About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Earl Thorfinn the Mighty

The Karl Hundasson campaign

After Thorfinn acquired the lion’s share of the earldom, the Orkneyinga Saga version of events proceeds to “document” a war between him and one Karl Hundasson.

According to the saga, Karl Hundasson assumed the throne of Scotland after the death of Thorfinn’s grandfather.

It didn’t take long before the new king turned his attention to Caithness, but Thorfinn refused to give up the lands gifted by his grandfather.

Hostilities ensued.

Karl Hundasson bestowed the title of Earl of Caithness on his nephew, a man named Moddan, and bade him to go and claim his lands.

Moddan began mustering a force in Sutherland, ready to ride on Thorfinn and take Caithness by force. But Thorfinn heard of the planned attack and gathered an army. Warriors from Orkney, who made their way south, bolstered Thorfinn’s Caithness forces.

When the two armies met, it was immediately clear that Thorfinn’s force greatly outnumbered Moddan’s. So Moddan, and his army, turned and fled, with Thorfinn in destructive pursuit:

“Then earl Thorfinn fared after them and laid under him Sutherland and Ross, and harried far and wide over Scotland;”

Upon returning to Caithness, Thorfinn’s army dispersed, the earl keeping only five long-ships, and “just so much force as was enough to man them well”.

Moddan, in the meantime, had made it back to King Karl, who was infuriated. He immediately launched a fleet of 11 ships northwards to tackle Thorfinn.

The king’s plan was to catch Thorfinn in a pincer movement. Karl would attack by sea from the north, while Moddan and his forces rode up from the south. But when Karl’s fleet arrived in the Pentland Firth, the body of water separating Orkney from Scotland,  his men spotted the sails of Thorfinn’s fleet heading north for the islands.

Ignorant of Karl’s pursuing fleet, Thorfinn made his way towards Thorkell’s estate in Deerness. He arrived some time after dark and dropped anchor.

But the following morning, at first light, the alarm was raised when Karl’s fleet was seen approaching under oar.

“Thorfinn called then on his men, and bade them get out their weapons; he said he would not run away, and bade them row against them manfully. And after that each side lashed their ships together.”

The Earl whipped his men up into a frenzy and the two forces clashed.

According to the saga, the battle was long and bloody. Despite being outnumbered, Thorfinn’s men were victorious and Karl Hundasson’s ship was eventually taken.

Fearing for his life, Karl threw himself overboard and clambered into another ship before fleeing south.

Thorfinn and Thorkell headed down into Scotland to confront Karl.

The death of Moddan

Arriving in Moray, Thorkel was tasked with dealing with Moddan, who had now arrived in Caithness and was waiting for a force of Irishmen to swell his army.

Thorkel made his way quietly north, arriving at Moddan’s Thurso base “at dead of night”. Thorkell had his men set the house ablaze and waited while the flames grew higher. Then, when Moddan attempted to jump to safety from a first-floor window, Thorkell struck out and “the blow came on [Moddan’s]neck and took off his head.” Gathering a force loyal to Thorfinn, Thorkell returned south where he and the earl began harrying Karl’s lands.

Karl Hundasson, meanwhile, had not had long to lick his wounds and had been amassing another army.

“He drew together a host all from the south of Scotland, both east and west, and from the south all the way to Cantire. Then also came to meet him that host from Ireland which Muddan had sent after;”

The two armies met at Torfness, thought to be the modern Tarbertness in Moray.

“There arose a mighty battle,” says the saga, but after a hard fight, Karl was forced to flee again, although “some men say that he has fallen.”

The battle won, Thorfinn went on the rampage, raiding “about far and wide over the land and laid it under him.”

After hearing that Thorkell and his men had returned north, the Scottish nobles who had sued for peace after Karl’s defeat rose up again. So Thorfinn immediately rode against the Scots, who began to think twice about their actions.

According to the saga:

“Earl Thorfinn made ready to fight as soon as ever he met the Scots; but then they did not dare to defend themselves, but broke off at once into flight, and fled wide away to woods and wastes. And when Thorfinn had chased the fleers, he got together his men, and says that then he will let them burn all that district in which they were then were, and so pay the Scots for their enmity and treachery. 

“Then the earl’s men fared among thorpes and farms, and so burned everything, that not a cot stood after them; they slew too all the fighting-men they found, but women and old men dragged themselves off to woods and wastes with weeping and wailing.”

After “devastating” Scotland, Thorfinn returned north to Caithness.