IT fell on this wise. The Norsemen in their strong warships had swept the western sea-board of Scotland. They held possessions on the mainland and over them they had placed rulers; they held whole islands, and on them they had set up tributary kings. The Scots, united under one king looked westward and northward; and wherever they cast their gaze, there floated the banners of Norway. Scandinavian galleys swung at anchor in their roadsteads, Scandinavian warriors lorded it in their castles, the Scandinavian tongue was heard in the lands whose nomenclature was largely Celtic, and Scandinavian stories were told and songs sung where other songs and other stories ought to have been heard. For long years there was fretting and fuming and threatening in the Scottish Court, and now and then there was a descent in force, on the shores possessed by the Norse sea-kings; but withal the Norsemen held their own and cared not what the rude. Scots blustered. King Haco of Norway was a master whom his servants loved. For nearly half a century he had sat upon the throne of the ancient kings, and his subjects regarded him with something approaching to awe as well as affectionate, admiration. The warriors shouted his name, the harpers tuned their harps to his praises, and the minstrels at Court and in hall sung, his glories. Of ancient lineage, and high renown, he was at the same time a sea-king of indomitable courage and tenacity; and when he planted on the Hebridean soil, and on the western mainland of Scotland, petty chieftains and rulers, he realised that he was bound in honour and in faith to establish their rule, and to keep then, there in spite of all the threats and the warrings of the Scots. So when he heard in his palace in far off Bergen that Alexander of Scotland was meditating descent upon his possessions, he sent his messengers near and far over Norway and to the bounds of distant Finland, to muster war-ships and warriors to the battle. All the winter through resounded the clang of preparation, and when the snows melted and in their place came the soft winds and the green grasses of the spring of 1263, there loosed from Bergen an expedition that was the glory of all the beholders.
Nor were the Scots idle. Tidings reached them that the hammers of the Norse shipbuilders were swinging, and that the giant pines from the stretching forest were being upreared to carry to Caledonia the hostile canvas. The Scandinavian rulers of the western seas were spreading abroad the report that a gigantic armament was coming to their aid, and that with the early summer would arrive the fleet of their relief. The Scots were not able to cope with the Norwegians at sea. Their navy was practically an unknown quantity; and therefore, if they were to confront the foe at all, the scene of battle must be the shore. To go away to the Hebrides would be to court destruction, it least defeat. They resolved, therefore, to abide on the mainland and to concentrate their forces at such a place as might afford them the opportunity of coping with their formidable rivals. While the Norsemen were busy with their shipping the Scots were raising their levies and knights and squires, and yeomen and bowmen were being collected from all quarters. From the armourer's workshops in Spain came helmets and breastplates, and bright steel armour, and keen edged swords; and in the Scottish forests were found the long shafts for the deadly spears.
Alexander, the Scottish monarch, sent his couriers out among the Hebridean islands to watch for the coming foe, and to endeavour to ascertain his movements. These were the days of comparative leisure. The war-ships had to wait the breezes; and even after their arrival on the Scottish coast there was no apparent hurry in developing the plan of attack. When Haco's vessels were seen bearing down on the coast, messengers were despatched to tell the King of the Scots; and wherever they sailed, Alexander was kept posted in their movements. At length he heard that the sea-kings had rounded the Mull of Kintyre and that they were making for the Firth of Clyde; and the Scottish army was concentrated at Largs and there awaited the issue. But first there were negotiations entered upon. Alexander's policy was to delay, to induce Haeo to defer his attack until as late in the year as possible. To accomplish this he pretended his willingness to come to terms on condition that the Norwegians were to relinquish their claims to all islands within the area of the basin of the Clyde. This Haeo would not agree to. Bute he regarded as his, and Arran, and the two Cumbraes ; and these he would not give up. Alexander temporized, and succeeded in deferring the descent of the Norwegian sovereign on the mainland of the estuary of the Clyde until the very end of September. The vessels of the Norsemen, however, scoured the shores of Loch Long, and their light boats were carried to Loch Lomond whose islands were devastated by fire and sword. Nowhere did the invaders meet a foe worthy to cope with them; and wherever they went they left, the traces of their presence. The main body of their vessels lay under shelter of the Cumbraes. Haeo was anxious to be gone; but Alexander still temporized, and that successfully, until the equinoctial gales burst upon the scene. These were the Scottish monarch's hopes; nor did they fail him. They came, with all the fury of the tempest. In from the distant ocean the seas rolled up the Firth, and tossed the oaken war-ships of the Norsemen upon their angry crests. The winds blew fresh and still fresher, until they culminated in a gale which drove on the shore a number of the invaders vessels and hastened the long deferred conflict.
