to the chimney mouldings at Newtownstewart Castle, this was an architecturally vibrant culture writ in stone and brick. This development of style was all the more impressive given the delicate balancing act that many 17th houses within the survey walked between comfort and defence. A prime example was that of Coalisland, perched on the edge of a natural ridge, surveying acres of rich agricultural land through large polygonal Jacobean bay windows. The epitome of the Early Modern manor house, and yet delicately positioned under the bay window are a number of stone cut pistol holes at knee height ready to macerate any unwelcome approach.

The numerous church sites, especially in Tyrone provided ample evidence of the growing importance of the ‘individual’ in 17th century Ulster society. From the depiction of professional symbols, to the whimsical depiction of Jacobean style ruffs on cherubim and seraphim on gravestones, the face of the Ulster Scot beyond the defensive wall began to appear. Nowhere was this more literal than the church at Clonoe where, in a nod to medieval carvings of bishops and kings, on decorative window and door mouldings, we found goateed characters with flowing hair from the Jacobean court. These images stood cheek-by-jowl with a majestic carving of six winged seraphim holding a Bible between them!

And perhaps it is in this one church that we found the closest understanding of the Ulster Scot society that still evades definition to so many even now. This was no culturally lost planter class simply transplanted into Ulster, hiding behind grim walls in fear of the woodkerne. Rather, we encountered a society with a keen sense of the past, confident enough to nod to medieval church traditions that predated them, whilst remaining ready to defend their culture when required. It was not the bawns and fortified houses which defined this society, but rather men and women of cultural and religious conviction strong enough to steer a course through the tumultuous period they lived in.