The Battle of Largs was fought between Norway and Scotland near the town of Largs on the 2nd October 1263. Although historically speaking little more than a skirmish, it later achieved "almost the status of a Stirling Bridge or a Bannockburn in Scottish history".

Background

One of the consequences of the Viking invasions of the British Isles during the ninth and tenth centuries was the emergence of the kingdom of the Sudreys, that is Sudreyjar or the south islands, which encompassed the Hebrides together the Isle of Man. Operating under the overlordship of the kings of Norway, at least after the expedition of Magnus Bareleg in 1098, in practice both the Hebrides and the Isle of Man evolved into semi-autonomous kingdoms, which paid little attention to their nominal masters.

This state of affairs was challenged by the emergence of the Anglo-Norman kingdom of Scotland whose rulers harboured their own imperialist ambitions of the islands lying off their western coast. The Scottish king Alexander II in particular was eager to take possession of the Hebrides and Man and was at the point of departing with an invasion fleet when he died from a fever in 1249. His son Alexander III was of the same opinion and in 1261 he sent two envoys to Norway to negotiate a deal and when that approach failed to produce the required result, in the following year he despatched William de Ross, 2nd Earl of Ross on a punitive expedition against the Isle of Skye. during the course of which churches were burnt and women and children slaughtered.

Hakon's western campaign

It was in response to this provocation that Hakon IV of Norway (otherwise known as Håkon Håkonsson) set about organising a major expedition to defend his southern territories. He left Bergen in July 1263 with "the largest army which ever sailed from Norway" and by the time he had arrived at the Isle of Man he had "more than 120 ships" under his command. It appears that Hakon's objective was to secure some kind of treaty with his Scottish counterpart, but the negotiations appear to have dragged on without reaching a conclusion. It was alleged from the Norwegian side that the Scots were merely temporising, as they very likely were.

In order to encourage the Scots to begin negotiating in earnest the Norwegians began their own military operations; they succeeded in capturing Rothesay Castle and around half the Norwegian fleet penetrated into Loch Lomond and launched a series of retaliatory raids against the Lennox.

The Battle of Largs

By the end of September the remainder of Hakon's fleet was at Lamish Bay off the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde awaiting events. However during the night of the 30th September/1st October a storm blew up, during which a bark or store ship broke free from its anchorage and fouled the moorings of Hakon's flagship. The bark together with three other vessels were driven ashore on the Ayrshire coast. Exactly where these ships were beached is not precisely known, although later Scottish tradition placed the location (and therefore the consequent battle) just south of the town of Largs, on the opposite bank of the Gogo Water. But wherever they were located, during the 1st October the stranded Norwegian ships were subject to sporadic assaults from the local defenders - "sometimes the Scots came on, and sometimes they fell off" - whilst during the night the Scots returned to loot the bark.

On Tuesday 2nd October the Norwegians therefore landed some eight hundred men in order to conduct salvage operations. Whilst the bulk of the men were enaged in repairing the ships, one Ogmund Crow-Dance was sent with around two hundred men to seize a nearby hill and provide cover for the salvage crew. However under pressure from the advancing Scots his position soon became untenable and so he decided to fall back to the ships. This retreat caused those back on the beach to panic and get back in their boats, leaving Ogmund and his men to meet the attack by the Scots on their own. Ogmund however appears to have held his ground until reinforcements arrived, whereupon the Norwegians pushed the Scots back up the hill, after which there was a "lingering fight between them for a while with shot and stones", before night intervened and brought a halt to the proceedings. Tne Norwegians then went back to their ships whilst the Scots disapperared back into the hills.

On the next day, which was a Wednesday, the Norwegians came back to collect their dead, and on the Friday they returned once more, this time to burn the stranded ships which they now regarded as past saving. Hakon the returned to the Orkneys to spend the winter.

Largs considered

That at least is the account of the action given in Hakon's Saga, which is the only account of the battle extant (If the Scots were ever inspired to record their version of events, no such record has survived.) Some historians are of course are rather dismissive of saga material as source material, but in this since the evidence suggests that the saga was written during the reign of Hakon's successor, it can be regarded as a reasonably contemporary record of events, although of course it exhibits a partial view and is subject to the conventions of a traditional saga writing.

The picture that emerges from the Saga is one of a minor skirmish involving a few wrecked boats and hardly merits the description of a battle at all. This is not however how the battle came to be regarded by later generations of Scottish chroniclers who portrayed the battle of Largs as an overwhelming Scottish victory which brought deliverance from foreign invasion, and whilst Hakon's saga records the death of a mere seven Norwegians of note, later Scottish historians were to claim that as many as 25,000 Norwegians died at the battle. Generally speaking the balance of opinion has shifted away from such attitudes, although there are still those that claim that Largs was "a major victory for the Scots which had great political significance", despite the fact that other equally reputable sources assert that it was "hardly a famous victory" and claim that it was of no particular significance at all.

Whatever political consequences emerged thereafter appear to have had less to with the battle and more to do with the fact that Hakon later fell ill while staying in the Bishop's Palace at Kirkwall on Orkney and subsequently died on the 16th December 1263. Indeed as John of Fordun was later to record, it was only when the "death of the King of the Norwegians was made known to the King of Scotland" that Alexander "hastily got a strong army together and made ready to set out, with a fleet, towards the Isle of Man." The King of Man reacted to this news by equally hastily making his peace with Alexander by recognising him as his overlord. Alexander subsequently launched a renewed offensive against Caithness and Skye in 1264, which was presumably conducted with the same ferocity as that of 1262.

What was perhaps more important was that the relative failure of Hakon IV's expedition in 1263 demonstrated that Norwegian sea-power was no longer sufficient on its own to dominate the coastal waters in the far south, whilst there were also suggestions that the inhabitants of the Hebrides and Man were somewhat lukewarm in their support for Hakon, no doubt fearing that too much enthusaism for his cause would invite the inevitable retribution from the Scots (who were of course closer at hand) once Hakon had gone home. It is likely that these strategic considerations which persuaded Hakons's son and successor, Magnus IV known as the 'Law-mender' to sue for peace, who may also have come to the conclusion that the cost of maintaining a permanent military presence in the Sudreys to protect the islands from the depredations of the Scots, far exceeded the value of the islands themselves. He was thus willing to conclude the Treaty of Perth of 1266 in which he agreed to relinquish the sovereignity of the Sudreys and Man to the Scottish crown in return for the payment of 4,000 marks down and an annual payment of 100 marks.

The argument is often presented in standard histories of Scotland that the battle of Largs resulted in the "incorporation of the Herbrides into the kingdom". It would however be more accurate to say that all that happened was that the semi-autonomous kingdoms of the Sudreys and Man simply exchanged one overlord for another. It took at least another two centuries before the Hebrides were truly incorporated into the kingdom, and as far as the Isle of Man was concerned, Scottish dominion proved shortlived.


A monument to the battle stands to the south of Largs near to the marina which is commonly known as the 'Pencil Monument', there are also a number of standing stones in the area which are associated with the battle including one which supposedly marks the spot where Hakon was killed.


SOURCES

  • Richard Brooks, Cassell's Battlefields of Britain and Ireland (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005)
  • Michael Lynch, Scotland A New History (Pimlico, 1992)
  • A. W. Moore, A History of the Isle of Man (T. Fisher Unwin, 1900)
    http://www.isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/fulltext/hist1900/ch14.htm
  • Largs from www.battlefieldstrust.com/media/606.pdf

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