Centuries before Scots gathered here for family holidays, the Battle of Largs on October 2, 1263, proved a turning point in the history of Scotland – and the nature of the Vikings’ relationship with the British Isles.

Largs has only picked up on the historical connection fairly recently, erecting a 16-foot-tall statue of Magnus the Viking in 2013 to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the battle. 

Nearby, the visitor center of Vikingar! features a replica of a Viking longhouse, replica helmets, armor, and weapons that you can try for yourself, a 15-minute presentation of the Norse presence in Scotland in the Valhalladrome, and a personal message from Odin.

It’s only now, with the huge surge of interest in Viking history and culture, that people are coming in serious numbers.

In addition, this summer, the volunteer-run Largs Museum is celebrating the 50th anniversary of a local cinematic landmark. It was back in 1973 that the revered iconic Viking Cinema screened its last film. 

This gorgeous art-deco cinema on Gogoside Road showed all the blockbusters between the 1950s and early 1970s, doubtless including The Vikings film starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis.

Alexander III plays for time

The real-life Vikings lost their grip on Scotland in 1263. That summer, the king of Norway, Haakon Haakonarson, had led a huge Norwegian fleet of thousands of ships across the North Sea for the Norsemen to reassert sovereignty over Scotland. 

The West coast and islands had been part of the Norwegian realm for a century. The previous Scots monarch, Alexander II, and his son, Alexander III, had long tried to wrest back control from Haakon. 

Having assumed the Scottish throne in 1249, at the age of seven, by the time Alexander III came of age, he made it his priority to take charge of the coastal region. In 1262, Alexander III made formal his claim to the king of Norway, without success, causing Haakon to bring over a large army. 

First landing in the Hebrides during the summer of 1263, the Norsemen soon made their presence known. Alexander III engaged in strategic diplomacy, bogging Haakon down in negotiations while he strengthened his own force and sought reinforcements. 

He was also conscious of the weather, aiming to delay Haakon’s invasion until the rainy, windy months of autumn.

The Pencil Monument in Largs, built to commemorate the Battle of Largs. Photo: TreasureGalore / Shutterstock

Battle on the Firth of Clyde

His plan worked. Haakon’s fleet only reached the Firth of Clyde by the end of September. A huge storm on October 1 saw several Norse ships run aground on the coast near Largs. 

This was the cue for Scots forces to come in numbers, timing their arrival for the following day as the Vikings tried to salvage what they could of their fleet.

Both sides engaged in fierce combat on the beach, first the Scots taking the upper hand, then the Norwegians. Eventually, the Norsemen were able to board their ships once more, coming back for their fallen comrades the next day. 

As the weather became even worse, Haakon made the decision to head for Orkney to see out the winter. There he died that December, at the age of 59.

Norwegian rule no more

Although no side could claim outright victory at what later became known as the Battle of Largs, the Scots had defended their homeland against a vastly superior force. This was underlined by Haakon’s retreat and the subsequent Treaty of Perth of 1266. 

This allowed Scotland to buy back the Hebrides and Isle of Man from Norway, buoyed by the ensuing prosperity following the waning of Norse rule. It was also a vital step in securing Scottish independence.

For an idea of Viking life in the West of Scotland up to the tactical defeat at Largs, take a tour of the Vikingar! (40 Greenock Road, Largs KA30 8QL) visitor center, run daily until October, and experience what life would have been like here 1,000 years ago.

For more details on Vikingar! and other great Viking attractions in Scotland, see our recent feature here.

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