A lingering dispute between Norway and Scotland over control of the chain of islands that lies between Scotland and Ireland culminated in 1263 with the expedition of Hakon (or Haakon) IV against the Scots. The following texts illustrate the Norwegian attacks along the western seaboard of Scotland, culminating in the battle of Largs. Although both sides seem to have claimed victory in this campaign, the death of Hakon on December 15, 1263, marked the end of the war. Three years later, his successor, Magnus V, concluded a treaty with the Scottish king, Alexander III, in which he sold his rights to the islands.
We offer three texts that give information about the campaign:
The Saga of Hakon’s version of events
The Saga of Hakon is regarded as one of the more historically based of the Icelandic sagas. It was written shortly after Hakon’s death by Sturla Thordsson, under the patronage of Hakon’s son, King Magnus. The section begins here with King Hakon attending the Thing at the Norwegian city of Bergen.
Then king Hakon gave it out as to his expedition that he meant to sail west across the sea with all his host to Scotland to avenge that strife which the Scots had made on his realm. He also gave it out that king Magnus offered to go on this voyage, but that he was to be behind. He thanked him for that with many fair and loving words. But still he said this that as he was older, and had long had knowledge out of the Western lands, and had got to know all about them how things stood there, that therefore he wished to go himself on this voyage. But still he gave all the care of the land into king Magnus’ hands. At that Thing he settled many other things which belonged both to the land and to those who were to fare with him. Then he gave this boon also to the freemen that the stewards should pursue no suits while he was away, save those that were greatest and which could not bear waiting. He also gave leave to go home to much folk from the east of the land; because he thought that proper for the sake of guarding the border. For this voyage king Hakon had fitted out that big ship which he had made them build in Bergen, and which he had designed for his own crossing-ship. It had thirty-seven benches and was big besides, and built of oak alone. That ship was made with a splendid Dragon head, all plated with gold; and so too were the beaks fitted in the same fashion. Many other great ships had king Hakon with him on this voyage, and well fitted. In the spring king Hakon had sent west across the sea John Longlif’s son and with him Henry Scot, and king Magnus got them a ship and men to Shetland; and they were sent thither to find pilots. But John and his companions fared to the Orkneys, and found king Dougal in the Orkneys, and told him that the host was to be looked for from the east. But that rumour was going about that the Scots would harry the Isles in the summer. But king Dougal then gave it out that forty ships had come from the east from Norway. And with that the Scots held back.
Some time before the king was ready to sail he sent eight ships west before him. These were the captains Rognvald ork, Erling Ivar’s son, Andrew Nicholas’ son, Halvard the red, and others more. They lay a while out in the offing and got no fair wind. When king Hakon had fitted out his ship he rowed out of the town, and most part of the fleet with him. The king rowed to Eidsvoe, and afterwards he went back into the town and stayed there some nights and went out afterwards to his ship, and sailed out into Herdla-ver. Thither all the host was gathered together, both from north and east of the land and that was a very great host. As is said in Raven’s Song which Sturla made:
Levies from Finmark
Flocked fast to the king,
Stirrer of spear-storms,
Hakon the great.
The billows of Ocean
That girdle the earth,
All east of the Glommon
Bore on the proud fleet.
Never gold hater
Saw more on one spot
To stand by their lord.
That fountain of honour
Shut out the seashore
With shield-fence of ships,
And an army of men.
King Hakon lay with the whole host in Herdla-ver. It was a very great and picked force. The king had many great ships and well fitted as is here said:
On Gestils fleet coursers
That scoured the main
Flashed gleams of sea-fire,
That slave of the king.
The aides of his galleys
Bore shields bright as suns,
Both wave-wont and sail-wont
Were ships of that king.
Some nights later than king Hakon came to Herd–laver, they sailed away from the offing, Rognvald and Erling with those ships which they bad, and they parted company at sea. And Rognvald came to the Orkneys with some ships, but Erling and Andrew and Halvard the red sailed south of Shetland, and after–wards west off Barrey firth (Burra firth), and saw no land sooner than Sulna skerry west of the Orkneys. After that they sailed in under Scotland, and came off Deerness, and landed there and stormed a castle that was there, but the men that were there fled away. After that they burnt more than twenty homesteads. And then they sailed into the Southern Isles, and found there Magnus king of Man.
