Two journeys, one destination (5) – blood and stone

Writing without the other hand to steady him was hard, but the other was clamped on his thigh, holding back the flow of blood.

The words on the vellum were like the wanderings of a dying bird… he smiled at the thought, despite the pain. Through eyes filled with hot and salty water he read what he had written:

‘They came at the end of the night, as the first light of day was seeping into the darkness. Four longships, sixty men or so… the smoke woke us, then the screams, then the stench of blood. When my fellow monks were lined up to face their deaths, the Norsemen began breaking the holy stones.

They are all dead, now. Somehow we escaped, half alive, into the vellum hut; just the master, Patternex, and me. “Write that the talking stones are still here,” my master commanded. “They are scattered but can be reformed..” He did not speak again, but I felt I could still hear his voice. His apprentice gazes at him with love, now, soon to follow him into the quietness.

Do not fear death,’ he taught me. ‘For what gives life brings death, and that brings life, again.’ He’d drawn a strange double curl in the sand, and pointed at the place in the middle where the lines crossed, saying, ‘When you die, you are here.’ His finger had slid sideways then, into the fullness of the other space… wordless, like now.

I have written on this vellum tablet what he… or his spirit, commanded. The red water of life seeps through my fingers and drips down through the timbers of the still-smoking hut. I hope it reaches the sea… ‘It is important that you wrote it,’ he said. ‘It may never be read, but it is of importance that it was written…’


No one knows exactly when the Vikings came to Portmahomack – sometime after AD 800 is the likely date. Skirmishes were frequent, but the final one seems to have been planned to destroy the monastery. The Norsemen did not like the survival of other people’s sacred traditions… Perhaps they feared them? It is ironic, because, having established their new kingdom on the archipelago of Orkney and in the extreme north of the Scottish mainland, they went on to embrace Christianity…

We will meet the Norse Earls of Orkney, soon. But for today, the Silent Eye’s group are studying the restored treasures of what the Norseman smashed, as we wander around the artefacts of the Tarbat Discovery Centre, during the last half-hour of our time-restricted visit, due to Covid regulations.

Smashed and scattered…. But the workings of intelligence, and particularly high art, have a habit of being found… It was always known, by the local folk of Portmahomack, that small fragments of carved stones often appeared during ploughing. But then the team from York University arrived, and spent the next few years carefully removing the layers of time, and cataloguing what they they found. There were no large single cross-slabs at Portmahomack, but the excavations produced many fragments of smaller crosses and gravestones, all belonging to Pictish times.

(Above: a large slab stone from one of the monastery’s important graves. Above it is the Dragon Stone, found lying next to a wall in the excavated crypt. Below: Some of the important fragments from the monastery’s ancient past.)

(Above: It is ironic that the monastery at Portmahomack, the creative centre of Pictish life, does not have its own Type II Cross Slab. There was one, but it was largely destroyed by the Vikings. Only the lower section remains, as in the photograph)

The sculptures that stood on the Tarbert Peninsula in the eighth century are amongst the most accomplished anywhere in early mediaeval Europe. The centre of carving was at Portmahomack, where a dozen different monuments were made from the local sandstone. Many were simple grave markers carrying a cross. One was the lid of a great sarcophagus; likely the tomb of an eminent person. The most spectacular were giant cross-slabs set as markers for seafarers along the spine of the Tarbat and Fearn peninsulas. These were to be our next port of call after Portmahomack.

The cross slab design, Type II, (see below) was known as the Cross of Christ, it followed a similar pattern on all such Pictish carved slabs. After Portmahomack, we planned to see two of these crosses – at Shandwick and Nigg. If time permitted, there might be three…

Above is the Discovery Centre’s large photograph of the Nigg Cross – one of the most important on the coast and a classic of the Cross of Christ type II – Christian cross on one side, and local (and more ancient) symbols on the reverse. Later, I was to give thanks to the impulse that made me photograph it…

(Above: a classic Pictish ‘Z-Rod’ design)

(Above: the grave of an important Chieftain was found beneath the crypt. This is a reconstruction!)

There were also at least four monumental crosses which once stood by the early church and at the edge of the monks’ cemetery. A further cross had a dragon on one side and the four apostles on the other – a recurring motif for the later Picts.

(Above: a classic Pictish ‘V-Rod’ design)

Large pieces of these Viking-smashed crosses were built into the foundations of the medieval church. Without the York University excavation work, they would never have been re-assembled. The fragments were found scattered over the burnt-out rooms of the vellum working area.

(Above: the next stage of our journey mapped out in Pictish symbols – from Portmahomack to Hilton of Cadboll and Shandwick, then on to Nigg and the Cromarty Firth)

The mysterious symbols, unique to the Picts, may well have represented holy men, warrior chiefs or powerful families associated with the settlements along the Tarbat and Fearn peninsulas. We may never know their real meaning…

(Above: the Pictish Comb and Mirror glyph – a female symbol)

There were almost certainly other ministries founded from Portmahomack in the proximity to the Moray Firth – the Picts’ stronghold. The nearest neighbours lay at Edderton, Rosemarkie and across the Forth of Moray at Burghead. All these have remarkable stone carvings which can still be seen today.

We cannot end the story of our visit to Portmahomack without mentioning two final exhibits: the beautiful metalwork section; and the finding of the ‘Oldest Pict’.

(Above: Sacred vessels and precious jewellery)

During the 7th to 9th centuries A.D. royal residences and ministries, such as Portmahomack, were centres for the production of bronze, silver and gold objects. Here, skilled metal workers created some of the finest treasures ever found in Britain and Ireland.

