The Battle of Largs 1263 AD

This video is sponsored by Squarespace. It was a damp and cloudy morning in the Norse outpost somewhere in Western Scotland. Commander Ogmund Crowsdance was already on his feet gutting a recently caught rabbit he planned to cook over his fire. He stood up to relieve his back pain and took a look around over the nearby hilly plains. To his surprise, a couple of kilometres to the south, an armed column emerged from behind the hill, marching towards them. Ogmund instantly dropped his would be meal and alerted his companions. The battle was about to begin. It’s early summer of the year 1249. For the last thirty five years, the medieval Kingdom of Alba has been ruled by Alexander II of the House of Dunkeld, whose main ambition has been to capitalize on the deeds of his forebears and enhance royal control in the region. Throughout his career, Alexander managed to subdue the semi-independent county of Argyll and to quell revolt in Galloway. He even laid a claim to the northern English counties, but eventually reached a compromise with the English king, sealing the course of the border by signing the Treaty of York in 1237. By 1244, when Alexander’s matters with the English were solved for good, the ambitious King of the Scots had already begun to turn his focus to the north-west and he became increasingly interested in the Hebrides, a diverse archipelago off the west coast of the Scottish mainland. At the time, the archipelago formed part of the Norse Kingdom of the Isles, a dominion of Haakon the Old, King of Norway. At first, Alexander pursued a more civilised way to gain control over the Western Isles and made a number of offers to simply buy them. Haakon staunchly rejected these requests, as he considered the Hebrides a Norse territory and he was determined to keep control of the region. Unwilling to give up on his ambition, Alexander eventually resorted to warfare to win the region. He mustered an armed contingent in June of 1249 and prepared to exert his dominance over the Western Isles. But this campaign was never to depart the Scottish mainland. Alexander contracted a fever and his condition rapidly worsened. All too suddenly, on the 6th of July, the King of the Scots died and the Scottish ambitions died with him. This was an unfortunate event for the Kingdom of Alba, as Alexander’s only son, conveniently also named Alexander, was a seven year old boy, who initially was simply an insignificant figure in what was ultimately the power struggle between the Scottish nobility. As time passed by, however, none of the parties vying for power were able to dominate the young king’s entourage and upon reaching majority in 1262 Alexander managed to concentrate enough political power to unite and lead all of the Scottish clansmen. Soon after Alexander came to power it became quite obvious that the reigning monarch was as equally ambitious a man as his late father. His aspiration was to resume his father’s endeavour and finally bring the Western Isles under Scottish control. Yet just as a decade earlier, formal requests to cede the isles in exchange for gold had fallen on the deaf ears of the Norwegian King Haakon, who not only rejected the offer, but even imprisoned the Scottish envoys. This of course enraged Alexander, who saw the conquest of the Hebrides as an excellent chance to gain popularity early in his reign and to cement his position on the Scottish throne. Thus, a number of plundering raids were launched, aiming for the Norse-controlled island of Skye. The Scottish force wreaked havoc among Skye’s population, and soon these atrocities brought the attention of King Haakon. Upon hearing the rumours that the Scottish action was not merely a few raids, but rather the beginning of a bigger operation to conquer the Western Isles, Haakon decided to defend his possessions to the West and gather his troops. It was the beginning of the year 1263. A sizeable fleet of over 120 leidang warships departed Bergen in the beginning of July, setting sail to Scotland to curb the ambitions of the Scottish King. About three weeks later, Haakon’s ships reached Orkney and then sailed through the Outer Hebrides, enlisting some of his liegemen on the go. Eventually, the Norse fleet entered the Firth of Clyde and landed on the Isle of Arran, where they set a camp. From there, Haakon sent raiding parties to ravage nearby settlements and awaited a response from the King of the Scots. But Alexander seemed to be unprepared for the upcoming encounter. His army was still being assembled, and even with full numbers he could not hope to gain the upper hand against the superior numbers that the Norwegian King had brought to Scotland. Thus, Alexander’s envoys were