Thursday, 6 October 2011

From Toberonochy to the Battle of Largs, a voyage through some ancient history

Aileach, a replica birlinn
Regular readers will know that Toberonochy is a favourite spot of mine and I am doing my best to put it back on the world map of Very Important Places, where it surely belongs. When the Greek islands disappear under the rising sea Luing will still be rising from being released from the weight of the mile of glacial ice that melted away a few millennia ago; when the South of France burns to a cinder it will still be raining there; and when the rest of the World runs out of oil and gas Argyll will still be sprouting acres of ashwood for the stove and the hydro schemes will be overflowing. Peter says the county will be covered with lovely windmills too, but I’m not too sure I’m keen on that idea.

Kilchattan Bay is soaked in history. It is where King Alexander II anchored his fleet of one hundred and sixty galleys one night in early July 1249 on his way to a scheduled meeting with Ewan of Argyll, the third Chief of the Clan MacDougall, who controlled the inner isles at that time. Ewan was in the habit of keeping in with both King Haakon of Norway and the Scottish King, which probably both infuriated and pleased both in equal measure. The walls of the old kirk at Kilchattan bear graffiti that may have been done by Alexander's marines during their visit. We know that it depicts Scottish, rather than Norse ships, because they have short, vertical stems and sterns and hung rudders, whereas as everyone knows Viking ships had long ends and were steered with an oar.

Alexander's trip was not a great success. Firstly, Ewan had gone to Stornoway, taking with him the ten year old king of the Isle of Man, for the boy's protection. He wasn’t to return South until 1251. Secondly, the following day Alexander died at Horsehoe Bay on Kerrera. Some reports claim that he developed a sudden fever, but it’s far more likely that he was already stricken with some illness and made his trip in an attempt to obtain some control over this part of what he claimed as his realm after his demise. Among his enormous retinue he apparently had with him Bishop Clement of Dunblane, rather an odd companion for a military expedition unless you were concerned about requiring his services at short notice. I have read a lot about this period and have never come across any suggestion of foul play, so it seems likely that his death had nothing to do with what he might have eaten at the Castle of the Dogs on Torsa, where it’s nice to imagine he maybe had his last dinner. His son, also ten years old, was crowned Alexander III just a week or so later at Perth, which suggests that the Court had the arrangements already in hand.
Of course the western isles weren't to come under the control of the Scottish kings for many years later. In a couple of years from now we Scots will no doubt all be celebrating the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Largs, to get us into the mood for Bannockburn’s 700th in 2014. The battle didn’t quite end Norse domination of the islands, which continued until the Treaty of Perth in 1266, but it probably demonstrated the difficulties of running outposts so far from home. As I have already mentioned the Scottish and Norse ships had very different characteristics. A Viking longship with her slender flexible hull would have been ideal for crossing the oceans quickly but a nightmare to control in the narrow tidal passages that are one of our main coastal features. The Scottish birlinns were shorter and were developed by the island ruler Somerled (Sorley) into a fighting ship with short ends and a rudder. 

image from McDufie's chapel on Oronsay

Generations of Scottish schoolchildren were taught that the Battle of Largs was a decisive Scottish victory, but modern historians seem to concur in thinking it was more of an inconclusive skirmish in stormy conditions in which a Viking store-ship had been blown ashore. History is usually written by the victor and in this case it may be that both sides felt they had won, so let’s call it a draw.

There follows an account of events found in Hacon's Saga written by Sturla Thordssen, just after Hacon's death.

  "Battle on the Sands: King Hacon Intervenes in Scotland, 1263

The summer before had come letters from the west from the Southern [Western] Isles from the king there, and they made much stir about that strife which the earl of Ross and Kjarnak Machamal's son and other Scots had made in the Southern Isles when they fared out into Skye, and burned farms and churches, and slew a host of men and women. And they said this that the Scots had taken small bairns and spitted them on their spear-points, and shaken them till they fell down on their hands, and cast them dead from off them. [claims of this sort have been a popular form of propaganda tool down the ages from Viking times, through the Belgian babies nonsense of WWI to our present age] They repeated too, many big words of the king of Scots, and said that he meant of a surety to lay under him all the Southern Isles, if life were granted him. And when these tidings came to King Hacon, they touched him with great care; he brought these matters before his friends and councillors. But whatever any man might say about it, king Hacon there and then let letters of summons be sent round all Norway after Yule and called out the levies both of men and stores as he thought the land could best bear it; he summoned all the host to meet him early in the summer at Bergen.
The invasion fleet sailed, but, lying at anchor in Cumbrae sound, ships were driven ashore and attacked by the Scots.
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 to 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 something 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 footmen, 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 the hill, and asked Ogmund [crow-dance] 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. 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 Hacon 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 long-ship. 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's 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 . . .
 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-Mæren 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 [shielded warriors] 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."

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water