From a saga written at the time we know that the Scottish King Alexander II had been attempting to buy the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Kintyre and the Isle of Man from the control of the Norwegian King Håkon IV, but he consistently refused. Alexander’s successor Alexander III continued this policy without success. In the summer of 1262, Scottish forces launched raids against the Isle of Skye with a view to conquering all the islands. King Håkon responded by equipping a large conscripted fleet which left Bergen for Scotland in July 1263.
After establishing control of the Hebrides, King Håkon anchored his fleet of over 120 ships, with a force of around 15,000 men, by the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde where he opened peace talks with the Scottish King. These dragged on until broken off by King Håkon who sent the Kings Magnus and Dougal with 40 ships up Loch Long and into Loch Lomond to loot and plunder. On October 1 the main body of the fleet moved between the island of Cumbrae and Largs, where they were surprised by stormy weather. Five longships and a trading cog were driven ashore at Largs where they were attacked by a small number of Scots.
The next day, King Håkon went ashore with some of his men to stave off further attacks until the stranded ships could be brought free. During the day, a Scottish army approached which the saga says included 500 knights in armour on horseback and a large body of foot soldiers. If the saga is accurate, the Scottish army numbered about 8,000 men compared with around 800 Norwegian troops onshore.
King Håkon was transported to safety on board his ship while his forces on the beach started scrambling to get into their boats to get back to their ships, several boats sank as a result of overcrowding. However, the Norwegians managed to restore order in their ranks and make a stand on the beach. King Håkon was unable to send large reinforcements on land because of the storm, but one ship from the main fleet managed to reach the shore. When the ship arrived, the Scots withdrew to the hill behind Largs. There followed a lengthy long-distance battle, with bows and stone-throwing, but the Scottish force ultimately retreated, whereupon the Norwegians immediately boarded their boats and withdrew to the main fleet.
The saga implies that the Scottish cavalry had not been in action, and it is also doubtful whether the full body of the foot soldiers was brought to bear. Similarly, the main body of the Norwegian force was on board their ships, prevented by the storm from joining battle. The Norwegians went back on land the day after to retrieve their dead and burn the stranded longships, which they were able to do unmolested. Within a few days, the Norwegian fleet left the Firth of Clyde with King Håkon sailing North to Orkney for the winter but most of his fleet sailed back to Norway.
Largs had not been a crushing military defeat for King Håkon but it meant that he had not been able to win a decisive victory before the winter. King Håkon fell ill while staying in the Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall and died on December 15, 1263. The following year, King Alexander successfully invaded the Hebrides. In 1265 negotiations between Scottish envoys and Håkon’s successor, King Magnus VI, led to agreement that sovereignty over the Hebrides and Man was to pass to the Scottish King, in return for a lump sum of 4,000 marks and subsequently 100 marks annually in perpetuity. This was confirmed in the Treaty of Perth signed in 1266. Norway retained control over Orkney.
The battle is commemorated by the Battle of Largs Monument (affectionately known locally as “The Pencil”) and annually in September by the Largs Viking Festival, which includes a Viking skirmish, burning of a symbolic long ship and fireworks display.
Professor Magnus Fladmark