Alexander III.—The Taming of the Ravens
For many years the islands which lie around Scotland had been in the power of the Norsemen, these wild sea kings who came sailing over from Norway.
Now Alexander made up his mind to drive these Norsemen out of the islands and rule them himself. For he saw how dangerous it was to allow these fierce strangers to live so near his own kingdom. They were always ready to help rebels against the King of Scots, and the Kings of England were always sure of their help when they wished to fight with Scotland.
So Alexander gathered an army of soldiers, and sent them in ships to these islands. There was much fierce and cruel fighting, but at last all the Norse nobles, who would not own the King of Scotland as over-lord instead of the King of Norway, were either killed or driven away.
Those who were driven away, sailed back to Norway, in hot anger, to beg help from Haco their King.
Haco, when he heard what Alexander had done, was very wrathful, and he gathered a great army, resolved to avenge his people. He had about one hundred and sixty ships. They were nearly all large, and they were crowded with soldiers and strong men of war.
Haco's own ship was very splendid. It was built of oak and was beautifully carved with dragons, and was painted and gilded. From the mast-head floated his standard, embroidered with a raven with out-spread wings. From this standard these fierce sea-kings were known as the Ravens.
As this mighty fleet came floating onward it looked very gay and splendid. Flags fluttered in the breeze, the summer sun shone on the coats of the knights and made their weapons and armour glitter. Never before had such a fleet sailed against Scotland.
On they came, right round the north of the island, and down the west coast until they sailed up the Firth of Clyde.
When Alexander saw what a number of ships there were, he knew he could not hope to defeat them unless he had time to gather more soldiers. So when the ships sailed up the Firth of Clyde he sent some monks with bare feet and heads, to ask Haco upon what terms he would make peace.
Haco was glad to think that Alexander wished to make peace, so he sent some of his chief men to talk to him. The King received these men kindly, but he kept them waiting for a few days before he returned an answer to King Haco. And so as time went on, Alexander caused delay after delay, for he had no intention of making peace. He only wanted to put off time. He knew that every day was precious. He knew that the longer he put off fighting, the longer he had in which to gather troops, and as the summer passed there was always greater and greater chance that storms would arise and wreck Haco's ships.
Soon the Norsemen had eaten up all the food which they had brought with them. They had no means of getting more unless they landed and attacked the Scots. So the captains urged Haco to battle. By this time, too, the fine weather had gone. The sky grew grey, and the wind blew cold, and at last one night a fierce storm arose. The waves dashed high, the wind shrieked and howled, and many of Haco's ships, driven hither and thither in the darkness, were broken to pieces upon the rocky shore.
So fierce was this storm that the Norsemen thought it had been caused by the enchantments of some witch, and that made them more afraid than they would otherwise have been.
The Scots were ready, and watching for some such disaster to happen, and soon bonfires were lit all along the coast, which carried far inland the news of the wreck of Haco's fleet. So, as the ships were dashed by the waves upon the shore, armed peasants rushed down from the heights above, eager to kill and to plunder.
In the morning, Haco resolved to land the rest of his men, and to fight as best he might. When he did so, he found a great army of Scots, led by their King, waiting for him.
Among the Scots were some very splendid horsemen, both men and horses clad in steel, and so fiercely did they charge, that it seemed as if they would drive the Norsemen into the sea.
But the Norsemen were strong and brave, and unused to yielding, and although some fled, many stood their ground. These formed themselves into a ring, and standing back to back, their long spears made an unbroken, bristling fence, upon which the Scottish horse threw themselves again and again in vain. Hour after hour the battle raged around the circle of spears. Step by step, the Norsemen were forced backward towards the sea, but still the bristling fence remained unbroken. Great deeds of valour were done on either side, and many a brave knight fell. And all the time the storm raged, the roar of the waves, the shriek of the wind, were mingled with the clash and clang of sword and armour, and the cries of the wounded and the dying.
At last night fell and the fighting ceased. In the darkness the Norsemen fled to their boats. When morning broke, they looked with sorrow and despair towards the shore where their brave comrades lay dead. So many had been drowned during the storm, so many had been killed in battle, that there were not enough left to fight any more. Haco, therefore, sent a message to King Alexander, begging for peace, and for leave to bury the dead.
This Alexander granted, and having gathered their dead, and buried them in great trenches, with piled stones upon them, the Norsemen sailed away in their battered, half-wrecked ships, never again to return. But Haco got no farther than the island of Orkney. There, overcome by grief and shame at his defeat, he died, and never more saw his native land.
This battle was called the Battle of Largs, and was fought on the 15th of December 1263 a.d. By it the pride of the Norsemen was broken. Of all the islands of Scotland only Orkney and Shetland remained to them. The Ravens were tamed.