The Battle of Largs

While the storms are battering our windows and the sea is churning I’m reminded of another fury that emerged out of the west and hit our Ayrshire shores- the last great invasion of Scotland by the Norse.

In 13th century Scotland Ayrshire was divided between the rising Kingdom of Scotland, and the Viking descended and now Christian Kingdom of Norway. The Norse had had a presence in the West of Scotland since about the 800’s, first as raiders, then as settlers and lords, and Scotland for its own part was a relatively new idea. The kingdom emerged out of the uniting of the Kingdoms of Pictland and Alba, born out of murder, intrigue and even a few massacres. The Scots, a people formed out of this union, made up of Picts, Gaels, and immigrants from what would become Ireland and England began to form an identity and define what it meant to be Scottish, and that identity had begun to take shape as a people that were fiercely proud and proudly fierce.

At the turn of the millennium, the Welsh-speaking Kingdom of Strathclyde was overrun, and Ayrshire was for the first time considered part of Scotland. However, Scotland was still far from what it looks like today. Centuries of bloodshed and intrigue followed, with the Scots of the central belt, again and again, subduing Highland Clans and then going onto push the Anglosaxon kingdom of Northumbria further and further south. It was in this turbulent era that Alexander The Second took the throne.

The son of a king who had lost and then won independence from the English crown, Alexander the Second was keen on ending any dispute with the English and would go onto sign the Treaty of York, which would define the English border to this day. This is not to say that growing up under English overlordship had humbled the Scottish King. In fact, Alexander now saw everything north of that border as Scottish, and that included the Norse settlement on the mainland and the Western Isles. Alexander began a campaign to claim these lands for the Scots, first by pushing north into Caithness, leaving behind a trail of corpses, before forging west, where he attempted to buy over the lands with bribes and purchases. When gold failed he turned to steel and began preparing an invasion. He would never see this come to fruition as he died suddenly while trying to win over nobles to his cause, instead it would be his son, Alexander the Third that would take over his plans to unite Scotland. 

The Norse were not, however, a spent force. The age of Vikings had long passed but the converts to Christianity had managed to keep their pagan fury despite their newfound faith. Scotland represented something important to the Norse, as this was the first place in Britain they had settled, the island of Iona one of the first places they had raided. So long as the kingdom of the Isle stood the era of the Norsemen was not over, even if Harold Hardrader had failed in England, even if the Danelaw was now gone, and Cnut’s empire was now history the Norse still had a presence in Britain. When Alexander the Third took up his father’s mantle and started pushing into Norse controlled lands and raiding villages under Norse protection, King Haakon the Old brought together a great fleet and set sail for Scotland. Wintering in the Orkneys and then Arran the stage was now set, in the year 1263 for a confrontation between the ageing but still fierce Norse, refusing to let go the past and the upstart, brutal Scots, determined to take what they saw as rightfully theirs.

Haakon the Old, leading the invasion fleet himself, was met with tempestuous and stormy seas as he attempted to cross the sea from Arran to the mainland, battering his fleet and forcing some of his ships to shore earlier than intended just outside the town of Largs. These poor crews were harried and harassed by Scottish archers, and Haakon ordered the rest of the fleet to land, and support these men. After seeing this the Scots disappeared into the hills, while the Norwegians landed and set up camp for the night on the shores of Ayrshire. 

A few days later the main Scottish force arrived from Ayr, led by the Steward of Scotland, confusingly also called Alexander. His men in gleaming armour and supported by hundreds of knights, Alexander marched his troops north along the coast, coming across a small Norwegian Warband held upon a hill. When faced with the larger Scottish army, the Norwegians attempted to move back to join the main invasion force on Largs beach, but the Scots managed to reach them first, turning what was an orderly withdrawal into a panicked flight.

On the beach themselves, seeing their countrymen fleeing, fear set in and some men made for the boats, others used the ships that had come ashore in the storm as a makeshift battlement, and fought to the bitter end.  It was during the retreat that the Norwegians suffered the worst of it. Afterwards, on the next morning, the Norse would return to the beach to bury their dead and burn the ships that had run ashore. After this, they sailed back to Orkney, where the Old king would pass away after a sudden illness. 

In the coming years, the Scottish and Norwegian kingdom would sign a treaty, giving the Isle of Man and the Hebrides to Scotland, while leaving the Orkneys and Shetlands in Norse control. Alexander the Third would spend this time punishing the lords of the realm that hadn’t supported him or his father’s war effort. 

This battle, while not a massive confrontation with thousands and thousands of men, did one important thing in helping to solidify Scottish identity: it defined what Scotland was. After the battle the question was settled, the isles were Scottish, Ayrshire was Scottish, the borders were Scottish, the highlands were Scottish. In the coming years after Alexander the third’s death, Scotland would again fall under the overlordship of England, and this budding identity, the brewing nationhood no doubt seeded the zeitgeist that the Scottish resistance would crystallize around. I think it’s worth remembering that on a stormy day like today, on a beach here in Ayrshire, What Scotland meant was defined.