Todd Ferguson is a local councillor for West Kilbride, North Ayrshire, Scotland. Born and bred in West Kilbride, Todd takes a huge interest in his hometown, both the past and the present. Next to politics, he is a graduate of archaeology and in this re-telling of the Battle of Largs, Todd uses research by the Glasgow Archaeological Society which adds depth to his story.
The main ‘Battle of Largs’ ensues
Photo credit: Researchgate public domain.
The Norse saga explains that the Scots force assembled against them was of ‘…a very great host.’
Sturla, interviewing his eyewitness accounts in 1264/5, says that some believed there were five hundred knights, and others that there were less than this. Saying that they were very well armed and had ‘…mail-clad horses, and many Spanish steeds all covered with armour.’ The painting by Hole in Part 6 seems to be quite accurate in terms of the depiction of knights etc.
As well as this force of mounted knights it says that there was ‘…a great host of footmen, but that force was badly equipped as to weapons. They most had bows, and Irishbills.’
The Norse on top of the hillock were advised to come down onto the shingle alongside the remaining force, which was duly accomplished saying they were ‘…not to hurry like runaways.’
Seizing the initiative the Scots attacked quickly and showered them with stones and other missiles which rained down on the Norse, who apparently fell back facing the enemy with shields to protect them from the missiles raining down on them from, one can assume, an elevated position. However, as some of these retreating Norse reached the brow of the descent they picked up the pace trying to be faster than the others to get to the beach. This looked like they were fleeing and caused a panic on those on the shingle who started to run for the boats, which disembarked. Most of these sunk and some men were lost.
This is why I like the Norse version – doesn’t appear very biased at all when Sturla writes about his own Norse forces panicking and essentially running away.
Back to the narrative, there were some who stayed on the beach and took shelter behind and within the bark (supply ship). The saga says that most of the Norse coming off the hillock ‘…took to running.’
Someone, the saga does not say who, shouted for them to stand their ground and not run away. Hearing this some stopped and turned back, but the saga says it was only a ‘few’. At this point of the fray Haakon’s bodyguard Haco of Stein was killed and the saga bewails ‘Then the Northmen (Norse) still ran away.’
This mayhem hardly seems to fit the image of an orchestrated ‘battle’ and those Norse on the shingle were spread all along the shoreline.
Eventually, they managed to regroup as a more cohesive unit and ‘…then there was a hard battle…’
The saga certainly says that the Scots had by far more the ascendency claiming that the fight was a ‘…very unequal one, for there must have been ten Scots to one Northman.’ It will be interesting to see what the Scots sources from 150+ years later say about the numbers.
A champion of the Scots is mentioned at this point, the saga calls him Perus, which is supposed to be Sir Piers de Curry, and he makes such a valiant impression on the Norse that they singled him out because ‘…he rode more boldly than any other knight.’ He was struck down as the poem by Sturla explains:
‘Our brave men laid low,
In the tussle of war,
The foes chosen champion,
That valourous knight;
The vultures were sated,
With flesh from the life-lorn,
O Perus proud horseman,
Who shall thee revenge.’
Note: there is another version of the story about Sir Piers which reads: ‘He wore a helmet plated with gold and set with precious stones; and the rest of his armour was of a piece with it. He rode gallantly up to the Norwegians, but no other ventured. He galloped frequently along the Norwegian line, and then back to his own followers. Andrew Nicholson had now reached the Scottish van (vanguard). He encounterd this illustrious knight, and struck at his thigh with such force that he cut it off, through the armour, with his sword which penetrated to the saddle. The Norwegians stripped him of his beautiful belt. The hardest conflict then commenced.’
Quite a nice story but I think the simpler version in translation of the saga I am using is probably more realistic.
The saga states that ‘Many fell on both sides, but mainly Scots.’
End of Part 7
The Battle of Largs: The end game and some anomalies
Picture credit: Lewis Chessman on BBC
The Battle of Largs continues:
The saga continues by explaining that while the ‘Battle of Largs’ raged on the shingle another fierce storm was also blowing which prevented Haakon from being able to land his men on shore.
