750 years ago, Ayrshire found itself at the centre of dramatic events – its coast became the front line in the final contest for possession of the islands lying west of the Scottish mainland.
In early autumn 1263, two kings confronted each other across the Firth of Clyde. In Lamlash Bay on the Island of Arran lay the fleet of the 59-year-old Haakon IV of Norway. He was the monarch of a Christian country which had become well integrated into the high medieval culture of Western Europe, but which still looked back with pride to its Viking past. Haakon had striven to bring under his direct rule the territories settled by Norwegian Vikings centuries earlier – Iceland, Greenland, and the Scottish islands. Now he had made a progress down through the Isles to re-establish his authority there in the face of the latest Scottish attempts to gain possession of them. In 1249 King Alexander II of Scotland had fallen ill and died during an expedition to the Isles. His son the 22-year-old Alexander III, having now taken up the reins of power, had resumed his father’s policy of pressuring the Gaelic-Norse island chieftains into giving their allegiance to the Scottish crown. King Alexander had come west to his royal castle at the mouth of the River Ayr, with its adjacent royal burgh, and from there he carried on negotiations with Haakon on Arran − Dominican friars acted as go-betweens.
Helping to strengthen the resolve of the young Scottish king to resist Haakon’s demands were the leading members of the family which stood to lose most if concessions were made – the Stewarts, of Anglo-Breton descent. They had been granted the powerful hereditary office of high steward from which they took their name. In addition to their lands in Renfrewshire and central Ayrshire, the Stewarts had seized the islands of Bute and Arran. Their stronghold of Rothesay Castle on Bute had been captured by Haakon’s forces before a truce was agreed, and the Norwegian king was demanding that his overlordship of these islands – along with all the others off the western Scottish coast – be recognised in a formal treaty sealed with solemn oaths.
The current head of the family and high steward of Scotland was Alexander of Dundonald – the Ayrshire castle which was his principal residence. His brother Walter Stewart had through marriage become the earl of Menteith, and in 1263 he was also the sheriff of Ayr. This office gave him responsibility for organising the military forces of the county, and for defending the royal castle at Ayr – a likely target of the Norwegians if the truce broke down. Along with other Scottish sheriffs’ accounts of the time, Walter’s war-related 1263-64 expenses (in Latin) have survived in a later copy. They include payments made to ‘balistarii’, i.e. arbalesters − crossbowmen, and for the manufacture of 1,770 quarrels – arrows for crossbows. Payment was also made for the sending of messengers to seek out the king of Norway, and for the construction at Ayr of ships for King Alexander, along with 200 oars.
Earl Walter also claimed from the royal revenue his expenses in paying the wages of 120 sergeants in the castle of Ayr for three weeks, This was necessary, he alleged, because of the defection of the burgesses of Ayr, who had refused to garrison the castle as commanded by the king. Sergeants were men-at-arms – the trained, full-time fighting men employed by the nobility as bodyguards, castle guards and enforcers. However, the auditors of the accounts disallowed this part of the sheriff’s expenses claim. If, they noted, it could be proved that the burgesses had indeed failed in their duty to the king, then it was they who must reimburse the sheriff. Otherwise the sheriff himself, having responsibility for the manning of the castle, must bear the expense. Walter may in fact have chosen to garrison the castle with seasoned fighting men in the service of the Stewarts, rather than having to rely on armed merchants and craftsmen of doubtful military value.
As the days stretched into weeks, Haakon had to accept that the Scots were dragging out the negotiations and had no real intention of reaching a peaceful settlement. The truce was broken off, and the Norwegian fleet emerged from behind Holy Island. It headed, not for Ayr, but for the anchorage between the island of Great Cumbrae and the north Ayrshire coast at Largs. The islesmen loyal to Haakon sailed on up Loch Long to Arrochar. There, they hauled boats over the narrow isthmus to Tarbet on Loch Lomond, and proceeded to ravage the settlements on the shores and islands of the loch. Some rounded up horses and ponies and pushed on eastwards into Walter Stewart’s earldom of Menteith – Countess Mary and many others would have taken refuge on the islands in the Lake of Menteith. The intention would have been to put pressure on Alexander by demonstrating that he was a bad king − neither wise enough to come to a settlement with the mighty Haakon or strong enough to protect his subjects when Haakon’s power was unleashed. A blow had also been struck at the king’s Stewart advisers.
On their way back down Loch Long, the plunder-laden ships of the Loch Lomond raiders were caught by a sudden, violent storm, and a number were lost. The same storm struck the anchorage of the main fleet, driving several ships ashore near Largs. To the Scots, it seemed that their prayers had been answered, although the Norwegians were equally convinced that the gales had been conjured up by witchcraft. On 2 October, the wind having died down a little, Haakon himself and several hundred of his best men came ashore to help keep at bay the harassing attacks of the country people while the contents of the wrecks were salvaged. When the High Steward Alexander of Dundonald came on the scene with a force of knights, Haakon was persuaded to return to the safety of his flagship. Formed up in tight formation on the beach, and pelted by arrows and slingshots from the local footsoldiery, the Norwegians defended themselves as best they could. In their version of events which would be incorporated in their king’s saga, they paid tribute to the courage of ‘Perus’, a Scottish knight who repeatedly charged them single handed until slain by a mighty sword-stroke from an equally-valiant Norse warrior. The fallen hero must be the Piers or Peter de Curry named by a later Scottish chronicler as the only notable Scottish fatality – he is thought to have been from the family of that name which held land from the Stewarts in Mauchline parish. Eventually the Norwegians succeeded in re-embarking. Next day they came back on shore to recover and bury their dead. This must have been done under a truce, but the account in Haakon’s Saga could not admit this – to have to ask for a truce for this purpose was tantamount to conceding a defeat.
Haakon set off for home with his storm-battered fleet soon after the fight at Largs, but he fell ill on the way, and in mid-December he died in the palace of the bishop of Orkney at Kirkwall. It is possible that his health had been failing throughout the campaign, and that this is why it was not prosecuted with the vigour and ruthlessness which he had previously exhibited. The next year saw King Alexander and his commanders go over to the offensive, resulting in the conquest or submission of all of the Hebridean islands. The 1266 Treaty of Perth restored amicable relations, the Norwegians recognising Scottish sovereignty in the Hebrides in exchange for a face-saving payment, and the Scots accepting Norwegian rule in the Orkneys and Shetlands (which did not come into Scottish possession until 1470).
The war with Norway in which he faced down Haakon and conquered the Isles was the high point of the reign of Alexander III. His accidental death in 1286 plunged Scotland into a succession crisis, leading to English occupation and the rise to power of Robert the Bruce. The events of 1263-64 had boosted the power of the Stewarts, and their support of Bruce and inter-marriage with his family resulted in the accession in 1371 of Robert II as first king of the Stewart dynasty. His descendants would rule Scotland for the remainder of its existence as an independent kingdom, and go on to unite their crown with that of England in 1603. Several notable Ayrshire families, particularly the Boyds of Kilmarnock and the Mures of Rowallan, traced their rise to prominence back to exploits performed by their ancestors against the Norwegians in 1263.