The Vikings

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What do we know of them?

The Muses of Hagarus the Handsome
Jarl of Largs
Commissioner for Viking War Graves (Scotland)

The Largs connection - pure accident -1263. Largs was not the usual target. The mainland was protected by a Treaty. King Haakons Expedition - Last Viking Fling and was no surprise.

Why are we interested?

It is good to know your roots, your history, my own history back two generations to South Uist. I've never been there. Mallaig is full of McEachans - McDonalds. Summerled, a Viking Gael, head of McDonalds had a nasty end. In 1163 he invaded the Clyde to Renfrew then died.

I know it goes back further and the more you see the more you know you are part of that mixture that is Scottish - Celts - Picts - Scots - Vikings.

The Vikings - where did they come from? When?

Isolated in their own homelands to the North of civilised Europe they developed their social structure, laws, beliefs, paganism and all its gods and their own Heaven - Valhalla.

All of these developed and made them what they were. Brave, adventurous, willing to die - the promise of Valhalla. Odin with his Valkaries consisting of constant feasting, drinking and fighting.

But more than that they were determined to be remembered well - to have your name remembered in the Storytelling, during the long winter nights - by repetition, since they had no writing, passed from generation to generation gave them immortality in the sagas.

They were willing to die for a good name, a good death and Valhalla! They were also cunning, treacherous and always out for a chance.

Trading - Plunder?

That depended on the strength of the opposition. In many of the sagas ambush and house burning were the main ways of settling arguments. Others too - Trial by Battle. Trial by Duel.

Home Ganger - duel on an island three shields fight to blood? Or fight to the death!


But lets look at the broad picture.

The Vikings exploded into England in 793 Lindisfarne was their first target. Holy Isle of Monks and on and on till Canute 1015 became King of Denmark - Norway - England.

They had raided all of the Coast of Europe, using rivers to strike deep into Germany via the Rhine and into France via the river Seine. They besieged Paris in 895, when Normandy was given to Rolf the Ganger to protect Paris from Viking Raids.

Then in 1066 the Normans came to England. They went to Spain, to Pisa in Italy but were not too successful. Through the Rivers of Russia they struck out East. The Volga took them to the Caspian Sea, to Baghdad for China and silk. The Rus used the Dneiper to Kiev and on to Mickelgard / Constantinople was attacked six times and were beaten by Greek Fire.

They formed the bodyguard of the Ruler or Caliph of Constantinople. There are many references on gravestones of their service in the Byzantine Empire. One example was Harald Finehair. He was in the battle in 1030 at Stiklestad, Norway. Defeated he went to Kiev then married the daughter of Prince of Kiev. He became Captain of Guard at Mickelgard. He returned to become King of Norway.

At Stamford Bridge, York, in 1066 where he fought King Harold of England Harald Finehair died, together with the traitor brother, Tosig, of Harald of England, three weeks later, fought William, Duke of Normandy where Harold got an arrow in his eye and Duke William became William the Conqueror.

In Scotland the invaders were Norwegian Vikings. They came to Iona - 795 - 802 and then came regularly. They liked Monasteries. They were rich pickings with all the cattle, farm produce and silver, which the Church liked and collected. There were Silver and Gold ornaments, candlesticks, silver boxes for holding the bones of the saints and even books written by the monks with gold and silver fastenings, even covers and lettering in gold. One great thing about Christian Monks they did not fight back. They ran away to hide and hid their treasure if they could, or if they were caught and tortured they may tell where the treasure was hidden, then they would be killed or taken for slaves to be sold, or they just allowed themselves to be killed to become martyrs.

The Vikings also targeted Ireland which was easy territory being mainly flat with many rivers into Heartland. Fragmented kingdoms with many monasteries. Vikings founded Dublin and Cork 1008 years ago as Trading Centres. Ireland was rich in the wealth of the monasteries and slaves.

