Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Battle of Largs

Today the Largs Viking Festival celebrates the historic Battle of Largs with the traditional battle re-enactment, culminating in the burning of a Viking longship. Top notch. But why is the Battle of Largs so important?

Norse Signals

At the opening of the 13th century, the West of Scotland was a divided and dangerous place. The Viking raids of the eighth and ninth centuries were replaced with successive settlings and annexations of the outer lying Scottish Islands by Norse Kings.  Following a rebellious uprising by the Norwegian Allied Thane, Somerled of Argyle in 1164, much of the mainland had been brought under Scottish control. But the battle to unify the Scottish nation was far from won and the hand of the Norse Overlords still held much control on the West Coast.  When Alexander II came to the throne in 1214, the Islands of Cumbrae and Arran, along with large areas of the Clyde Estuary still owed their allegiance to Norway and there was little hope that things were about to change. Alexander, with support from the powerful Nobles of the South Clyde area, began an aggressive campaign of territorial expansion into the Norse held regions of the west. The King’s attempts were met with swift retaliation in the form of a short-lived invasion of the Firth of the Clyde by Norse raiders. That same year, King Alexander II died suddenly, bringing to an end Scotland’s brief attempt to rid themselves of the Norwegian presence. It would be nearly twenty years before Scotland was ready to continue the battle.

Hakon Hakonson

Far across the seas, Hakon Hakonson, King of Norway watched as the nobles of the fledgling Scottish nation attempted to take the lands to which he believed himself to have rightful claim.  First and foremost among the complaints brought to him was Scotland’s claim to the Hebrides, about which Alexander III sent envoys to Norway in 1261.  Around the same time, Hakon began to receive reports that the Scots were burning farms on the Outer Hebrides. The Hakon Saga , written just after King Hakons death and one of the best accounts of the battle of Largs states: “They burned farmsteads and churches, and killed many of the people, both men and women.”  Concerned by these reports, as midwinter approached, Hakon dispatched the fiery cross, calling all Norway to the raising of a navy come springtime. By the summer of 1263, Hakon had amassed an impressive fleet, ready to sail west and secure his lands. The Icelandic Annals record that it was “the largest army that had ever sailed from Norway” and most scholars agree that what the King  had planned was nothing less than a full-scale invasion of the Scottish mainland. Sailing west to Orkney, Hakon rallied more ships to his cause. Much of fleet seems to have suffered a bout of superstition following an eclipse of the sun, furthered by unsuccessful attempts to raise more troops in the Northern Isles. Yet things improved as the fleet turned south, strengthened in numbers by a Fleet from the Isle of Man. By mid August, they had passed Oban and were fast approaching the firth of the Clyde. And then Hakon stopped. It seems that at this time he had received an urgent request to take his army to the aid of the Irish, who were desperately trying to rid themselves of English invaders. In return for his help, the Irish would swear fealty to him. At this moment, the fate of nations rested in his hands. In which direction would he sail?


Had Hakon accepted the offer of Kingship from the Irish, the future for both Scotland and Ireland might have looked very different indeed. Yet instead he decided to steer the course he had set out on and thus as September approached he headed for the firth of the Clyde.  He dispatched a small number of ships to round the Mull of Kintyre, most likely to scout out the river defenses. However, interested in taking in some of the local sites, the ships decided to raid the Isle of Bute, and for the second time in thirty years Rothesay castle was under the control of Norse Vikings. This same raiding party is thought to have burned farms on the mainland north of the firth, and may have even reached the southern shore. At this time, feeling he had made his point, Hakon dispatched envoys to discuss terms with Alexander. Early discussions centred over the control of the Clyde estuary islands; Arran, Bute and the Cumbraes.  Suspicious that the Scots were stalling in the hope that bad weather would deal with Hakons fleet, the Norse King broke off negotiations and moved his ships to the sheltered waters off Cumbrae. The time for talking appeared to be over, and in true to form, storm clouds appeared to be gathering over Largs.