Three nights before the eve of the Seljamen king Hakon sailed into the Solund main with the whole host. He had then been king of Norway forty and six winters. There was then a very fine breeze and fair weather. The fleet was very glistening to look on. As is here said:
To bulwarks made fast,
Smote the bright heavens
With gleam of red gold;
The boat of the king
As it skimmed o’er the main
Was like unto lightning
That springs from the sea.
King Hakon had a very picked crew on board his ship. There were in the after-cabin: Thorleif abbot of Holm, sira Askatin, four priests, and other clerks of the king. These laymen: Aslak gush the king’s marshal, Andrew of Thissis-isle, Andrew Havard’s son, Guthorm Gilli’s son, and his brother Thorstein, Eric shot Gaul’s son, and others more. These were in the waist: Aslak Dag’s son, Steinar tough, Clement the long, Andrew mocker, Eric the father of king Dougal, Einar Lombard, Arnbjorn stiffer, Sigbert Bodvar’s son, Hoskuld Odd’s son, John easy, anti Arni skilful. In the third berth were: Sigurd son of Ivar tail, Helgi son of Ivar of Loflo, Erlend blackleg, Dag of Sudrheim, Brynjolf John’s son, Gudleik snack, and some more men of the king’s lodging. Andrew clubfoot was the king’s treasurer. These were in the stem: Eric quarrelsome, Thorfinn Sigvald’s son, Kari Eindrid’s son, Gudmund John’s son, and other some of the king’s pages. At most there were four men in half a berth. Along with king Hakon sailed from Bergen earl Magnus of the Orkneys; and the king gave him a good longship. These liegemen fared with king Hakon: Brynjolf John’s son, Finn Gaut’s son, Erling Alf’s son, Erlend the red, Bard of Hestby, Eilif of Naustdale, Andrew pot, and Ogmund crow-dance. These were before the mast: Rognvald orc, Erling Ivar’s son . . . John queen stayed behind in Bergen, and still more captains, for they were not ready. Gaut of Mel and Nicholas of Gizki stayed behind with king Magnus. There were many other famous captains of ships with king Hakon, who will be spoken of further on. King Hakon got a steady breeze, and was two nights on the sea; and made Shetland with a great part of the host at the place called Bressey-sound. As Sturla sung:
With well-walled hulls
The land-lord smote,
Blue rolling seas
in currents curling
All a-glow with red sea-fire
The haven clear was lighted up
From the towering steins
As the fleet to Shetland came.
King Hakon lay in Bressey sound near half a month, and sailed thence to the Orkneys, and lay awhile in Ellidar-wick, that is near Kirkwall. There king Hakon had a conference with his council, and gave it out to them that lie wished to part the host, and send some south to the Moray Firth to harry there. But he himself would bide in the Orkneys with the big ships and the greatest part of the host. But the freemen and the levy-foil: spoke right out refuse against that, and said they would go nowhither unless with the king himself. And so this expedition to naught. The eve of St. Olaf was on a Sunday, and king Hakon let mass be sung solemnly in his land tent, and next day feasted the common sailors on board his ship.
After Olafs-wake king Hakon sailed out of Ellidar–wick south of the Mull off Rognvaldsey with the whole host. Rognvald had then come from off the sea to the Orkneys with the ships which had fol–lowed him. King Hakon ran with the host into Rognvald’s-voe, and lay there awhile. Then lie sends men over to Caithness and laid a fine on them; but promised them peace in return if they submitted to him, else they would have to undergo hard terms. The men of Caithness agreed to the fine. And king Hakon sent men there to receive it. As is here said:
First for life-ransom
Took from Ness-dwellers
That wine king of Northland
A tribute for peace.
All Scotish subjects
Shivered in awe
At sight of that warrior
Mail-clad ‘neath his helm.