Alexander was at Largs ; and around him the Scottish army. They saw on the opposite shore the Scandinavian ships; they saw them driven from their moorings by the Fates on the seething waste of waters; they saw them ground right under their eyes on the Ayrshire coast. Then was their chance. Haco, whose big ship still swung at her anchors, saw the danger, and he led ashore a strong body of his warriors. As the night was falling the Scots made attack, but the Norsemen beat them off, and remained all night on the land. Haeo would have stayed with them till the morrow, but they persuaded him to retire to his galley; and this he did, leaving his men under tried commanders whose courage he knew, and whose discretion and judgment he knew to be equal to their courage. In the morning the battle was joined. The Norsemen were not quite a thousand strong. Many of the gallant seamen-warriors who had left Bergen had gone down with their vessels in the storm which drove them upon the rocks; many more were attending to the relics of the disabled fleet; and others still were away on foraging and marauding expeditions and could not be recalled. The Scots had the advantage of numbers and of position. Theirs was the rising ground; for the Norsemen there was the sandy beach behind them, their frail boats, and the fleet lying off the shore. The youthful Scottish monarch, for the King was only about three and twenty years of age, was himself in command; and as he rode along the ranks of his army, he stimulated their courage and excited their ardour for the fray. The forces of the Scots were partly composed of horse and partly of foot soldiers; and all were animated with a feeling of revenge upon the ravaging foe.
The fight was begun by the Scots who rushed upon the invaders with native fury. The Norsemen stood firm for a moment; and then a portion of the army broke and fled. Some, of them thinking that the day had gone irretrievably against them, jumped into their boats and made haste to reach their ships; but the remainder, shoulder to shoulder, and shield to shield, boldly contested every inch of ground. We can imagine with what scorn Haeo received the fugitives. But there was no time to be lost. Slowly the remainder of his stalwart band were being forced back along the beach, their faces to the foe. They did great deeds of valour. Time and again they stemmed the rush of the pertinacious Scots; and when down before the long spears of the Scottish spearmen, or under the axes of the Scottish knights on their mail-protected horses, went the struggling Norsemen, others stepped into their places, the gaps were closed up, and the fight went on. Haeo saw the situation his keen eye detected the danger. he had not many men to spare, but all those whom he could spare he ordered ashore to the assistance of their friends; and soon the bosom of the still stormy Firth was dotted with boats springing under the strong arms that pulled the ashen oars, and filled with warriors eager to join in the issue. The Norsemen on shore saw them and took heart of grace. They stood, they made a stand, by the Kepping burn, and there they held the pressing foe at bay until their comrades sprang to their aid.
The conflict raged anew; fresh life on the one side was met by fresh ardour and determination on the other. All that October day, amid the elemental strife, raged the struggle for the mastery. The Norsemen formed themselves into a ring, a ring of very determination; and standing back to back they resisted the impetuous onslaught of the Scots who circled them about. Spears were shivered against the shields of the Norsemen, and darts were caught upon them or found rest on the breasts of the warriors; swords rung on swords, axes fell upon helmets, and shouts of defiance were answered by counter shouts or found mournful echo in the groans of the wounded and the dying. The green grass, the yellow sand, the brown rocks were alike stained with blood; and over all the field of battle were strewn weapons which had fallen from hands nerveless in death. At last the sun westered, and dipped behind the hills; and as the shades of night began to gather thick, and darkness was over the land, the hostile forces gave up the struggle. But the power of the Norsemen was broken. The Scots withdrew to their vantage ground, and in the still hours of the night, the warriors of Haeo who had come through the deadly fray, betook themselves to their boats and were borne to their fleet which still lay under shelter of the Cumbraes.
