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Arran of the Bens, The Glens and the Brave
Chapter XVI. How King Hakon fought at Largs


There are few direct references to Arran in the chronicles up to this time, but it was passing for all that through the heart of the fire in those terrible years. And, judging from its position in the very midst of the great arena of the fight, and the extraordinary number of its historical remains and monuments, it was saturated with the blood of the fallen, Norseman and Gael. After the death of Somerled his possessions in the Isles were divided between his three sons by Ragnhilda óMull, Coll and Tiree, and Jura went to Dugall; Isla and Kintyre to Reginald; and Bute to Angus. Arran is supposed to have been divided between Angus and Reginald. Somerled's possessions on the mainland were divided between his sons by his former marriage.

On the death of Reginald, son of Somerled, his possessions in Argyll and the Isles went to his eldest son Donald, while his younger son Ruari got Bute and Arran and the extensive district of Garmoran on the mainland. The territory given to his son Angus by Somerled had been seized by Reginald, and Angus and his three sons were slain in the quarrel.

James, one of the sons of Angus, had left a daughter, Jane, who had married Alexander, fifth High Steward of Scotland, who seems to have seized the coveted island of Bute on his wife's behalf on the death of Angus. This was about the year 1165: it was the beginning of the long connection of the Stewarts with Bute. From it many important results grew, for it was the first real footing of the Scottish royal house in the islands.

Alexander II., a great king, in 1236 sent to King Hakon of Norway to ask whether he would give up his possessions in the Hebrides, which it was pretended Magnus Barefoot had taken from Malcolm, though Malcolm had never any title to them. To this Hakon replied with perfect truth, that the King of Scotland had no right in the islands when they were won by Magnus from God-red Crovan. Alexander then offered to buy the islands. This offer Hakon declined. Alexander made other attempts without avail, till the year 1249, when, according to the "Saga of King Hakon," he collected his forces and made it manifest "... that he would not desist till he had placed his standard on the cliffs of Thurso, and had reduced under his own rule all the provinces which the Norse king held westward of the German ocean." Alexander sailed up the west coast and sought the help of Eogan (Ewan), great-grandson of Somerled, who, of course, held his lands, like the other island lords, from the King of Norway, while any possessions they had on the mainland were held of the King of Scotland. Eogan refused to join Alexander, and the king sailed up as far as the island of Kerrera, opposite the town of Oban, and.was there seized with an illness from which he died. It was not till 1262 that the new king, Alexander in., after attempting to enter into negotiations with King Hakon, attacked the northern islands, then held by Roderick MacSomerled and his sons Dugall and Allan, who sent word to the Norse king that Alexander purposed to subdue all the Hebrides if life were granted him. King Hakon sailed for the southern isles with "a mighty and splendid armament of upwards of 120 vessels," including the great ship which the "Saga of King Hakon " tells us had been specially built at Bergen. It had twenty-seven banks of oars, and was "ornamented with heads and necks of dragons overlaid with gold."

King Dugall, we are told, and Magnus, King of Man, and many others from the Isles joined him, but Angus Mor, chief of the whole clan Donald, and lord of Islay and South Kintyre, who now held of the Scottish crown, refused, while Bute was of course held by the Steward in right of Jane, Nic Somhairle. King Eogan, of the house of Dougal of Lorn, also visited Hakon, and explained that as he held more land of the King of Scots than of the King of Norway he could not follow him. Hakon then took Bute and gave it to Ruari, son of Reginald, who claimed it.

So the honours were with the Norwegian king when he arrived with his great fleet in Lamlash Bay in the middle of August. Alexander then commenced a waiting game, as is shown by the "Hakon Saga," in the hope of detaining the Norwegian fleet till the bad weather set in, for the Norse and the Vikings generally were "summer sailors," and returned to their own lands in the winter season. Long negotiations went on. Alexander saw clearly his own weakness, for he seems to have been willing to whittle down his grand claim to the whole Hebrides to a demand for Arran, Bute, and the Cumbraes, but these he would in no wise part with. Having no fleet, Alexander waited on shore at Largs with his army.

Hakon was no savage Viking, but a wise and civilised ruler, who granted protection to the various abbeys round the scene of hostilities, and did things generally on a grand and liberal scale. Time had wrought great changes, and the southern isles were populous and busy and prosperous once more, as they had been before the Norse incursions.

Still the truce continued, still Alexander played the Fabian part, and still the Norse king showed a desire to come to terms. Hakon's patience at last gave way, and at the end of September he marshalled his great fleet opposite the village of Largs, and sent sixty of his vessels up Loch Long, from which the leaders, the King of Man, and Allan, brother of King Dugall, caused them to be drawn over the narrow neck of land at Tarbert into Loch Lomond. In the grandiloquent words of Snorro Sturleson, "the pursuing, shielded warriors of the thrower of the whizzing spear drew their boats across the broad isthmus. Our fearless troops, the exactors of contribution, with flaming brands wasted the populous islands in the lake, and the towers and houses around its bays." Allan led his men to the further side of the loch into the Lennox, and "marched far over into Scotland," burning and harrying on all sides.

He had been better employed under King Hakon, for on September 30 the storm Alexander had been waiting and hoping for fell upon the fleet. Ten ships of the Loch Long expedition were utterly wrecked. The storm raged for two days, and King Hakon got into his boat and rowed ashore on one of the Cumbraes, and there had mass sung.

Many of the ships had been torn from their anchorage and driven ashore on the rocks of Largs and the Cumbraes, while the rest of the fleet was driven up the Clyde. Hakon, seeing the threatening attitude of the natives who covered the hills, landed a force to protect his stranded vessels and enable the men to refloat them. Then it was that the army of Alexander appeared, "1500 knights and barons mounted on fleet Spanish chargers, and a. large body of foot," while behind them the native peasantry appear to have made a formidable show.

The Norwegian force landed by Hakon is given by Snorro as only 900 men, and even if there were twice as many, the force does not seem to have been in any kind of proportion to that of the Scots. That they gave a good account of themselves is clear; forming in a circle, with their long spears, they met the onslaught of the mounted knights of Alexander and the furious charges for which the Scottish foot were famous.

The best account of the disaster that followed is given by the Saga, which is very honest, though its language is naturally reluctant, and the truth comes out that the retreat of the Norsemen became a panic, in which, as the writer euphemistically puts it, "each tried to be faster than the others." The Scots, he says, "had a great host of footmen, but that force," he adds candidly, "was badly equipped as to weapons. The most of them had bows and Irish bills. The Scots came on foot, 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 which 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. Then 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 Steni. Then the Northmen still ran away."


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