When king Hakon lay in Rognvaldsvoe a great darkness came over the sun, so that a little ring was bright round it on the outside, and that lasted a while of the day. King Hakon had heard bad tidings out of the Southern Isles; for John Longlit’s son had come to the king in Shetland, when the king had sailed west, and told these tidings that John, king in the Southern Isles, must have changed his allegiance and turned him to the king of Scots. But king Hakon would not believe that before he had proved it. On St. Lawrence’s day king Hakon sailed out of Rognvaldsvoe over the Pentland firth. He bade the Orkneyingers sail after him as soon as they were “boun.” Earl Magnus also stayed behind. He had then heard that they were then come into the Isles, John queen and Kolbein Aslak’s son, and those ships which were looked for from the east and had stayed behind, King Hakon sailed on St. Lawrence day past Cape Wrath with all his host and ran into that haven which is called Asleifs-wick, and thence to Lewes. After that they sailed to Rona, and thence into the sound of Skye, and lay there at a place called Carlinestone. There came to him king Magnus out of Man, and those brothers-in-law, Erling Ivar’s son and Andrew Nicholas’ son and Halyard and Nicholas tart. They all sailed together with John queen and had parted on the sea. Nicholas had made no land anywhere before the Lewes after he sailed from Norway. That day on which king Hakon sailed out of the Sound of Skye king Dougal came to him in a light cutter and begged king Hakon to hasten after him as he most could. The king sailed thence into the Sound of Mull, and thence under Kerrera, and there all the host gathered together and both king Dougal and the South Islanders. Then king Hakon had more than one hundred and twenty ships and most of them great, and all in good trim both as to men and weapons.
When king Hakon lay in Kerrera, he parted the host, and he sent fifty ships south to Tarbert in Cantire to harry them. These were at their head – king Dougal, king Magnus of Man, Brynjolf John’s son, Rognvald orc, Andrew pot, Ogmund crowdance and Vigleik priest’s son. Fifteen ships he sent off to Bute. The leaders were Erlend the red, Andrew Nicholas’ son, Simon short, Ivar the young, and Eyfari and Guttorm, South-islanders, each on his own ship. After that king Hakon sailed south, and lay at a place called Gudey (Gigha) off Cantire. There king John came to him. He went on board bishop Thorgil’s ship. King Hakon bade him follow him accord–ing as he was bound to do. But king John begged himself off, and said he had sworn an oath to the king of Scots, and held a greater realm from him than from the king of Norway. And he begged king Hakon to take steps to fill that rule which he had given him. King Hakon kept him with him for a while, and meant to soften his heart to allegiance to him. Many did him a bad turn in his business.
But when king Hakon lay at Gudey there came to him an abbot from a Gray-monk’s cloister, and begged for peace for his house and for a safeguard for Holy Church. And the king granted that to him, and gave him letters for it. Then came men from king Dougal and said that Margad and Angus of Cantire would give up those lands which they held, and would yield the king their following. But the king gave that answer that he would not harry there, if they came into his power the day after before high noon. “But if they are not come then I let my men land and ‘harry’.” With this the messengers went back. But the king then made ready his men to land, so that they should go ashore in two bodies. But the morning after Margad came into the king’s power and laid all he owned into his keeping. A little after came Angus, and gave Iris case into the king’s power. King Hakon gave his word to both of them to get them an atonement with the king of Scots if the kings came to an understanding. Then they gave hostages to king Hakon, and swore oaths. Then king Hakon sent letters to his men who had been told off to harry the Ness that they should stay their warfare; and laid a fine on the Ness ten hundred neat, besides that which had been already carried off. Angus and the king came to terms on the understanding that he gave up the island of Islay into the king’s power, but the king resettled the island to him on the same terms as the lords of the Southern Islands had before held it of him. As is said in the Ravens Song:
The ready-tongued speaker
Of Ringarick’s freemen
Turned his ships on the sea-path
Towards Sodor and Man;
To the serpent’s treasure spoiler,
To Hakon sqnanderer of gold,
Angus gave up Ilay island
As plunder to the warlike king.
And again he says:
Terror went forth from the steerer of brine-deer
All over the wave-washed shores of the West,
What time those outlawed chieftains unruly
Brought to king Hakon, the queller of robbers,
Their helmeted heads, as a token of peace,
Bowing before him and doing him homage.
On the south side of Cantire is a castle, and in it sat a knight. He went to see king Hakon, and gave the castle into his power. The king sent men thither to take the castle as it was. But king Hakon set over the castle Guthorm bank-club, and gave him men along with him. Brother Simon had lain sick for a while; and when king Hakon lay at Gudey brother Simon died; and his body was borne on shore at Cantire, and those gray monks took his body and buried it in their church, and spread over his tomb carpets and called him a saint.
