On the second day of the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ weekend, we are beginning in what is, for me, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Portmahomack is a small fishing village on the north side of the Tarbat Peninsula. It’s an hours drive north from Inverness.
I’m at the end of the pier, gazing out across the deep blue sea towards highland mountains in the distance. Low in the line of dense green forest and near the sandy line of that far shore is a white fairytale castle. It could be a dream but it’s not. It’s real, and we will be visiting it on our way to the archipelago of Orkney, tomorrow. It’s called Dunrobin Castle, and is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Sutherland.
The museum at Dunrobin has some fine Pictish stones, and the castle marks the most northerly point of the Pictish trail. But the real historic trail points further north to Orkney, and that is a very different land and one-time kingdom.
No-one in the group has been to Dunrobin, before. Having glimpsed its pale spires glinting in the morning sun, we can’t wait…but our Saturday has more than enough for now.
Today’s explorations begin with the sight of an ancient church just over the rise of the hill at my back. I can’t see it from here, but I can feel its presence. I want the others to feel it in a different way to how I first discovered it. I want them to feel its ancientness before they see it. To do this I have to enter a state which is crisp and clear with anticipation, then share it – without words.
It’s one of the things we do – Sue Stuart and I. There aren’t always words for how it works, in fact it’s more powerful when there are no words at all.
There are no words from either of them here, Because they are not with us. They are hundreds of miles south in a hospital, where Sue is being tested for something serious. Where there are usually three of the Silent Eye Directors on our ‘landscape’ weekends, here, there is one, and the workshop needs to continue. We have a duty to each other – and to those who have travelled so far.
I’ve held the emotions back so far, but here they are overwhelming. Sue loves beaches, and this is one of the best… So this is for her.
We return to our vehicles and I lead the way from the bay and over the small hill to the other side of the Tarbat peninsula. In front of us, at the entrance to what looks like an old church, is a striking statue of a Pictish Priestess.
We gather around her and I describe a visualisation in which we are approaching this place, not by car, but in a boat, cutting its way through the choppy blue sea as it nears the sixth-century harbour of the old Portmahomack.
As the boat turns to make its landing, we look up at the large stones that pattern the spine of the peninsula – and mark it as sacred ground… In our vision, we can see them all, though some are miles away.
These large marker stones will form the basis of the rest of the morning. They will lead down the Tarbat peninsula and across its sister; the Fearn Peninsula. By the time we have travelled their length, we will be at Nigg, from where we can look out south, across the waters of the Cromarty Firth towards the Black Isle, our afternoon destination.
The boat nears the shore. We can pick out the outlines of the harbour, a farm, and, at the highest point, a church. Ahead of us is an entire Pictish village on the shore. It’s a large settlement for this age. At its heart is a monastery as influential as the (Irish-derived) Celtic Christian monastery at Iona, and founded at much the same time. This is 6th century Portmahomack, and the monastery is one of a chain of such institutions tasked with nothing less than keeping civilisation alive… in the face of barbarism. This village houses the central spiritual authority of the Picts.
Here, there is also a metalworking foundry and scholarly building where sacred texts are painstakingly copied or created by hand, in all their ‘illuminated’ brilliance. These would rival the works produced at Lindisfarne, many miles south, though all will be lost to history – and the attacks of the Vikings… but the evidence will remain in their unmatched stonework.
Scriptoria is the scholarly name for the historical creation of holy texts. The map, above, shows the location of monasteries with scriptoria that existed at the same time as that at Portmahomack.
(Above: the tools of scriptoria. The writing instruments were found in the foundations of the church)
Each monastery would have had a library of books for copying by hand; the work carried out by a hierarchy of skilled artists and calligraphers. This was the ancient science of sacred communication – as vital to the Pictish people as the internet is to us. The holy books taught that mankind was both beast and something more. Sacred texts fed the higher.
Everyone spoke, few people read and wrote… when the writers spoke everyone listened.
The books were loaned and gifted by monasteries to each other. They travelled long distances and the art they contained came to have a great effect on sculpture and metalwork. Strong examples of this can be seen at nearby Nigg and Rosemarkie. We intend to visit both, today.
Aided by this vision of the landing of our ancient boat, our day begins here; around and within the white building ahead. This is the Tarbat Discovery Centre, and they are expecting us…
The Portmahomack Discovery Centre is one of the best places to ‘immerse’ yourself in the world of the Picts, their culture and their civilisation.
