The following article about the ‘Battle of Largs 1263’ was written by Dr Jon Henderson (originally from West Kilbride) for Largs Organic Gardens, Viking Garden Information board, and we are most grateful to Dr Henderson and Largs Organic Gardens for sharing it with us.
The Norwegian Account of King Haco’s Expedition Against Scotland recounts the build-up and the immediate aftermath of the famous Battle of Largs in 1263 – the last time Viking invaders fought on Scottish, English, Welsh or Irish soil.
It’s a subject that’s close to my heart as I grew up near Largs and although I was always aware that the battle had taken place there (thanks in no small part to the large plastic Viking that sits outside the Viking Fish and Chip shop), the actual nature of the battle itself was always less clear. Some claimed it had been a victory for the Scots, some the Vikings, while others said that there had been no clear winner.
This text presents the Norwegian side. It’s an eighteenth-century translation of a section of a longer thirteenth-century Norse poem, ‘The Saga of Haakon Hákonarson’. Given the original Saga had been commissioned by Haakon’s son to commemorate the life of his father, rather unsurprisingly the battle here is presented as a victory for the Norwegians. Questions of bias aside, the text provides a fascinating insight into a crucial period in the development of Scotland, a time when the established Kingdom of Norway and the expanding Kingdom of the Scots came into direct conflict.
The Hebrides and western seaboard of Scotland had been under Norwegian rule since the twelfth century. This had suited the inhabitants of the area as it afforded them a kind of independence. Neither Norwegian nor Scottish, the Hebrideans straddled identities and allegiances – maintaining a foot in both camps while belonging to none. By the mid-thirteenth century this began to change as the Scots, growing in confidence, wanted to incorporate the region into their own realm. Following failed attempts to purchase the Hebrides from the Norwegian king, the Scots backed up their claims with brutal demonstrations of force – ordering armed raids deep into Norse-speaking areas. They are said to have burned villages and churches and to have killed large numbers of men and women including (if this text is to be taken at face value) killing small children without mercy. If anything it reads like ethnic cleansing rather than a simple territorial advance. Certainly it was provocation that the Norwegian king could not ignore.
In 1263, the King of Norway, King Haakon Haakonarson (referred to in the text as Haco), sailed at the head of a massive fleet intending to teach the fledgling Scottish kingdom a lesson and reassert Viking sovereignty over the Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland. Imagine 120 ships, containing 20,000 men, anchored in the Firth of Clyde, just off the Isle of Arran, waiting to strike – it must have been an awe-inspiring and terrifying sight. This was one of the largest invasion forces ever to threaten the British mainland – comparable to the Spanish Armada some 300 years later – and certainly larger than anything the Scots could muster at sea.
Luckily the Scots were led by the wily Alexander III, one of my favourite Scottish kings. He was only twenty-three years old at the time but was already a shrewd politician and cleverly stalled any actual engagement with the Norse forces, instead sending envoys and playing for time. Based down the coast in Ayr he hoped that the Scottish weather might be able to do what his own forces couldn’t – scatter the fleet. Sure enough on 1 October the weather broke and the Norse ships were sent into disarray – several longships were driven ashore at Largs. The next morning Haakon managed to get onshore with 1,000 men to salvage the ships and their cargo. That was when the Scots pounced. Haakon’s bodyguard got the king back to the safety of the fleet but on the shore the Norsemen were being beaten. Finally, a longship managed to get ashore to reinforce the beleaguered rear-guard and the Norsemen made a stand. The Battle of Largs petered out into a long distance and sporadic shooting match. Neither side had won; it ended in stalemate.
It was the aftermath of the battle that decided things. Given that winter was approaching, the campaigning season was over and King Haakon was forced to disperse his fleet and spend the winter in Orkney. He had every intention of returning the next year but just as the weather had saved the Scots before, fate intervened again. Haakon, an old king by the standards of the day at nearly sixty years old, did not live to see the following spring. He died in Orkney on 16 December 1263. He was the last Norwegian king to mount a military assault on Scotland. Crucially, his son Magnus the Lawmender had no appetite for continuing the fight and just three years later in 1266, he gave up the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Scotland, in return for 4,000 marks in silver and an annual payment, under the Treaty of Perth. At the same time the Scots recognised Norwegian rule over Shetland and the Orkney Islands.
The Battle of Largs is one of those great ‘what if’ points in history – the outcome could have threatened the very existence of Scotland. Had the Vikings won it’s quite possible I would be writing this foreword in Norwegian.
Jon C. Henderson
Dr. Jon C. Henderson
Underwater Archaeology Research Centre
School of Humanities
Department of Classics and Archaeology
University of Nottingham