One method of defence was a round tower. There are many in Ireland and one in Perthshire. People would run to get in them, pull up the ladder floor by floor and hope they wouldn't be burned out - hope the Vikings would go away. Have you ever seen such a tower?

Vikings explored all the Northern World. Their ships were the secret of their success together with their daring and willingness to trust their ships and sail the seas. Their sea voyages took them to Shetland and Orkney, also all the islands of West Scotland were Norwegian due to the Treaty of Tarbert 1098.

King Magnus Barelegs then sailed across Kintyre. His boat was pulled from West Tarbert to East Tarbert where he declared Kintyre an Island - Norwegian and HIS!

The Vikings discovered Iceland, but Irish monks were there before, living on Papa Island (Priest Island) where the Vikings coaxed them over the cliffs.

In 874 Ingolf and Leif, who were cousins, settled in Iceland. Leif brought with him Irish slaves. Ingolf sacrificed them to the Gods and then threw the Pillars of his High Seat overboard. He settled where they drifted and he called it "Smokey Bay" from hot springs and steaming land which is of course Reykjavik. (Edinburgh is called "Auld Reekie" meaning smokey old town. Could this be a Norse name for Edinburgh?)

Iceland prospered, which was important for many reasons. It was the springboard to finding America. They set up the "THING" to settle arguments, which was the earliest form of democracy. They became Christian in 1000AD, which settled them down a bit. Monks kept records, sagas were written down as Iceland had plenty of sheep for Vellum and Monks for writing. Iceland is famous for poets and storytellers.

History of Iceland and many Norwegian Kings are told in the sagas. Sagas tell of Greenland being two colonies - east and west, and of America being discovered by Bjarni in 985 when he was blown west by a storm.

Leif Erikson bought Bjarni's boat, since it already knew the way; in 1002 he sailed west. He found Rocks - Helluland (Rock Island) further south. Forests, rivers, which he named Markland (Treeland).

An old Viking called Tyrker - from Turkey found grapes fermenting on the vine. Leif Erikson called this Vinland - Wineland.


How do we know these things?

  • The Sagas of Iceland. The venerable Bede of Lindisfarne and his records in Durham Cathedral and King Alfred's Chronicles all tell of the Vikings.

  • In Europe, Kings and Monks kept records, always putting Vikings as Evil. Prayers were said to save us from the North men.

  • The Vikings became Christian - kept their own records. This was unfortunate in a way as they stopped burying their wordly goods with the dead.

  • At Gostad and Sutton Hoo their buried goods show us of their lives then.

  • Arab records also show in 921 a Viking leader was burnt in his boat at the Caspian Sea. This was recorded by Ibn Fadlan, a diplomat from Mickelgard.

  • Memorial gravestones also tell us much. In Uppsala in Sweden and elsewhere, record Dangeld and where they died, changes in inscriptions show the swing from Paganism to Christianity.

  • King Olaf Truggvason, when in the Scillies, married an English Princess. He came to the Orkneys in 1000AD to forcibly convert Jarl Sigard the Fat to Christianity.

  • King Olaf the Fat was the victor at the battle of Stiklestad in Norway in 1030. A Christian King, who later became St. Olaf with a Church in York dedicated to him.

  • With Christianity came good records and Christian wars to fight. With the Normans moving south to Sicily Holyland Crusades. And Prlmeu Jarls making pilgrimage to Rome. Jarl Siguord visited Constantinople and gave the Emperor gold from his Dragon Head.

Excavations tell us much.

Uppsala in Sweden, Headnly in Denmark. York in England. Jarlshof in Shetland. In Greenland there are ruins of a house with running water - a paved burn went through the longhouse. In Newfoundland there are ruins of buildings - a homestead - with grains, forge, working. Two Rune stones also found. There are finds of coins. Were the owners killed? Shipwrecked? What were the origins of these coins and of the Lewis Chessmen in our own locality?


To our own Battle of Largs.