Haeo was unable to resume the conflict on the following day. He realized that he was unable to cope with the gallant Scots who were still encamped by the scene of the battle, and ready to begin anew the stern struggle for the mastery. Alexander was chivalrous as well as bold; and when messengers came to him from the Norwegian monarch asking permission to inter the Norsemen who had fallen on the shore of Largs, he at once consented. And after the manner of their race, the Scandinavians buried their dead out of their sight and raised their cairns to the memory of their comrades who had entered the happy halls of Valhalla.
Such is the Scottish narration of the battle of Largs prosaic, matter-of-fact, as becomes a Scottish story of long ago. To get to the romance of the fray and the mighty efforts of the Norse King and his chivalry, to reduce the standard of Alexander, to comprehend what an armament it was that set sail for Scotland, and was shattered finally upon the shore of Largs, we require to borrow from the Norwegian record. A spirit-stirring, old-world, romantic record. A tale redolent of the best days of chivalry, 'bracing as the breezes from the pine woods of Norway, sparkling as the sunbeams that dance on the placid waters of the fjords. Its music comes down across the centuries, clear and rhythmical. Its invigorating atmosphere charms into being the gallant warriors who sailed under the banners of Haco, breathing into them the very breath of life, until they stand upon their feet an exceeding great army. Let us take up the record then, and tell the tale anew. Let us reproduce the story as it was sung by Sturla, the Laureate of the expedition, in the Ravens ode.
In the summer of 1262 the Norwegian Court was agitated by tidings that came in from the coasts of Scotland. The Hebridean kings who owed vassalage to Haeo of Norway had heard that King Alexander was covetous of their domains, and Scottish rovers had descended upon the island of Skye and outraged the subjects of the Scandinavian monarch. Was it not told how the fierce Earl of Ross, with Kiarnach, the son of Mac-camel, had ravaged the country with fire and sword, giving churches and homes to the flames, and killing men and women indiscriminately? Did not the halls of Haeo and the haunts of his sea kings ring with the sad story of the enemy's barbarity, and was there not a burning for revenge when it was told how the Scots had impaled the hapless children on the sharp points of their Iron spears and shaken the quivering weapons until the murdered bodies of the infants had fallen right down to the sinewy hands of the savage torturers? And, added to all, did not the Norse blood boil in the veins of the warriors when it passed from mouth to month that the king of the Scots meditated invading the territories of the noble Haeo and wresting them from his grip? The Norsemen thought much, nor did they think long. The king summoned his counsellors about him, and as the result of their consultation an edict was issued ordering the levy of a large body of troops and of sharp-prowed war ships to meet at Bergen in the beginning of the following spring, and wipe out, in descent on the Scottish coasts, the wrongs done to the dwellers in the Hebrides.
Winter passed, a busy winter, and when the days lengthened out, and May-day bad come and gone King Haco repaired to Bergen. He was sage of counsel, of courage undaunted, in action ready; 'but the weight of years was upon him. Prince Magnus was emulous to command the expedition, but Haeo set him aside, for well he knew the western seas and the strongholds of the foe. The Prince was invested with temporary sovereignty, yet was it with a, sore heart that he beheld the fleet sail away into the evening sun.
