The City and the Stars (8) : Longships

The traditional picture of the Vikings – looting, marauding, raping invaders – may not be entirely true of their time on Orkney, though they did rule this gentle archipelago with an iron fist for five hundred years… (1300 words, a ten-minute read)

(Above: the glory of St Magnus (Viking) Cathedral, Kirkwall)

History can be complex. Patterns of events that fit in one situation may not, even from the same peoples, dovetail into another. To understand why Orkney’s history of these times is likely to have differed from what might be expected, we need to put ourselves in the minds of the Vikings and examine what Orkney represented to them.

(Above: one of the ancient religious stones)

The sophisticated stone-age race that built the Ness of Brodgar temple-complex and neighbouring stone circles had long gone from Orkney. But the Norsemen did not immediately fill the gap.

No-one knows if anyone did, though farming continued – but without the intense spiritual concentration of former times. During the late Iron Age and for at least 400 years, the dominant cultural force on Orkney was Pictish. It’s likely that they came north, expanding their successful base centred on Inverness. They ruled Orkney for almost as long as the Vikings did, after them. Orkney had its own Pictish Kings, but, though powerfully autonomous in the islands, they were subservient to Inverness in wider Pictish affairs.

In many ways, our own journey over this extended weekend had mirrored that of the Picts. But we had already covered their achievements and culture further south, and they are documented in the earlier blogs (see below). The much more ancient wonders of Orkney had been our focus here. But, now, the story of the Picts had come into view, again, if only in the way they were subsumed into the Viking future, here on Orkney. There seems to have been little warfare, so perhaps they co-existed for a long time, Eventually, the Viking tribes emerged as the stronger cultural force, in line with the expansion of the whole Norse culture, driven by the ambitious Kings of Norway.

In many ways, Orkney was already theirs…

(Above: the pulpit at St Magnus Cathedral)

The Vikings were, essentially, seafarers. They were brave and fearless warriors and mariners of great skill. From their native bases in Scandinavia, they expanded across the world, following oceans and river systems deep into Europe and along the northern and western edges of Britain. Whenever they made these western journeys, they had to sail past Orkney. Its gentle hills and safe harbours were a haven to them. It was a natural stopping point on their outward and return journeys; and there are records (and sagas) of Norwegian royalty being entertained on Orkney, by their Earls – a measure of how important this place was in Viking times.

I hadn’t realised that the Vikings built Christian cathedrals, or that they had Earls, like the English. But both were here in Orkney during the height of their power. It’s confusing when you first look at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, and the place which became their power base in the later years of their reign. The location of the Cathedral is co-existent with the Earl’s Palace and the Palace of the Bishops across the street. So your first reaction is why there was so much ‘British hierarchy’ so far north?

(Above: the ruin of the Earls’ Palace, opposite the Cathedral)

But it’s not. Both the Cathedral and the two palaces are from the period when the Vikings ruled Orkney, administering it under the control of their own, powerful Earls – often two at a time, which was the gravitational force that created St Magnus Cathedral.

(St Magnus Cathedral: the main East-West axis)

The story of how St Magnus Cathedral came to be, and came to be here, is one of internecine warfare and a touch of Viking opportunism.

In 1103 the Viking cousins Magnus Erlendson and Haakon Paulson succeeded to the Earldom of Orkney. At first all went well, but, by 1117, major disputes had arisen. It was agreed that these would be resolved by a meeting on the island of Egilsay on 16th April of that year. Rules of engagement were drawn up, the core of which was that each Earl would take only two ships.

Haakon arrived with six, overwhelming the honest Magnus, who, though threatened with his life, refused to give up his Earldom. Haakon ordered Magnus’ own cook, Lifolf, to kill his master with a meat cleaver blow to his head.

A cenotaph now stands on the spot where this happened. Magnus was buried at Birsay, in the north of the ‘mainland’. Birsay was the Viking Earl’s base at the time, from which they could watch the northern waters. Magnus’ fame and the horror and dishonour of his death meant prayers were said for his soul and pilgrims began to visit his grave. Miraculous cures were reported and soon the place assumed legendary status.

