‘Shadowing’ is our term for the phenomenon whereby a standing stone, or group of stones, recreates a distant landscape feature and thereby renders it immediately apparent or tangible.
Most other megalithic writers on the subject have also, independently, recognised this phenomenon although they usually refer to it, less accurately perhaps, as ‘mirroring’.
This being the case, it is highly unlikely for such a notion to be the product of fantasy, yet it is still quite difficult to credit the skill set required to so accurately render this technique, and especially so in a people still regarded by many as ‘primitive’ in relation to us.
Either, the ‘circle constructors’ had an incredible eye for, and memory of, the natural landscape, which they, inevitably, would have done anyway, or, they ‘crudely dressed’ the stones once placed.
Please note the inaccurate use of the notion ‘crude’ here.
There is nothing crude about the ancients’ ability to dress stone in this way, quite the opposite.
Even more perplexing, perhaps, is the question of precisely why the circle constructors would do this?
The terms ‘false perspective’, ‘collapsing distance’ and ‘correspondence’ are all useful in formulating an answer to this intriguing riddle.
All the images in this post display examples of ‘shadowing’ in one form or another, although you may have to work quite hard to discover each and every one of them.
… When Brother-Warrior entered the chamber of the princess, because of his Cloak-of-Darkness, she thought she was enjoying converse and congress with a spirit.
So too, did all her hand-maids but before departing he took off his cloak and left them with the fleeting vision of a ‘Fairy Warrior’.
After Brother-Wizard and Brother-Warrior had left for the wooded isle, Brother-Smith wasted no time in fomenting the populace who were missing the usual round of the wondrous cow.
He walked to each home-stead in turn crying “no milk today, the King of Castle-Hill has stolen your cow.”
In this way they were left in no doubt as to who was to blame for their loss of sustenance and the King of Castle-Hill spent the next nine months touring his lands putting down local revolt after local revolt without the use of his baleful eye.
The king had no opportunity to visit his daughter, as promised, and indeed, as few knew of the island’s existence, and the magic halter, and the wondrous cow were still kept there, it would have been foolish for him to do so.
“It is time to collect the magic halter,” said Brother-Wizard to Brother- Warrior after a time.
Together, the two of them, again, set out for the wooded isle in the coracle and once they reached the tower and the nine home-steads they collected not only the magic halter, which the king’s daughter freely gave to them but also the ‘fruits’ of Brother-Warrior’s last visit.
The nine children of the hand-maids were given together in a blanket fastened by a thorn which Brother-Wizard carried on his back whilst the grandson of the king was kept in a separate cloth which Brother-Warrior kept slung upon his breast.
As they made their way back to the mainland the thorn holding the blanket broke and the nine children of the hand-maids fell into the sea and were turned into seals, by Brother-Wizard, so they would not drown.
Brother-Warrior brought the grandson of the king safely ashore…
The trouble with writing about somewhere like Stonehenge… somewhere that almost everyone recognises and feels they know something … is that most of us know nothing at all apart from the familiar form of the circle and trilithons.
We just accept that this is an ancient monument, built by people who were maybe not quite as savage as we generally think, for some strange ritual purpose… probably to do with the stars or planets. Or it was built by the Druids? And all the stones came from Wales… And that really is about all most of us know…and most of that is wrong or at least, woefully incomplete.
Stonehenge… the first part of the name is thought to come from the old word for ‘hanging stones’… or ‘stones suspended in air’. The ‘henge’ refers to an outer and circular earthen embankment with an internal ditch, such as the one around the great circle of Avebury, where we had been earlier that afternoon. At Stonehenge, however, the ditch is outside the embankment; just one of many of the anomalies of this site that make it quite unique. Time, feet and erosion have taken their toll on the henge, but the ditch and banks, overlooked by most, can still be seen on the outer edge of the monument field.
Then there are the misconceptions about its timeline… for the circle was built in phases on a site already held and made sacred by the many burials it contained. And then there is the sheer scale of the site… because you simply cannot ignore the number of other archaeological features that cluster around the circle, rippling out across the wider landscape to include many miles and the mindboggling possibility that the vast sites around both Stonehenge and Avebury were designed to work together. And, even when you stand within the circle, it looks something of a jumble to begin with until you begin teasing apart the layers of history. So where do you begin?
