King Alexander III and the Battle of Largs


The reign of Alexander III was, above all other things, a lengthy period of internal and external peace and of national hope. It was the foundation not only of the Kingdom of Scotland, but of the nation of Scotland that existed in fact until the Union of England and Scotland five centuries later and that, in a less definable form, exists in the hearts and minds of many Scots today.

There is a case to be made for the view that our history emerged from prehistory with the immortal words said to have come from Calgacus. You may say with truth that Christian Scotland established herself as a result of St. Columba's arrival at Iona, and you would be correct in claiming the foundation of Gaelic Scotland with Kenneth MacAlpine's victory over the Picts. It is also true that the modern nation of Scotland began with Alexander III. It is, moreover, highly doubtful whether that nation would have appeared so clearly and definably in the European scene had it not been for the wise and benevolent personality of Alexander.

Even as a boy Alexander resisted the wily attempts of King Henry III of England to induce him to pay homage for the Kingdom of Scotland. As a man of partly Norman blood, he was ready to pay homage for the lands he held in England; but Scotland was to be free and independent. Henry was insidious, but no man of action. His successor, Edward I of England, was most certainly a man of action, as he would prove after Alexander's death when he earned the name of the "Hammer of the Scots". Even Edward, however, was held firmly at bay by Alexander's policy.

It was not, at the beginning, a period of peace between Scotland and the powerful King of Norway. The Norse king maintained as the outposts of his empire all of the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides. This was an intolerable state of affairs that Alexander tried to settle by diplomacy. When diplomacy failed, the Norse King Haakon set sail, with the largest fleet that had ever left Norway, to settle the Hebridean question by attacking the Scottish mainand.

At the Battle of Largs, Alexander defeated the mighty Norse army by a notable blend of strategy and tactics. He lured Haakon's fleet far from its bases. He induced it to come up into the trap of the Firth of Clyde. He held off action until the inevitable equinoctial gales forced much of Haakon's fleet on the shore by Largs. He then forced the gallant but defeated old King Haakon back to sea, and back to his base in Orkney, where he died.

The Battle of Largs was an early and remarkable example of Scottish tactics and strategy - "get the enemy on your own ground in unfavourable conditions and tackle him where you want him to be. Never go out to meet him on his ground". This strategy was, as we shall see, to be renewed at Bannockburn.

After this decisive and resounding victory - in which little blood was wantonly shed - Alexander came to terms with Haakon's son and successor. The Hebrides was ceded to Alexander's kingdom. The result was that, with the exception of the Norse Isles of Orkney and Shetland, the Kingdom of Scotland assumed the shape which it was to hold for centuries.

Alexander III was known, even in his lifetime and by those who looked back on his reign after his death, as the "peaceable king". Certainly the benefits of peace began to show themselves, almost for the first time, since Scotland had become a recognised kingdom. No great cities or towns sprang up in this Celtic land but the burghs, where commerce and trade flourished, established themselves usually at points of geographical advantage. These burghs, which are still an integral part of Scotland's life, could never have flourished in a period of internal or external strife. As begun under David I architecture in church, cathedral, and monastic building flourished. Literature, from some small gleams that survive, showed that the arts were to benefit by this reign of peace.

Peaceable though he was, King Alexander was firm not only in his relations with foreign potentates and ecclesiastics, but with magnates of his own realm. He understood that the internal strife of ambitious nobles was one of Scotland's endemic evils. He enforced order among them without bloodshed. Nor would he suffer the common people to be idle and disputatious. More and more land came under cultivation. "If a man owned but a single ox, ... the law bade him take land and plough it". Alexander believed that the Scots should "cultivate their own gardens". He had no lust for foreign conquests and he discouraged this among his people.

The greatest result of this peaceable yet firm reign was an attitude of mind among the varying peoples of Alexander's kingdom. It was, for the future of Scotland the nation, a most important attitude of mind. For the first time the Norman baron, the bishop who knew more Latin and French than English, the English speaking (now termed Old Scots speaking), traders of Fife and Lothian, the Gaelic speaking herdsman from the hills, began to look upon themselves as Scotsmen .... they were no longer a collection of odds and ends; they had become a nation.

At the centre of this nation was King Alexander III. All was set fair - and then suddenly, as so often happens in the affairs of men, particularly in Scotland, disaster struck.

Three of Alexander's children died in youth. The Prince and heir had married without issue. The Princess Margaret, who had married into the Royal House of Norway, left behind her only one baby girl. This frail link in the royal line of Alexander was at her father's court over the seas in Norway. The succession was in peril, but all was not yet lost. Still in his mid-forties the widowed Alexander married Joleta, daughter of the French Count of Dreux.

On the 19th March 1286, Alexander attended a relatively unimportant council in the "Castle of Maidens" (now Edinburgh castle). At the end of the council, despite the urgent entreaties of his nobles and counsellors, he suddenly set out in the tempest and the black night to visit his newly married Queen across the Firth of Forth at Dunfermline in the Royal Palace.

Alexander, with three attendants, came down from the castle and set out on his journey across the raging Firth of Forth. Ignoring the warnings of the ferry master the journey commenced and the party fought to cross the torrent. Against the odds the party reached shore safely and Alexander, now separated from his attendants set off on horseback to the palace where his Queen lay. He did not reach her. In the storm his horse stumbled and he fell by the sea shore where, in the following morning, his attendants found him dead.

The eve of Scotland's greatest disaster had begun.



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Last updated April 1999