Edited by Adrian Hanna GI0SMU. www.sixgolds.com.
Comber Historical Society
PART 2 of 3

Queen Elizabeth had granted virtually all of County Antrim to the Earl of Essex. He arrived in Ireland at about this time, establishing garrisons at Belfast and Holywood. Smith’s followers sent to Essex for help, and he now engaged Sir Brian in battle at Belfast, which was then only a small village, defeating him and killing over 100 of his men. Sir Brian pleaded with the Queen to be allowed to remain as a tenant in Clannaboye, and received a pardon in 1574.

He gave 1,500 cattle as rent for a year. When another Smith expedition arrived, this time under Sir Thomas’ brother, and re-established the base at Newcastle Comber, they obtained recognition from Sir Brian of their title to the Ards. Had this colony succeeded, the area might have come under English influence rather than that of the Scots.

But it was not to be. For Essex now took action against Sir Brian. He and his family and followers were invited to a banquet at Belfast, and while in the middle of the feast Essex had over 100 of Sir Brian’s men murdered. Sir Brian himself was sent to Dublin and executed. Essex maintained he was acting on information that Sir Brian was about to rebel. This was the signal for a rising by the Clannaboye O’Neills, who drove Smith from the Ards, before making an uneasy peace with Essex. In 1575 Con McNiall Oge O’Neill was recognised as Lord of Clannaboye and remained so until his death in 1589. It seemed that the O’Neills had regained control.

Con was succeeded by another Con, the son of his nephew. In 1601 he made a costly mistake when he joined the rebellion of Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell. War now left Con’s lands impoverished, with the English forces destroying his food supply. He was also heavily in debt. Sir Arthur Chichester, whose father had been killed by the Irish in the war, was out for revenge. And now he took it.

In 1603 Con was holding a party at Castlereagh. He sent some servants to Belfast for more wine. On the way back they encountered some English soldiers who took the wine. There was a scuffle during which one of the English was badly wounded. He died later that night.

Within a week Con was arrested and thrown into prison at Carrickfergus Castle, charged with levying war against the Queen. It was probably lucky for him that the Queen now died. Con has been described as a “drunken, sluggish man”. But his wife was made of different stuff. She thought it would be better if Con could preserve his life at the expense of losing part of his lands, rather than face a prejudiced trial where he would lose everything. And so she approached Hugh Montgomery, the Laird of Braidstane in Ayrshire for help.

Montgomery had been born around 1560 and had fought in Holland under the Prince of Orange in the 1580s. He apparently had a soldier’s temperament. According to the author of the Montgomery MSS he was of middle stature, of ruddy complexion and had a manly, sprightly and cheerful countenance. He was “strong and agile beyond that of any of his children, he had a vigorous constitution, seldom being sick. He was greatly sober, being temperate in meat and drink”. He would not play games for money and was well educated.

In 1603 he had trading connections with Carrickfergus, and had been seeking to purchase lands in Ulster for some time. Importantly, from O’Neill’s viewpoint, he had connections at the court of the new king, James I, himself a Scot. And so Con’s wife negotiated with Montgomery, agreeing that Con would be happy to retain only one-third of the ancestral lands in South Clannaboye, and that Montgomery could have two-thirds, if he could procure Con’s pardon. Montgomery agreed, providing that Con could be rescued from Chichester’s hands in Carrickfergus Castle.

Montgomery arranged for a friend to court the gaoler’s daughter, and on one of her visits Con’s wife smuggled in a rope concealed in a cheese. Con let himself down the walls into a waiting boat which took him across the Lough to Bangor. Here he hid in a church steeple until it was safe to complete the journey to Ayrshire. There the bargain was formally confirmed with Montgomery.

In order to obtain Con’s pardon, Montgomery had to seek help from another Scot, who was closer to the King than he was. his was James Hamilton, also from Ayrshire. His father had been vicar of Dunlop Parish Church. Hamilton gained a reputation as one of the finest scholars and wits of his time, and had written a book on the right of King James’ claim to the English throne. This had pleased the king, and he employed Hamilton as one of his agents in Dublin. His mission was to keep in touch with the Protestant gentry in case the king should need their assistance. Along with another agent, James Fullerton, he opened a school in Dublin to cover up their real purpose in the city.

In 1600 King James sent Hamilton to the court of Elizabeth in London, again as an agent, and here he had bided his time. Now he saw an opportunity. He also could get a slice of Con O’Neill’s land. He managed to persuade the king that the land being allocated to Montgomery was too much, and that he should have a portion. And so the lands of South Clannaboye were divided in three, with Hamilton, Montgomery and O’Neill each getting one-third.

The carve-up did not favour O’Neill, and he soon disappeared from the scene, having parted with his lands on most unfavourable terms to Hamilton and Montgomery over the next decade or so. He died around 1618. Hamilton got 6 parishes, including Bangor, which he hoped could become a great port, Holywood and Killyleagh. Montgomery got Newtownards and a large part of the Ards Peninsula. Comber Parish was split with two-thirds going to Montgomery and one-third to Hamilton. Hamilton and Montgomery had land, but they now had the difficult task of persuading others to come over with them to settle it.

Why should anyone want to come here? You could say that they were pushed out of south-west Scotland by a rising population. The effects of this were seen in increased food prices and higher rents. Many wanted to try their luck elsewhere. And there were those who had prospered during a period of relative peace in Scotland when trade had expanded and improvements had been made in agriculture. They had amassed capital, but there was no scope for investment in Scotland. Ulster offered this scope. Land was cheap and fertile, and many were attracted by this.

