The Battle of Largs

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Detail from William Hole’s mural of the Battle of Largs, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

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Reconstructed chieftain’s longhouse at Borg in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. Housing both people and livestock under one roof, the longhouse was the typical Viking Age dwelling.

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It was the growing power of the kings of Scotland that finally brought Norse influence in Man and the Hebrides to an end. Around 1200, the Scots seized the island of Bute and signaled their intention to become a power in the Isles by building a state-of-the-art castle at Rothesay. The Scots king Alexander II (r. 1214 – 49) entered into negotiations with Håkon IV (r. 1217 – 63) to buy the Hebrides from Norway. The negotiations came to nothing. Håkon had restored political stability to Norway after years of civil wars and had adopted his own expansionist policy, which aimed at uniting all the Norse Atlantic colonies under his rule: giving up part of his kingdom was not part of his plan. Frustrated, in 1249 Alexander decided to seize the Hebrides by force, but his campaign was abandoned after he fell ill and died on the island of Kerrara, off Oban. Alexander’s son Alexander III (r. 1249 – 86) made a second offer to purchase the islands in 1260 but when this was rebuffed he sent the earl of Ross to invade Skye. Another Scottish force seized the island of Arran. Lurid accounts of Scots atrocities and the political chaos in the isles convinced Håkon that he needed to intervene personally to restore royal authority in the area. Apparently, at the height of his power – Greenland and Iceland had just submitted to Norwegian rule – Håkon set sail for the Hebrides in July 1263 with what was claimed to be the most powerful fleet ever gathered in Norway. King Magnus Olafsson of Man and Dugald MacRory, whose lands had been ravaged by the Scots, both greeted Håkon warmly when he landed on the Isle of Skye. Other chiefs and petty kings, opposed equally to both Norwegian and Scottish domination, were less enthusiastic and only submitted after Håkon’s forces wasted their lands. By late summer Håkon had thoroughly cowed the Hebrides and he moved his fleet to Lamlash Bay on Arran in the Clyde estuary, where it was well-placed to strike into the heartland of the Scottish kingdom. Alexander III sent a party of Dominican friars to negotiate with Håkon, but this was just a delaying tactic. The Scots deliberately drew out the negotiations, making offers that they knew would be unacceptable, waiting for the onset of autumn to force Håkon’s withdrawal. Some bored members of the Norwegian army carved their names in runes on the wall of a local cave to entertain themselves while they waited. When Håkon became impatient of making any progress he sent sixty ships to sail up Loch Long to Arrochar. From there, their crews dragged the ships across a narrow isthmus into Loch Lomond, whose shores they plundered for weeks. The rest of Håkon’s fleet anchored off the Cumbrae Islands, close to the Ayrshire coast.

At the end of September the weather turned bad. Ten ships returning from the raid on Loch Lomond were wrecked in a storm and on the night of 30 September/1 October a supply ship and a longship were driven ashore on the Scottish mainland at Largs, now a small seaside resort town. When day broke, the Scots tried to seize the beached ships but their crews fought them off until the main Norwegian fleet arrived and chased them away. The next morning King Håkon came on shore to supervise the recovery of the ships. While this was proceeding a large Scots force arrived and fierce fighting broke out as it tried to surround an isolated Norwegian scouting party on a hill overlooking the shore. The outnumbered Norwegians began to run back towards the ships in disarray, suffering many casualties, but they somehow managed to regroup and counter-attack. The Scots fell back under the unexpected assault, gifting the Norwegians enough time to reach their ships and escape. The Norwegians waited at anchor overnight and in the morning recovered their dead and sailed for home. The Battle of Largs had been in reality little more than a skirmish but, with the benefit of hindsight, it came to be seen as a decisive Norwegian defeat.

As he sailed north back through the Hebrides Håkon must have felt that his great expedition had been in vain. King Alexander’s delaying tactics had worked perfectly, he had reached no diplomatic agreement that would prevent the Scots interfering in the Isles and he had been forced to withdraw without even fighting a proper battle. He must have been painfully aware, too, that his authority over the chiefs and petty kings of the Isles would last no longer than it took him to sail home to Norway. Shortly after he arrived in Orkney in early November, Håkon was taken ill and, sending most of his fleet home, he took up residence for the winter in the bishop’s palace at Kirkwall. Håkon’s condition steadily deteriorated and he was soon bed-ridden. As the king lay dying, he gathered the shades of his Viking ancestors around him. He could not sleep, so to help the long winter nights pass more easily, Håkon asked his attendants to read him all the sagas of the kings of Norway beginning with the legendary Halfdan the Black, the father of Harald Fairhair. Shortly after he had finished listening to the saga of his grandfather King Sverre, Håkon lost the power of speech and three days later, in the early hours of the morning on 16 December, he died aged fifty-nine: he was the last Norwegian king to lead a hostile fleet into British waters.

Within a few months of Håkon’s death, Alexander led a fleet to the Isle of Man and forced King Magnus Olafsson to become his feudal vassal. When Magnus died in November 1265, leaving only an illegitimate son called Godred, the rule of Norse kings over Man came to an end. Alexander also sent fleets to plunder and burn their way through the Hebrides. Håkon’s successor, his son Magnus VI (r. 1263 – 80), concluded, rightly, that trying to maintain sovereignty over Man and the Isles would cost far more than they were worth. By the Treaty of Perth in 1266 Magnus gave up all claims to the Kingdom of Man and the Isles in return for a payment of 4,000 marks (approximately 20,000 pounds of silver), an annuity of 100 marks, and a Scottish recognition of Norwegian sovereignty over Orkney and Shetland. It is thought that Norse language in the kingdom died out soon after the Scottish takeover.

It proved to be just as hard for the kings of Scotland to control the Isles as it had been for the kings of Norway. The Scots easily crushed a Manx rebellion under Godred Magnusson in 1275, but in 1290 the Isle of Man was occupied by the English. Thereafter the island changed hands several times before passing permanently to the English crown in 1399. The Gaelic chieftains of the Hebrides defied pacification and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the area was effectively autonomous under the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, who ruled from Finlaggan Castle on Islay. The lords maintained their authority with fleets of galleys called birlinns, direct descendants of the Vikings’ longships from which they differed only in having a stern-post rudder in place of a side rudder. Even after the lordship collapsed in 1493, the Hebrides remained turbulent and they did not finally come under firm government control until after the crushing of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The Scots king James VI (r. 1567 – 1625) even considered genocide as a way to bring the islands under effective royal control.

The cession of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles to Scotland left Orkney and Shetland as the last Norse possessions in the British Isles. Although the islands were ruled by Scottish earls after 1236, their Norse character remained unaltered. In 1380 Norway and its Atlantic possessions came under the Danish crown through a dynastic union. The Danes took little interest in the islands until 1468 when King Christian I arranged the marriage of his daughter Margaret to the Scottish king James III. The cash-strapped Danish king could not afford to pay his daughter’s dowry and so offered the Orkney Islands to King James as surety for a loan of 50,000 Rhenish guilders. The following year Christian added Shetland to the bargain for an additional 8,000 guilders. It was Christian’s firm intention to redeem the islands as his agreement with King James included guarantees to preserve Norwegian law and customs, but the money was never paid so the arrangement became permanent. In 1471 King James abolished the earldom and annexed the islands as crown lands. The following year the bishopric of Orkney passed from the control of Nidaros to St Andrews. Gradually the islands became more Scottish in character. In 1611, Norwegian law was abolished and Norn, the local Norse dialect, finally died out in the eighteenth century, supplanted by English.

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