Now it is to be told of that part of the host which the king had sent to the Tarbet of Cantire to harry, that they landed there and burned those homesteads that they found, and took such fee as they could lay hands on; they slew also some men. But all the folk fled away with all that they could carry off. They (king Hakon’s men) had much hard travel and great trouble. But when they came into the main farms and both fee and men were before them, there came to them king Bacon’s letters and forbade them to harry thenceforth, and that liked them very ill. Yet they fared to their ships with the war-spoil they had got, and sailed thence out under Gudey, and found king Hakon there. As is here said:
Brave warriors of the treasure-keeper
Marched from the South across Cantire;
The lovers of the sword-storm sated
On Scotland’s soil the birds of Odin,
Black-clad ravens fiercely swooping
Upon the corpses of the slain.
King Hakon was late in getting a fair wind from Gudey. Then he sent south some light ships and Andrew pot was with them. They were to fare to Bute to meet those who had been sent thither. But when they came thither the tidings were that they had made an onslaught on a certain castle and won it on these terms, that they who held it gave up the castle and took peace from the Northmen. There was also with the Northmen a ship-captain whose name was Rudri; he was thought to have a claim by birth to Bute. Yet because he did not get the island from the Scots, he made great strife on them, and slew many a man, and for that he was an outlaw of the Scottish king. He came to king Hakon in the Southern Isles, and swore oaths to him, and became his man, and his two brothers with him. But as soon as they who had given up the castle had parted from the Northmen, then Rudri faxed after them and slew of them some nine men, for he thought that he had promised them no peace. After that the island came under king Hakon. As is here said:
The dauntless henchmen of the king,
The man of war so worshipful,
Broad Buts conquered for their lord
From the God-detested race.
The soaring raven thrust his sword
His cloven beak in Southern Isles,
Into the bodies of the fallen;
So fell king Hakon’s enemies.
All those Northmen together who were then in Bute fared up into Scotland, and burned some thorpes robber and some homesteads. Then Rudri fared far and wide with manslayings and robberies and did all the harm that he could. As is here said:
Abodes of false franklins were harried and burnt,
Hot indeed raged the hall-crusher
On Scotland’s west coast
warriors fell death-doomed in fight
Before the champions of the king
South in the wasted Isle of Skye.
When king Hakon came into the Southern Isles, there came these messages to him from Ireland that the Irishmen offered to come into his power; and said they needed much that he should free them from that thralldom which the English had laid on them, for that they held then all the best towns along the sea. But when king Hakon lay at Gudey he sent men out to Ireland in a light cutter, and that man with them who was called Sigurd the South-islander. They were to find out in what way the Irish invited him to come thither.
After that king Hakon sailed out of Gudey south off the Mull of Cantire, with all the host that was then with him, and ran in at Arran. Next of all he lay in the sound of Arran between it and Lamlash. Just about that time came messengers of the king of Scots to king Hakon, Preachers, or Barefooted brothers, and tried to make peace between the kings. Then king Hakon let loose king John, and bade him fare in peace from him whithersoever he would; and gave him many good gifts. King John gave his word to do all he could to bring about peace between him and the king of Scots, and to come to see king Hakon if he sent him word.
From these parleys and proposals for peace which the messengers of the king of Scots had with king Hakon, then king Hakon took that counsel that he sent messengers to the king of Scots. There were at their head the bishops Gilbert of Hammar, and Henry of the Orkneys, and Andrew Nicholas son and Andrew clubfoot, and Paul sour. They found the king of Scots in the market town Novar (New Ayr) and the king of Scots received them pretty well. But when they talked of peace the king gave it out that it was likely he might make peace. But said that he would make up his mind, and then send men to the king of Norway with those offers which seemed good to him and his council. After that the messengers fared away, but the king of Scots’ men a night later. And when they found king Hakon there was a talk about peace. King Hakon had let all the isles be enrolled to the west of Scotland which he claimed as his own; but the king of Scots had named those which he would not give up, and that was Bute and Arran and the Cumraes. But about other matters there was very little difference between the king’s terms, but yet the peace could not be brought about. Then the Scots took that counsel that they spun out matters more and more, and turned that way that no peace should be made at all; for the summer was then passing away, and the weather took to getting worse. With this they fared back to the king of Scots.
