About the Author

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Bruce Henderson is a computer engineer living in Southern California. With the help of his cousins he is researching the history of the Henderson family of southern Caithness. You can contact him at bruce@sigalarm.com

When Caithness Became Scottish

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Scotland was not always as we think of it today. In fact it was composed over centuries by consolidating multiple minor kingdoms and territories into a single unified state under a single king. Starting in the twelfth century, the Scottish kingdom came increasingly under Norman influence.

During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the Scottish crown and the Norwegian Earls of Orkney somewhat shared the rule of Caithness and Sutherland, while Norway exclusive rule of Orkney. During this period, the tribal confederation that would become the Gunn clan controlled a significant portion of the land in Caithness and northern Sutherland, and in many regards functioned as the government for the territory due to their cohesion, wide land holdings and generally fair minded approach to rule.

It is quite likely these early Gunns maintained close ties to their kin and friends in Orkney, and members of the Norse families may have even kept ties with Norway. Across Gunn controlled areas, the people spoke a mix of Gaelic and Norn, a form of norse language that had been regionally adapted. They would have paid taxes to the Norwegian Jarl in Kirkwall, and would have attended churches organized under the Orcadian bishop.

During the thirteenth century, the Scottish kings, seeking to consolidate their kingdom, repeatedly offered to purchase Scottish territory that was under Norwegian rule. This included the western Hebrides islands, the Kintyre peninsula and the Isle of Man. The Norwegian crown held no interest in giving up these important lands, and repeatedly refused these offers. With the ascension of Scottish king Alexander III, Scotland gave up on purchase and used force to make their point. In the summer of 1262, Scottish forces began raiding the islands, beginning with Skye.

Outraged by this provocation, Norwegian king Hakon IV assembled a massive fleet of longships to drive the Scottish back and reclaim their lands. His battle fleet first sailed to Orkney, where they were no doubt reinforced by Caithness and Orkney fighters and additional warships. The sight of over 100 warships, crewed by battle hardened Viking raiders and skirmishers, sent a clear signal to Alexander III – we will not give you that which is rightfully ours. Upon reaching the west coast of Scotland, Hakon’s fleet anchored near the Isle of Arran, where they were joined by allies from Skye, Islay, Jura, Mull and Man.

Impressed with this show of force, King Alexander III dispatched an envoy to discuss terms with King Hakon, while the Scottish king marshaled his forces to repel the Norsemen by force. Due to the Scottish crown’s long and fruitful relationship with the Norman French, this force had at it’s core units of heavily armored and well trained vassal knights and heavy infantry. Upon arriving at the anchored fleet off the west coast of Scotland, the envoy complimented Hakon, and once again repeated Scotland’s offer to buy the lands he controlled in Scotland.

While discussions between the envoy and Hakon continued, the Scottish king moved his forces, including a core of heavily armored Norman calvary and foot-soldiers to Largs, where the Norwegian force was anchored in a storm. While a small Norse party was ashore to rescue a stranded ship, they were attacked by the Scottish forces. The norsemen were outnumbered 10 to 1, and a storm kept the bulk of Hakon’s forces aboard their ships anchored off shore.

Stalemated by the large, heavily armored force on the shore and the approaching winter, Hakon decided to withdraw his forces to Orkney to await the spring. Unfortunately for the Norse, King Hakon died in Orkney that winter, and his successor, King Magnus VI, decided to accept Scotland’s offer to sell the disputed territory.

In the treaty of Perth, Scotland gained solid control over all lands to the north of England, while ceding claims to Shetland and Orkney. As a result, Sutherland and Caithness changed hands from Norwegian to Scottish rule.

Scotland would have a difficult and rocky road to bring the Viking north to accept and follow their rule. With the Gunn clan / syndicate as the functional government, Scotland would have to deal with them or conquer them to make any progress. This reality would give rise to tensions as Scotland tried and failed to implement feudalism in their new territory in the coming decades, which would eventually drive the crown and their appointed Norman Earls to actively break up the Gunn territory and clan cohesion, eventually leading to a final conflict with the Anglo / Norman Keiths.

While at first there was little dramatic change for the robust and prosperous Gunns of Caithness, the wind of change was blowing, and not in their favor.

1 comment to When Caithness Became Scottish

  • Thank you so much for this information. My mother was from Scotland, but when I recently had my DNA tested via Ancestry.com, the results did not show anything Scottish! The largest component was Scandinavian, which was a surprise. However, I do have a lot of ancestors from Caithness and Orkney, including some Gunns and Sinclairs, so I am now trying to learn more of the history of the region to help me understand the connection with Norway. This is a great site you have put together! Thanks again.

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