The Vikings in the Western Isles – part three
By Jim Henderson
In part three of Jim Henderson’s history, we learn more about the use of the Birlin ships that was based on the Viking longship design, and also about the continuing battles for dominance in the western Isles between the Scots and the Norse invaders. Featured image shows a carving of a Birlin.
The ‘Birlin’ was a ship designed by Somerled based on the Viking longship. The Scottish design was a small galley with sail and 12 to 18 oars. At the stern the craft had a central mounted rudder held by a metal pin (design still in use to this day).The Central rudder made the smaller ‘Birlin’ much easier and quicker to navigate, especially in shallow waters. Its size and weight also made it simple for the crew to transport over land.
Around 1157 Somerled defeated the Kingdom of Man and the Isles. He kept a fleet at ‘Lagavulin’ and improved on the design and capabilities of the ‘Birlin’ The Scots used the ‘Birlin’ widely for a period of over 400 years to communicate between the Isles, the mainland of Scotland and Ireland transporting troops, cargo and, occasionally, for war.
The ‘Birlin’ is known to have travelled much of the length of the Irish Sea and voyaged to Rockall, Brittany, Northern Norway, Iceland and Greenland. In the 13th And 14th century the ‘Birlin’ featured in the exploits of Robert De Bruce, when he fled from mainland Scotland and landed in Arran as he attempted to regain the Scottish Throne.
In 1350 when Robert 11’s daughter, Princess Margaret Stewart married John of Islay Lord of the Isles one Hundred and eight ‘Birlins’ and Longships loaded with Chiefs of the clans, kinsfolk and clansmen sailed from all parts of the Scottish West coast to attend the wedding. Such was the interest, it attracted many sightseers to what was the largest gathering of ‘Birlins’ seen together in peacetime.
In 1411 many ‘Birlin’ featured at the Battle of Harlaw on the East Coast a few miles inland from Aberdeen. They were used to transport soldiers, supplies and equipment for Domhnall Lord of the Isles against Alexander Stewart Earl of Mar. Both sides claimed victory but it brought an end to the dominance of Lord of the Isles.
By 1158 the Viking Goraidh had to flee from Man back to Norway and Somerled was in control of the Isle of Man and the Western Isles all the way to the Butt of Lewis. In 1164 he was assassinated at Renfrew as he led his followers in battle.
[In 2005 a study of Human Genetics led to the conclusion that Somerled had 500,000 and rising living descendants. The only other person with a higher figure was Genghis Khan].
Around 1193 the Vikings set out to regain the Western Isles, repeating on several occasions, on a large scale, the worst aspects of a Viking raid, plundering, raping women and destroying settlements.
To escape the wrath of the Vikings the inhabitants of the Western Isles fled to mainland Scotland, Kintyre and Ireland. However, the Vikings pursued the trail and children, women folk and any survivors of Gatri (Kintyre) were put to the sword.
The Scots retaliated and, as time went on, aggravated King Haakon 111 whose western empire was crumbling. In 1228 Ospak was despatched from Norway with a fleet to restore the power of Norway allying with Husbac the King of Southern Hebrides and Olaf King of Man.
The Isles gave little resistance and Ospak’s fleet had grown to 80 Longboats by the time they sailed south to Islay heading for the Clyde and Bute and attacking the Burg fortress at Rothesay. On regaining control, the fleet left the Clyde heading for Man to winter, when Ospak took ill and died. The following Spring the fleet returned North, raiding Kintyre and the Isles for supplies on route to the Northern Hebrides gaining much acclaim from Haakon for their exploits.
Alexander 11 (1214-1249) King of Alba attempted to strike a bargain with Haakon offering him a large sum of money to relinquish his control of the Western Isles, which he refused in no uncertain manner.
[Alexander, aged 13 was knighted in 1212 by King John of England and inherited the title from his father William 1 at the age of 16. Within 3 years despite his youth he quelled a revolt and brought Argyle under the control of the Scottish Crown.
In 1237 Alexander concluded a treaty of York with Henry 111 defining the boundary of England and Scotland between the Solway and Berwick upon Tweed, much as it is today.]
Around 1248 Alexander 11 started making moves to regain control of the Hebrides from Norway and when negotiations failed Alexander began attempts to persuade Ewan, son of Duncan, Lord of Argyle to sever his allegiance to Haakon of Norway,with no success.
Regardless, Alexander assembled a fleet and sailed for the Inner Hebrides to take Skye and force Ewan to accept his intentions. However, on reaching the Isle of Kerrera, located between Oban and Mull he caught a fever and died in 1249. His remains were taken to Melrose Abbey and his son inherited the Kingdom at the age of eight.
Alexander 111 King of Scotland (1249- 1286)
Alexander, who was the last of the Gaelic Kings, set out to surpass his father’s attempts in regaining control of the Islands in the Spring of 1263. This action and response by the Norse began the conclusion of the Norwegian dominance in the Scottish Isles and Man.
The Viking period left its mark on the Isle of Man, with their 3 legged motif and the High Court of ‘Tynwald’ the oldest continuous working parliament in the world, established in 979 AD The Isle of Man became independent in 1866.
1266 Treaty of Perth brought Man under Scottish rule.
1399 Ruled by the English Crown
1765 Crown revestment act
1866 Man became Crown dependant, offering the Island democratic self-government.
The Lord of Man historically is the Crown of the United Kingdom- Queen Elizabeth 11.
Population of Man today is around 84,000.
To be continued in part 4, where we hear how Scottish fleets sheltered in Lamlash Bay before the famous Battle of Largs in 1263.