After that king Hakon sailed in under the Cumraes with his whole host. There were then still intercessions, and the Scots always said that there was likelihood of peace. Then there wag another meeting fixed up in Scotland. King Hakon sent to this meeting bishops and clerks and liegemen; but there came there to meet them some knights and monks. Then they talked much about peace, but in the end it all fell to the ground as before. And when the day wore on the Northmen thought the Scots were dealing faithlessly, for they were then getting together many men from up the country. Then the Northmen fared to their ships, and found king Hakon, and told of their parley what it had been. And most were eager that the truce should be denounced, and that harrying should begin; for the host was running very short of victuals.
Then king Hakon sent to the king of Scots one of his bodyguard whose name was Kolbein the knight. He fared with the safe conduct which the king of Scots had sent to king Hakon. He was also to bring back with him that safe conduct which Scots with king Hakon had sent to the king of Scots. Along with this he was also to tell the king that king Hakon made him the offer to meet themselves with all their hosts and have a parley; and have with them their best men, and see if they could make peace. But if this were not fated, king Hakon offered that they should fight with all their host; and let him have the victory whom God would. But when Kolbein brought this matter before the king he took it as if it were not at all unlikely that he would fight with king Hakon. But still Kolbein so fared away that he got no positive answer to this business. At that time Kolbein took king Hakon’s letters and left behind the letters of the king of Scots. So he fared till he found king Hakon and told him of his errand, and he thought he had taken little by his errand. So it is said in Raven’s Song:
The king from the East
Oft scared the sad Scots,
In battle oft smote them,
With point of the spear;
The thanes of coast-dwellers
Were not fain to fight
With the cleaver of bucklers
So war-wise in strife.
Then there was an end of all truces. King Hakon parted his host, and sent sixty ships away from him up that firth which is called Ship-firth (Loch Long). At their head was king Magnus of Man, king Dougal and his brother Alan, and Margad and Angus. They were over the South islanders. But at the head of the Northmen were Vigleik priest’s son and Ivar holm. And when they got up into the firth they took their boats, and drew them up there over the land to a great lake which is called Loch Lomond. Round the lake lay an earl’s realm which is called Lennox. There were also very many islands on that lake and well tilled. Those isles the North men wasted with fire and sword. They burned too the whole district round the lake, and wrought there the greatest mischief. As Sturla sung:
Those soldiers so flight-shy
Of dart-storms bold wielder,
Drew boats over dry land
For many a length;
Those warriors undaunted
They wasted with war-gales
The islands thick-peopled
On Lomond’s broad loch.
Alan, Dougal’s brother, went almost across Scotland, and slew many a man. He took many hundred neat, and did much ravage. As is here said:
Sturdy swordsmen of the earl
Far in Scotland pushed their forays,
Feeding everywhere the wolf,
Burning dwellings far and wide;
Alan made their house hot,
Meting out to men fierce flame.
After that the Northmen fared to their ships. There they took a great storm so that some ten ships were wrecked. Then Ivar holm took a sudden sickness which brought him to his death.
King Hakon lay in the Cumbraes – Michaelmas was then on a Saturday. But the Monday night after came a violent storm with hail and tempest. Before day in the night they called out who kept watch at the moorings of the king’s ship that a bark was driving oil the cables forward. Then men jumped up hastily and tore down the awning and clad themselves. The stay of the bark caught the figurehead of the king’s ship, and carried away the beaks. After that the bark drifted aft along the sides till her anchor fouled and caught the cable of the king’s ship. Then the anchor began to drag. Then the king bade them cut the cable of the bark’s anchor, and so they did. She then drove out on to the isle, but the king’s ship held the ground, but they lay without awnings till daybreak. But in the morning when the flood came the bark floated, and then she drifted up on the Scottish coast. The wind began to wax all at once. Their ground-tackle then stood them in good stead who had it. Then the fifth anchor was cast on board the king’s ship, but the king got into a boat and rowed out to the isle and let a mass be sung to him. But the ship drove on into the sound. Then the sheet-anchor was taken and laid out, but she drove nevertheless. Some five ships drove up on the coast. Then they held on by their anchors on all the ships, and on the king’s ship too, she was then riding on seven anchors; and the eighth which had fouled the cable which belonged to the bark. Most men so spoke that witchcraft must have brought about this storm. Then they held on by their anchors, all those ships which had driven on shore; but three of them were altogether driven on shore, and they had the greatest hardship. As is here said:
The careful king
Met witchcrafts many
From the wizard lord
Of Scottish land;
The rolling surf
By black-arts driven,
Loosed many a ship
Of canvas bright,
From moorings stout
Made fast on shore.