Ere setting out Haco despatched two trusty captains to the Orkneys to procure pilots for Shetland. These, ere returning sailed south as far as the Hebrides, and told King Dugal that he might look for relief; and King Dugal straightway spread abroad the report that forty ships of war were on their way to his aid. The Scots heard the tidings, and forbore to make a descent which they had meditated upon the Western islands. The pilots returned to Bergen, and eight vessels were ordered to the Hebrides and the adjacent coasts of Scotland. The wind blew hard in their teeth as they left the harbour, and they were compelled to shelter for a day or two under a favouring headland until the breezes were fair and the sea smooth. And then they raised their square sails to the wind, the rowers dipped their blades into the sea, and the advance couriers of the armament went forth on their errand. They were fried seamen who were in command, Ronald Urka, Erling Ivarson, Andrew Nicolson, and Halvard Red. Many a time had they crossed the same rough seas before, and many a plundering descent had they made upon the homes and haunts of the foe. They left Bergen high in hopes and in spirits, for action was their life, and adventure the main spring of their being. In the darkness of the night, and when the waves careered after their oaken vessels, the ship which bore Ronald Urka, was separated from the remainder, and made for the Orkneys, where it remained until the fleet of Haco arrived. The other three captains went on their course. They passed in safety the stormy passage of the Pentland Firth, where storms revel, and rapid run the currents; they swept along that rocky coast, only pausing at Durness to lay aside their long sweeps and flesh their swords in an incursion inland; and then rounding Cape Wrath, they steered for the Hebrides and waited there for Haco to come to them.
And Haco came. He came in his great galley, oaken from stem to stern, which his handicraftsmen had built for him at Bergen; he came surrounded by gallant captains, chiefs, and warriors, and fierce pirate kings of high degree. It was a noble ship he sailed, the pride of Norway. It contained seven and twenty benches for rowers, and as they gave way with their heavy oars, and the big ship forged ahead through the waters, the sunbeams were reflected back from the shields of the warriors and from the golden dragons' heads and necks, which made formidable the stately galley. And such a ship, and such an armament, they could not sail to disaster! So gallant a band of captains and warriors, heroes in many a field and in many a fray, they could not leave their native shores to return save in victory! And the omens were all favourable. The seers and the sages remembered and recalled how it was told that Alexander of Scotland, the father of the reigning monarch, had meditated a descent upon the Hebrides. While he lay slumbering upon his couch, he had received a visit from St. Olave and St. Magnus and St. Columba, and an warning that if he persisted in his enterprise it must prove fatal to him, St. Olave in his royal robes, ruddy of countenance, stern of aspect; St. Magnus, of slender shape, active and lithe in figure, and. majestic of mien ; St. Columba, of uncouth feature and uncomely, but he had neglected the warning and fell death had overtaken him and put an end to the expedition. If such had been the fate of the sire, what must be that predetermined for the son who had threatened to tread in his father's footsteps, and to do that which stern fate, and that foreshadowed, had warned him not to essay? Victory was the presage, and spoil, and treasure, and glorious battle. It was amid these good omens and bright prospects that the monarch sailed away. And Sturla sang
Six and forty winters had King Haeo ruled the Norsemen, and round him had he gathered warriors tried and true. Barons and knights were on the quarter-decks of the war galleys, and with the fleet was Magnus Earl of Orkney, to whom the king gave a goodly galley. Well might the Scandinavian monarch feel proud at the reflected might of his power. Well might he stand on the stern of his oaken galley and feel elate as he contemplated on either hand the expanded sails of his ships. They crossed the summer sea, for it was the month of July, to the Orkneys, and there they debated whither they would steer their keels. Haeo was desirous of sending an expedition to ravage the Firth of Forth, but his captains would not sail without their august commander, and so the course was set for Caithness. On shore went the Norsemen and exacted tribute, and the men of Caithness submitted themselves in peace to the exaction, for "all its tribes were terrified by the steel-clad exacter of tribute, and panic-struck at his mighty power." As they lay in Ronaldsvo a great darkness o'ereast the sun, and nature seemed to have gone to sleep. The Norsemen watched in awe the dark shadow becloud the face of the god of light; but the darkness passed, and the orb rolled on in its brightness. Quitting Ronaldsvo the expedition navigated the Pentland Firth, and, sailing round the jagged rocks which look out to the cold northern sea, steered for the Sound of Skye, where Magnus, King of Man, joined himself unto them, and where the forerunners of the fleet were found awaiting their arrival, Erling Ivarson, Andrew Nicolson, and Halvard Red; and when the navy reached the Sound of Mull, where King Dugal and the other Hebridean chiefs were assembled to receive them, the eyes of the islanders were gladdened by the sight of more than a hundred vessels, and by the mighty strength of the armament that had come to their relief. The great galley of the monarch, as she lay in the Sound, excited the fond admiration of men who had never seen anything more striking than the war ships of the pirate kings; and they sailed round her in their rude boats, and felt strong in the strength of the protectorate.
