Living on the Edge?: plantation and politics in the north Atlantic archipelago 1493-1637

  • Cathcart, Alison (Principal Investigator)
  • Maccoinnich, Aonghas (Fellow)

Project: Research

Project Details


The project consists of two distinct yet related topics which aim to explore a number of aspects of Gaelic society during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Topic A: The Irish Sea World in a British context c.1550-1625 adopts a geographic and maritime context, exploring interaction between the communities that existed on either side of the Irish Sea, and more specifically focusing on Scottish involvement in Ireland. Geographically the focus is on the Western Isles south of Ardnamurchan, Galloway and Ayrshire, the north of Ireland, and the islands of Rathlin and Man. While the Macdonalds and the Campbells are fundamental to this interaction, the project seeks to explore lesser-known kindreds for whom the Irish Sea was a bridge rather than a barrier. As this project is not limited by territorial or political, man-made, boundaries but instead is supranational in its perspective, this raises immediate issues of identity during a period where historians argue that national identities were developing (cf. Kidd, 1999; MacDonald, 2005; Ohlmeyer, 1999, 2007; Williamson, 1997). It will explore Scottish and Irish involvement in and reaction to plantation (official and unofficial), both in Ireland and Scotland, and question the impetus for movement across the Irish Sea, and back again, whether political, social, economic or confessional. Topic B: Native, Stranger and the Fishing of the Isles. The Plantation of Lewis c.1598-1640 takes as its geographic focus the north Isles, with the focus on the Mackenzies of Kintail. The Mackenzies was the other family central to the Stewart monarchy's control of the western seaboard of Scotland but to date they have received less scholarly attention. Like the Campbells, the Mackenzies were keen planters and both clans undertook complex and difficult settlements in Lewis (1611-) and Islay (1615-) respectively (MacCoinnich, 2004; Cowan, 1979). Meanwhile, research by MacCoinnich (2006, 2008, 2009) has highlighted that the Mackenzies do not fit the traditional paradigm of barbarous Gaels lacking in commercial spirit, pointing out that they pioneered the first blast furnace in Scotland on their estates, had an underrated entrepreneurial approach to estate management with Lowland Scottish, English and European business partners, and a keen awareness of British, European and Atlantic environments. \n Rather than view the Gaels as victims in plantation endeavours, this project acknowledges that Gaelic Scots and Irish were involved fully in the process. The reasons for participation in plantation, which usually involved the transplantation of one clan for another, will be explored, highlighting the extent to which Gaelic clans benefitted, or otherwise, from it. Far from lacking in commercial endeavour, evidence suggests that economic priorities were a key concern. At the same time, these Gaelic kindreds faced ongoing competition from Scottish, English and Dutch interests, whether concerning the acquisition of land in the north of Ireland, the exploitation of the fishing of the western seas, or other entrepreneurial schemes. Although differentiated by contexts, British and Atlantic, the two individual topics form a coherent project, examining the activity of Gaels, and bringing the historical development of the western Highlands and Islands, the west-coastal region and the north of Ireland into greater focus probing various issues from identity to commerce to the role of the sea.\n

Key findings

These two interlinked, yet distinctive, projects have produced a number of key findings. Both projects have engaged with concepts of ‘civility’ and ‘plantation’. Scottish and Irish Gaelic society was regarded as backward, primitive and barbaric, characterised by a lack of commercial endeavour. Such perspectives, as these projects will argue, emanate from the centre and from so-called ‘civil society’. The remedy, both in Scotland and Ireland, was plantation.

MacCoinnich’s research has identified how the Macleod of Lewis lordship became politically marginalised, fragmented and vulnerable prior to their expropriation in 1598. Substantial original archival research has yielded much new information on the plantations by the Fife Adventurers (1598-1609) and the Mackenzie clan (1609-1844) in the Island of Lewis. Clans were regarded as barbarous, yet the Mackenzies had a sophisticated approach to trade. Unlike their predecessors, both ‘barbarous’ and ‘civil’, the Mackenzies combined the needs of plantation with the mores of clanship and successfully established themselves in Lewis. They also had extensive trade networks in Scotland and Europe, underlined by their introduction of Dutch fishermen to Lewis (1628-30). The English-led British fishery association (1630-40) sought but failed to dislodge the Mackenzies. For the British, Lewis was key to their control over northern British waters and part of their global opposition to Dutch competition. Their presence there also, however, led to escalating Anglo-Scottish tension in the lead up to the wars of Charles I. Chapters in MacCoinnich’s forthcoming monograph provide detailed discussion of each of these plantations and appendices identify many of the participants for the first time.

Cathcart’s research has shown how Scots, both Gaels and Lowlanders, participated in plantation in Ireland and Scotland, both in official and unofficial contexts. She explored Scottish efforts to develop both agriculture and industry although not all activity was recognised for what it was: the efforts of Scottish Gaels to exploit Ireland’s resources did not align with contemporary views of ‘civility’. But sustaining these plantations required effort and the maintenance of political, social and economic relations with their wider kin groups back in Scotland. Hence, Cathcart’s research explored the communities that existed around the North Channel and this maritime component emerged as a major theme. These societies continually traversed the North Channel, a stretch of water that facilitated and maintained their economic endeavours while also bringing them into contact with other maritime communities in the same waters, whether Manx, English, French, Spanish or Dutch. Rich archival sources, such as Irish port books, and records in the Isle of Man and from local Scottish archives, have provided a wealth of information on these communities and the nature of their trade.

Both projects advocate an alternative, complementary, perspective to early modern British history and challenge contemporary and modern concepts of Gaelic barbarism and primitivism. In addition, they highlight that current historiographical frameworks are insufficient to explain fully the historical development of local or ‘peripheral’ communities. In both project the ‘periphery’ has been placed at the apex of national and transnational contexts.
Effective start/end date1/10/1030/05/13


  • AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council): £150,543.00


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