As promised, a sample chapter from Scottish Military Disasters. I first became aware of this battle at a bus stop in Norway. My Norwegian language skills were almost non-existent but there seemed to be a road sign announcing "This Way to Dead Scottish People". Sadly, I had a bus to catch and didn't have time to go where the sign was pointing. But a little research back in Scotland quickly solved the mystery.
The ambush and massacre of a party of Scottish mercenaries in 1612 proved a key historical event for Norwegian nationalists trying to foster an independence movement from Sweden in the early 17th century. The myth-makers fastened onto the so-called Battle of Kringen as an example of gallant Norwegians banding together to repel a foreign foe. The fact that many of the 116 Scots murdered after the ambush had been virtually kidnapped and forced into mercenary service appears to have been conveniently forgotten.
But what were the Scots doing in Norway in 1612 anyway?
The answer lies in a power battle for control of the reputed mineral wealth of sparsely populated northern Norway and the rich fishing grounds off its shores. Norway was ruled at the time by Denmark, but Sweden claimed ownership of the northern part of the country. Even if the reports of mineral wealth proved false, the tolls levied on English and Dutch fishing boats operating off the North Cape would provide much needed income to whoever controlled the area. Russia was also making ownership claims in the region.
The dispute between Denmark and Sweden boiled over into open warfare in 1611 and only ended with a Danish victory in 1613.
Mercenaries were a major part of any European king’s army in those days and the war between Denmark and Sweden proved no exception. Amsterdam was the main mercenary recruiting base for northern Europe and that is where the Swedes headed looking for soldiers. Scotland was always a reliable source of mercenaries and there were several Scots based in Amsterdam who were prepared to provide soldiers of fortune to anyone for the right money. One of them, Sir James Spens, quickly recruited a force of 3,000 men for the Swedes and landed them at Gothenburg in April 1612; but the mercenaries were captured when the city and its fortress fell to the Danes shortly afterwards.
However, there were plenty more Scots available to fight for the Swedes. Scotland was a poor nation and the lawless Borders and Highlands were both areas of almost continual fighting; there were many Scots around who knew how to handle a sword or firearm. This time the recruiting was put in the hands of veteran mercenaries Jan Van Monkhoven and Andrew Ramsay. Half the new force was to be recruited in mainland Europe by Van Monkhoven while Ramsay brought the remainder across from Scotland. But it was not only the Swedes who had agents in Amsterdam; the Danes were watching Ramsay closely and intercepted him almost as soon as he set sail for Scotland. The Scot was forced to promise he would forget all about his contract with the Swedes before the Danes released him.
Ramsay gave his word, but he did not intend to keep it. As soon as he got back to Scotland he began recruiting. He had men scouring the country and he did not care where his soldiers came from or whether they were volunteers or not. There were complaints lodged with the Scottish authorities that Ramsay’s men had been taking ‘honest men’s bairns and servants’ and keeping them as ‘slaves and captives’. The jails at Dunbar and Edinburgh were visited by the mercenary recruiters, who told the men that agreeing to serve King Charles IX of Sweden would mean freedom after the fighting was over.
Ramsay shrugged off all attempts by the Scottish authorities to intervene in his recruiting drive by claiming it was backed by James I and the royal court in London. No-one seems to have wondered why the king, who as James VI of Scotland had inherited the English crown in 1603, would be backing the Swedes against his brother-in-law King Christian IV of Denmark.
It is possible that James, who was a great admirer of Ramsay’s, turned a blind eye to the recruitment drive until he was forced to act by official complaints about it from the Danes. James then told the Scottish Privy Council, which ran the country on his behalf, to halt the recruiting drive and arrest Ramsay. He claimed to be baffled to find his privy councillors had allowed the recruitment drive and put their lack of action down to incompetence.
Ramsay had meanwhile gone on the run, but he was captured after coming out of hiding to challenge Sir Robert Ker, the man he believed had betrayed his scheme to James, to a duel; Ramsay got off with banishment. Several ships containing Ramsay’s mercenaries that had been anchored in the Firth of Forth were ordered to put their human cargo back ashore. However, the Privy Council failed to do anything about a shipload of mercenaries which was allowed to sail out of Dundee under the command of Ramsay’s brother Alexander.
It rendezvoused with a ship containing a party of hardened mercenaries recruited in Caithness by George Sinclair, a nephew of the 5th Earl of Caithness. The two ships arrived in a fjord near Romsdal in Norway on 19 August, where they landed a force of about 300 Scots for a cross-country march to Sweden. The loss of the Elfsborg fortress at Gothenburg had closed off sea access to Sweden for the Scots, but the mercenary leaders did not anticipate that the march was dangerous because the Norwegians were believed to be lukewarm in their support for the Danes.
