By the year 800 a new force had appeared on the Scottish scene, giving concern especially to the south west of Scotland. These were the Norsemen or Vikings - the hardiest and most daring seamen the world had ever known, famous for their skill as navigators and dreaded for their pitiless ferocity.
The Vikings colonized Iceland and Greenland, discovering America
five hundred years before Christopher Columbus. They settled in
France and all along the Mediterranean and became known as Normans
- the greatest conquering race that Europe had seen since the
Romans. The Vikings overran Orkney and Shetland, seized Caithness
and Sutherland and swept around Cape Wrath - conquering all the
Western Isles as far south as the Isle of Man and Anglesey. It was
in this connection that part of their fleet came up the Firth of
Clyde and fought their first battle with the Scots in
In 867 a great Viking fleet under Olaf the White - the Norse King of Dublin - entered the Firth of Clyde and conquered Arran and attacked Dumbarton which they captured after four months fighting by land and sea. Arran became a Viking possession and to this day it is full of Norse names - for example, Brodick which is Norse for the broad bay. In 1005 Malcolm II became King of Scotland and by conquest and marriage he returned Caithness and Sutherland, the Lothians, and Strathclyde to Scottish rule. In the year 1100, when Magnus Barefoot was the Norse king, the Western Isles of Scotland rebelled against him and he fitted out a fleet to win them back. This he did in 1102. By the year 1230, under Alexander II, the power of Scotland had increased to such an extent that Haakon (or Haco), the aged King of Norway, sent Ospak with a great fleet to the Firth of Clyde.
Using Arran as his base, Ospak attacked and captured Rothesay Castle but he died shortly after and the invasion was halted. Alexander II struck a blow in return, and in 1249 he expelled the Vikings from the islands of the Clyde, but later died in Oban.
In 1263, Haakon - who had ruled for 46 years - was determined to settle the matter of supremacy of the Western Isles once and for all with their chiefs as well as with the King of Scotland. To this end he raised a large and powerful fleet - the greatest that had ever left the stores of Norway. The fleet consisted of over 100 full equipped vessels, manned by numerous skilful seamen and gallant soldiers. Some of these vessels would have a length of over 100 feet with as many as 30 oars.
The Viking fleet assembled at Bergen before crossing to Shetland and Orkney and sailing down the West Coast of Shetland by Skye - where one by one the chiefs (except Ewan of Argyle) acknowledged Haakon's supremacy and helped to swell his force. Haakon's fleet split when he sent fifty ships to plunder the Mull of Kintyre and five ships to the Isle of Bute where Rothesay Castle again fell to the Viking invasion, but they rejoined his main force which eventually anchored in the Firth of Clyde near Arran. Watchers on the hills above Largs saw the great fleet of 160 ships anchored off Lamlash. The army of Alexander III - a young man aged around 23 - was encamped at Camphill between Largs and Kilbirnie and from the high grounds above Largs closely watched the enemies' movements below. Both sides played a waiting game, hoping for a negotiated peace. The Scots may have been prepared to give up Arran, Bute and the Cumbraes in exchange for peace but Haakon insisted on the unconditional surrender of all the Western Isles (including the Clyde Islands) and the Kintyre peninsula.
Haakon's fleet again split up with ships going to Stirlingshire and sixty ships to Loch Long, where the Vikings dragged their light ships overland across the Isthmus of Tarbert to launch attacks on the islets and shores of Loch Lomond. To enforce his demands Haakon moved his main fleet up to the Cumbraes, but Alexander kept on talking and gathering his forces; as winter was approaching he hoped for the weather to break. A storm destroyed ten of the ships in Loch Long and on Monday 1st October 1263 a terrible storm broke over Haakon's main fleet. Five of his great warships were driven ashore and many others lay in Largs Bay more or less disabled.
Around one thousand Vikings had landed to safeguard their stranded ships and a force of armed peasants watching from the hills took advantage of this and fell upon the crews of the stranded vessels. However, the Vikings defended well and with assistance from extra men sent by Haakon they succeeded in driving off their assailants. Haakon landed on the morning of Tuesday 2nd October at the head of a strong reinforcement to protect his stranded vessels from plunder by the Scots, and if possible, to tow them off the shore - but soon after the Scottish army, commanded by Alexander, advanced from the high ground above Largs.
The Scottish army consisted of numerous foot soldiers, most armed with spears and bows, and 1500 cavalry armed from head to heel and mounted on Spanish horses which were also completely armoured. The Vikings, who had landed about 1100 men, were outnumbered by this force and the Scots also had the advantage of the higher ground. The Vikings - despite having the sandy beach behind them, damaged boats, and the main fleet still lying offshore - put up a strong challenge, forming into a circle of spears which the Scots found hard to break. Haakon had been persuaded by his nobles to return to the fleet, and the Norsemen retreated under the first onslaught of the Scottish army. The weather once again acted against the Vikings and destroyed other vessels which made it impossible to land reinforcements. Eventually, amid the tremendous gale, reinforcements succeeded in landing and these fresh troops helped to drive the Scots back from the shore.
After much fighting and bloodshed, with each side taking then losing the upper hand, the Scottish army swept their enemies back to the sea. Haakon was routed. He begged a truce to bury his dead men,set fire to his stranded vessels, collected the remnants of his once nobel fleet and returned to Lamlash. He wished to withdraw to Ireland to renew the attack in the sprng but his men were cowed and Haakon withdrew to Kirkwall where he died later in the year on 15th December 1263.
The results of the Battle of Largs were important and permanent; it marked the end of a three century long story. The Viking invasions were never repeated and the whole of the Western Isles returned to Scottish rule, leaving only Orkney and Shetland under Norse rule. These islands too were eventually given to Scotland in the 1460's as part of a dowry in the marriage between James III and Margaret of Denmark, the daughter of Christian I. This marriage was arranged by Lord Robert Boyd of Kilmarnock who was acting as Scottish Regent at the time for the young King James.