The Discovery Centre is unique in that the main subject of its work is itself. In a very real sense, the church remains a partly Pictish building. No less than six churches have stood on this site, and the earliest construction – part of a stone wall that still forms a side of the recovered crypt – is as it was constructed by the Pictish builders of the 9th century.
(Above: the Discovery Centre is housed in the old church of St Colman. Bishop Colman led the ‘Celtic Christian’ contingent, centred in Lindisfarne, during the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. Under the jurisdiction of the powerful Northumbrian King Oswiu, the church of Rome prevailed, steering Britain’s history away from the more mystically-inclined and nature-facing Celtic tradition that had travelled with St Columba from Ireland. Bishop Colman – St Colman – is remembered in the name of the old church, though there are no records to show if he spent time here, as he and his monks from Lindisfarne departed into exile… It is likely that here, as in Iona, Celtic Christianity continued for a while after)
You can plan a weekend workshop like this, and have it go mainly to plan, but the exceptions will often form the best bits. The lady who runs the Tarbat Centre is a Portmahomack local and very welcoming. We are lucky. It’s still early and we have the place to ourselves.
She is in the middle of explaining the layout when a rather wild shout comes from above: “Margaret, I’ve done it!”
She smiles. “That’s Robert, one of our best volunteers…” she leaves it there… but you know there’s more to the story, as we’ll find out later. After watching a short introductory video, we wander… and it’s amazing.
The upper floor is the education centre where talks are given. The centre owes its existence to the results of the major excavation carried out by York University between 1997 and 2004.
(Above: the archeological work at Portmahomack, carried out by York University during 1997-2004. St Colman’s church is top right)
The centre has three levels. The main, middle floor is divided into exhibition sections. The crypt – the lowest level – dates all the way back to medieval times. It has lots of history and two skeletons…
On our first pass around the centre, we concentrate on the societal aspects revealed by the Tarbat discoveries – the importance of the Portmahomack monastery to the lives of all the Pictish people. There is one important aspect of this to consider before we can progress to the archeological relics: the question of how central the monastery was to the economy of the region. Two information boards describe this well:
‘The Tarbat peninsula contains some of the most productive agricultural land in Britain, But when the monastery was founded in the 6th century CE, the landscape was very different. The valley behind the church was marshland, which has been radiocarbon dated to the 1st millennium BCE.
Several Neolithic and Bronze Age flint arrowheads have been found close to the area suggesting that wild fowl on the marsh attracted prehistoric hunters. This wild marshland was tamed by the monastic community of Portmahomack, who drained it to create grazing for cattle and plough lands for grain.
Vast quantities of animal bones have been found during excavation which show that plenty of pasture must have been available for grazing cattle and sheep. Pigs were also eaten and may have been let loose to forage for food nearby. More rarely, deer bones have been found which shows that the land surrounding the monastery was home to wild herds.
Crops were also cultivated and the first signs of this were visible in the earth as scratch marks made by a wooden plough. In order to toughen the board against wear and tear, it was studded with small pebbles known as ‘plough pebbles’. The pebbles sometimes fell out and many have been found during excavation. An ancient ditch found beneath the church dated to the 6th century, contained burnt grain identified as barley. A massive barn found in the farm area of the monastery would have been used to thresh, dry and store the barley following harvesting by hand using a sickle.
For centuries, grain was ground by hand, using either a trough quern or a rotary quern, but both methods were time-consuming and hard work, The 8th century monks introduced the horizontal water-powered mill, in which a fast moving stream turned the mill wheel, which turned a millstone.
The dam for a mill has been uncovered at Portmahomack, made of a massive retaining wall with a culvert feeding the mill race. The mill itself may lie under the modern road. Monasteries like Portmahomack eventually came to control grain processing and this was an important factor in controlling the size and economy of the local population.’
A very important ‘village’…
Now, Robert is shouting from the lecture room that he’s solved another of Margaret’s problems, and I’m wondering how I’m going to fit any more into a single blog… and suddenly everything goes quiet, outside and in, and I realise we don’t have to…
The Discovery Centre is too good to squash into a single post… so let’s give it two…
Besides, ahead of me at this point in the retelling is one of the most beautiful chalices I’ve ever seen… And I’m eager to fit it into our newly discovered cultural framework of the amazing Picts.
(Above: a beautiful and mysterious chalice awaits us…)
In the next post we will examine the legacy of the Pictish objects found within the excavated Portmahomack site, before moving on, down the spine of the peninsula, to a beautiful glass-protected cross-slab… and two surprises, one of which will test our ingenuity to the full!
To be continued…
Other posts in this series:
©Stephen Tanham, 2020.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.