The reign of Alexander III was notable for three major things. Firstly he was to succeed where his father, Alexander II, had failed in ridding the Western Isles of Scotland of Norse influence. Secondly, he was to make one Scottish family so powerful that they would be a rival to the future kings of Scotland in influence. Thirdly, his death was to plunge Scotland into a succession crisis that would ultimately lead to war with England.
At the death of his father in 1249 Alexander was only eight years old. During his turbulent minority years Scotland was governed by rival factions that vied for influence. So bitter was the rivalry between the factions led respectively by the Earl of Mentieth and Alan Durward that at one point the infant king was kidnapped in an attempt to force a power-sharing arrangement.
In 1251 Alexander was married to Margaret, the daughter of King Henry III of England. Henry attempted to force his young son-in-law to recognise him as overlord of Scotland. Despite his youth, the young king refused. In 1262 Alexander took direct control of his kingdom and set to work where his father had left off.
Alexander made a formal claim that the Western Isles belonged to him alone. To back up his claim in 1262 Alexander sent a royal force to attack the Isle of Skye. This direct challenge to the Norwegian King did not go unnoticed.
In 1263 King Haakon assembled a sizeable fleet and set sail for Scotland. Fearing defeat, Alexander arranged for negotiations to be held at Arran. With the autumnal weather changing for the worse, Alexander played for time as the talks floundered.
The plan worked and Haakon's fleet was caught in severe storms off the coast of Largs and badly damaged. While attempting to put ashore Haakon's men were attacked by a Scottish force.
Although the battle was indecisive it did thwart Haakon's plans to re-assert his dominance over the Western Isles. With winter setting in, Haakon headed for home. On the way, whilst stopping over at Kirkwall, Haakon became ill and died.
The next year Alexander pressed his case for sovereignty of the islands by invading the Western Isles. Haakon's successor to the Norwegian throne, Magnus, agreed to a treaty.
In 1266 the Treaty of Perth was signed. For a sum of money Alexander had gained control of the Western Isles and the Isle of Man. Norway retained control of the Orkney and Shetland Isles only. Alexander had succeeded where his father had fallen short.
By gaining the Western Isles, Alexander brought another powerbase within his reach. Dating back to the lifetime of Somerled (c.1113 – 1164) the islands off the west coast of Scotland had been a semi-autonomous region. Somerled himself styled himself the King of Hebrides.
With allegiances to the kings of Norway rather than the Scottish kings, the rulers of these islands were outside the influence of Alexander until his victory at the Battle of Largs.
Angus Mor MacDonald, a son of Somerled, in fact fought along side King Haakon at Largs. After the battle Angus accepted Alexander as his overlord and was allowed to keep his territories and independence.
The MacDonald clan would go on to accrue enough power, wealth and influence that they could even challenge future kings of Scotland. As self-styled Lords of the Isles they were a law unto themselves and a force to be reckoned with.
Alexander had other pressing matters to occupy him, however. His marriage to the daughter of Henry III of England, Margaret, had produced three children. By 1283 all had died leaving Alexander without a direct heir.
His eldest child, Margaret had married Eirik II of Norway and produced a child – also called Margaret. It was this child, commonly known as the Maid of Norway, that Alexander named as his heir-apparent.
In 1285, Alexander married again to Yolande de Dreux – a member of a powerful French family. The next year Alexander set off on horse back from Edinburgh Castle to meet his new queen in Fife. In bad weather the king and his party rode through the night. At some stage Alexander was separated from the others and went missing. The next morning he was found on the beach at Kinghorn. It is assumed he had fallen from his horse and died on the beach.
At the time of Alexander's death his Queen, Yolande, had been pregnant. In a further tragedy, the child was still-born. With no other live heir Alexander's granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, was assumed to be the next ruler of Scotland.
The problem was that not all the Scots nobles wanted the infant Norwegian princess as their queen. In fact there were some nobles who believed they should be the next ruler of Scotland in stead. Two of the most notable claimants were John Balliol and Robert Bruce – grandfather of his more famous namesake.
In protest at Norwegian efforts to gain agreement that Margaret should be queen, Bruce and his supporters rebelled, raiding territories in the south of the country. The rebellion was suppressed but it was clear that a solution had to be found to the succession crisis.
The Norwegians turned to the King of England, Edward I for help. Sensing a political advantage to be had, Edward assumed a position as kingmaker in the affairs of Scotland. Further, Edward planned to marry Margaret to his own son, Edward. The Scots, fearing that such a marriage would lead to Scotland ending up under English control agreed to accept Margaret as queen.
In 1290 the infant Margaret was dispatched from Norway. While on route to Scotland the child became sick and died. The question of Scottish succession was open again – and this time the King of England was involved.
The process of choosing the next ruler of Scotland would lead directly to deadly conflict with England in the Wars of Independence.