North Ayrshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’
I am Brian Wilkinson and I work at RCAHMS as the Activity Officer for the Britain from Above project. This is a Heritage Lottery Funded partnership project run jointly with English Heritage and RCAHMW, and I am responsible for engaging audiences with the Aerofilms collection, some of the earliest commercial aerial photographs of the British Isles. The image I have chosen is from North Ayrshire and Arran, and is an Aerofilms photograph taken in 1947. It shows Holy Island laying across the mouth of Lamlash Bay with the Isle of Arran in the background. My wife’s family has strong connections to Arran and it’s a spectacular island that I’ve visited often.
Holy Island, general view, showing Inner Lighthouse and Mullach Mor. Oblique aerial photograph taken facing north. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1268773)
Holy Island affords Lamlash Bay protection from the worst of the elements. The sheltered bay is a natural harbour and has been used as an anchorage throughout history; during the two World Wars it accommodated the Royal Navy Home Fleet and mthe Atlantic Fleet. It was also the testing area for the ‘Lily’ floating airfield towards the end of WW2. Its strategic qualities were recognised even further back in time. It played a role in the last Norse invasion of Scotland in 1263, which culminated in the Battle of Largs on the North Ayrshire coast. The Norwegian king was the overlord of the Hebrides and Islands in the Clyde, these having been settled by the Norse from the 9th century onwards.
Battle of Largs Monument. View from W. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1111416)
During the 13th century the Scottish kings started to flex their muscles and sought to extend their domain over the Isles. This led to the Norwegian King Hakon leading an invasion to forcibly protect his claim. The Saga of King Hakon Hakonsson records the Norse fleet sheltering in Lamlash Bay while negotiations between the two sides took place. These broke down and the Norsemen went marauding along the Clyde, even sailing up Loch Long and portaging their ships across the isthmus at Arrochar to go raiding in Loch Lomond. Events came to a head when several of the Norse’ ships were blown ashore at Largs during a storm, leading to a skirmish between the two sides. This minor conflict is remembered as the Battle of Largs, and although the Norse may have won the day they lost the war, as Hakon died on his return voyage to Norway and control of the Hebrides was ceded to the Scots just three years after the battle. A monument to this Scottish victory in the form of a tower (known locally as “The Pencil”) was erected in Largs in 1912.
St Molaise’s Cave, Holy Island, Arran. View of cave and interior. Copyright RCAHMS (SC408038)
There is some surviving evidence of Norse visitors, and perhaps even these events, still recorded within the landscape around Lamlash Bay. St Molaise’s Cave on Holy Island is traditionally the hermitage of a sixth century saint and may have been a place of pilgrimage. The roof and sides of the cave are covered in many inscribed crosses and runic inscriptions dating from the 11th to 12th century. One of these reads “Vigleikr the marshal carved”, and the saga records a certain Vigleik Priestson as one of the captains of the Norse fleet.
Scanned image of drawing showing detail of runic inscription VIII in St Molaise’s Cave, Holy Island, Arran Page 64, figure A of ‘Gazetteer of Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands’. Copyright RCAHMS (SC580820)
These were not the first of the Norse to have visited these parts either. At Kingscross Point, jutting out at the left of the photograph, are the remains of a viking burial
, which contained a coin dating from the ninth century as well as burnt human bone and boat rivets, perhaps indicating a Viking Period cremation. So it’s a very interesting region where both the start of the Viking Period in Scotland and the end of Norse overlordship of the Isles can be evidenced, both through archaeology and the historic record. This Norse heritage is still celebrated by communities on the Clyde, from the Arran Viking Longship Society
, the Largs Viking Festival
, and the Hidden Heritage Project.
This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.