The magic gale blew o’er the host
On board the sea-steeds closely manned,
And that restless bane of earth
The sea, drove warlike crews ashore
On Scottish land, their warshields bearing,
Eager to combat for their king.
When the Scots saw that the ships were drifting on shore, they gathered them together and fared down on the Northmen and shot at them. But they defended themselves and let the bark shelter them. Sometimes the Scots came on and sometimes they fell off. There few men fell, but many were wounded. Then king Hakon sent a force in to the shore in some boats, for the weather had then slackened a little. As is here said:
The king used to conquest,
That sharpener of steel,
At last sent his liegemen
To storming of swords;
Then the king’s henchmen,
Smote him, the great boaster,
The chieftain who led there
The Dale-dwellers kin.
After that the king went out to his ship in a cutter manned by his pages together with Thorlaug the hot. As soon as the king’s men got on shore the Scots fled up the country. The Northmen were on shore that evening and that night till it drew towards day. Then ail the Northmen went into the buss. As soon as it was day, men clad themselves on board the king’s ship and took their weapons, and so in the other ships, and rowed to land. The Scots had come to the bark, and taken such of the goods as they could get at. A little after king Hakon came on land, and with him some of the liegemen and much folk. Then the king made them strip the bark, and bear her cargo into boats and carry it out to the ships.
When the bark was all but cleared, the host of the Scots was seen, and most thought that the king of Scots himself must be with them, for the host seemed great. Ogmund crow-dance was on a hillock and some following of men with him, and the Scots who came up first made a sham attack on them. When they saw that the main battle was drawing near, men begged the king to get into a boat and row out to the ships, and send them much more force. The king offered to be on land with them, but they would not bring him into such risk; and for that he put off in a boat, and rowed out under the isle to his force. These were the liegemen who were on land: Ogmund crow-dance, Erling Alf’s son, Andrew pot, Erlend the red, Andrew Nicholas’ son, Thorlaug the hot and Paul sour. There were near sixty men from the king’s ship, and at their head was Andrew clubfoot. But by the reckoning of most men there were in all eight or nine hundred of the Northmen on land. Nigh two hundred men were up on the hillock with Ogmund, but the other force stood down on the shingle. Then the Scottish host began to draw near, and it was a very great host. It was the reckoning of some men that they numbered five hundred knights; but some called them some–thing less. That force was very well equipped, with mail-clad horses, and many Spanish steeds all covered with armour. The Scots had a great host of foot–men, but that force was badly equipped as to weapons. They most of them had bows and Irish bills. The Northmen who were on the hillock dropped down towards the sea, so that the Scots should not hem them in. Then Andrew Nicholas’ son came up on boats are the hill, and asked Ogmund if he did not think it wiser to go down to the shingle to the force that was there; and that advice was taken. Andrew bade his men to go down, but not to hurry like runaways. Then the Scots came on fast, and pelted them with stones. Then a great shower of weapons fell upon the Northmen. But they fell back facing the enemy and shielded themselves. But when the Northmen came as far as the brow of the descent which went down from the hillock then each tried to be faster than the others. And when those who were down below on the shingle saw that, they thought that the Northmen wanted to flee. Then the Northmen ran to the boats, and in that way some of them put off from the land and came out to the ships. But most of the boats’ sunk, and then some men were lost. Many Northmen ran under the lee of the bark and some got up into her. When the Northmen came down from the hillock into the dell between it and the shingle, then most of them took to running. But some one called out to them to turn back. Then some men turned back, but still few. There fell one of the king’s bodyguard Hakon of Stein. Then the Northmen still ran away. But when they got down on the shingle it was again called to them to turn back. Then again some of them turned back, but not many. That was south on the shingle beyond the long-ship which had drifted on shore. There two of the Northmen fell. Those who had turned back had then nothing left for it than to keep on the defensive, and so they fell back until they came north round the longship. Then they found there some force of the Northmen, and they all shared in the fight together. These were the leaders there – Ogmund crow-dance, Andrew Nicholas’ son, Thorlaug the hot, and Paul sour. Then there was a hard battle, but still a very unequal one, for there must have been ten Scots to one Northman. There fell a young man of the Scots; his name was Perus; he was come of the best stocks, and was the son of a powerful knight, and rode more boldly than any other knight. There fell men on both sides, but more of the Scots. As Sturla says:
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.