tasked with a mission to possibly delay the Norwegian host, at least until autumn. Luckily for the Scots, the talks lasted until late September, when Haakon relocated his main camp to another island some distance to the north, closer to the mainland. A mere two days later, on the night of the 30th of September, a violent storm occurred that battered the Norwegian ships berthed on the shore. A number of Haakon’s men drowned, but what was worse, many of his boats were blown away onto the hostile Scottish mainland, just south of the town of Largs. The Norse couldn’t afford abandoning these vessels, as they were essential for the mobility of the army. So a small force sailed to the Scottish shore to salvage the ships and the cargo. Unsurprisingly, Scottish scouts were well aware of these events and as soon as the Norse landed, they came under the attack of archers and slingers raining projectiles down upon them. The Norse, upon conceding some losses, managed to hide behind the boats until King Haakon, seeing the disturbance on the other side, rushed his men and landed a significant force to relieve and protect the repair crews, compelling the harassing Scots to flee. A unit of two hundred men under Ogmund Crowsdance was positioned on a nearby hillock overlooking the southerly approach when the rest of Haakon’s men set a camp for the night and focused on protecting the boats at the beach. Although the night was calm and uneventful, the very next day the Norwegian force was met with an even greater challenge. Early in the morning of the 2nd of October a several thousand strong Scottish contingent sent by King Alexander was spotted by Ogmund’s men approaching from the south. The Norsemen rushed to their position, preparing to defend the hillock. Soon the fighting ensued between the vanguards, but Ogmund quickly realised that the rest of Scottish troops were marching straight to the beach. To avoid possible encirclement he commanded a withdrawal, even though his troops were probably standing firmly up to this moment. The retreat, albeit orderly at first, gradually plunged into disarray, which soon caused some panic among Haakon’s ranks at the beach, seeing their kin running. Just behind Ogmund’s men, several thousand Scots were marching to meet the enemy. Haakon already knew that he would not stand a chance to stop the Scottish with just a fraction of his own army present, and so he sent some of his men forward to delay the opponent, while the rest hastily prepared all seaworthy boats for their departure. Subsequently, the two sides clashed in an uneven battle. The Norsemen did their best to stop the enemy from reaching the ships, but the Scots, apart from their superior numbers, also had a hundred or more heavy cavalrymen at their disposal, which played a decisive role in quickly pushing back the Norwegian footmen. Soon, as their line grew weaker, losses on the Scandinavian side mounted. A general retreat to the remaining boats followed, while the Scottish troops rushed to inflict as much damage as possible. Although the good part of his crew managed to escape, it was a significant defeat for Haakon, who was forced to leave behind boats, men and supplies in the wake of this surprise attack launched by the King of the Scots. He still had a considerable number of troops under his command, scattered in the area, but it was eventually decided to not tempt their fate, and the Norse fleet retreated back to Orkney to resupply, over-winter and plan the campaign for the next year. Unfortunately for Haakon, during his stay on the windy archipelago, he caught cold and in the middle of December died, prompting his liegemen to disband the army and return back home to Norway. The death of the Norwegian King was an opportune event for Alexander. While we could call Alexander lucky, we ought to admit that he wisely chose the right moment to leverage his luck and to strike the Norwegian invading army in order to yield the maximum possible results. In the end, Alexander’s strategy proved to be effective as four years later Haakon’s son and the next King of Norway – Magnus the Law-mender agreed to trade the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Alexander in exchange for a yearly payment and a considerable sum of silver. This deed helped Alexander to achieve a strong position on the throne, from where he firmly ruled the kingdom for the next twenty years as the last ruler of House of Dunkeld before the turbulent times of the early 14th century. This video is sponsored by SquareSpace. If you’re looking for an all-in-one platform to build awesome websites with tons functionality, then SquareSpace is what you’re after. 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