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Issue 74 - Power struggles

Scotland Magazine Issue 74
April 2014


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Power struggles

A look at the Battle of Largs

In 1098 King Edgar of Scotland signed a treaty with King Magnus III of Norway that settled the boundaries of the two kingdoms.
Orkney, Shetland, Kintyre, the Isle of Man, parts of Argyllshire and the islands of the Hebrides would be Norwegian, the mainland Scots. Both were still fledgling nations and Edgar was acknowledging reality. The Vikings had been settling on the maritime edges of the British Isles for 200 years, creating kingdoms in Dublin and the Isle of Man, and communications by sea between the islands and the royal court at Bergen were considerably easier than with the Scots king at Perth.

Although supremacy may have been vested in the throne, control was loose. In practice, power lay with the local leaders, be they kings of Galloway or jarls of Orkney and these men led virtually independent lives. However Magnus of Norway took direct control in 1098 to stamp out disorder and on the Uists he is said to have 'dyed his sword red in blood'.

In 1158 Somerled overthrew Godred Olafsson, King of the Isles, and seized power. In 1164 the King of Man and the Lords of Kintyre, Lorn and Argyll invaded Scotland, perhaps with an eye on the throne, but he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Renfrew and his kingdom fragmented, later morphing into the Lordship of the Isles.

In 1237 Alexander II signed the Treaty of York with Henry III that defined the border between England and Scotland. But the Hebrides and Man, which Alexander thought should naturally form part of his realm, remained Norwegian and in 1245 he opened negotiations with Haakon IV of Norway to buy his island possessions and transfer overlordship to the Scottish crown. These overtures were rejected and Alexander died in 1249 on his way with his fleet to force Ewen of Argyll to transfer his allegiance from Norway to Scotland.

However Scots magnates were nibbling away at the isles. The Stewarts, hereditary stewards of Scotland, had taken Arran and Bute where they built Rothesay Castle. In 1263, on obtaining his majority, Alexander III reopened negotiations to buy Norwegian possessions in the west. Again they were rejected.

Haakon IV was 59 and a charismatic leader who had brought his country into the heart of the high medieval culture of Europe. When news reached him that the Steward's forces had invaded Skye, he set off with his fleet to stamp his authority on his island possessions. His forces arrived in the Shetlands in mid July and, by September, he and his island vassals had overrun the islands of Bute and Arran and his ships were anchored in the firth of the river Clyde.

He was there to browbeat the Scots and demand a treaty and oaths to confirm him as overlord of the Hebrides. Alexander from his castle at Ayr negotiated with Haakon on Arran. Dominican friars acted as go-betweens but it became clear to the Norwegian monarch that the Scots were delaying matters until the gales of autumn should interfere with his operations. To concentrate the minds of his opponents and show the reach of his power, he dispatched a flotilla of ships to the top of Loch Long from where the crews dragged their boats the couple of miles across the isthmus to Loch Lomond and they proceeded to ravage the settlements on its islands and shore. On captured horses, they raided east into Menteith.

At the beginning of October the weather broke. Witchcraft, said the Norwegians. Divine interventions said the Scots. A storm struck the raiders on their return down Loch Long, their birlinns laden with booty. 'Some tens' of ships were driven ashore. The same storm struck Haakon's fleet; some ships lost their masts; others dragged their anchors and were wrecked on rocks; five ended up on the beach at Largs. There their crews were harrassed by the local people. Haakon came on shore with several hundred of his best men to give protection whilst the ships were salvaged and there Alexander the High Steward, in command of the Scots army, found them.

In driving rain, the Norwegians formed up on rising ground above the beach where the Scots continually assailed them with crossbows, slings and cavalry rushes. The Scanadanavians were eventually driven back and put up a stout defence behind their shield wall with their backs to the sea from where they could be reinforced and resupplied. The skirmishing went on throughout the following day and Haakon came ashore to organise operations but the Scots attacks were relentless and the king was persuaded to reembark.

All he could do was arrange an orderly retreat to his surviving fleet. The following day, under truce, the Norwegians came ashore to gather their dead and then they left.

The great fleet began the long stormy voyage home. Haakon intended to return the following year but he never made it. He died at the Bishop's palace in Kirkwall, Orkney with his ambitions to consolidate his rule over the western seaboard of Scotland in ruins. The engagement was designated the Battle of Largs but it was no more than a series of skirmishes. However its consequences were profound.

Within months Alexander had moved against the Island leaders who had supported the invasion, forcing them to submit to his authority and in 1266 the Treaty of Perth made peace between and the Kingdoms of Scotland and Norway. In exchange for 4,000 marks in silver and an annuity of 100 marks, King Magnus VI ceded Man and the Hebrides to Scotland. Orkney and Shetland remained Norwegian and so they would stay until 1472 when they were annexed to the Scots crown.

Alexander III fell from his horse to his death in 1286, leaving his realm without an heir and open to the rapacious ambitions of Edward I, but he had created a nation that was secure in its boundaries and would so remain.