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Arran of the Bens, The Glens and the Brave
Chapter XIV. The Arran Men at the Battle of Brunanburh


Of great interest is the fact that the Sudreyar, as the men of Arran and the rest of the Southern Hebrides were called by the Norse, joined the King of Alban, Constantine III., in his great battle with the Saxons under the famous King Athelstane in 937 a.d. The leader of the islanders was Anlaf, or Aulaf, king of the Gall Gael. The Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Battle of Brunan-burh," and the Chroniclers tell how Constantine, after gathering his forces in Lamlash Bay, met the forces of Athelstane in the river Humber; but from Lamlash to the H umber is a far cry when the journey is made by slow galleys, and there is no doubt that the battle really took place somewhere in Cumberland or Wales or Lancashire, sites having been suggested in all these places. The defeat of Constantine seems to have been complete. The poem describing the fight reaches the high watermark of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It has spirit, and the graphic quality springing from imaginative power, a quality which is generally lacking in the literature of the Saxons. The description of Constantine, "the old warrior," helped by the characteristic repetitions, rises by a sort of cumulative process to the tremendous crescendo note reached in the three concluding lines of the following passage :—

"So there eke the sage Constantine,
hoary warrior, came by flight to his country north.
He had no cause to exult in the meeting of swords.

* * * * * *

The hero, grizzly-haired, had no cause to boast
of the bill-clashing, the old deceiver:
nor Anlaf the more, with the remnant of their armies;
they had no cause to boast that they in war's works
the better men were in the battle stead,
at the conflict of banners, at the meeting of spears,
at the concourse of men, at the traffic of weapons;
when they on the slaughter field
with Edward's offspring played."

The references to the islanders who took so prominent a part in the battle are several—

"The foe they crushed, the Scottish people;
and the ship-pirates, death-doomed, fell."

And again—

"There was made flee the North-men's chieftain."

My quotation is from Thrupp's excellent translation.

The "Scottish people" are, of course, the Irish under Anlaf, who was also the leader of the men from Orkney and the north, and of the Hebrid Islanders, the Gall Gael, or "sea-pirates."

The battle was not, as has been supposed, a race conflict, as Mr. York Powell points out. "The Annals of Clonmacnois" say that the Sudreyar were led by their king Gealachan, and the conflict was between them allied with the Scots under Anlaf, the Cumbrians, and Vikings of the west, and Athelstane.

Later in the same century Arran and the rest of the Sudereys once more were captured and incorporated in the Orcadian earldom by Sigurd,who left his brother Gilli as his captain; but Gilli was soon overthrown by Coinneach, brother of the King of Man.

At the great battle of Clontarf, of which the Irish annalists make so much, the men of the South Isles were also present; we are told that there was an "immense army from Innis-gall," and their king Aulaf, or Anlaf, was amongst the many kings and great warriors slain in this fight, which broke for ever the dominion of the Scandinavian races in Ireland. The men of the South Isles, being still under their Norse allies, fought on the side of the foreigners against their Scoto-Irish kinsmen.

Thorfin, the famous Jarl of Orkney, was a little later able to overawe Scotland, even if he did not actually conquer it, so that only Strathclyde, Fife, and the Lothians were able to keep him out. It is probable, however, that, as the late Mr. York Powell says, his dominion meant little more than that he took tribute and was recognised as overlord. Before his death in 1074 Thorfinn visited Rome, and adopted the Christian faith. On his death the mixed Norsemen or Danes of Ireland revolted and invaded the coasts of Alban, and Diarmid MacMaelnambo of Dublin came down upon the Hebrides and made himself their king. His successor, Fingal MacGodred, was defeated by Godred Crovan, who also made himself king of Dublin. Godred had a curiously chequered history, and is claimed by Professor Gollancz as the original of Shakespeare's Hamlet.


Magnus Barefoot, or Bareleg, was one of the most picturesque of all the many Norsemen who vexed the much-harried Hebrides, and he is the only one who lives to-day in legends still current amongst the people. The Norwegians had recently suffered utter defeat at the famous battle of Stamford Bridge from the Saxons under Harold, who were destined to supersede them as masters of the sea, and Magnus, who became king, entered into a treaty with Malcolm Canmore of Alban by which all the islands (which did not, by the way, belong to Malcolm) were ceded to Norway. Magnus soon gave the islanders a taste of his quality, he was no mean soldier, and became their master.

