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Every year a small town in western Scotland has a festival commemorating a battle that was never actually won. The Battle of Largs (1263) took place in the final year of King Haakon Haakonsson IV’s reign. King Alexander III of Scotland was trying to keep the Western Isles and Argyll free from Norwegian control, and King Haakon responded by sailing over with a large fleet. He met some resistance on the Firth of Clyde, but because of bad weather (a real shocker for Scotland) and disorganisation, the battle ended up being little more than an inconclusive skirmish. The Vikings went away, planning to come back again in better circumstances, and the Scots called it their heroic victory.
Despite the initial hostility between the Vikings and the Scots, the theme of the Largs Viking Festival is ‘from fighting to friendship’. Emphasis is put not only on the battle but also the peaceful relations that eventually formed between the enemies. As is explained in the informational video at Vikingar (an unusual kind of recreational centre that has a swimming pool as well as a ‘Viking experience’), some Norwegians already lived in Largs at the time of the battle and fought on the side of the Scots. The festival hosts both Viking and Scottish traditional villages, and its purpose is ‘to celebrate the Viking heritage in Largs’.
That said, the reenactment battle includes a ‘redo’ so that 750 years after the fact, the Scots can get their decisive heroic victory once and for all. However, the logo for the festival is a ship bearing Scottish and Norwegian flags side by side, and that is the atmosphere that prevails – the opportunity to learn about two distinct cultures that somewhere along the line became one.
Largs itself is a lovely seaside town, with ferries carrying people over to the Island of Cumbrae. Its tourism comes mainly from its proximity to Glasgow, making it ideal for a Scottish beach weekend, and, as one of the employees at Vikingar told us, Largs is better known now for its ice cream parlours than its historic battle. A stone tower of 70 feet (21 m) called ‘the Pencil’ (due to its shape) marks the traditional site of the battle, although it stands nowhere near the probable battle site. Vikings pop up everywhere around Largs – chip shops, toy stores, street names…there is even a Viking made of flowers just north of the festival site.
The festival itself was an amalgamation of local festival, carnival and medieval fair. Local artisans sold jewelry, confections and gifts, while kids enjoyed carnival rides and fun houses. Next to the educational historic villages were stalls selling Hollywood-style helmets with light-up horns. Food options included potato chips on sticks, hot dogs, paella and Mediterranean olives, and you could buy local ale straight from the brewer himself. ‘Owl Magic’, an RAF flyby and an accordion band were just a couple of the unlikely events on the programme. After the Battle of Largs reenactment, we were entertained by fire dancers, archers setting a Viking funeral ship alight with flaming arrows and a fireworks show.
One couple decided to get married at the festival, and the ceremony in town was followed by their participation in a Viking skirmish, during which the dowry was paid in cash by the non-historically-dressed, be-suited father of the bride in neat stacks of modern bank notes. When the husband decided to go exchange this ‘useless’ paper for hard silver, another Viking came by and decided to ‘steal’ the man’s wife, and a skirmish involving swords and axes ensued. (Fortunately for the newly-weds, the husband was handy with his medieval weaponry and the evil-doer was ‘slain’.)
The thing that makes this odd assortment of festivities memorable is the enthusiasm of the participants. Everyone there is passionate about the Viking roots of the town and the connection of history to modern day. The ‘medieval’ is becoming more and more commercial, and companies make big money from ‘jousting experiences’, chain-mail fancy dress and ‘medieval-style’ banquets. The Largs festival is not about commerce, despite its many stalls and vendors – it is about community. It’s people celebrating their passion for a past both romanticised and researched. As a postgrad in medieval studies, I know what a rare and wonderful thing it is to find other people who share a passion for your own obscure interests, and it is truly a thing worth celebrating.