It is said that even despite these challenges Rognvald and Eilif of Naustadale attempted to land in support of their colleagues. Rognvald was driven back but Eilif was able to land with some men ‘…and behaved very daringly…’
The tide seems to have turned and the Norse started to advance, with the Scots retreating up the hillock and a lingering fight with missiles of shot and stone. Nearing the end of that day the saga says that the Norse ‘…made an onslaught on the Scots up on the hillock and there fell on them most boldly.’
The Ravens song captures the moment:
‘The chosen barons of the king,
Chief-justice of North-Maeren folk,
With war-songs hailed their sturdy foes,
What time the hill at Largs they scaled.
The valiant henchmen of the king,
Who keeps his throne in awful state,
Marched iron-hooded, cased in steel,
Against the foe in sword-stirred fray.
Brown brand bit the rebels sharply,
At the mail-moot (battle) on the hill;
Up the ‘How’ the red shields mounted,
Till their bearers reached the top.
Then the Scottish brand-gale cloudmen (shielded warriors),
Took to flight with terror stricken,
Turned their heels those doughty soldiers,
From the champions of the king.
I wonder what the ‘How’ could be? It is interesting that often everything discussions of the ‘Battle of Largs’ remains on the beach, but the ebb and flow shifted across the landscape according to the Norse saga.
The saga concludes by telling us that the ‘…Scots fled away from the hillock as fast as each man could to the fells.’
On seeing this the Norse decided to head back to the boats and reembarked and rowed back out to the ships and got off with difficulty due to the storm.
Most of us, me included would think this was the end of the affair. However, it is not, apparently on Thursday October 4th the Norse sailed back to Largs to seek the bodies of their fallen comrades. Hardly the actions of a defeated enemy sent home with their tails between their legs.
The named fallen are recorded thus:
Hacon of Stein and Thorgils silly – of king Haakon’s bodyguard
Carlshead – a good freeman from Drontheim (Trondheim)
Halkell – another freeman from the Firths (Shetland and Orkney)
Thorstein boat, John ballhead, and Halvard bunjard all pages
The saga says they do not know how many Scots fell because they gathered their fallen and carried them back into the woods.
Haakon ordered his men to be borne to the church, one must assume in the old church of Largs.
So, according to the saga, not only could the ‘vanquished’ Norse land on the beaches of Largs the day after the battle, but they could also gather up their fallen men and carry them to the local church for burial.
It then says that ‘the Thursday after (ie the day following the ‘battle’) he let the anchors be weighed and his ship be moved under the isle (Cumbrae).’ Here, the force sent to Loch Long, Arrochar, and Loch Lomond rejoined his fleet.
Again on the Friday, October 5th, the storm had slackened and ‘…the king sent on land his guests (must mean Dubhgall, Ailean, Aonghas, Murchadh) to burn those ships which had driven on shore.’ It wasn’t until Friday that Haakon sailed away from Cumbrae and stayed a few nights at Lamlash, Arran.
End of Part 8
The Battle of Largs: Beyond Largs 1263
Earlier in the saga before setting out towards Largs Haakon had been contacted by Irishmen (basically Hiberno-Norse) who had asked for help to ‘…free them from the sway of the Englishmen.’
Following the ‘battle’ the saga now says that Haakon was ‘…much inclined to sail to Ireland…’ after the arrival of Irishman at his camp while he was in Arran. However, his men were not remotely interested and as a result Haakon said they could sail for home once the weather improved because ‘…the host had fallen short of victuals.’
The loss of the bark (supply ship) on the shores of Largs had huge consequences for the campaign.
Photo credit public domain: St. Magnus Cathedral Orkney at sunset. Macphail8
Ivar holm, who had died of disease on the Loch Lomond campaign, was transported to Bute where he was buried. Following this Haakon and his force began to weave their way back up the western seaboard of Scotland towards Orkney.