At Blick Mead, about a mile from the circle of Stonehenge, is a freshwater spring that neither fails nor freezes all year round. Not only would this water source have made the area useful for both people and animals… it was also a magical spot. And its magic remains to this day, suggesting a second reason why our ancestors chose to settle here. The water of the spring contains a rare algae, turning stones that have been in the water red within an hour or so of being exposed to air. Not surprising, then, that ten thousand years ago, towards the end of the Mesolithic period, when the hunter-gatherer culture of the Middle Stone Age was beginning to settle in one place instead of always following the herds, a settlement should have been built at Blick Mead.
We know from other sites across the country, such as Star Carr in North Yorkshire, that there was a sense of magic and ritual within the human community at that time. The ground conditions at Star Carr preserved unusual amounts of organic material, including a number of headdresses… antler frontlets, made from the horned skulls of red deer, artworks and ornaments. Some of these had been deliberately broken, which implies either gratitude or a sacrifice to some higher power. Which in turn suggests that reverence and spiritual beliefs were well-formed and ingrained.
We know too from sites such as Warren Field in Aberdeenshire, that these Mesolithic peoples were capable of constructing complex sites. Warren Field also dates back ten thousand years and its pits and a midwinter alignment within the landscape constitute an accurate lunar calendar.
The fact that these three sites alone, Stonehenge, Star Carr and Warren Field, are spread end to end across our country, tells us that there was more travel and interaction between areas and tribal groups than we might at first have thought… and thus a sharing of knowledge and techniques was possible that would rapidly disseminate ideas.
Studies run by the University of Buckingham conclude that the settlement at Blick Mead shaped Salisbury Plain to their needs over the course of several thousand years. Six thousand years ago, the trees were cleared across the Plain. A causewayed enclosure was built at Robin Hood’s Ball near Amesbury, just a few miles walk across the Plain. Long barrows began to appear too… and there are well over three hundred known barrows within just a two mile radius of the circle at Stonehenge… around eight hundred in all.
Not every body warranted a barrow burial, but many of those who were so buried were interred with rich and beautiful things. This gives an idea if the importance of the area in spiritual or ancestral terms. As each of the ancestors were lain in earth, perhaps their spirits added to the cumulative wisdom of the land and its people. Perhaps the presence of the dead rendered the living fit for the priesthood. Perhaps, after millennia of association, it was from the community at Blick Mead that the idea sprang to raise a forest of stone beneath the stars…
It seems such a long time ago that I wrote about our not being able to leave for the Scottish weekend, right at the last minute. Stuart hopped on a train and came down here instead. While the Pictish weekend went ahead without us in the far north, we marked time and twiddled our thumbs, waiting for scans and answers. Now, the problem was that this was not only supposed to be a workshop weekend, it was also supposed to be our second and, as it turned out, wholly unsuccessful attempt to get a holiday of some sort this year… albeit just a few days on the road. So when even that was denied us, I was determined that we should do something with what time we had to make our ‘holiday’ memorable.
We had already driven out to Rollright a couple of days earlier. It had taken a lot out of me, but as I had managed, I reckoned I could manage a bit further too. We had missed the June workshop thanks to Covid, during which we were supposed to be exploring some of the lesser-known features of the great megalithic circle and sites around Avebury. It is a place we love and, really, is not too far away from my home.
So, off we set… heading past the White Horse at Uffington, the enigmatic figure cut thousands of years earlier into a strangely shaped ‘horse’ of debatably draconine ancestry. It is the eldest of all the White Horses… first cut, three feet deep and back-filled with chalk, at least three thousand years ago. And yet, like so many other ‘earth-mystery sites’ worldwide, it is only clearly visible from the air…
Like the Nazca lines, there are far too many questions for reasonable answers at this place… but it is a site that is also very special to us, having been part of our story since we, all unknowingly, began our adventures here, one misty, magical morning. So touching base, even if only a nod and a wave on the way past, always feels good.
