Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 5

William the Lion died [at Stirling, in December 1214], and was succeeded by his son, Alexander II, a youth in years, but remarkable for prudence and for firmness. In his days there was some war with England, as he espoused the cause of the disaffected barons, against King John. But no disastrous consequences having arisen, the peace betwixt the two kingdoms was so effectually restored, that Henry III, of England, having occasion to visit his French dominions, committed the care of the northern frontiers of his kingdom to Alexander of Scotland, the prince who was most likely to have seized the opportunity of disturbing them. Alexander II repaid with fidelity the great and honourable trust which his brother sovereign had reposed in him.

Relieved from the cares of an English war, Alexander endeavoured to civilize the savage manners of his own people. These were disorderly to a great degree.

For example, one Adam, Bishop of Caithness, proved extremely rigorous in enforcing the demand of tithes — the tenth part, that is, of the produce of the ground, which the church claimed for support of the clergy. The people of Caithness assembled to consider what should be done in this dilemma, when one of them exclaimed, “Short rede, good rede, slay we the bishop!” which means, “Few words are best, let us kill the bishop.” They ran instantly to the bishop’s house, assaulted it with fury, set it on fire, and burned the prelate alive in his own palace. [A.D. 1222.] While this tragedy was going on, some of the bishop’s servants applied for protection for their master to the Earl of Orkney and Caithness. This nobleman, who probably favoured the conspiracy, answered hypocritically, that the bishop had only to come to him, and he would assure him of protection; — as if it had been possible for the unhappy bishop to escape from his blazing palace, and through his raging enemies, and to make his way to the earl’s residence.

The tidings of this cruel action were brought to Alexander II, when he was upon a journey towards England. He immediately turned back, marched into Caithness with an army, and put to death four hundred of those who had been concerned in the murder of the bishop. The hard-hearted earl was soon afterwards slain, and his castle burned, in revenge of that odious crime. By the prompt administration of justice, Alexander both became obeyed and dreaded. He was a sovereign of considerable power, beloved both by English and Scots. He had a brave and not ill-disciplined army; but his cavalry, which amounted only to a thousand spears, were not very well mounted, and bore no proportion to one hundred thousand of infantry, strong, good, and resolute men.

ALEXANDER III, then only in his eighth year, succeeded to his father in 1249. Yet, when only two years older, he went to York to meet with the English King, and to marry his daughter, the Princess Margaret. On this occasion Henry endeavoured to revive the old claim of homage, which he insisted should be rendered to him by the boy-bridegroom for all his dominions. Alexander answered, with wisdom beyond his years, that he was come to marry the Princess of England, and not to treat of affairs of state; and that he could not, and would not, enter upon the subject proposed, without advice of his Parliament. Upon another occasion, when visiting his father-in-law at London, Alexander made it a condition of his journey, that he should not be called upon to discuss any state affairs. In this, and on other occasions, Alexander showed great willingness to be on good terms with England, qualified by a sincere resolution that he would not sacrifice any part of the rights and independence of his own dominions.

In the days of Alexander III Scotland was threatened with a great danger, from the invasion of the Danes and the Norwegians. I have told you before, that these northern people were at this time wont to scour the seas with their vessels, and to make descents and conquests where it suited them to settle. England had been at one time conquered by them, and France had been compelled to yield up to them the fine provinces which, after their name, were called Normandy. The Scots, whose country was at once poor and mountainous, had hitherto held these rovers at defiance. But in the year 1263, Haco, King of Norway, at the head of a powerful fleet and army, came to invade and conquer the kingdom of Scotland. Alexander, on his part, lost no time in assembling a great army, and preparing for the defence of the country, in which he was zealously seconded by most of his nobles. They were not all, however, equally faithful, some of them had encouraged the attempt of the invaders, On the 1st October, 1263, Haco, having arrived on the western coast, commenced hostilities by making himself master of the Islands of Bute and Arran, lying in the mouth of the frith of Clyde, and then appeared with his great navy off the village of Largs, in Cunninghame. The Scots were in arms to defend the shore, but Haco disembarked a great part of his troops, and obtained some advantages over them. On the next day, more Scottish troops having come up, the battle was renewed with great fury. Alexander, fighting in person at the head of his troops, was wounded in the face by an arrow. Alexander, the Steward, a high officer in the Scottish court was killed. But the Danes lost the nephew of their King, one of the most renowned champions in their host. While the battle was still raging on shore, a furious tempest arose, which drove the ships of the Danes and Norwegians from their anchorage; many were shipwrecked on the coast, and the crews were destroyed by the Scots, when they attempted to get upon land. The soldiers, who had been disembarked, lost courage, and retired before the Scots, who were hourly reinforced by their countrymen, coming from all quarters. It was with the utmost difficulty that Haco got the remnant of his scattered forces on board of such vessels as remained. He retired to the Orkney islands, and there died, full of shame and sorrow for the loss of his army, and the inglorious conclusion of his formidable invasion. The consequence of this victory was, that the King of the island of Man, who had been tributary to Haco, now submitted himself to the King of Scotland; and negotiations took place betwixt Alexander III and Magnus, who had succeeded Haco in the throne of Norway, by which the latter resigned to the King of Scotland (1266) all right to the islands on the western side of Scotland, called the Hebrides.

The traces of the battle of Largs, a victory of so much consequence to Scotland, are still to be found on the shores where the action was fought. There are visible great rocks and heaps of stones, beneath which lie interred the remains of the slain. Human bones are found in great quantities, and also warlike weapons, particularly axes, and swords, which being made of brass, remain longer unconsumed than if they had been of iron or steel like those now used.

Thus you see, Master Littlejohn, that down to the period of which we speak, Scotland had been a powerful and victorious nation, maintaining a more equal rank with England than could have been expected from the different size and strength of the two kingdoms, and repelling by force of arms those Northern people who had so long been the terror of Europe.


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