Somerled, King of Argyll and Lord of the Isles died at the Battle of Renfrew otherwise called, Bargarran, Knock or Inchinnan in 1164. His Islesmen, Manx and Irish allies were defeated by a Norman/Scots army led by the High Steward, Walter Fitz-Alan. We actually know very little about the battle or the forces involved, so the game was somewhat conjectural.
Somerled’s bile had been quietly simmering away for the past eight years despite the release of Malcolm and Donald MacHeth from imprisonment in Roxburgh. More powerful than ever, Somerled, styling himself King of the Western Isles and Lord of Argyle, gathered an army of Western Islesmen reinforced by troops from Ireland and landed at Renfrew. Supported by a fleet of 100 galleys, Somerled threw down a gauntlet which Malcolm IV accepted. However, the young king was spared a battle. Sailing up the Clyde to Renfrew, Somerled had hardly disembarked when he and his son Gillecolm were slain in an act of treachery at the ‘Bloody mire of Renfrew’. Hardly a bloody battle, the men of Glasgow who opposed Somerled offered thanks for their victory to their patron saint, Kentigern.
So what was the significance of Renfrew? The historian T. C. F. Brotchie contends that the Highland Celts and the Galloway Irish – meaning the Gallgaels or descendants of the old Dalriadic Scots – never fully recovered from Renfrew. The event does not support Brotchie’s claim that it was a major battle. More of a raid, Renfrew’s importance lay in the fact that it would be a century before the reign of a Scottish monarch was threatened again.
The reign of Alexander III (1249 – 86) was unmarked by any major battle save one action, more running fight than battle. Known as ‘the peaceful king’, like his father, Alexander II (1214 – 49), Alexander III attempted to purchase the Western Isles from Haakon IV of Norway. He sent a diplomatic mission to Norway in 1262, hoping that Haakon would respond favourably to his offer. The Norwegian king had not changed in his resolve since the death of Alexander II thirteen years earlier, nor was he in the mood to submit to the overtures of a mere stripling whose offer he regarded as derisory as his father’s had been. Besides, around 1260, Haakon’s subject peoples on Skye had been attacked by the Earl of Ross, no doubt with the knowledge and agreement of Alexander. The Earl of Ross had indiscriminately slaughtered men, women and children; accounts of this lurid episode appear in the Norwegian sagas.
Haakon detained the Scottish royal envoys under house arrest until he was pressurized by Henry III of England – Alexander’s father-in-law – to release the hostages. Haakon complied, informing Henry that he had no hostile intentions towards Scotland, but this was simply a delaying tactic. In the spring of 1263 Haakon commanded all his peoples to meet him at Bergen where he assembled a fleet of 120-160 war galleys – the precise figure is disputed – and set sail for Orkney in the summer of that year. While anchored in Ronaldsvoe, Orkney, a strange sight was seen in the heavens – that of a lunar eclipse of the sun. Despite this unfavourable portent, Haakon was undeterred; his fleet proceeded down the west coast of Scotland, sweeping round the Mull of Kintyre and anchored off Arran and in the bay of Ayr.
News of Haakon’s ‘invasion’ reached Alexander who immediately gathered an army which he assembled near the coast at Kilbirnie, Ayrshire. Word reached him that sixty of the war-galleys had detached from the main fleet, making their way up the Firth of Clyde to disappear into Loch Long. At Kilbirnie, Alexander watched Haakon’s main fleet closely.
On his route along the west coast, Haakon had proceeded to Arran, visiting several islands and receiving homage from their chieftains. Lying off Arran, Haakon invited Alexander to the negotiating table. The Scottish king then played a waiting game; he sent his negotiators to Haakon to ascertain the Norwegian’s intentions. Haakon informed the royal envoys that his minimum demand was the unconditional surrender of the Western Isles to Norway in perpetuity. He sailed to the Cumbrae Islands and prepared to invade mainland Scotland near Ayr. Meanwhile, the Scottish army decamped from Kilbirnie during the continuing negotiations, encamping on the heights of the bay of Largs. It was late in the season. The notoriously fierce gales of autumn were due. Save for the severity of the weather, the events which followed on 2 October 1263 are far from clear and there are contradictory accounts of the action in the Norwegian sagas and the Scottish chronicles.
That day the long-awaited gales arrived. The tempest of hail and rain created havoc in the Norwegian fleet. After the storm abated the Scots looked down on the grey beaches between Largs and Fairlie. They saw five galleys beached while, in the bay of Ayr, many others were dismasted, labouring at their anchor cables. Haakon ordered his dispirited warriors ashore. Drawn up in battle order, his men were determined to rescue the beached galleys. Sensing victory, the Scots charged down from the heights, scattering the Norsemen. In the ensuing skirmish the Norsemen lost heart. Accounts of the battle of Largs – if it may be called that – differ greatly, depending on which side the protagonists fought. The Norwegian accounts glorify the brave stand of their countrymen, defiant and heroic in the face of defeat. The Scottish annals tell a different story, proving that accepted history is written by the victorious. Largs conforms to this rule. We must concede that the victory was not won by Alexander III; it was achieved by Nature. Haakon’s mighty fleet was neutralized by Scottish weather. The few Norsemen engaged in battle with the Scottish army had little choice but to return to their longships and make their escape. In the stormy seas, many of the disabled vessels foundered, their crews drowned.
A dispirited Haakon withdrew to Orkney where he took ill at the end of October, dying at Kirkwall in December. In itself Largs achieved nothing for Scotland. However, in 1264, Haakon’s successor Magnus ‘The Law-Maker’ came to the negotiating table. But it would be a further two years before the Western Isles question would be resolved for once and for all. Under the Treaty of Perth in 1266 Norway sold the Western Isles to the Scottish Crown. The settled price was 4,000 merks (about £2,666) with an annuity of 1,000 merks (£66) paid indefinitely; the annuity was paid until the fourteenth century on condition that Norway would continue to occupy Orkney and Shetland. In 1281, in a gesture of friendship, Alexander III gave his daughter Margaret in marriage to King Eric of Norway, the successor to Magnus, the wedding taking place at Roxburgh.
Largs was the highwater mark of Norwegian aspirations in offshore Scotland. The Scandivanian presence was limited to Orkney and Shetland and even that would soon disappear. All that is left today to mark the Viking occupation are place names such as Brodick (Norwegian brodvick, meaning a broad bay) on the island of Arran. After Largs, Scotland would enjoy over two decades of peace. Alexander’s untimely and tragic death in 1286 without an heir to his throne would plunge Scotland into chaos for years, as we shall presently see.