On and still on the expedition swept, and everywhere it went it found submission. Angus, Lord of Kintyre and Isla, aware fealty, and so also did the Lord of Margad,* and on their bovine wealth Haeo levied a fine of a thousand cattle.
* Who this Margad was does not appear from History.
Another expedition detached from the main fleet sailed as far as Lute and reduced the island.
Then canie Haeo himself round to Arran: and while he lay there he sent his envoys to treat for peace with the King of Scotland. Alexander received them as became their rank, and listened to their terms; but he delayed to come to any decision, because the winter was nearing and the storm clouds were threatening to burst upon the Norwegian fleet. The Scottish King would not relinquish his right over Bute, Arran, and the two Cumbraes; and finding him stubborn the Scandinavian invaders left the shelter of Arran and swept along with all his forces past the Cumbraes. Again there, were negotiations. Let the Sovereigns meet, counselled Haco, and arrange, if they could, the terms of an honourable peace. Should they agree, Haeo and his warships would hie them back to Norway: should they fail, then the issue must fall to be decided by the stern arbitration of battle. But the Scottish King was waiting for the storms of winter and delayed to come to terms; and so Haeo declared the truce at an end and recommenced his career of pillage.
In their light boats they sailed up Loch Long; they drew their boats across the narrow neck of land which intervenes between Loch Long, and Loch Lomond; they wasted with fire the houses on the islands, the possession of the Earl of Lennox; and all around they spread devastation.
But now the storms of the winter began to blow; and dark were the clouds that settled on the peaks of the hills, and the winds swept over the main and sent up the billows to fight with dash and with fury against the Norsemen. Hailstones fell on them, begotten as sung Sturla of the powers of magic ; and as the furies revelled in the tempest, ten of the warships were lost in Loch Long and five driven from their moorings took the ground hard by the shore of Largs. Even the great galley of the King began to drag her anchors. Seven of them were already out to windward, but the storm beat the harder and ever the harder; and as it raged the warship kept nearing the treacherous coast. There was one great anchor on board, the sheet anchor itself; and when that was cast out, the last hope of the struggling seamen, it caught fast and stayed the drifting; and the danger was past. But as the night descended there were other dangers attendant, and these of a different kind. The Scots who were upon the shore, seeing the extremity of the Norsemen gathered in and rained upon them their spears and darts. The beleaguered Sea-Kings gallantly fought under cover of their ships ; and the wind abating, Haeo sent ashore fresh reinforcements to their relief.
The Scots retired, and the Norsemen continued ashore all the night. The morning broke on the scene of the day's battle. On the rising ground above the waters of the Firth, still troubled by the rude blasts of the equinox, were the Scots; on the shores underneath, the Norsemen, inferior in numbers, but scorning retreat. Shrilly rang out the horns; loud rose the cries of defiance and of challenge. King Haeo would fain have stayed by his men, and shared with them the brunt of the battle; but his councillorís advised him to retire to his long oared galley and there await the issue. They were tried commanders whom he left behind ; and under them were from eight to nine hundred steel clad warriors, bold with Scandinavian valour.
