Scots invasion of Norway that ended in a ‘war crime’

A GATHERING tomorrow will remember a battle 400 years ago in which 170 Scots perished – and its aftermath, when 112 prisoners were massacred. As Dani Garavelli discovers, Norwegians remain divided on whether to celebrate, or apologise

The mercenaries, many of whom had been press-ganged into military service, were marching along a narrow pass at Kringen in the Gudbrandsdalen Valley in Norway, on their way to join the Swedish army, when they were ambushed by peasants. Rocks and logs were hurled down the steep embankments to block off the pass, and the Norwegians opened fire on the 300-strong captive army.

By the time the shooting frenzy had ended – 400 years ago this weekend, on 26 August, 1612 – around 170 Scots lay dead, including George Sinclair, a nephew of the Earl of Caithness, who was killed, legend has it, with a silver bullet from the gun of militiaman Berdon Sejelstad.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The remaining 130 were taken to a barn at nearby Kvam, where they were supposed to spend the night before being marched to Oslo. But after a night of heavy drinking, the farmers, who had a harvest to bring in, decided they could not spare the time for the journey. They took the prisoners out one by one, killing all but 18.

Tomorrow, members of the Clan Sinclair – including clan chief, the Earl of Caithness, Malcolm Sinclair – will join citizens of Otta (the nearest town to the battlesite), the Norwegian Caledonian Society and the United States’ Gudbrandsdals Society for a church service to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Kringen, an event which has become a potent symbol of nationalism in Norway yet has been all but airbrushed from Scottish history.

Last week, the party followed the journey taken by their ancestors – from Klungnes, where the ships carrying the mercenaries landed, to Otta, whey they enjoyed a night of traditional food and music at Romundgard, the farm where Sinclair spent his last night. They laid a wreath at his grave.

The Pillarguri festival, named after a semi-mythical girl who is supposed to have blown her horn to signal the start of the ambush, has been held since 1996, although it is much bigger this year.

Over recent years, significant effort has been made to mend the bridges between Otta and the north-east of Scotland. “The idea is not to celebrate what happened to these mercenaries, especially the day after, in the barn, when the slaughter was what we would consider today to be a war crime, but to make something out of a peaceful connection with Scotland – that’s been the underlying theme throughout,” says Chris Maile, an expat from Skye who has been involved in the organising committee since moving to Norway 14 years ago.

But not everyone is happy with the way the battle is marked. Helge Haalaasaeter, a former officer in the Norwegian Home Guard, is among those who thinks the celebrations are inappropriate. He has written to his local papers to criticise the flying of flags and air of jollity that surrounds the commemoration of what was – effectively – a massacre.

“Last year, for the first time, they [the organising committee] started talking about reconciliation, but that word suggests a bilateral approach,” he says. “Far from celebrating the event together with the Scots people, I think we should be apologising to them. I feel ashamed that we are holding a party to mark the way these soldiers were killed.”

The story of the Battle of Kringen has its roots in the Kalmar war between Denmark (which then ruled Norway) and Sweden over a sparsely-populated but reputedly mineral-rich area in the north of the country and the rich fishing grounds off its shores.

At that time, nearly all European sovereigns relied on mercenaries to boost their armies, and Scotland, which was poor and largely lawless, was known to have plenty of men capable of handling a weapon and willing to take up arms for money.

After one batch of Scots mercenaries was lost when Gothenberg fell to the Danes, the Swedish King Karl IX approached recruiters Andrew Ramsay and George Sinclair to find 1,500 more Scottish fighters. While Sinclair signed up veteran mercenaries from the north, Ramsay took a more forceful approach, conscripting some under threat of death and plucking others from the jails of Edinburgh and Dunbar.

At first, King James VI and I, whose brother-in-law was King Christian IV of Denmark, seems to have turned a blind eye to the recruitment drive, but when it became impossible to ignore, he forbade any more troops to be sent to Sweden and ordered the arrest of Ramsay, who was later banished.

Yet somehow two ships full of mercenaries managed to set sail, one from Wick, the other from Dundee. Unable to get to Sweden, they docked at Klungnes, with the aim of marching to Stockholm. They may have assumed they would be safe, because the Norwegians were lukewarm in their support for the Danes and because the historic links between the two countries made them feel a sense of kinship.

But according to Paul Cowan, author of Scottish 
Military Disasters, which contains one of the few English-language accounts of the massacre, the Norwegians were smarting from two previous events: the behaviour of a previous contingent of mercenaries who had raped and pillaged as they marched through the previous month, and the slaughter of 300 of their countrymen at Nya Lodose by the Swedes.

According to Cowan, the mercenaries were poorly-armed, vastly outnumbered and had caused no trouble. Yet over the years – particularly in the 19th century, as Norway’s nationalist movement gathered momentum – the Battle of Kringen came to be seen as a heroic episode in the country’s history, the first time ordinary Norwegians stood up to defend their country. This spin was aided by the emergence of powerful legend such as that of a mermaid, said to have warned Sinclair off; the sheriff, said to have banged his staff three times on the floor of a church, shouting: “Listen to me, the enemy has invaded us,” and, of course, Pillarguri, who is honoured in countless folk songs and monuments.

The jingoism which characterises the Norwegian take on the Battle of Kringen peaked during the 300th anniversary celebrations in 1912. Taking place just seven years after Norway finally gained its independence, the atmosphere was jubilant. The streets were bedecked with flags and thronged with people. The new monarch, King Haakon, came to unveil a monument. In Scotland, however, the event has long been forgotten. “You have to understand at the beginning of the 17th century, Scotland had about 10,000 mercenaries all over Europe often fighting on opposite sides – [the loss of] 300 made no history,” says Maile.

Cowan believes a deliberate attempt has been made to gloss over the most unsavoury aspects of the battle. “I suspect a lot of the Norwegians going to the party in Otta don’t even know about the massacre the next day – I mean, who would celebrate taking all those scared little boys and guys sprung from jail and shooting them?” he says.

To the Earl of Caithness, one of 33 members of the Clan Sinclair who have come from Scotland, the US, Canada and Italy to attend the festival, however, such reservations are misplaced. “It’s part of our history. Both sides behaved very badly,” he says. “But it was 400 years ago. You can’t judge what happened then by modern standards. And it’s important to the people of Otta, so why the heck shouldn’t we come and join the celebrations with them.”

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the massacre itself, there is little doubt the Pillarguri festival has strengthened the links between Otta and North-east Scotland, which stretch back to when Norway ruled the Orkney islands in the 9th century.

Interestingly, it is said a few of the survivors of the battle may have themselves settled in the country; some are said to have switched allegiances and joined the Danish army, while others with a trade may have gone to work on local farms.

Today, both sides seem to be willing to put old enmities aside and mark the event in a spirit of reconciliation. “A huge lot of good things have come from the festival. Terrific friendships have built up with the Norwegians in the Otta area,” says Lord Caithness. “It brings a greater understanding – we understand more about the Norse and their culture, and they understand about us.”