Fierce invaders with the time to talk;Scotland;Early Civilisations;Travel

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Vikings left overin Largs have given up war andpillaging, reports Douglas Blane, and now enjoy showing off their culture to visitors

Nowadays the town of Largs extends a warm welcome to invaders, thousands of whom descend on the popular seaside resort every summer. But it wasn't always so. Seven centuries ago a fierce battle raged on the beaches, as the Scots tried to repel an invader who, for once, came not from the south but over the seas from the north.

In 1263 the Battle of Largs was fought and won against the seaborne army of King Haakon of Norway, ending 400 years of domination of Scotland's western seaboard by the Vikings. The event is celebrated in Largs for two weeks every September when descendants of the Vikings from Norway, York and all over Scotland construct an authentic village on the beach and re-enact the battle, without the bloodshed.

But for teachers and pupils a more useful resource is Vikingar!, a multimedia experience created and run by North Ayrshire Council, which has been visited by over 25,000 schoolchildren in the three years since it was built.

Where else could children find Vikings willing to talk to them about their world and their dreams? "Just wait till we get the blood off the walls," says Ragnor of the Hairy Breeches. The eagerness of the class of 10 and 11-year-olds from the Glasgow Steiner School momentarily evaporates.

"Right, in you go." Curiosity gets the better of them and inside they find a peaceful scene of a homestead, with lifesize Norse figures, several sheep, and straw on the floor. "Welcome to Norway in the year AD825," says Ragnor. "This is where I live but soon I'll be off on a voyage to plunder the monastery on Iona, where they have gold, silver and jewels. I have everything I need for the journey. Who wants to come with me?" From a forest of hands he chooses Thomas Stevenson. "Right, if we're on the deck of a longship with the waves crashing and the seas raging, you'll need something to keep warm. Put this cloak on, wrap it around you and fasten it with this clasp.

"Now you'll need a helmet and a shield. And a weapon." Thomas's eyes light up. He is equipped with a shield, a big sword, a helmet that comes over his eyes and a cloak down to his ankles. "Now wave your sword and scream," commands Ragnor. Thomas does so and the crowd falls back in alarm.

From the homestead, Ragnor ushers the children into the wood-panelled great hall of Valhalla in Asgard, where Odin, king of the Norse gods, carouses for eternity with brave warriors who have died in battle. "It is more honourable to die in the heat of battle than to grow fat in the complacency of peace. He whose life is taken in blood shall be borne to Valhalla at the breast of the Valkyries to live in eternal glory."

"What happens to the women?" asks Alice Robertson. "Where do they go?" "They go to Asgard too, to live in the house of Freya. She is the most beautiful of the Viking goddesses, queen of the Valkyries."

The children return from Valhalla to watch an audio-visual film on five screens of a Viking family down the generations, from their first raids on the Western Isles to the Battle of Largs. "Empires are built by landless younger sons and the Vikings had an overabundance of them. They rode out from their fjords and raided, traded and sometimes settled in places as far-flung as Iceland, Greenland, North America, Spain, Italy and even Baghdad."

Finally the children enter the Hall of Knowledge, where they study Norse runes and explore the Viking way of life using interactive computer screens. Ragnor demonstrates how Vikings made fire by striking iron vigorously against stone, creating a shower of sparks. Chris Coyle is less successful initially but grits his teeth. "I'm not giving up. I did a project on the Vikings at school and I wrote about this." Eventually he gets a few sparks. "I don't want to do it too hard," he explains. "I might set myself on fire."

"This class already knows a lot of Norse mythology," says Ragnor, otherwise historian and ex-policeman Christopher Fortune. "It's nice when they have some previous knowledge, because we can reinforce and extend what they've learned." There's a classroom upstairs with chain-mail, cloaks, helmets and so on where children can do role-playing, and teachers can receive a resource pack. Steve Birch, class teacher from the George Steiner School says: "I haven't been here before but I think the place is excellent. The children were totally absorbed."

Vikingar!, Largs, North Ayrshire.Tel: 01475 689777. Summer season: March through October; winter season weekends only, but schools can book winter weekday visits November through February. School groups pound;1.50 per child, pound;3.50 per adult. One adult free per 10 children. Book first

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