From Saturday, September 2, and over nine days until the following Sunday, the Largs Viking Festival will be bringing authentic Viking culture to one of Scotland's most popular resorts – close to the site of a seminal battle in 1263 that enabled the West of Scotland to regain independence from Norway.

Battles, longships, and weaponry

Inaugurated in 1980, this annual event commemorates the last mainland clash between the Scots and the Norse. 

Developed over the last four decades, the festival features authentic battle reenactments, a craft and food fair with Viking influences, and boat trips on traditional longships.

On weekends, these trips circle Largs Bay for 15 minutes. During the week, they last an hour, traveling to and from Keppel Pier. You can only book your place online.

Each year, the Viking Village also allows visitors a glimpse of what life would have been like here in the 13th century. 

For 2023, organizers are extending the timeline to include Scandinavian Scotland from the 700s to the 1400s. This is thanks to the historical society, the Strathleven Artizans, who will be representing the key figure and hero from 1263, King Alexander III of Scotland.

Around the Viking Village, clothes, weapons, and jewelry will not only be displayed, but you can ask a friendly Viking about their religion, crafts, ships, homeland, and why they left it.

There are many links to Vikings around the town of Largs, and not only in the names of streets and the amusement arcade.

This popular seaside resort known for its ice cream parlors and the paddle steamer is where you also find a 16-foot-tall statue of Magnus the Viking, unveiled in 2013 to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the battle. 

The statue, crafted by David Ogilvie Engineering from nearby Kilmarnock, doesn't portray a specific individual. Instead, it symbolizes the entire era. 

Haakon Haakonarson (or Haakon IV) attempted to reassert sovereignty but was unsuccessful following the Battle of Largs.

The monarch duly retired to Orkney, where he fell in and died that same year. The cathedral where he was initially buried in Kirkwall is another Viking attraction.

The 16-foot-tall statue of Magnus the Viking commemorates the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Largs. Photo: Alex Liivet / Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)

From Norwegian rule to Scottish ambitions

According to local historian Dr Jon Henderson, "The Hebrides and western seaboard of Scotland had been under Norwegian rule since the 12th century." 

This suited the inhabitants of the area as it afforded them a kind of independence. 

Neither Norwegian nor Scottish, the Hebrideans straddled identities and allegiances – maintaining a foot in both camps while belonging to none. 

By the mid-13th century, this began to change as the Scots, growing in confidence, wanted to incorporate the region into their realm. 

Following failed attempts to purchase the Hebrides from the Norwegian king, the Scots backed up their claims with brutal demonstrations of force – ordering armed raids deep into Norse-speaking areas. 

They are said to have burned villages and churches, and killed large numbers of locals. This was a provocation that the Norwegian king could not ignore.

The Battle of Largs

In 1263, the King of Norway, Haakon Haakonarson, sailed at the head of a massive fleet intending to reassert Viking sovereignty over the Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland. 

Some 120 ships, containing 20,000 men, anchored in the Firth of Clyde, just off the Isle of Arran, waiting to strike, an awe-inspiring and terrifying sight. 

This was one of the largest invasion forces ever to threaten the British mainland – comparable to the Spanish Armada some 300 years later – and certainly larger than anything the Scots could muster at sea.

Luckily, the Scots were led by the wily Alexander III, only 23 years old at the time but already wise beyond his years. 

He cleverly stalled any actual engagement with the Norse forces, instead sending envoys and playing for time. 

Based down the coast in Ayr, he hoped that the Scottish weather might be able to do what his own forces couldn't – scatter the fleet. 

On October 1, the weather broke, and the Norse ships were sent into disarray. 

Several longships were driven ashore at Largs. The next morning, Haakon managed to get onshore with 1,000 men to salvage the ships and their cargo. 

That was when the Scots pounced. 

Haakon's bodyguard returned the king to the fleet's safety, but the Norsemen were being beaten on the shore. 

Finally, a longship managed to get ashore to reinforce the beleaguered rear guard, and the Norsemen made a stand. The Battle of Largs petered out in stalemate.

It was the aftermath of the battle that decided things.

Given that winter was approaching, the campaigning season was over, and King Haakon was forced to disperse his fleet and spend the winter in Orkney. 

He had every intention of returning the following year, but just as the weather had saved the Scots before, fate intervened again. 

Haakon, an old king by the standards of the day at nearly sixty years old, did not live to see the following spring. He died in Orkney on December 16, 1263. 

He was the last Norwegian king to mount a military assault on Scotland.

Crucially, his son Magnus the Lawmender had no appetite for continuing the fight, and just three years later, in 1266, he gave up the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Scotland in return for 4,000 marks in silver and an annual payment under the Treaty of Perth.

At the same time, the Scots recognized Norwegian rule over Shetland and the Orkney Islands.

The Battle of Largs is one of those great turning points in history – the outcome could have threatened the very existence of Scotland.

One of the Largs Viking Festival's main events, the Festival of Fire, showcases a torchlit procession leading to the climactic burning of a longboat. Photo: Alexisaj / Shutterstock

Festival highlights and attractions

The other great local Viking attraction is Vikingar, an interactive exhibition with storytellers telling Viking tales and myths, and the annual Håkon Håkonsson Lecture, inaugurated by the late TV personality Magnus Magnusson in 1980.

It's there that the Festival of Fire takes place, with a battle reenactment, a torchlit procession, and ritual longboat burning. There's also an aircraft flypast on September 9 and 10.

The Largs Viking Festival runs from September 2-10 at The Promenade, Largs, North Ayrshire, Scotland.

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