And so in 1606 the Scots started to arrive in North Down. Some were already considerable landowners in Scotland, and Montgomery in particular tried to attract substantial tenants, who would create a class of sub tenants, who would become in time gentlemen. It is equally true, however, that a large number of the colonists were landless labourers or even criminals fleeing from the law in Scotland. The son of a minister who had accompanied some of the new arrivals described them as “generally the scum of both nations, who for debt or breaking or fleeing from justice, or seeking shelter, came hither hoping to be without fear of man’s justice in a land where there was nothing, as yet, of the fear of God”.

But this is unfair, and in fact we find an entire society transplanting itself from one side of the North Channel to the other. Along with the many labourers and small farmers, who paid 8d to cross from Portpatrick, came gentry of “gud fashion”, merchants, weavers, carpenters, butchers, shoemakers, tailors, ditchers, coopers and smiths. What did they find when they arrived? For starters they found a land that was much more covered in forest than the North Down of today. In 1586 Marshal Bagenal had described Southern Clannaboye from Dufferin to Belfast Lough as “for the most part a woodland”. There were huge mosses or bogs, in which stood islands. And there were no boundaries, ditches, hedges or fences. The settlers also found a land that had been devastated by warfare. To quote from the Montgomery MSS: “In three parishes could not be found thirty cabins nor any stone walls but ruined, roofless churches and a few vaults at Greyabbey and a stump of an old castle at Newtown, in each of which some gentleman sheltered themselves”.

The stump of the castle at Newtownards in which Montgomery stayed was beside the Old Priory in Court Street. He set to work immediately and had the walls roofed over as a house for himself.

The settlers likewise proceeded as quickly as possible to build stone houses, although the poorer men built dwellings of wattle and earthen sods, just in the fashion of the Irish. Building material was taken from wherever it could be found. The old abbey in Comber would have been a source for stone. In fact the ruins of the earlier Augustinian Abbey may also have been in existence at this time and available for use. Father McCana, a Franciscan friar writing in 1643, bemoans the fact that there was then no trace of this abbey due to the fact that the Scots settlers had used it to build their houses. As we have seen, there was also plenty of wood. Large tracts of oak forest would be felled in the first half of the 17th century. Some was used for building, although most was for pipe staves for use in barrels and to burn as charcoal in the blast furnaces.

At first the colonists were unable to supply all their needs and it was common for Scottish traders to make day trips from Stranraer or Portpatrick to sell their produce in Newtown market. But the people helped each other out and there was a system of “neighbouring” whereby you would assist your neighbour at harvest time or in an emergency. Soon the settlement prospered, and was especially blessed with a number of abundant harvests in the early days. The crops sown were almost entirely oats and barley. There is also a reference to potatoes in 1606 when Lady Montgomery gave land at Comber to grow them. This was not all that long after the potato had first been introduced to England by Sir Walter Raleigh in the mid 1580s. The Montgomery MSS tell us that the settlers also brought over some cattle and sheep with them. However, the majority of the livestock were likely to have been Irish. These would have constituted part of the rent. Hens in particular were very important as the smaller tenants paid a large part of the rent in this way, two hens being the lowest rent.

It is interesting to look at the 1684 Rent Roll of Mount Alexander. Here we see leases such as that of James Murray who “holds by lease of 41 years from Allsaints 1680 one tenement rent yearly £2-15-0, dutys two days work of man and horse and three hens yearly”. Manual labour was also required in some cases as part payment. Rents were generally low in the early years of the settlement to encourage immigration, but within 100 years had risen steeply and continued to rise throughout the 18th century.

Lady Montgomery had farms at Greyabbey, Newtown and Comar. She also encouraged woollen and linen manufacture. Each parish would have had its own corn mill and this would have belonged to Montgomery or Hamilton.

In 1684 the mills of Cumber were leased to John McMurry. He was probably not the actual miller but rather sub-let out to the miller. Tenants were obliged to have their corn ground at the landlord’s mill, usually paying the landlord the sixteenth grain as a toll or soccage. If you took your corn elsewhere you had to pay two shillings per barrel to the landlord. It thus worked out to the tenant’s advantage to use his own manor mill. The native Irish, who remained in the land and were apparently very good workers in the early days of the settlement, hated the mill ground flour because it was heavy and soggy. They preferred oats ground in a quern, which was a stone hand mill. These were roasted before grinding to make them easier to grind and perhaps the Irish preferred the taste. An Act of Charles II declared the hand mill illegal and bailiffs went round breaking them up whenever they could be found. But no amount of laying down the law could root them out.

Fishing and the manufacture of kelp from seaweed were also important. This was used as a fertiliser. Cattle, wool and butter were exported. Good harvests enabled the grain surplus to be exported to Scotland but in 1618 crippling duties were imposed on these. This only encouraged illegal trading. Coal was brought in from England and Scotland in the latter part of the century to supply the local gentry. Other imports were wine, cloth, timber, flax and hops. An urgent requirement was fencing or enclosure, and this was to be accomplished by hedging or ditching. The land leases normally included a stipulation to do this, for example that of Robert Rosse at Cattogs in 1668 who was required “to ditch the premises from ye adjoining lands by ditching and quick setting 20 perches each yeare till the whole be ditched”. Twenty perches seems to have been the usual length each year, preferably planted with quick sett, although furs is also mentioned. Quick sett meant living plants or it could also mean hawthorn.

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