Scotland during the Medieval and Renaissance periods was divided, both physically and culturally, into two sections: the Highlands and the Lowlands. The people of the mountainous Highlands to the northwest remained primitive and uninfluenced by the cultural and scientific advances which made up the "Renaissance". The Highlanders descended almost exclusively from the Celtic tribe known as the Picts, and fiercely retained their Celtic ancestral traditions. One of the things which distinguished the Highlanders from the Lowlanders was that the Highlanders tended to adhere to the clan system of self-rule. The Highlands of Scotland through the latter half of the 18th Century has been likened to the American "Wild West" due to the fact that each of the family clans made and lived by their own laws. The mountainous terrain of the Highlands, offering natural isolation, would have contributed somewhat to the Highlander's separatist temperament.
The people of the Lowlands, on the other hand, descended from an intermingling of at least nine different races: the aboriginal natives, the Gaels, the Britons, the Romans, the Teutonic Angles, the Saxons, the Normans, the Flemish, and the Scots. The last named group, the Scots, were a Celtic tribe which originated in Ireland and had, during the Third and Fourth Centuries AD, invaded and established colonies in Alba, as Scotland was then known.
The Lowlanders, being descended from so many different races, could not help but influence, and be influenced by, each other. That intermingling contributed to the process of civilizing the people as a whole. And as the people of the Scottish Lowlands became more civilized, the concept of the clan as a political and social structure gave way, around the Twelfth Century, to the concept of feudalism. That meant that the people pledged their loyalty to the feudal lord rather than to a particular family or clan.
The Lowlanders were a hardened people. The Lowlands acted as a buffer zone between England and the Scottish Highlands. The English and the Highlanders had been enemies for many centuries. The few instances of congeniality they showed to each other were largely the result of a few politically motivated royal marriages. The Highlanders had resisted the Romans and all the succeeding invaders who had attempted to subjugate them, and they occasionally launched raids against the English. In the process, the Lowlands region, lying between the two opponents, was invariably overrun by them. Life in the Lowlands was therefore neither easy nor particularly stable. The continual struggle to exist, which was the daily life of the Scottish Lowlanders, molded and toughened them, and despite the devastation that the Highlanders and English wreaked on their homes and farmlands, they survived.
Two things led up to the migration of large numbers of Scottish Lowlanders across the water that separated Scotland from Ireland. The one was starvation; the other was King James I of England's scheme of colonization.
Scotland, at the start of the 1600s, was a very poor country. The best farmlands were in the Lowlands, but those farmlands were overrun by the Highlanders and the English so often, that the Lowlanders were not motivated to work very hard to make their farms profitable. They simply did as best as they could to keep alive. In addition to that, the Scots were overall ignorant of "modern" farming methods. They knew little about the value of crop rotation. They tended to plant the same crop year after year until the ground was practically depleted of any nutrients. An English traveler who visited the Lowlands of Scotland in the early 1700s noted that, for the most part, the countryside was so barren that grass did not even grow there.
When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 the throne of England went to her nephew, James Stuart, who was crowned King James I. James had previously become King James VI of Scotland in 1567 upon the abdication of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. The kingdoms of England and Scotland were not formally united until the Treaty of Union was signed in 1707 under Queen Anne. Nevertheless, King James, by virtue of sitting on the thrones of both kingdoms, carried out a number of projects which affected both. James was particularly interested in establishing colonies, or as he called them "plantations", in foreign lands. He is most noted for the Jamestown Plantation established in 1607.
In 1610 King James put into operation his scheme for the plantation of the Irish province of Ulster. Like those he established in North America, the Ulster Plantation would prove to be a success.
The colony that was established in Ulster in 1610 was not the first attempt by the English to colonize and subdue Ireland. In fact, the English were not even the first foreign nation to attempt to conquer the island. The earliest noted instance of invasion against the natives of the island was made around the Fourth Century by Christian missionaries from Gaul. They established monasteries throughout Ireland and eventually converted the Celtic natives to Christianity. From the beginning of the Ninth Century through the year 950 AD, the Vikings made a number of invasions into the island and exerted their power over it. Then, in 1166, as a result of an Internal struggle for lordship over the province of Leinster, the Cambro-Norman barons under King Henry II were invited by the claimant, King Dermot to intervene in the civil strife. This was just the opportunity that the English monarchy had been waiting for. The Cambro-Normans invaded the island, conquered Leinster for Dermot and then proceeded to attack the surrounding provinces. They established a number of English strongholds, the most notable of which was in and around Dublin. From that point through the Sixteenth Century the English government treated Ireland the same as it treated the North American Continent - as if it had some inherent right to colonize it. The English court granted tracts of land throughout Ireland to the barons and knights who had assisted in the invasion. They, in turn, established feudal estates and brought peasants from England and Wales as colonists. The Irish natives resisted subjection and at times reconquered the lands taken from them. This process of English invasion and Irish revolt against the English continued sporadically for the next few centuries. Queen Elizabeth I made four attempts: one each in the provinces of Leinster and Munster in the 1560s and twice in Ulster in the 1570s. But each of those attempts ultimately failed because the English settlers either became disillusioned and returned home to England or intermarried with the Irish and adopted their customs and their hatred of the English colonization schemes. Although a small number of attempts at colonization experienced limited success, the English could not claim any clear victory until the Ulster Plantation scheme was undertaken.
Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, a large portion of the province of Ulster, attempted to gain control of the entire province in the early-1590s. He raised an army with the help of some English adventurers and set about subduing the lesser officials in Ulster. The English settlers in Ulster began to fear that O'Neill's aims might be to likewise expel them from the province, and prepared to confront him. In order to bolster his own army of Irishmen, O'Neill illicited the aid of Spanish soldiers. King Philip III of Spain sent O'Neill a force of 4,000 men. Queen Elizabeth responded by sending an army of nearly 20,000 Englishmen against O'Neill's army. In 1601 the two armies collided at Kinsale in Munster. The Irish suffered a great defeat and the English army that had been sent to quell the rebellion did not stop at just that. The English destroyed all of the homes, food and livestock they came across in the province. The utter destruction of the native Irish farmsteads paved the way for a colonization scheme by Queen Elizabeth's successor, King James I.
With the defeat of the Irish under O'Neill, their lands in Ulster, which amounted to roughly six of the nine counties in that province, were declared to be forfeited to the English court. After he had divided up those lands, and designated portions which were to be granted to lords and gentry of England, members of the army that had participated in the Irish campaign, and the church, there was almost one half million acres for a settlement of the common people. It was originally King James' intention to settle Londoners and Scots in the Ulster Plantation. London was overly crowded with nearly 250,000 residents and the Lowlands of Scotland, as noted previously, had been struggling to survive for many years. By sending a large number of these two groups to Ireland, the king hoped to benefit all around.