Kintyre has always been included in the Hebrides; the capital of the old Dalriadic kingdom, its civilisation had been far in advance of the neighbouring islands, and its strategical position had rendered it of supreme importance. It was, therefore, always the most prized possession : under the treaty with Malcolm or Edgar it fell naturally to Magnus, but a legend which has done much to keep Magnus's name alive was invented, to the effect that, in order to make it rank amongst the islands ceded to him, he cheated Edgar by drawing his galleys over the narrow neck of land which connects it with the mainland of Argyll at Loch Tarbert. This was on Magnus's second visit in the year 1098. It was, of course, quite a common thing to draw the light-built galleys of the time across spits of land which divided loch from loch or sea from sea. It is said by Fordun that Donald Bane, the brother of Malcolm, was helped in his seizure of the throne of Scotland by Magnus, and that as a reward he ceded the islands to him, and it is possible that this is the correct story. It is not of much importance to this narrative, but it is certain that Malcolm Canmore, that doughty warrior, was slain during his invasion of England in 1093, the year of Magnus's first visit to the Hebrides, and of Donald Bane's seizure of his brother's throne.

Magnus it waswho, on his return to Norway, introduced the Highland dress amongst his people . . . "the king and his followers," according to the Saga of the famous Icelander, Sturleson, "went about the streets with bare legs, and wore short coats and cloaks." It was from this incident that the king received his name of "Barefoot," so says Worsaae.

The terror of the second visit of Magnus in 1098 still survives in the legends of the island of Lewis, for the Lewis men, having been infamously used by his representative in the island, rose and slew him and the loose and dissolute crowd by whom he was supported. Magnus thereupon swept down upon the Lewis and burnt and slew without mercy, as was his usual way on these occasions, only this seems to have been a peculiarly terrible and searching visitation. He passed on to the Sudereys, and utterly crushed out any sparks of revolt he could find, and there he spent the winter, and walked about amongst the natives clad in their own picturesque and well-loved costume. It is said that the kilt was a common dress in Norway for a century after his time.

The death of Magnus brought back to the throne of the South Isles the son of Godred Crovan, Lagman, who after a few years went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and Donald MacFad, of the Irish Scots, was made governor, until Olave, the remaining son of Godred Crovan, came to manhood. This Olave, King of Man and the Isles, grew to be a person of some note. He had been sent to the Court of William Rufus and Henry of England for his education, and proved a wise and diplomatic ruler. His son, Godred the Black, was a tyrant, whose raids upon the coasts around his home aroused the men of Morvern, and brought forth the man who was to make the beginning of the end of Norse power on the western coast. This was Som-hairle, translated into Norse as "Somerled"; his father Gillibride was known as Gillibride nan Uaimh, or Gillibride of the Cave, his sister had married a daughter of King Harold of Norway. The legend goes that the old chief was driven by the oppression of the Norsemen to seek shelter in a cave of Morvern, for the invaders held not only the isles but Lochaber and great part of Argyll. Skene says that Gillibride was of purely Gaelic origin, and was the great-grandson of Imergi, one of two kings Maelbethad and Imergi, mentioned by the Saxon Chrotiicle as having submitted to King Knut in 1031. It seems probable that they were representatives of the old kings of Dalriada. If this were so, it would be easy to understand that Gillibride was then in hiding, and that his young son should lead the men of Morvern against the men of Olave. According to the tradition, his first success was in conducting the clan MacAongais or Maclnnes out of the field in a masterly manner, after the utter defeat of the Argyllshire men. The Maclnneses, it is interesting to remember, as confirmation of this old tradition, claim descent from Somerled's brother Auradan. [The Clan Donald, by Rev. A. and J. Macdonald; also Skene.] Encouraged by the discovery of so skilful a leader, the men of Morvern decided to try once again to throw off the Norse yoke, and appointed Somhairle their captain.

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