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Ch. 14: Hakon the Old at Largs

In the Norse annals our famous Battle of Largs makes small figure, or almost none at all among Hakon's battles and feats. They do say indeed, these Norse annalists, that the King of Scotland, Alexander III. (who had such a fate among the crags about Kinghorn in time coming), was very anxious to purchase from King Hakon his sovereignty of the Western Isles, but that Hakon pointedly refused; and at length, being again importuned and bothered on the business, decided on giving a refusal that could not be mistaken. Decided, namely, to go with a big expedition, and look thoroughly into that wing of his Dominions; where no doubt much has fallen awry since Magnus Barefoot's grand visit thither, and seems to be inviting the cupidity of bad neighbors! "All this we will put right again," thinks Hakon, "and gird it up into a safe and defensive posture." Hakon sailed accordingly, with a strong fleet; adjusting and rectifying among his Hebrides as he went long, and landing withal on the Scotch coast to plunder and punish as he thought fit. The Scots say he had claimed of them Arran, Bute, and the Two Cumbraes ("given my ancestors by Donald Bain," said Hakon, to the amazement of the Scots) "as part of the Sudoer" (Southern Isles): --so far from selling that fine kingdom!--and that it was after taking both Arran and Bute that he made his descent at Largs.

Of Largs there is no mention whatever in Norse books. But beyond any doubt, such is the other evidence, Hakon did land there; land and fight, not conquering, probably rather beaten; and very certainly "retiring to his ships," as in either case he behooved to do! It is further certain he was dreadfully maltreated by the weather on those wild coasts; and altogether credible, as the Scotch records bear, that he was so at Largs very specially. The Norse Records or Sagas say merely, he lost many of his ships by the tempests, and many of his men by land fighting in various parts,--tacitly including Largs, no doubt, which was the last of these misfortunes to him. "In the battle here he lost 15,000 men, say the Scots, we 5,000"! Divide these numbers by ten, and the excellently brief and lucid Scottish summary by Buchanan may be taken as the approximately true and exact.[Buchanani Hist. i. 130.] Date of the battle is A.D. 1263.

To this day, on a little plain to the south of the village, now town, of Largs, in Ayrshire, there are seen stone cairns and monumental heaps, and, until within a century ago, one huge, solitary, upright stone; still mutely testifying to a battle there,--altogether clearly, to this battle of King Hakon's; who by the Norse records, too, was in these neighborhoods at that same date, and evidently in an aggressive, high kind of humor. For "while his ships and army were doubling the Mull of Cantire, he had his own boat set on wheels, and therein, splendidly enough, had himself drawn across the Promontory at a flatter part," no doubt with horns sounding, banners waving. "All to the left of me is mine and Norway's," exclaimed Hakon in his triumphant boat progress, which such disasters soon followed.

Hakon gathered his wrecks together, and sorrowfully made for Orkney. It is possible enough, as our Guide Books now say, he may have gone by Iona, Mull, and the narrow seas inside of Skye; and that the Kyle-Akin, favorably known to sea-bathers in that region, may actually mean the Kyle (narrow strait) of Hakon, where Hakon may have dropped anchor, and rested for a little while in smooth water and beautiful environment, safe from equinoctial storms. But poor Hakon's heart was now broken. He went to Orkney; died there in the winter; never beholding Norway more.

He it was who got Iceland, which had been a Republic for four centuries, united to his kingdom of Norway: a long and intricate operation,--much presided over by our Snorro Sturleson, so often quoted here, who indeed lost his life (by assassination from his sons-in-law) and out of great wealth sank at once into poverty of zero,--one midnight in his own cellar, in the course of that bad business. Hakon was a great Politician in his time; and succeeded in many things before he lost Largs. Snorro's death by murder had happened about twenty years before Hakon's by broken heart. He is called Hakon the Old, though one finds his age was but fifty-nine, probably a longish life for a Norway King. Snorro's narrative ceases when Snorro himself was born; that is to say, at the threshold of King Sverrir; of whose exploits and doubtful birth it is guessed by some that Snorro willingly forbore to speak in the hearing of such a Hakon.


Thomas Carlyle