As we drove on, heading into Wiltshire, we looked out for other White Horses that we would pass. None of the other visible White Horses seem to share the antiquity of The White Horse. Most were cut within the last three centuries to honour people and events of national importance.
I find it quite telling that the ancient image of the White Horse… who may represent Epona, the Horse Goddess or the Dragon energies that run through the land… should be that echoed to make celebratory mark. How deep do these symbols run in our blood? Does their true meaning linger at some subconscious level, deep beyond the logic of normal mentation? And, if they are speaking to us across millennia… just what are they whispering to us?
Looking at the history of the currently visible White Horses, they all seem to share a common trait in that they were all set up by men, yet if they hark back to Epona, they would represent a goddess, a female and nurturing divinity that would be anathema within the later Christian landscape. Moreover, many of the later figures have a military connection and, while it is true that war bands with cavalry had a distinct advantage, I have to wonder at what point in our history violence took precedence over the nurturing of the tribe?
While no records remain in anything we would recognise as ‘written language’ from the time when the great White Horse of Uffington was cut, we do have hints and history that have been passed down via the folk record and eventually captured by the ink of the scribes. Such stories are, by that point, possibly thousands of years away from their source and will have passed through the great machine of Christianisation, where the central characters of a story… who might once have been god, fey or elemental, have been sanitised or condemned by the imposition of sainthood and the pointed finger of demonic accusation.
There is so much to see and learn, so much to wonder about and ponder, even on the simplest of drives from ‘here’ to ‘there’. No matter where we live in the world, or for how many centuries mankind has left his footprints in the dust upon which we walk, the earth beneath our feet is ancient and full of stories ready to be explored.
We cannot go far without a sense of wonder… so far it has carried us across thousands of years of human evolution and now outwards towards the stars. Perhaps that is the what the ancient White Horse whispers to the winds…
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.
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.
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!
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.
I remember reading that the week before our Scottish workshop and being astonished. I knew the Picts had created some of the most mysterious stone carvings I had ever seen. But fearsome warriors? Weren’t these enigmatic people simply farmers?
We were in the Inverness Museum, which is one of the best places to study the history of the Scottish Highlands. Our interest was specific and restricted – though we could have happily been there half the day. We were there to gain a perspective on the story of the Picts’ existence: where they came from, how long they endured, the nature of their spirituality, and the location of their primary settlements.
Equipped with this mental map, the following two days of our Silent Eye weekend would enable us to place in context some of the most remarkable pieces of Pictish stone carving and other artefacts, as we travelled, in turn, up the Tarbat peninsula, down to the Black Isle and, finally, to Dunrobin Castle on our way to the Orkney ferry at Thurso.
Following the Pictish Trail throws up some wonderful mysteries and instances of great fortune. As an example (above), the Brodie Stone, a classic ‘cross slab’ – a cross carved within a surrounding stone surface. The real Brodie Stone stands in the grounds of Brodie Castle, Moray. It was discovered in 1781 during the digging of foundations for a new parish church. For many years it stood in the village of Dyke as a tribute to Vice-Admiral Rodney, for his success at the battle of Saintes, in Dominica. Since then it has also been known as ‘Rodney’s Stone’. It is actually a Class II Pictish stone, meaning it has a Christian cross on one side and Pictish symbols on the other. The Picts converted to Christianity during the 6th and 7th centuries, as we explore, below.
We’d had to reserve our places for the museum online, as the Covid-19 restrictions applied. We were allowed to enter only in small groups and at our allotted time. We were also expected to maintain a steady flow through the exhibits to prevent queuing at the entrance. A tall order, when we had so much to absorb… But at least photographs were allowed, and many of the information panels featured graphical summaries without which this post would have had much less illustration. Sincere thanks are due to the Inverness Museum for allowing this.
Before us were information displays on the geographical and geological history of the region, showing Scotland’s organic formation after the last ice age:
The last ice age ended in Scotland about 9,000 years ago. The melting ice gave way to tundra – an arctic diversity of mosses, lichen and grasses, supporting mountain hares, arctic foxes and reindeer.