The onset was made by the Scottish Knights, five hundred in number. They rode on horses that had breast plates, and many of the steeds were protected by well-wrought armour from Spain. Behind them came on the footmen, well accoutred, bending their long bows or poising the quivering spears. And then began the slaughter. The Scots bore down with the rush of a whirlwind and drove the Scandinavians before them. So impetuous was the torrent that many of the invaders imagined the fray was o'er and had gone against them, and they jumped into their boats and made for the fleet. Their comrades who stood firm behind their rampart of shields called on thern to return : but few obeyed the summons. Around the Norwegians swarmed the foemen pressing onwards to break the serried phalanx which, impenetrable, kept them back. Great were the deeds of valour. Fergus, one of the Scottish Knights, with helmet of gold and set with precious stones, and clad in costly mail, was one of the fiercest of the Scottish army. He rode towards the Norwegians and encountered their bravest knights; he encouraged his men to the assault; he behaved himself like a hero. But stout Andrew Nicholson singled him out and smote him with keen blade so that he cut his leg off right through the armour, the blow descending so heavily that chain protection and flesh and bone and sinew were snapped in twain and the edge of the sword, gleaming bright no longer, rested on the saddle of the horse ; he reeled, he fell, and the Norsemen stripped him, of his Knightly belt. But still went hard the battle; still pressed the Scots on the Norse wall of defence.
Backwards and forwards rolled the tide of war. One detachment of the Norsemen were repulsed and forced to their boats; and now advancing now retreating, the rival warriors spent the day in conflict. As the day wore down to the evening and the sun was beginning to clip beyond the westward hills, the Norsemen charged desperately up the hill whereon the Scottish Army fought.
It was the Scots who fled. They took to the hills and to the darkness of the night, and the Norwegians rowed away to their vessels across the stormy waters of the Firth. They gathered up their slain the following morning and saw no tokens of the foemen's dead, for these they had carried away under the sable cover of the night.
King Haeo sailed away. Past the peaks of Arran he steered, and round the Mull of Kintyre, and thence to the island of Mull. His Hebridean kings he replaced, as he went, in their domains. He touched at Skye, and thence northwards he headed for Cape Wrath. He stayed at times to levy contributions, and the hardy islanders of hostile islands fell avenging on his men. In the Pentland Firth the storms were out, and in a terrible whirlpool went down one of his galleys. The winter was on him and he could not venture across that cold tempestuous north sea which raged between Scotland and the distant shores of Norway ; so he distributed his fleet in safe havens, and himself near Kirkwall waited the passage of the winter and the coming of the vernal equinox. But it was not to come to the gallant old Scandinavian monarch. In Kirkwall he sickened. The Bible was read to him and its holy consolations soothed his spirit. He heard the Latin authors read ; and then his desire was for the stories and the sagas of his own country, for the rehearsal of the doings of its knights, and for tales of the chivalry of his fathers and of those who served under them and who fought in their train. He divided his money for the payment of his troops, and gave gratuities to the faithful among his attendants. Then there came around him holy men ; and when they had ministered to him, he kissed them and received extreme unction at their hands. As he sank lower and lower, he listened anew to the deeds of his forefathers read from the chronicles of the Norwegian kings; and these were his stay and solace until the Almighty called him hence. He had obsequies as became a monarch. By the bier on which he reposed stood attendants with lights in their hands, and the whole hall was illuminated; and as the warriors trooped in to gaze upon his features for the last time he appeared beautiful as in life, with countenance still fair and ruddy. By night his nobles kept watch by his bed; and there he lay until the lid of the coffin was made fast upon him, and with high pomp and ceremony he was borne to the Church of St. Magnus and buried by the steps leading to the shrine of the Earl of Orkney. And all the winter through his knights watched by his grave and kept him silent company.
And when the spring days came, and the storms went down, they lifted Haeo from the vault and placed him yet once again on the long-prow'd, oaken galley, with its seven-and-twenty benches for the rowers and its decorations of gold so that all men did admire it. Out to sea they put, the sea king on his last voyage, the wind filling the flowing canvas and the rowers impelling the galley with their long measured strokes. The sea was crossed and the coats of Norway were in view; and out from Bergen came Prince Magnus and his nobles, and received the body of the dead monarch. His last voyage was done. And
Such, with Sturla's help, is the story of the Raven's ode and of the events that led up to and succeeded the battle of Largs. It would serve no good purpose to examine the Norwegian version critically, and all that need be said of it is that the Scandinavian singer has done his best to gild defeat and retreat, and to girdle in romance a hapless and ill-starred expedition.
The Norwegians came no more to the coasts of Scotland. Their supremacy was broken, and Scotland, its Highlands and its islands, was free from Norse dominion.