He laid a fine on Islay and some of that had to be paid in meal and cheese, an indication of how desperate things had become for his force. Sailing to Kerrera between 24th – 26th October they hit another storm and scarcely a ship in the fleet managed to retain their sails.
While here Haakon sent emissaries to Eoghan MacDubhghaill, who had not joined him due to swearing allegiance to Alexander III, but nothing came of this meeting.
The supply issues are evident again as the saga tells us that while here …’Haakon heard that his men had slaughtered many cattle on the shore of Mull and some men of the Mull-dwellers were slain, and two or three Northmen as well.’
Sailing himself to the Calf of Mull he parted company with Dubhgall and Ailean and he gave them the land that had previously belonged to Eoghan. King Magnus of Isle of Man and other southern islanders parted here also. He gave Rudri Bute, and Murchadh Arran. Interestingly nothing to Aonghas. He also gave Dubhgall Kintyre Castle.
Haakon met up with more of his followers along the way and ran into yet more bad weather trying to reach Orkney and had to put in at Loch Snizort in Skye, again levying a fine for supplies. He sailed on past Cape Wrath and put in again at Durness where his men captured some Scots who promised to bring him cattle. Haakon gave them peace to do so, keeping one as a hostage.
A bizarre episode is described here which is worth retelling in full from the saga: ‘…eleven men of the ship of Andrew kuzi went on land in a boat to fetch water. A little after it was heard that they called out. Then men rowed to them from the ships; and there two of them were taken up swimming much wounded, but none were found on land all slain. And the Scots had come down on them, but they all ran to the boat, and it was high and dry, and they were all weaponless, and there was no defence. But as soon as the Scots saw that the boats were rowing up, they ran to the woods, but the northmen took the bodies with them.’
Haakon still had the hostage but the saga says he let him go in peace the following day.
More dramas ensued with the weather and seas on the way to Orkney and some ships were lost. One boat having a near miss with ‘…the Swelchie…’ or whirlpool which explains why the Pentland Firth is still one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world today for mariners.
Faring to Orkney Haakon let some of his fleet sail home to Norway and he decided to winter in Orkney because the weather had hardened, keep in mind he was near 60 by this stage. He became unwell while here. He decided on the gifts of land for those who had accompanied him westwards on his campaign and instructed Andrew clubfoot his treasurer to arrange payment.
Haakon seems to have become unwell again, although he got slightly better and walked to St Magnus’ Church in Kirkwall and around the shrine to earl Magnus that the church is named after. It says he ‘…allowed a bath to be run for him and let himself be shaved.’
About this time he became very unwell and first instructed that Latin books be read to him but soon switched to Norse sagas and stories of the kings from Halfdan the black onwards. He started to divvy up his possessions to his bodyguard, guests, dish-swains, and the rest of his serving men. He wrote letters to his son king Magnus and others. He was attended by bishops from Norway and Orkney.
Intriguingly it seems that he was asked by his trustiest men if he had any other son other than Magnus to which Haakon strongly confirmed that ‘…he had no son to succeed him but king Magnus…’
Days later on 15th December 1263, just after midnight, the mighty king Haakon passed away. ‘He was buried in the choir of Magnus’ Church (Dec 17th).’
His bodyguard kept watch over the body all winter and a huge feast was provided by Andrew clubfoot in honour of the king. This was where the wages were given to all of his men.
Haakon had prearranged to be moved to Norway when possible and the body was exhumed on March 5 1264 for this reason. He would be reinterred with his ancestors three days before Lady’s day (March 22).
The poem below was actually sung by the author of this saga Sturla at the burial of Haakon:
To Bergen came
Three nights before
He was buried in Church
There stood many thanes
Not lively with wet lids
Very sad o’er his grave
It tried the heart hard.’
Here ends my story of the Norse saga as written by Sturla Lawman, I hope you enjoyed the journey.
Thank you to Todd Ferguson for this guest blog! I hope you have found it interesting. If you would like to know more, Todd Ferguson has a FB group page called Historic Largs. Sign up if you would like to dig deeper under the surface Largs!