‘The War Hollow’

Viking influence in the Celtic lands goes back to the very beginning of the Viking Age, when bold and brave men from Scandinavia decided to make the perilous journey across the seas to take what treasures they could from the British Isles. One of the boldest of these Viking raiders was Magnus Olaffson (Magnús Óláfsson), better known as Magnus Barelegs or Barefoot, the king of Norway from 1093 until his death in 1103. His aggressive military campaigns during his kingship would leave his mark on the Celtic countries of Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Wales.

The War Hollow – an area in the East Strand sand hills now part of Royal Portrush Golf Course – was allegedly the scene of a battle between raiding Norsemen and local Irish tribes (Ulaid) in the 12th century. There is plenty of detail of the battle, including a long epic poem, however, here is a brief outline of the encounter.

In 1093 Magnus, set off on an expedition which took him to the Orkneys, Hebrides and Western Isles of Scotland. The holy isle of Iona was sacked, many of the monks being put to death.

Around 1103 – some accounts say it was the spring, others give the exact date of 24th August – Magnus’s longships anchored in the shelter of the Skerry Islands and men were put ashore to seize cattle.

Dunluce Castle was captured and the chieftain there made to promise to deliver 300 cattle within three days. The Norsemen then marched inland in search of plunder. However, a great fire was lit on the summit of a hill to the south-east of Dunluce, summoning the fighting men of North Dalriada, and by the third day an army had been assembled around Dunluce. The Norsemen, meanwhile, had taken a great deal of booty and cattle from beyond the Bann and were bringing them to the seashore, apparently with great difficulty, the surrounding countryside being covered with woods and bogs in those days.

Reaching solid ground the raiders observed to the east a black moving mass which they assumed was the cattle they had been promised, but it was in fact the Ulaid. As they arrived at a small plain opposite to where their ships lay, they were ambushed from behind the sand hills.

During the battle, Magnus had a spear pierce his upper thighs, but was not killed until an axe-wielding Irishman struck a fatal blow to the king’s head. Magnus was the last Norwegian king to die in battle abroad. According to the Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles, Magnus was ‘buried near the Church of St Patrick, in Down’. The grave site is today marked with a runestone monument, erected in 2003 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of his death. It is believed that his soldiers are also buried in the area.

Photo: Dunluce Castle, Co Antrim

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