In order to celebrate the rites of the church, special objects were (and are) required. These included sacred vessels for the Eucharist – for example the chalice for the wine. The manufacture of these required great individual skill, given the simple forging methods of the time. The monastery at Portmahomack was one of the most important metalworking centres in the whole of northern Scotland.

Objects made of precious metals were a mark of status and success. The photo above shows elaborate brooches for use as treasured possessions of the Pictish wealthy.

Sadly, nothing produced by the monastery’s foundry survives. The examples here were made in Celtic Ireland during the same period, and are known to be faithful replicas of common styles across Insular (Irish) and Pictish lands, which shared so much in the way of art and design.

We had seen so many things, already, and it was only mid-morning…

The group took a break for a coffee and we reflected that there were two regrets. The first was the desire to ‘touch’ the Pictish civilisation in a deeper way – to feel some shared human connection with these civilised and sophisticated forbears. The second was to know the basis of their beautiful, symmetric artwork; to be able to see into the ‘mathematical mind’ of the Picts and see how they conceived and drafted their intricate designs. Of course there’s no way to meet someone from the 7th century AD..

Or is there? I’m not talking fantasy; flesh and blood do not survive… But the bones remain, and there’s an astonishing science of what can be learned from bones…

The west coast of the Portahomack Peninsula looks out over a large, sheltered bay towards Dornoch. It’s a peaceful spot, and back in Pictish times, the ridge down the spine of the peninsula was a popular place to be buried. Many of these graves lie within the present village of Portmahomack, and several have been the subject of a careful excavation. The Discovery Centre has a fascinating section on ‘Our Earliest Pict’.

He was found in in a group of three graves. A lot is known about him from scientific analysis. The Discovery Centre has been able to use expert help to reconstruct, from his skeleton, how he would have looked, and, astonishingly, what kind of life he led.

The grave was topped by a large slab of sandstone. The sides of the grave were lined with eight upright slabs, three to each side and one each at the head and feet. Within these lay the skeleton, on his back with his feet to the south-east. His arms were aligned along the sides of the body, the right-hand lay palm down, the left palm up, slightly cupped with the thumb across the palm. His legs were crossed at the feet. His head lay turned towards the south – the place where the sun was strongest.

The relaxed position suggests that the burial party laid him out carefully, but without a shroud. The method of laying down may have been a part of their pre-Christian religion. The head facing the sun suggests this.

Forensic work on the bones shows he was a youngish man, between 26 and 35, and stood 5’ 7” tall. Radio-carbon dating indicates he died between 420-610 AD, making him the earliest known member of Portmahomack’s Pictish community.

He was not born locally, and arrived here in his late teens. His life was physically hard, and placed his back and shoulders under heavy strain. He may have been a sword-wielding warrior or have worked with heavy rocks. He could have been a stone craftsman.

At the time of his death he suffered from arthritis and damage to the knees – probably through constant squatting, which is how you would have sat when there were no chairs and the environment was damp. He was left-handed, which would have made him much in demand for complex tasks. He was part of a settlement that ate beef, but also grew a variety of cereals: wheat, barley, oats and rye.

(Above: The face of Portmahomack’s first Pict emerges…)
(Above: And how he is likely to have looked..)

He belonged to the first community at Portmahomack, and may not have been a monk. The group of graves contained the metallic remains of intricate iron pins and a beautifully decorated roundel. They were horseriders who ate well and had high status. Although not necessarily Christian they were people of faith. Their major cultural investment was the making of these massive slab-sided graves, so they believed in an afterlife. Only in the next generation did they become spiritual professionals, the first monks of the Portmahomack monastery.

As we were leaving the Tarbat Discovery Centre, we examined the museum’s section on the Tarbat Ness Lighthouse, which has copies of Stevenson’s (as in the lighthouse builder, not the railway engineer) original plans for constructing the lighthouse, and a gallery of interesting astronomical photographs taken by local astronomer Denis Buczynski.

The Stevenson Lighthouse is located at the North West tip of the Tarbat Ness peninsula. It was built in 1830 by Robert Stevenson and has an elevation of 53 metres; with 203 steps to the top of the tower. It was too close not to visit. Back in July 2017, I wrote a detailed post about a Scottish visit to another of this famous engineer’s lighthouses on the western island of Tiree.

We bought some books from the store and said our goodbyes to Margaret, the manager of the centre. Twenty minutes later, after a short car drive, we were standing near to the lighthouse and taking photographs. We had time for only the briefest of visits. If we were to stick to the day’s plans – and there was a lot of it left – we needed to be on our way south.

The road along the spine of the peninsula returned us to Portmahomack. As we turned to leave the village, we caught site of the Discovery Centre’s manager, Margaret, walking along the road with a young man’s arm in hers. We stopped to wind the window down and give a final greeting… and to say how much we had enjoyed our visit.

We noticed her companion’s bright eyes upon us… He was smiling with pride.

Robert, the ‘voice from the upper floor’ during our visit, turned out to be a Down’s syndrome young man, and his undoubted intelligence had been put to good use at the Discovery Centre as one of their best volunteers. It was now lunchtime, and Margaret was taking him for a well earned meal at the local cafe – the Discovery Centre being closed for an hour.

[The names of Margaret and Robert have been changed to protect their privacy.]

We waited as they walked off, arm in arm. It was one of the most touching scenes. Beyond anything we had glimpsed in the distant world of the Picts, this sense of presence and kindness left us with a golden feeling as we drove the few miles down the spine of the twin peninsulas towards Shandwick, Where, beneath protective glass, there stands one of the best Pictish cross slabs – intact and in all its glory.

To be continued…

Other parts of this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, This is Part Five,

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a distance-learning school for the deepening of the personality and its alignment with the soul.

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