As temperatures rose, the tundra was invaded by birch scrub and then woodland, Oak and scots pine eventually replaced the birch, and cloaked the Highlands in dense forest. This became home to red deer, elk and wild cattle.. along with wolves, bears, lynx and, humans.
Around 9000 years ago, the European hunter-gatherers, enabled by the melting ice-sheets, reached the Highlands, and, as conditions improved, they settled permanently to become the first highlanders. They were originally nomads, but, as stone gave way to bronze and then iron – the iron age, the Picts established their home and became skilled farmers.
Then we came to the first of the Pict-focussed panels.
The Iron-Age people who became the Picts were inhabitants of this Highland coast long before they were given their name by the Romans, who called them the ‘Picti’ – painted people; the reference being to their custom of painting their naked bodies before they went into battle, thereby giving a ghostly sheen to their skin and showing off their warlike body art and battle scars. Despite this frightening appearance, they were essentially peaceful farmers, whose ferocity appears to have been roused only when they were threatened.
The Picts left no written record of their history. What we know of them comes from the striking images they carved in stone – which therefore endured. They were written about by both Scottish and Roman writers. The Roman Eumenius, in 297 CE, was the first to refer to them as Picts. There is an alternative theory of the name ‘Pict’, which refers to their own word ‘Pecht’, meaning ancestors. This link to those of their own who ‘went before yet still remain’ has strong spiritual overtones, as we shall see when we get to the Orkney part of these journals.
Recent evidence suggests that the Picts came to Scotland from Orkney, and before that were descendants of Scandinavia, though they lived much earlier than the Vikings, who, according to some sources, were to feature cruelly in their eventual demise. Orkney played a fundamental role in the advancing civilisation of what became Britain, and the age, sophistication and influence of its works is staggering. When we come to consider the spiritual beliefs of the Picts, Orkney takes on an entirely different importance…
The Picts lived here in the Highlands; the Romans invaded. With the Picts, they came up against something they didn’t understand…and came to fear. If the local forces were losing a battle, they would simply vaporise into the landscape – a wild landscape they knew well, unlike their oppressors. The Romans became frustrated, then despondent, at the failure of their traditional military tactics.
The Picts held their ground against the invaders in a number of engagements, but also lost major battles. It’s often said that they lost the battle but won the war. Scotland was never successfully conquered by the Romans, though they tried many times and succeeded in establishing forts well into the Highlands.
The Picts left no writing, unless their art contains a hidden phonetic key, awaiting the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone that enabled the translation of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Written records, by others and about the Picts exist from 297 CE until 900 CE, when they supposedly vanished. Scholars caution against interpreting this as extermination, since it is likely that they simply merged with the surrounding Scots tribes. It is also probable that the Picts’ adoption of Christianity in the 6th century CE was (at least in part) political.
The ‘Scots’ were, in those times, the rival tribe to the south. Further south, still, was Northumbria – one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. In 664 CE, Northumbria’s King Oswiu hosted the Synod of Whitby at which the rivalry of Celtic and Roman Christianity was determined in the Roman Church’s favour. By the time the Picts embraced Christianity, the Roman church had become the de-facto Christian faith across most of Europe. That the Picts came to embrace it is the logical act of a people who wished to live ‘in harmony’ with their neighbours. This may also explain the eventual merging of the Picts and the Scots, and the apparent disappearance of the former.
But what of their art? One of the main goals of the Silent Eye’s weekend was to consider its extraordinary clarity of design, its refreshing simplicity and the use of recurring motifs. The museum had little to say on this, so we hoped that our further journeys to the Tarbat peninsula and The Black Isle would help us. We had been successful, however, in placing the Pictish people, in understanding a little of their motives and culture. We had a framework within which to work. Inverness had served us well.
Our time was up. The enforced flow around the exhibits had meant a rushed gathering of information. What we needed next was a degree of immersion in the Pictish culture. In the morning, a forty minute drive north from Inverness would see us enter the Tarbat Peninsula (see map). There, on one of Scotland’s most beautiful coasts, we would find a former church dedicated to a much deeper social understanding of the mysterious Picts.
