The Last Battle of the Vikings: Nowhere in the British Isles was the Viking connection longer-lasting or deeper than in Scotland. Hundreds of years after their first hit-and-run raids, the Norsemen still dominated huge swathes of the country.
But storm clouds were gathering. In 1263 the Norwegian king Haakon IV assembled a fleet of 120 long-ships to counter Scottish raids on the Norse Hebrides. It was a force comparable in size to the Spanish Armada over three centuries later. But like the Armada, the Norse fleet was eventually defeated by a powerful storm. Driven ashore near present-day Largs, the beleaguered Norsemen were attacked by a Scottish army. The outcome of this vicious encounter would mark the beginning of the end of Norse power in Scotland.
Marine archaeologist Dr Jon Henderson tells the incredible story of the the Norsemen in Scotland. Visiting fascinating archaeological sites across Scotland and Norway, he reveals that, although the battle at Largs marked the end of an era for the Norsemen, their presence continued to shape the identity and culture of the Scottish nation to the present day.
The Last Battle of the Vikings
In 1263 the dispute with the Scottish king over the Hebrides induced Haakon to undertake an expedition to the islands. Having learned in 1262 that Scottish nobles had raided the Hebrides and that Alexander III planned to conquer the islands, Haakon went on an expedition with his formidable leidang fleet of at least 120 ships in 1263, having become accustomed to negotiating backed by an intimidating fleet.
The fleet left Bergen in July, and reached Shetland and Orkney in August where they were joined by chieftains from the Hebrides and Man. Negotiations were started by Alexander following Norwegian landings on the Scottish mainland, but were purposely prolonged by the Scots. Having waited until September/October for weather that caused trouble for Haakon’s fleet, a clash occurred between a smaller Norwegian force and a Scottish division at the Battle of Largs. Although inconclusive and of a limited impact, Haakon withdrew to Orkney for the winter. A delegation of Irish kings invited Haakon to help them rid Ireland of English settlers as High King of Ireland, but this was apparently rejected against Haakon’s wish.
Haakon over-wintered at the Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall, Orkney, with plans to resume his campaign the next year. During his stay in Kirkwall he however fell ill, and died in the early hours of 16 December 1263. Haakon was buried in the St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall for the winter, and when spring came he was exhumed and his body taken back to Norway, where he was buried in the Old Cathedral in his capital Bergen.