Battle of Largs

Battle of Largs
Part of the Scottish–Norwegian War
Battle of Largs (detail), 1263.JPG
Detail from William Hole's mural of the Battle of Largs, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Date2 October 1263
55°47′33″N 4°52′04″W / 55°47′33″N 4°52′04″W / 55.7926; -4.8679
Coat of arms of Norway (1924) no crown.svg Kingdom of NorwayRoyal Arms of the Kingdom of Scotland.svg Kingdom of Scotland
Commanders and leaders
Haakon IV of NorwayAlexander of Dundonald, Steward of Scotland
possibly hundredspossibly hundreds
Casualties and losses

The Battle of Largs (2 October 1263) was an indecisive engagement between the kingdoms of Norway and Scotland, on the Firth of Clyde near Largs, Scotland. The conflict formed part of the Norwegian expedition against Scotland in 1263, in which Haakon Haakonsson, King of Norway attempted to reassert Norwegian sovereignty over the western seaboard of Scotland. Since the beginning of the 12th century this region had lain within the Norwegian realm, ruled by magnates who recognised the overlordship of the Kings of Norway. In the mid-13th century, two Scottish kings, Alexander II and his son Alexander III, attempted to incorporate the region into their own realm. Following failed attempts to purchase the islands from the Norwegian king, the Scots launched military operations. Haakon responded to the Scottish aggression by leading a massive fleet from Norway, which reached the Hebrides in the summer of 1263. By the end of September, Haakon's fleet occupied the Firth of Clyde, and when negotiations between the kingdoms broke down, he brought the bulk of his fleet to anchor off the Cumbraes.

On the night of 1 September, during a bout of stormy weather, several Norwegian vessels were driven aground on the Ayrshire coast, near present-day Largs. On 2 October, while the Norwegians were salvaging their vessels, the main Scottish army arrived on the scene. Composed of infantry and cavalry, the Scottish force was commanded by Alexander of Dundonald, Steward of Scotland. The Norwegians were gathered in two groups: the larger main force on the beach and a small contingent atop a nearby mound. The advance of the Scots threatened to divide the Norwegian forces, so the contingent on the mound ran to rejoin their comrades on the beach below. Seeing them running from the mound, the Norwegians on the beach believed they were retreating, and fled back towards the ships. There was fierce fighting on the beach, and the Scots took up a position on the mound formerly held by the Norwegians. Late in the day, after several hours of skirmishing, the Norwegians recaptured the mound. The Scots withdrew from the scene and the Norwegians reboarded their ships. They returned the next morning to collect their dead. With the weather deteriorating, Haakon's fleet sailed to Orkney to overwinter.

The battle of Largs has been romanticised by later historians as a great Scottish victory, but it only involved a small part of the Norwegian fleet. With his fleet and forces intact, Haakon planned to continue to campaign after spending the winter in Orkney, but he was unexpectedly taken ill and died there. With Haakon's death, his successor, Magnus Haakonarson, King of Norway, signed the Treaty of Perth three years after the battle, leasing Scotland's western seaboard to Alexander III in return for a yearly payment. This lease became permanent, but the Kingdom of Scotland eventually stopped paying the Norwegian crown for the islands when Norway became distracted by civil wars.

Although the Battle of Largs was apparently not considered a significant event by contemporaries, later historians transformed it into an event of international importance. Today, most scholars no longer subscribe to such a view, and instead accord it just an important place in the failed Norwegian campaign.

The battle is commemorated in Largs by an early 20th-century monument, and festivities held there annually since the 1980s.


Left: a 14th-century folio containing part of Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar. Right: a folio from the earliest manuscript form of the Chronicle of Melrose.

The main source for the battle is Hakonar saga Hakonarsonar,[1] a contemporary account of the life of Hakon Haakonarson, King of Norway (d. 1263), composed by the Icelandic historian Sturla Thordarson (d. 1284).[2] Although the saga describes the events purely from the Norwegian perspective, its narrative of the battle appears to have been drawn from eye-witness accounts, and it is the most detailed source available for the Scottish–Norwegian conflict.[1] A contemporary Scottish perspective of the events is preserved in a brief entry within the Chronicle of Melrose. First penned at Melrose Abbey in the last quarter of the 12th century, the chronicle was further extended and supplemented from time to time into the late 13th century. It is an important historical source for the mediaeval Scottish realm.[3]