But first, it was time to chill for an hour or two and then get ready for some much-needed pizza!
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.
It begins in Inverness, that beautiful confluence of water, road and mountain. Like any journey through northern Scotland, it will be dominated by water…
The year 2020 will be etched in all our memories. It was not a good year to try to hold the kind of workshop we run: three days of shared travel, feeling the landscape, and thoughts about the nature of consciousness; that most precious jewel every human carries. Add to that the possible extension to visit the archipelago of Orkney, and we had something very difficult to achieve.
Covid had caused us to cancel three of the planned workshops of the year. We hung out for the September one, hoping that the physical heartbeat of the Silent Eye could endure for at least one annual pulse in these challenging times. Bad news after bad news threatened it, but the core bookings had been made and we intended to honour them – even if it meant a small group.
Finally, it was time to get in the car and begin what was to be a vast journey… Inverness would be the point where those able to attend were going to meet up. For most of them, it was a journey of hundreds of miles even before they began the weekend.
The workshop was to be in two parts: the first, centred in Inverness, would follow Historic Scotland’s Pictish Trail; the second would take advantage of the fact that we were already near the top of Scotland and could easily board the ferry to Orkney. Bernie and I had visited Orkney in 2018. We were keen to return with the others, and even more eager to share the wonders of this magical place.
The mysterious Picts have long held a fascination for me; ever since I first saw their art, and was struck with an inner sense of wonder at what I can only describe as its ‘quality’. The only other time this had happened was when I saw an Egyptology exhibition in London, and gazed on that ancient civilisation’s wonders.
Decades on, I was lucky enough to visit Egypt with a mystically-oriented group and finally see the relief figures on their beautiful temples. Later in the trip, we were to encounter traces of a people even older than those Egyptians, and much closer to home…
But first, we wanted to have a beginning that would ‘wash away’ the miles that most of us had endured to get here. Inverness offers the perfect answer: a walk by the River Ness.
The River Ness is the channel that connects Loch Ness with the North Sea by way of the vast Moray Firth. It is one of the most powerful rivers in Britain… and yet, to my mind, one of the most peaceful. Near the city, it is criss-crossed by several pedestrian bridges, three of which link both sides of the river to a set of islands in the middle of its flow; effectively creating a set of natural wild gardens in the middle of the river.
Using these, we were able to take a circular walk and finish at a coffee stop that reminds me of something you might see in Paris. The bright and unexpected sunshine helped, and you could feel that the tired spirits were rising.
The coffee hut was a colourful place, and clearly popular with seasoned local folk – one of whom agreed to pose with ‘his’ seagull for this shot…
I had wanted the walking tour to finish here because of its proximity to one of Inverness’ hidden gems: the Cathedral Church of St Andrew, a Scottish Episcopal Church situated by the River Ness a few minutes’ walk from the city centre. It is the seat of the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness – a vast geography.
It is the northernmost cathedral in mainland Britain (but, later, we will encounter another, magnificent one in Orkney…).
Inverness Cathedral was the first new Protestant cathedral to be constructed in Britain since the reformation. The cathedral was built during the years 1866-1869. The foundation stone was laid by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley, in 1866. The architect was a local man, Alexander Ross.
I had wanted to see inside this building because, since a visit to the Belgian city of Ghent, two years ago, I have developed an interest in religious icons, and I knew that the Cathedral of St Andrews contained a very special set.
The central figure is that of Christ. The inscription reads:
“These icons were presented by the Tsar of Russia, Alexander II, to the Right Reverend Robert Eden, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness, on the occasion of is pastoral visit to the country in 1866’
A detailed review of the Cathedral is not the point of this post, but it is worth drawing attention to two more unusual features of the building, The first is the magnificent pulpit, rendered in marble and local sandstone.
The second is a beautiful reproduction of a Pictish Christian cross, located in a special chamber near the entrance. I know nothing of its origin, but spent a full ten minutes at the end of our visit just staring at it…
We had met well. The rest of our afternoon was to be spent in the wonderful Inverness Museum, deepening our knowledge of the Picts. We had much to learn…