While the battle lasted, there was so great a storm that king Hakon saw no way of getting his force on land. But Rognvald and Eilif of Nautsdale rowed in a cutter to the land; and Eilif got on shore in a boat, but Rognvald was driven out back to his ship. Eilif came to the battle with some men, and behaved very daringly, as well as those Northmen who had got into the boats and had landed on the shingle. Then the Northmen began to gather force, and then the Scots gave way up on to the hillock, and then there was a lingering fight between them for a while with shot and atones.
When the day was wearing away the Northmen made an onslaught on the Scots up on the hillock and there fell on them most boldly. As is said in the Raven’s Song:
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 on the hill;
Up the “How” the red shields mounted,
Till their bearers reached the top.
Then the Scottish brand-gale cloudmen
Took to flight with terror stricken
Turned their heels those doughty soldiers
From the champions of the king.
Then the Scots fled away from the hillock as fast as each man could to the fells. But when the Northmen saw that they went to the boats and rowed out to the ships and got off with difficulty for the storm. But the next morning after men went to seek the bodies of those men who had fallen. There fell there Hakon of Stein and Thorgils silly; they were of king Hakon’s bodyguard. There fell a good freeman from Drontheim whose name was Carlshead; and another freeman from the Firths whose name was Halkell. There lost their lives three pages, Thorstein boat, and John ballhead, and Halvard bunjard. The Northmen could not clearly tell what number of the Scots fell, for they took each man that fell and bore him to the woods. King Hakon let the bodies of his men be borne to church.
But the Thursday after he let the anchors be weighed and his ship be moved under the isle; and that day came the host to him which he had sent into Shipfirth (Loch Long). But the Friday after the weather was good, and then the king sent on land his guests to burn those ships which had driven on shore. That same day the king sailed away from the Cumbraes and out to Malas-isle (Lamlash), and lay there some nights. Thither came to him those men whom he had sent to Ireland; and told him that the Irish would keep the whole host that winter on the understanding that king Hakon would free them from the sway of the English turn from men. King Hakon was very much inclined to sail to Ireland; but that was much against the mind of all his people. And so because the wind was not fair out that way, then the king held a Thing with his force; and gave it out that he would give them all leave to sail to the Southern Isles as soon as the wind was fair; for the host had fallen short of victuals. Then the king let the body of Ivar holm be borne on shore up in Bute and he was buried there. After that king Hakon sailed away from Malas-isle (Lamlash), and lay for a night under Arran, and thence under Sandisle, and so to the Mull of Cantire, and came in the night north under Gudey. And thence he sailed out into the Islay-sound, and lay there two nights. He laid a fine on the island of three hundred neat. Some of it was to be paid and parts from the in meal and cheese. He left men then behind to receive it. King Hakon sailed thence on Sunday at the winter-nights [October 24-26th] and got so great a storm with darkness that scarce one of his ships kept their sails whole; but from many of them they were all carried away. Then the king made the haven of Kerrera, and men passed between him and king John, but nothing came of their meeting. Then king Hakon heard that his men had slaughtered many cattle on the shore in Mull and that some men of the Mull-dwellers were slain there, and two or three of the Northmen besides. Thence king Hakon sailed in to the Calf of Mull, and lay there some nights. There parted from him king Dougal and his brother Alan, and be allotted them that realm which king John had before had. King Magnus and the other South-islanders had before parted from him. To Rudri he allotted Bute but to Margad Arran. To Dougal he gave that castle in Cantire which Guthorm backclub had held during the summer. In this voyage king Hakon had won back those realms which king Magnus barelegs had won from Scotland and the Southern Isles.
From Icelandic sagas and other historical documents relating to the settlements and descents of the Northmen on the British isles, edited by Guobrandur Vigfusson and George Webbe Dasent (Rolls Series 88, vo.3, 1887-94).
The Book of Pluscarden’s version of events
Although The Book of Pluscarden is a fifteenth-century history, the section given below is taken from the fourteenth-century work, The Scotichronicon, by Walter Bower.
