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A history of the Hans Hamilton tomb

by Francis de Courcy Hamilton, a direct descendant of Hans Hamilton and his wife Janet 

Francis de Courcy Hamilton

In 1641 Sir James Hamilton, 1st Viscount Clandeboye, an 82-year-old native of Dunlop, Ayrshire travelled back from his estates in Northern Ireland to visit his birthplace. James Hamilton was the first of the six sons of the Rev. Hans Hamilton, the much-loved Protestant minister of Dunlop church who had served the parish for 45 years until his death in 1608. 

In memory of his long-dead parents Hans and Janet, the elderly James ordered a stone mausoleum to be built in the churchyard. On the sarcophagus containing their remains he installed two large half-length marble statues of his parents in prayer, facing each other across a faldstool (or portable prayer desk), with an incised inscription on the wall above, marble side pillars and a Hamilton coat of arms carved in stone near the ceiling.

The marble monuments would originally have been painted in bright colours, as was the custom in the early 17th seventeenth century.  Indeed, because of its vivid painted statuary the Hamilton tomb was for many years known locally in Dunlop as “the Picture House”. Although the marble has now faded to its natural grey-white, traces of the original colours are still visible, especially within the folds of the elaborate garments worn by Hans and Janet.

The main text of the wall inscription reads:

inscriptionHeir lyes the bodies of Hans Hamilton sonne of Archibald Hamilton of Raploch servant to King James the Fift & of Janet Denham his wife daughter of James Denham Laird of Westsheilde, they lived maryed together 45 yeeres during which tyme the said Hans served the cure at this church.  They were much beloved of all that knew them and especially of the parishioners. They had six sonnes, James, Archibald, Gavin, John, William & Patrick & on daughter Jeane, maryed to William Muire of Glanderstoune. 

The Dust of two lyes in this arte-full frame,
Whose birth them honored from an honored name,
A painefull Pastor, and his spotles wife,
Whose devout statues Embleme here their life,
Blest with the height of favors from above,

Blood, grace, a blest memorial, all men’s love,
A fruitfull ofspringe on whom the Lord hath fixt
Fortune with virtue, and with Honor mixt.
Then live these dead above in endless joyes
Heere in their seid and noble Clandeboyes,
In whom (graunt soe, o Heavens) their honored name
May never die, but in the death of fame.  

Clandeboye Hall

clandeboye and tomb

Next to the 1641 mausoleum, James also built a schoolhouse for the children of Dunlop. This building was called Clandeboye Hall after him. Although no longer needed as the village school, it is still used as a hall for Dunlop church Sunday School.  Both these simple stone 17th century buildings are listed Category A by Historic Environment Scotland and they form one of the very few such architectural combinations in Scottish churchyards.

Now nearly 400 years old, the Hamilton tomb in Dunlop has recently been comprehensively restored and refurbished, with the costs met primarily by East Ayrshire Council together with Historic Environment Scotland (using Heritage Lottery funding). Other contributions have come from Dunlop Parish Church, the Ulster-Scots Agency in Belfast, Hamilton family sources and the Clan Hamilton Society in the United States.

Opportunities beckon

The tomb of the Rev. Hans and Janet Hamilton has a historical resonance far beyond Dunlop.  Who was its builder James Hamilton, Lord Clandeboye, and why was he important?

Born in 1559, James, the eldest of the Hamilton children (six sons and one daughter) was educated at St. Andrews University where he built a reputation for scholarship and wit, then becoming a teacher in Glasgow.  A chance ship voyage took him to Dublin, where he decided to stay and set up his own school teaching Latin to the sons of local gentry.  In 1591 the Provost of the newly-established Trinity College in Dublin invited James to become a founding Fellow of the College, and he later became its first Bursar.

While in Ireland, James Hamilton also began to work as an agent for King James VI of Scotland. The King saw Ireland, and specifically the eastern part of Ulster, as fertile ground for furthering Scottish interests. So James Hamilton was a well-placed source of information for him on local conditions – and on Queen Elizabeth I of England’s own activities and standing in Ireland. 

James VI’s principal concern was, however, to ensure his succession to the throne of England after the end of Elizabeth’s reign.  He asked James Hamilton to leave Dublin and become the official Scottish agent to the court in London, to be involved in the negotiations for the succession.  This James did successfully, and indeed it was he who in 1603 brought personally to Edinburgh the news of Elizabeth’s death. When James VI of Scotland became James 1 of England at the Union of the Crowns, James Hamilton was a man of considerable influence at court.

