On this day, October 2nd, 753 years ago – in 1263 – a small Scottish force met an equally small invading Norwegian force on a beach near Largs, Ayshire. Although the Norwegians were able to hold the field after fierce back-and-forth fighting, they were subsequently forced to gather their dead and retreat to their ships. It was the beginning of the end of Norwegian overlordship of the western seaboard of Scotland. Three years later, by the Treaty of Perth, King Magnus VI Haakonsson of Norway ceded the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to King Alexander III of Scotland.
By military standards the action had been a small one, tactically inconclusive even though it ultimately proved strategically significant. In a sense the invasion had even been accidental, for while the Norwegians had amassed a vast armada of ships, it had been a storm that prematurely drove some of the boats onto the beach, triggering the Scottish reaction. Similarly, it was weather that forced the armada to retreat to Norway.
A Fateful Thistle
Beyond the bare historical account there is a curious, romantic story about the Battle of Largs that holds great cultural significance for Scotland. According to tradition, the Norwegian presence on the beach at Largs was unsuspected until one of the barefoot Norsemen stepped on a thistle, crying out in pain. The Scottish troops were alerted, and the battle was on. As a result the thistle has become a symbol of Scotland itself.
Is the thistle story true? There appears to be no primary source for it. But as early as 1470, King James III used the thistle as a national symbol on coinage. In 1540, King James V created the Order of the Thistle, an honorary title for Scottish knights. The thistle today is regarded as the oldest of the national flowers, and it decorates many a coffee mug and T-shirt in tourist shops in Edinburgh.
Kelburn in the Battle of Largs
The thistle tradition holds a special place in my heart, because tradition also places the Boyle family of Kelburn Castle at the Battle of Largs, aiding King Alexander . Possibly commemorating that, in the 19th century, Kelburn Castle had a turret that terminated in what was said to show “the finishing personality and nationality of Scottish architecture — the crest of the Laird surmounted by the thistle.” 
Was the fateful thistle a Boyle one? Largs is only two miles from Kelburn Castle. Given that the site of battle is not entirely certain, and that lordly domains extended over large distances, it is not out of the realm of possibility. However, most likely not. In the middle and late 13th century, the lordship of Largs was held by the Baliol family , and that likely encompassed most if not all of the possible battle sites.
Thistles at Kelburn
Nevertheless there are still thistles at Kelburn. Earlier this year my wife and I toured the castle gardens. We found among the proliferation of flowers in the Plaisance, the brilliant rose of the thistle (photo). Whether the traditions are true or not, my ancestral estate of Kelburn recognizes its place within the colorful, historical Scottish landscape.
Postscript: Developments in the Boyle of Kelburn Ancestry
This is only one of several blog entries I have written on the Boyles of Kelburn. Others include “8. The Kelburn Castle Origin of the Boles Family: A DNA Success Story”, and “24. Tartan Day and Our Scottish Origins”.
As outlined in the first of those blog entries, there is Y-DNA evidence that my ancestor James Bole (1752-1836), of Westmoreland and Armstrong counties, Pennsylvania, was descended from the Kelburn Boyle family. In a book I expect to release in January 2017, I include a lengthy “Origins” chapter that outlines the most likely line of descent of James from the Kelburn family – and beyond.
The story runs through known Boyle settlers of the Plantation of Ulster under King James I of England (VI of Scotland), back to Boyles of the west coast isles, before coalescing with the ancestry of the Boyle Earls of Glasgow around the year 1495. The book is titled, “The Origins and Descendants of James Bole of Westmoreland and Armstrong Counties, Pennsylvania.”
Meanwhile, if you are a Boyle or Boles, please consider Y-DNA testing! Any male bearing the Bole/Boles/Bowles/Boyle name, of these or other spellings, who is thought to have Irish origins and a Protestant background but whose background is otherwise unknown, has a legitimate shot of descending from the Kelburn family.
You can obtain further information from the project webpage at http://www.ancestors-genealogy.com/bowles/index.html. Clicking on the “visit this site” link provided there will show the range of tests available. It is strongly recommended that 25 or more genetic markers be tested, as the 12-marker test is not very diagnostic. Besides providing you with evidence bearing on your own origins, your test results will be of considerable benefit to the Bowles DNA Project — even if you know little about your exact ancestry.
 Tales From Scottish Lairds (1985). Norwich: Jarrold Colour Publications.
 Millar, A.H. (1885). Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Castles and Mansions, of Ayrshire. Edinburgh: William Patterson.
 Chalmers, G. (1890). Caledonia: Or, A Historical and Topographical Account of North Britain. Paisley: Alexander Gardner, v. 6.