This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

October 2000

Battle of the Largs

1 October 1283: Invasion of Scotland by Haakon, King of Norway, attacked on the beaches by gathering Scottish forces, beginning the Battle of the Largs.

5 October 1283: Norwegians abandon invasion of Scotland, leaving ships and wounded on the beach.

Despite the victory of Brian Boru over the Danes in Ireland in 1014, the Scandinavian incursions into the Celtic nations took a long time to fade away. It would be nearly 270 years after the Battle of Clontarf before the Scandinavians’ last hurrah in the spectacular Battle of the Largs.

In the year 1283 the English were just consolidating their conquest of Wales with the execution on 3 October of Dafydd, the last native Prince of Wales. The power of Norway still dominated the North Sea and reached around the coast of Scotland into the Irish Sea, hedging the growing power of Scotland with a chain of island possessions that included the Orkneys, Shetland, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Mann.

When Scotland’s boy king Alexander III turned 21 in 1262, one of his first acts was to try to purchase the Hebrides from Norway. The offer was refused, but when the Earl of Ross led a bloody raid on the Norwegian-held Isle of Skye, the Norwegian King Haakon prepared for an armed showdown with Scotland.

Haakon assembled a fleet of 100 ships, the largest armada yet seen in those waters, and was joined by Magnus, the King of Mann, along with other Scandinavian jarls. But after wasting the summer in fruitless sparring and maneuvering, Haakon divided his forces, sending most of the Manx fleet off on coastal raids and dispatching 40 other ships to be dragged overland and floated in Loch Lomond, a novel if pointless tour de force.

King Alexander in the meantime was biding his time, keeping his field armies intact behind a defensive screen of castles. The opportunity he was waiting for came at last on 1 October, when the first storms of autumn forced Haakon to decide between abandoning the campaign or chancing a risky landing on the Scottish coast. Haakon chose to go for the landing. The Norwegians struggled through the storm-roiled surf on the west coast of Scotland only to be met on the beaches by a Scottish vanguard of archers and mailed knights, who commenced a running battle with the Norwegians on 2 October.

The bedraggled Norwegians were in no shape to deal with a hot landing zone, but found themselves unable to put back out to sea due to the worsening weather. They were equally unable to gain a secure beachhead for themselves in the face of the growing numbers of Scots that Alexander dispatched from their inland bases as soon as he learned of the Norwegian predicament. After some 72 hours of debilitating and almost continuous combat, the weather lifted just enough to enable the remaining Norwegians to make a hasty evacuation, leaving most of their dead and wounded on beaches lit by the burning hulks of their ships.

The Battle of the Largs marked the rise of independent Scotland and the terminal decline of Norway’s North Sea hegemony. The victory was followed by the death of Haakon, Norway’s cessation of the Hebrides to Scotland, and the Scottish takeover of the Orkneys and the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. Scotland eventually gained Shetland too, as a wedding present, but that is a story for another day.

The dates cited in This Month In Celtic History feature the events and people of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann drawn from the Celtic League American Branch’s annual Celtic Calendar, now available.

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