King Hakon the Old was 64 yrs. He had captured Rothesay in 1230. These were troublesome times. With the Scots getting stronger, they had been offering to buy the Norwegian islands from Norway, The Norwegian empire was overstretched, it was always too loose. Hakon departed for Norway on 11th June 1263. Everyone knew he was coming. Ships from Orkney, Shetland and the Isle of Man were to join him. He commandeered English ships on his way south. Alexander III knew Hakons plans. Rations, weapons and men gathered into his castles on the coast. The host was called to Ayr. Ewen - Lord of Lorne and Argyle and Islay resigned his islands to Hakon, maintaining his lands on the mainland from Alexander. He was kept in honourable captivity and was fined 1,000 cattle by Hakon.

Probably around 20,000 men came in 160 ships. Hakon's ship alone had 294 men on board. Straits of Hakon - Kyle Hakon - Kyleakin - Kyle of Lochalsh - all were named after Hakon. His men captured Rothesay easily. They lay in Lamlash Bay for one month. On Holy Isle in Caves there are Runes. Hakon negotiated with Alexander at Ayr. Henry - Bishop of Orkney and Gilbert, Archdeacon of Shetland were the go-betweens. Alexander played for time.

Hakon sailed to Cumbraes and sent 60 ships to Loch Lomond in Loch Long. Ten ships were lost in a storm. Sunday night 30th September there was a gale. Merchant ships went adrift off Balloch Bay, Cumbrae, they hit the Royal Ship and broke off the Dragon's Nose on Hakon's ship. His ship held in the storm with the help of eight anchors.

On the Monday morning of 1st October the merchant man and three longships were aground on Largs shore. On Monday there was skirmishing with the locals, the Homeguard. Both pulled back and reinforcements were sent to the Vikings by Hakon. Monday night and Scots got some cargo from the merchant ship.

Hakon landed on Tuesday with men to save the cargo - and the ships. The Scots Army approached. His noblemen sent Hakon back to the ship. Hakon's saga says: 800 - 900 Vikings were on shore. Scots had 500 mounted knights and foot soldiers with bows and axes - maybe 8,000???

One Scots Knight, Sir Peter Currie is named, fighting bravely, and then felled. At dusk the Vikings drove the Scots from the Beach. The Vikings got on board and struggled against the gale back to their fleet.

On Tuesday the Vikings went back on shore to collect their dead. There was no sign of the Scots. They had taken their dead.

On Wednesday, remaining ships from Loch Lomond rejoined the fleet and on Friday 5th October Hakon sent men ashore to burn the ships left there and then sailed for Lamlash Bay, then north to Orkney. Hakon had not won nor lost. He tried to save his empire.

Hakon wintered in Orkney and taxed Islay on the way north, demanding 3,000 cattle, but settled for flour and cheese. He arrived in Kirkwall by the end of October. He was ill for three weeks. He gave his possessions to his followers, wrote instructions and advice to his son, and had read to him the Sagas of the Saints and the Sagas of the Kings of Norway. He died on 17th December l263. He was buried in St. Magnus Cathedral and was dug up in the spring to go to Norway.

The Treaty of Perth in 1266 - Scotland promised 4,000 merks and rent in perpetuity. The Isles and Hebrides to Scots. The Norwegian Seal on this Treaty was found in 1996 in Norfolk.

Hakon's grandson married the daughter of Alexander III. Their daughter became known as the Fair Maid of Norway and was betrothed to English Edward II but she died on the way to Orkney. Orkney and Shetland were still Norwegian, though now taken over by Denmark. King Christian married his daughter to King James III of Scotland in 1469. Denmark was short of money and pledged Orkney and Shetland as security for the Dowry of the Princess for one year. No dowry came and Orkney and Shetland were forfeited to Scotland.

  Och, aye!

Harry McEachan is Hagarus the Handsome.
We don't know who the "geyser" with the Festival T-shirt is

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