Shame about the weather
As mid September approached, Hakon dispatched a large portion of his fleet northwards up the firth, past the castle of Ardgowan and silently under the watch of the Kempock stone. Some fifty ships are said to have travelled the length of Loch Long, terrorizing the locals as they went and leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Upon reaching Arrochar at the head of the loch, the Norse-men dragged their ships a short distance across land and re-launched them into the northerly section of Loch Lomond. From here they laid waste to much of the Lennox countryside and the islands of the loch, burning farms and seizing cattle. As they returned back down Loch Long, a violent storm erupted, destroying nearly a quarter of their ships. This same storm was simultaneously battering Hakons main force, striking his ships hard as the winds whipped in from the south-west.  Anchors dragged, hull crashed against hull and many a crewman perished before morning. As dawn broke and the sky cleared, Hakon found that he had lost many fine warriors not to the Scottish forces, but the Scottish weather. Indeed, it seems that the storm was so powerful, that many believed it was an omen from the Gods, a sign of poor fortunes to follow.

A trip to the beach

Two days later, on October 2nd Hakon himself came ashore to rescue what was left of the cargo washed up from the wrecked ships.  It was at this time that the Scottish army was sighted approaching from the south, and Hakon made the final preparations to receive them. It seems that at this point there were around 900 Norwegian warriors already ashore, and the approaching Scots army consisted of 500 heavily armed mounted Knights and a large number of archers. The Scots army had undoubtedly been drafted from the surrounding Clyde valley, with men from Ayr and Cunningham fighting alongside those of Gryffe and Renfrewshire. Indeed, just over a hundred years ago, the people of Kilmacolm were proud to say they had sent men to fight at Largs.  Initial fighting seems to have consisted primarily of arrow exchanges, and the Hakons Captain, Ogmund Crow-Dance took command of the Norse-men as the King withdrew to his ship. As night fell the Vikings had been pushed back to their ships on the beach, and it was from here that they mounted a final counter attack- pushing the Scots off the beach and allowing for their escape back onto the river. The following morning the Vikings returned to reclaim their dead. The Hakon saga states “they had no idea how many had fallen.” Hakon's fleet regrouped and having burned the wrecked vessels the Norse-men made ready to leave. The battle was over. But who had won?

What’s the Point?
Even today, Norwegian historians deny that the Norse-men lost the battle, although they do not rate it as a particularly important engagement either. Hakon may not have lost the battle, but he most certainly lost the war. The king died before he reached Norway, and within three years all claim to the Islands had been ceded to the Scots. Thus the battle marked the end of Norway’s involvement in the affairs of Scotland and the maturing of the Scottish Kingdom towards a unified nation. Yet at the time, it does seem to have been perceived as such. Indeed, the Chronicle of Melrose, a historical manuscript written around the time of the battle, makes only a passing mention of it, and does not name the location. However as time passed, the significance of the battle seems to have grown with almost miraculous intent, so much so that by the 16th century, it was claimed that nearly 50,000 troops fought at the battle. Three hundred years later, attempts were made by Victorian scholars to emphasize the significance of the battle with regards to Scottish Nationalism.  Here, they said, was the mighty Scots army standing up to some of the most fearsome warriors in history, the Vikings. In true Romantic style, historians portrayed the battle as a link from the early Scottish Nation, through Wallace and Bruce right up to the men of Scotland who fought in Victorian Crimea and India. The image of the fierce and brave Scottish Warrior was secure, becoming a useful political image for all those who wished to emphasize the countries distinct cultural autonomy. Nowhere seized on this more than Largs itself where the battle became both a national symbol and also a marketing tool for tourism.  So it was that in 1912, a monument to the battle was erected on what was regarded as the traditional site of the battle; the so-called "Pencil Point.", and even today the battle is remembered with the Largs festival and the Vikingar Centre. And it is here that we find the true victory of the "Battle of Largs", the mythical connotations of a conflict which in the words of historians may only have been "a small skirmish", but which in our imagination can come to symbolize so much more.

Article by Neil Bristow

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