In the year 1263, about the feast of the blessed Peter as Vincula (Lammas Day), the king of Norway, Hakon by name, arrived at Ayr Castle with a large fleet of men-at-arms, and with the view of invading the kingdom strove to subdue to his sway all the island districts; for he maintained that all the islands lying between Scotland and Ireland belonged to him by right of inheritance. So he straightway took by force and occupied the royal castles of Bute and Arran, and invaded, plundered and sacked the neighbouring lands of Scotland along the seaboard; nor would this man, out of honour and reverence to Almighty God, respect the sacredness of the churches, but he cruelly harried and wasted everything with fire and sword. But when he had come further in, into the district of Cunyngham, on the feast of the nativity of the blessed Virgin Mary, and had gained the land and pitched his tents at a place which is called Largs and brought his fleet to the seacoast there, behold! a most mighty battle-array of Scottish men-at-arms approaching, led on behalf of the king of Scotland by that noble knight the Lord Alexander Stewart of Dundonald, great-grandson of the first Walter Stewart. This Alexander was the grandfather of the noble Walter Stewart of far-famed memory, who married the daughter of Robert de Bruce. So this Alexander, being joined by other nobles of that countryside, came with such as he could get at a moment’s notice, set upon them manfully, overthrow their army and humbled their pride; and through God’s vengeance he fought and overcame them and punished their wicked attempt. A great number of them were; slain, the chief men of the rest were captured, and the remainder he forced to flee to the seashore, towards their fleet. Among these was killed a man of great valour, a noble knight, the nephew of the said king of Norway, who mourned greatly thereat and was wroth beyond measure. But when they who were on board ship saw this, they were sore troubled; and when they would have come on shore, lo! suddenly a strong wind burst forth from the west, split the sails, cud owing to the fearful swell of the sea, the aforesaid ships dragged their anchors and were tossed by the dreadful storm, so that some parted company, some again were dashed and tossed together, went to pieces and foundered; while others were cast ashore and dashed to pieces on the rocks and strewn in small fragments along the seacoast, together with their booty; and the men were drowned. Those, however, who escaped with their lives safe and sound engaged our men in a fresh battle; and straightway all but the king, who with a few men fled to the ships in the greatest haste, were overcome and borne down through the grace and miracle of the blessed Queen Margaret of Dunfermline, and were either left slain on the field, or brought to the king of Scotland as captives with the Scottish chiefs; and there was hardly any one left to tell the tale. But; when the king, who had barely escaped and was on board ship sorrowing and mourning, beheld his disaster, he at once set sail for the Orkneys and, the foggy weather coming on, remained there awhile to rest, awaiting his revenge. He was indeed flaming with fury; and, in order to avenge his nephew’s death and other wrongs and grievances, he wrote off to his kingdom and prepared to lead back again a very large army against the king of Scotland the following summer. While awaiting there the coming of a fresh fleet, however, he was seized with a short illness and departed this life; and lie was succeeded by his son named Magnus, a man of letters, peaceful and distinguished for kindness, and of great wisdom in the eyes of all.
From The Book of Pluscarden, edited by Felix J.H. Skene (Edinburgh, 1880)
A Letter from R. de Neville to Walter de Merton, relating the information he has heard about the war
This letter of 1263, from R. de Neville to Walter of Merton, chancellor to Henry III, gives one of the first accounts of the Norwegian invasion.
To the venerable man, and revered friend, the Lord W. of Merton, chancellor of the lord King, his friend R. of Neville, greeting and ready obedience. I have lately received a letter from my lord King to the effect that le has appointed me his captain in the counties beyond the Trent, for the preservation of his peace against certain rebels and disturbers of his peace; and, furthermore, he has entrusted me with the custody of the county of York, and of its castle; all of which offices I am prepared to fulfil to the best of my power. But, inasmuch as I cannot undertake them without incurring very great expense, I have concluded to ask of your kindness to give, if it please you, your counsel and powerful assistance with the lord King, that he may, inform me where and from what person or persons I can obtain the money for the custody, both of the aforesaid county and castle, as well as for that of Bamborough Castle, which is entrusted to my keeping.
For it is reported as certain, that the King of Denmark, together with the King of Norway, with a large flotilla, has cast anchor off the further islands of Scotland, but whither they propose to turn is not yet certain, hence it is to be feared that danger is impending over these regions of which I have spoken. I also inform your kindness that some persons, whom I believed to be faithful adherents of our lord the King, have already, owing to the exhortations of the rebels, gone over to them, on which account I shall have to seek for greater assistance from others, and incur greater expenses. May you ever prosper in the Lord.
From The Chronicle of Man and the Sundreys, edited by P.A. Munch (Manx Society Vol.22, 1874).