The 100 or so men who sailed from Dundee were put at the head of the column and treated more like prisoners than comrades in arms by Sinclair’s men. The Dundee men likely included many of the ‘bairns and servants’ forced to become mercenaries by Ramsay’s recruiters. The march got off to a bad start when the guide the Scots recruited, local farmer Peder Klognaes, managed to add a gruelling 14 extra miles to the route on the first day; his navigation got better after he was dangled by his heels off a bridge by a party of angry mercenaries.
The mercenaries had misread the temper and loyalty of the Norwegians. As the Scots marched on, a steadily growing force of Norwegian peasant militia was retreating ahead of them. Several votes were taken over the days following the Scots landing on whether to fight the invaders, but on each occasion the majority opinion was in favour of continued retreat. On the seventh day, when the Scots were over 150 miles into their march, it was decided the time had come for a showdown.
An ambush site was selected near the town of Kringen, where steep wooded cliffs reduced the road alongside the fast running River Laugen to a single-file track. The Norwegian commander, local magistrate Lauritz Hage, had about 400 men under his command by the time it was decided to fight. Many Norwegians had drifted away after the Scots marched past their communities and left them unmolested, but they were replaced by fresh militiamen from settlements further east.
Boulders were piled up on the cliffs ready to be rolled down onto the road when the right time came. The plan was to use the boulders to close both ends of the narrow pass and then unleash a second avalanche onto the Scots trapped below. The Norwegians allowed the poorly armed Dundee contingent through the pass before springing the ambush. Local legend has it that the signal that the Scots were approaching the trap was given by a local girl called Prillar Guri on her lur horn.
Some Norwegians opened fire with their muskets before the rocks came tumbling down on the Scots. The marksmen were too far away to hit the Scots and they responded with contemptuous jeers and catcalls. The firing may have distracted the Scots long enough to stop them spotting the rocks poised to come down on top of them until it was too late. Once Sinclair and his men were strung out along the narrow track beside the river, the rocks were unleashed and their escape was blocked. More rocks were now rolled down on the Scots and Norwegian marksmen began shooting again.
A militiaman called Berdon Sejelstad had equipped himself with a silver bullet specially to kill Sinclair, who was widely believed by the Norwegians to be an agent of Satan. Sejelstad did not miss and Sinclair was one of the first Scots killed. His wife and baby soon followed him. The baby was first to die and when a Norwegian tried to lead the distraught woman to safety, she stabbed him to death. The Norwegian’s comrades then shot Sinclair’s wife dead.
For almost 90 minutes the trapped Scots were pelted with rocks and shot at. Those who tried to swim the river were drowned or killed by Norwegian peasants lurking on the far bank. The Scots could make little reply because their firearms had been confiscated in Scotland and the Norwegians were smart enough to keep out of reach of their axes and swords. Still, the Scots managed to kill six Norwegians and wound a dozen more.
When the Norwegians finally called a halt to the slaughter, only 134 of the 300 Scots were still standing. Most of them were from the Dundee contingent which had surrendered early on without much of a fight.
Alexander Ramsay, as nominal head of the expedition, had been at the head of the column with the Dundee men and was taken prisoner along with another officer called Henry Bruce. Along with the mercenaries’ translator, James Moneypenny, and a servant called James Scott, the two officers were sent away for questioning by the Danish authorities. The men downplayed their roles in the expedition and claimed Sinclair was their leader. They added they had no idea they were being asked to fight the Danes and said they believed they had been recruited for a war against Russia. Their excuses were accepted and all four were released.
A dozen or so of the men they left behind at Kringen managed to save their lives by volunteering their services as mercenaries in the Danish army or agreeing to work on local farms. The Norwegians celebrated their victory with a night of partying at which it was agreed they would kill their remaining 116 prisoners. Two-by-two the Scots were led from the barn where they were being held captive and shot dead. When a Danish board of inquiry demanded to know the reason for the murders, no-one could give a satisfactory explanation.
The Danish Crown commissioners who investigated the massacre found that the Scots had gone out of their way not to antagonise the Norwegians during their march. However, the activities of the 800 men commanded by Van Monkhoven when they marched across Norway in July 1612 may offer a clue to the Norwegians’ actions. Van Monkhoven’s men raped and pillaged all along the route of their march. The Swedes had also raised the ire of the Norwegians by massacring 300 of their countrymen captured just north of Gothenburg. Many of the murdered Norwegians came from the Romsdal and Kringen areas.
The ambush and massacre of the Scots soon became the stuff of legend for the Norwegians. In the 19th century, nationalists, now seeking independence from Sweden, seized on the episode as an example of Norwegian courage, cunning and love of freedom. Killing prisoners of war, many of them kidnapped from their homes by ruthless mercenary recruiters and never expecting to fight people who were under Danish occupation, is shamefully sordid.
Nevertheless, it is from such events that nationalistic myths are woven.
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The Scotsman ran a story in August about some controversy surrounding the Norwegian celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Battle of Kringen - Scotsman Article