Evidence drawn largely from the Orkneyinga
Saga identifies Duncan as one 'Karl Hundisson' (see boxout,
right), succeeding after the 'death of the king of the Scots'
Duncan claimed all of Scotland, including Caithness,
which lay in the hands of Jarl Thorfinn, a grandson of Malcolm II,
and consequently another of Duncan's cousins with an equal claim to
The Scots war band that had been deployed to the
north found itself hopelessly outnumbered in the ensuing engagement
and was pursued all along the course of its retreat by a jubilant
Thorfinn who 'subdued Sutherland and Ross and plundered far and
wide over Scotland'.
Furious at this setback, 'King Karl' came north
with a fleet of eleven warships, catching up with Thorfinn's fleet
moored off the south-east coast of Orkney. Alas, he was no more
successful here than earlier and suffered an ignominious defeat,
losing his own flagship in a sea-fight off Deerness.
Thorfinn's lieutenant, Thorkell the Fosterer, slew
Duncan's nephew – Muddan – whom Duncan had installed in Caithness,
before joining his jarl in Moray where, according to the saga, a
great war band had assembled, 'raised in Caithness and throughout
Sutherland and Ross'. The ensuing battle occurred at Torfnes
(Burghead, or perhaps Tarbat Ness).
Arnor the Skald sang of this encounter: 'Well the
red weapons fed wolves at Tarbat Ness' Thorfinn emerged triumphant
from the carnage to follow up this victory with the plundering
"as far south as Fife"... Karl took flight, though some
men say he was killed'.
Defeat and yet more defeat
Those 'some men' were mistaken because Duncan
(Karl) re-emerged a few years later to face defeat in yet another
engagement, this time far to the south in Cuthbert's land. Duncan
had become embroiled in Northumbrian power politics before his
accession, when he had married Sybil, a daughter or sister of the
Danish warlord Siward, who was to become the earl in 1033.
Siward's rival, Eadulf of Bamburgh, launched an
attack on Scots territory, raiding Cumbria in 1038. In a revenge
attack, Duncan laid siege to Durham in the following year, only to
once more be put to flight. Symeon's History of the Church of
Durham records the event:
... a great proportion of his cavalry was slain
by the besieged and he was put to disorderly flight, in which he lost
his foot-soldiery whose heads were collected in the market place and
hung up upon posts. Not long afterwards the same king, upon his return
to Scotland, was murdered by his own countrymen...