The Wayfarer - Vikings and Ayrshire history

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Scurrying around looking for tales to tell, we travel to north Ayrshire to the hospitable town of Largs, where we find the Vikings form a large part of its history. The Norwegian influence was strong around the west of Scotland and, in 1263, the elderly King Hakan IV sailed with a large fleet of 160 long ships down the coast to Ayr Castle to negotiate with King Alexander III the Norsemen’s tributary status over the Atlantic islands, the Hebrides. However, he was caught in a storm and sought shelter under the lee of the Cumbrae islands, west of Largs.

The following day he sent some of his ships to the mainland to retrieve goods from a merchant ship which had run aground. The Norsemen were met by the local militia under the guidance of Sir Piers Curry, who was fatally injured in driving off the invaders. It became known as the Battle of Largs but in reality was little more than a skirmish. It is reputed that King Hakan did not want a battle and withdrew his army when militants on both sides suffered casualties. Hakan was ill and died shortly afterwards and all sovereignty over the west of Scotland was severed on payment of a suitable amount being made by Alexander III.

The Hebrides accepted Alexander as their king and the Viking influence was considerably lessened. So it was not a full-scale battle but the Scots did see off a strong army and due credit must be given to Sir Piers for his part. It is to their credit that the Norwegians were able to claim sovereignty over large parts of Scotland and her islands in those early years of navigation on long ships ill-equipped for passage over stormy seas. A long journey and often not knowing what you will find at the end of it.

The town of Largs is justly proud of its association with the Vikings and its stand in the independence of Scotland in the early years. The battle is commemorated by a tall round tower known as “The Pencil” just south of Largs which was erected in 1912. It seems to have taken the locals a long time and, no doubt, plenty of deliberation to come to a decision to commemorate this battle.

Mind you, in later years the town succumbed to the Italian influence and became famous for Nardini’s ice-cream, among other delicious treats which could be obtained in the family restaurant. I have often travelled to Largs with the thought of which flavour of ice-cream I would choose.

Kelburn estate, just south of Largs, boasts a fine seat for the Earl of Glasgow, the castle consisting of a tower house built in 1581 to which a splendid Queen Anne wing was added around 1700. The estate is owned by the Boyle family, of whom David Boyle was an important Scots statesman. He was created Lord Boyle in 1699 and became Earl of Glasgow in1703. The family fortune was at one time considerable but, despite that, the 6th Earl found himself £1 million in debt. Nowadays the grounds and castle are open to the public, with the grounds having many features to attract visitors. No doubt all this commercial enterprise was brought upon to clear the inherited debt, plus, of course, death duties. I wonder how death duties apply when you leave so much debt to your successors. Anyway, no doubt HMRC will have it all in hand.

Well, all this is very interesting and a fine tale to tell round the fireside on a winter’s evening. It seems to have taken the Scots some time to find their feet and send the Vikings packing and then to welcome the Italians whose ice-cream is much more acceptable than the Vikings’ arrows. I shall look for more tales to tell and am always open to suggestions.