GDWS Open Days 2011
Somerled’s Last Stand 1164
Somerled, King of Argyll and Lord of the Isles died at the Battle of Bargarran (sometimes called Knock or Inchinnan) in 1164. His Islesmen, Manx and Irish allies were defeated by a Norman/Scots army led by the High Steward, Walter Fitz-Alan. We actually know very little about the battle or the forces involved, so this wargame is somewhat conjectural.
Somerled was born around 1100 the son of Gilliebride who was exiled in Ireland from his lands in Morvern. There is much debate about his antecedence, with some arguing for a Viking link, and others an Irish or Scots heritage. From about 1130, Somerled led a brilliant campaign to recapture Argyll from the Norse and eventually became King of Argyll. This was a largely independent entity from the lands controlled by the King of Scots during this period.
He married the daughter of the King of Man and was embroiled in the succession conflicts, including two major sea battles in 1156 and 1158. By 1160, Somerled controlled a Gaelic-Norse kingdom that covered much of the western seaboard from the Isle of Man up to the Butt of Lewis. Whilst his Kingdom was split up among his sons after his death, the Lordship of the Isles was not fully incorporated into Scotland until the 15th Century. Prince Charles holds the current title. In 2005 an Oxford University study concluded that Somerled has possibly 500,000 living descendants, making him the second most common currently known ancestor after Genghis Khan. These include a quarter of Macdonalds, a third of McDougalls, and 40 percent of MacAlisters as direct paternal descendents of Somerled.
Mainland Scotland during this period was also changing. David I, brought up in post-conquest Norman England, made sweeping changes to the social and political order. He introduced feudalism with large numbers of knights as well as endowing monasteries and generally strengthening the position of the Catholic Church. He appears to have had a working relationship with Somerled, possibly including his participation in the Battle of the Standard in 1138, but this broke down after David’s death.
It is believed that after David’s death Somerled became concerned over the growing power of the Stewards of Renfrew (later the Stewarts) and other Anglo-Norman lords in the West of Scotland. He organised a punitive expedition with Manx and Irish allies on their lands in the lower Clyde. He landed somewhere near Renfrew where the Steward had a castle and the Bishop of Glasgow had lands. The Scots army would probably consist of Anglo-Norman troops and mercenaries plus more traditional Scots led by local Thanes.
We know virtually nothing about the site or the battle itself other than the ground was marshy to negate the power of the mounted knights. Somerled either died in the battle or was assassinated the night before. Either way; the Islesmen fled to their boats. The victory is commemorated in a poem by a Glaswegian cleric, the Song on the Death of Somerled, which ascribed the victory to the power of St Kentigern.
Our re-fight of the battle uses 28mm figures from a variety of figure ranges. The rules are Warhammer Ancient Battles (Version 2).
A good modern history is Somerled: Hammer of the Norse by Kathleen MacPhee. A broader history is Kingdom of the Isles 1100-1336 by Andrew McDonald and for mainland Scotland, Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000-1306 by G.Harrow. Nigel Tranter’s fictional account Lord of the Isles is a great read.