LARGS, 1 October 1263

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

Following a Scottish raid on the Isle of Skye, at that time part of the kingdom of Norway, a large Norse fleet under King Hakon IV (160 ships and 20,000 men according to the 14th century ‘Scotichcronicon’) sailed against Scotland. Amongst its commanders were King Dugald of the Hebrides, King Magnus of Man and Earl Magnus of Orkney. When the fleet was anchored in the Finh of Clyde a severe night storm caused 5 ships to drag their anchors and run aground, and the next day a small body of Scots attacked these but withdrew when more Norsemen began to land from their ships’ boats. According to the contemporary ‘Saga of Hakon Hakansson’, by the time a locally-mustered Scots army arrived a day later there were some 8-900 Norsemen on shore including Hakon himself and 60 of his bodyguard; the Scots force improbably numbered about 500 well-equipped knights, many on barded horses, and a large number of poorly-armed infantry, most of them either archers or axemen (though many apparently threw stones as they attacked). On their approach Hakon’s bodyguard persuaded him to return to the fleet in order to send back reinforcements.

As the Scots advanced one body of200 Norsemen under a certain Ogmund Crow-dance, separated from the rest, began to fall back to the beach in some disarray, and seeing this the others thought they were in flight. A general panic set in amongst the Norse, some attempting to make off in their boats, most of which overturned and sank since a storm had again blown up. Outnumbered 10 to 1 the remaining Norsemen rallied round one of the beached longboats and a fierce fight ensued. Reinforcements, hampered by the storm, were only able to land in small numbers, but even so as the Norse gradually increased in strength towards evening the Scots fell back and eventually broke and fled. The Norsemen were then able to return to their ships. Their losses were only slight {though they included Ogmund and several other chief men), the Scots losing considerably more; later sources which record up to 16-24,000 Norse and 5,000 Scots dead are pure fantasy. A few days after the battle Hakon sent his gestrs ashore to burn the stranded ships. The Norse fleet subsequently withdrew to Orkney, where Hakon died only 2 months later. In 1266 Norway finally surrendered control of Man and the Western Isles to Scotland for a fee of 4,000 silver marks and an annual tribute of another 100 silver marks.


The largest part of any Scottish force during this era was provided by me ‘common army’ or exeriticus Scoticanus (me ‘Scottish army’), composed mainly of poorly equipped farmers and neyfs (or nativi, actually called by the Scandinavian term bondi in Caithness, Fife and Stirlingshire, heavily-settled by Norsemen during the Viking era and, in the case of Caithness, still pan of Norway until the 13m century). The neyfs were- or, rather, became during this period – unfree men (but not slaves) tied to the land where they had been born, who could be sold or given away with the land. Such military service as they owed, referred to variously as common, Scottish or forinsec service, was assessed by me ploughshare or on me davach, carucate arachor or (all of which were units of arable land), the number of men required varying but most commonly involving one man per unit, though in exceptional circumstances (such as a proposed expedition into England in 1264 in support of Henry III against Simon de Montfort) up to 3 men could be demanded. On occasion such military service could even involve every able-bodied freeman of 16-60 years; certainly in Robert the Bruce’s wars it was required of every man ‘owning a cow’. At shire level the ‘common army’ was led by local, non-feudal officials called thanes (often displaced by feudal barons in the 13th-14th centuries), the muster of a whole earldom being led by its earl or, north of me Tweed, its mornaer-(King David I, 1124-53, began the transformation of the latter, hereditary Gaelic chieftains, into feudal earls). Such contingents constituted the bulk of the Scottish forces at Northallerton (1138), Largs(1263), Stirling Bridge (1297), Falkirk (1298) and most other large-scale engagements. By the 13th century Scottish service can sometimes be found being convened to a feudal obligation.

A small number of Norman knights had been introduced into the Scottish court as early as 1052-54, in the reign of Macbeth (1040-57), and there was even an attempt to introduce Anglo-Norman feudalism under Duncan II before the end of the 11th century, though this and the employment of further Anglo-Norman knights resulted in a rebellion against him. Feudalism was only successfully introduced on a widespread basis in southern Scotland by David I and in northern Scotland by his successors Malcolm IV (1153-65) and William the Lion (1165-1214), but it never became established in me Highlands and me far north. King David had spent much of his youth at the court of Henry I of England and when he succeeded to the throne a large number of Anglo-Norman knights accompanied him to Scotland, soon coming to hold most of the highest offices in the royal household; indeed, English mercenary knights remained apparent in the Icing’s household throughout the late-11th and 12th centuries. Even in the half-century of William the Lion’s reign, evidence exists for only 37 enfeoffments, of which one was for 20 knights, two were for 10 knights, one for4 knights, two for 2 knights, one for 11h knights and 18 for the service of a single knight each, the remaining 12 all being for fractions (a half-fief being the most common). From the evidence of 13th century enfeoffments it is apparent that even in the 12th century holdings of a half or quarter-fief usually owed the service of a sergeant, or an archer, in a light mail corselet (a haubergel), usually mounted but sometimes serving on foot. In part at least these probably represent the ‘common army’ feudalised. Feudal military service was due for the usual 40-day period, but there are also many references to 20 days. Principal military officers in Scotland’s feudal hierarchy were the Steward (which post gave its name to its hereditary holders, the Stuarts), Constable and Marischal.

Church lands seem to have been liable only for ‘common army’ service, not for knight service, and even this could be satisfied under certain circumstances by payments in kind. Scutage itself does not seem to have been levied in Scotland until the 13th century.

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