A second ambitious Ayrshire man now entered the scene. Hugh Montgomery, born in 1560, was the sixth Laird of Braidstane, by Beith.  An exact contemporary and near neighbour of the manse-born James Hamilton, Hugh Montgomery had a rather different character as a landowner and forceful army officer.  But he too was well connected with King James, and on the death of Queen Elizabeth he was chosen to accompany the Scottish king to London for his English coronation.

After the 1603 Union of the Crowns, Hamilton and Montgomery saw real opportunities for Scots in those parts of Ireland nearest to Scotland.  The previous century had seen various unsuccessful royal attempts to establish settlements, and the east of Ulster lay wasted and desolate.  But the barely populated land was fertile, ready for cultivation and just across the North Channel from Ayrshire. Its main owner was the Irish chieftain Con O’Neill – and he, as it happened, had since 1602 been facing likely execution for violence against some royal soldiers in Belfast. 

Then began a complex set of negotiations, to spare O’Neill’s life provided he gave up much of his huge but barren landholdings in Down. Hugh Montgomery was initially approached by O’Neill’s wife and agreed to take half this land in return for persuading King James to pardon O’Neill.  For the King, the attraction was that Montgomery would then take charge of filling Down and Antrim with Scottish migrants – mainly loyal and industrious Protestant farmers keen to settle and develop their own land.

But when James Hamilton heard of the deal he insisted on being involved too. He managed to convince the King that O’Neill’s land should be split into not two but three equal portions – one for O’Neill, one for Hugh Montgomery and one for himself. The King was happy to see two entrepreneurial Scots undertaking to colonise the east of Ulster in his name, rather than just one. 

Montgomery agreed reluctantly to this changed arrangement, which was signed in April 1605. From then onwards he and James Hamilton – and their families – became bitter rivals and fierce competitors.  But they had to work together and both prospered mightily in Ulster, acquiring vast estates for themselves including properties still lived in today by their descendants. Montgomery was knighted by the King in 1605, and Hamilton in 1608.  Both were elevated to the peerage, as viscounts, in May 1622.

The Hamilton-Montgomery settlement

In April 1606 King James VI and I proclaimed a new union flag for his combined kingdoms, and in the following month Hamilton and Montgomery launched their new settlement of the O’Neill lands. At  a difficult time for farming in Scotland, there were plenty of tenants willing to own and work the new lands in Ulster.   It is estimated that over the next few years some 10,000 mainly Scots settlers – farmers and their families but also builders, stonemasons, carpenters, textile workers, merchants and Protestant clergy – crossed to Down and Antrim.  Among them were members of Hamilton’s and Montgomery’s own extended families and associates.   On the Hamilton side, James’s next four brothers (Archibald, Gavin, John and William) joined him in Ulster, partly to assist him and partly to make their own fortunes as landowners or merchants - they were all successful.  The youngest brother Patrick followed his father the Rev. Hans Hamilton into the Church of Scotland, but Patrick’s eldest son James later moved to Ulster.

The 1606 settlement had a deep impact on the history of Ireland and of British-Irish relations.  It was in a sense Scotland’s first effort at colonisation, and took immediate hold.  It led directly to King James’s larger venture in 1610:  the Plantation of Ulster, i.e. the settlement by English and Scots of the rest of the province beyond Down and Antrim. The flow of migrants to Ulster continued apace, with between 60,000 and 100,000 Scots thought to have crossed over the North Channel by 1700.  The Hamilton-Montgomery settlement also inspired the king’s two riskier, and ultimately unsuccessful, colonisation efforts in north America – the Plantations of Jamestown (Virginia) in 1607 and Nova Scotia in 1621.  

The Dawn of the Ulster Scots

Indeed, what James Hamilton, Lord Clandeboye, and his Dunlop-born brothers helped foster was the birth of a new and distinctive breed of people: the Ulster-Scots.  The settlers found it easy to adapt to life in the north of Ireland, but they retained many habits, traditions and cultural characteristics which still differentiate them in today’s world.

Nor, of course, did this flow of Scots stop in Ulster.  In subsequent decades, many of them moved on elsewhere, contributing mightily as immigrants to countries around the globe and especially to North America.  It is noteworthy that seventeen Presidents of the United States have had Ulster-Scots (or “Scotch-Irish”, to use the American term) ancestry.

So the small Ayrshire town of Dunlop, in the person of its sixteenth century church minister the Rev. Hans Hamilton and his adventurous sons, can claim a historic role. The Hamilton tomb is a tribute to loved parents, but also a lasting memorial to the Dawn of the Ulster-Scots.

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