Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Battle of Largs

A battered sea-front, waves crashing on the shore. That was the scene this week when storm Abigail, the first of the winter, hit the Ayrshire coast. What wasn't seen this week was the largest Viking fleet ever assembled riding out the storm offshore. But under similar conditions, that was exactly the view in 1263. For how many people today know that the Clyde was once an international frontier between Scotland and Norway's empire?

Largs seafront, Cumbrae and Arran:

For decades, Scottish kings had been claiming the islands of the Clyde and Western coasts, territory belonging to the Norwegian king through conquest. Alexander II died in 1249 campaigning near Oban against forces loyal to Haakon IV. His successor Alexander III continued pressing the claim. Eventually the elderly Haakon had enough, and ordered a great fleet to be assembled. His own galley was trimmed with gold and the dragons head prow. At least 120 longships sailed from Bergen in July, gathering more men as they reached Scotland and reaffirming his rule from Shetland to Man.

On hearing of Haakon's progress, the Scottish king gathered his Norman knights in the pastoral fields of Ayrshire and waited, in view of the Norse islands of the Clyde. For despite Scottish consolidation on the Lowland side, the Clyde remained a Norwegian sea. Haakon sailed up the Clyde, and a stand-off began at Largs. Alexander couldn't take the battle to Haakon - the Norwegian king was unbeatable amongst the islands and at sea. Yet neither could Haakon engage - his Viking warriors would not have been able to withstand Alexander's heavily armoured, mounted knights on land. And so the two forces sat, paralysed, parleying.

Largs town:

Haakon sent a diversionary force up Loch Long and down Loch Lomond to Dumbarton, burning and pillaging the surrounding countryside as they went. But Alexander stayed fast. For he knew that winter was coming, and the longer that negotiations continued, the better his chances of success. And so it proved.

On the night of 30 September, the first fierce storm of winter hit the coast. A number of Norwegian longships slipped their anchors and were beached at Largs. Local levies fell on them, beating them back, until they were reinforced by Haakon himself. The next day the main Scottish force arrived and forced the beached Norweigans to take to sea again. But the Norwegians countered, ending up in possession of the beach on the night of 2 October. Come morning they made an orderly withdrawl. Haakon headed out by Arran where he had more sea room in the storm, and was re-joined by his Loch Lomond party. But it was too late for any further battles. Vikings were strictly summer warriors, the winter seas too hazardous. Haakon withdrew to Orkney, where he died in December. In 1266, his successor Magnus VI signed a peace treaty with Alexander and sold the Hebrides and Isle of Man to the Scots king for a large quantity of silver.

The fighting at the Battle of Largs was desultory, and at the time it was seen as a minor engagement. But hindsight has given it greater prominence, as it proved to be the final battle between Viking and Scot. It led to the Hebrides finally coming into the orbit of the Scottish monarch after spending nearly four hundred years under the nominal control of Norway. And that is perhaps the final eye-opener in this story - that islands that are now considered so quintessentially Scottish, were once as Norwegian as roll-mop herring and trolls.

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