Earl Haakon, now politically secure, became worried by this notoriety and made a pilgrimage to Rome to stabilise his position with the Christian church. He seems to have been successful. He was succeeded as Earl by his son, Paul… and now the tale gets interesting…

(Above: Rognvald Kolson holding a model of the original Cathedral dedicated to his uncle)

Paul was deposed in 1135 by the murdered Magnus’ nephew Rognwald Kolson, who declared his uncle a saint and vowed to raise money from the farmers of Orkney to build a vast cathedral dedicated to St Magnus. Durham masons – among the most skilled in Britain – were drafted in to supervise the design and construction. The new generation of Christian Bishops were a powerful force, and Rognwald Kolson, St Magnus’ nephew, made sure that the three buildings sat side by side. We can assume his political skills were as astute as his military prowess…

The cathedral was consecrated in 1150, when St Magnus’ remains were transferred from Birsay to a shrine in the east of the new church. The building was lengthened and extended in the next two centuries, and was completed to its present form in the 14th century.

Over the years that followed, it fell into disrepair – the Viking rule is not remembered here with fondness. But, in the past twenty years, extensive repair work has been carried out, which has made the St Magnus Cathedral more a more positive part of Orkney’s emotional future. It’s a very beautiful building, and a thriving centre of Kirkwall, which is a feature-rich place to visit.

Our time on Orkney was nearly over. We had one more day to explore, and we had chosen to leave the ‘Mainland’ for the first time and visit one of the neighbouring islands – Rousay. There, we knew, was an extensive defensive structure from the Iron Age. But first, we had to face a tense time on the ferry crossing!

The humorous and terrifying short ferry journey has already been written up as part of the parallel ‘incidentals’ blogs. The link is here.

The story of our final full day on Orkney and its visit to Rousay will be published on Thursday’s blog.

To be continued.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekends, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your areas of interest are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, this is Part 8.

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The City and the Stars (7) : The Standing Stones of Stenness

The Standing Stones of Stenness are reduced in importance compared with their former status. But 5,000 years ago, they were the stone circle for the Ness of Brodgar spiritual city. Only later, in the period culminating in the deliberate act of self-destruction of the Ness of Brodgar structures, were these stones eclipsed as the ‘guide to the heavens’…

(1300 words, a twelve-minute read)

The Orkney site of the Standing Stones of Stenness is overshadowed by its neighbour – the Ring of Brodgar, which is just a few minutes away by car, or fifteen minutes on foot. We had done it both ways… the first time was under a spectacular golden sunset, in 2018. This was the second, and our final visit to the Ness of Brodgar area. 

There were other reasons to visit Orkney, but seeing the entire Ness of Brodgar area – in light of the implications of recent excavations – had been the main reason for extending the Silent Eye’s weekend onto Orkney.

For a long period of time at the start of what we now call the Neolithic era – the new stone age, the stones at Stenness were the major stone circle on Orkney, and a key component of the life of the ritual city centred on the Ness of Brodgar, whose sophistication is just coming to light, as detailed in a previous post. 

The Standing Stones of Stenness were raised between 3,000 and 2,900 BC. Originally, the circle consisted of no more than 12 stones. Today, only four survive. They were surrounded by a wide ditch and raised circular bank (a henge) which was crossed by a single causeway. The whole is reminiscent of how the interior of the Ness of Brodgar’s Structure 10 led only to one point at the centre of the building…for those granted the privilege of being there. In both cases, the recipients are likely to have been carefully selected, and few in number.

(Above: across the lochs of Harray and Stenness, the neighbouring island of Hoy in the distance. The valley between the far mountains is a key alignment of the Ring of Brodgar at the winter solstice – see post)

There were several related stones that lay outside the stone circle. These include the Stone of Odin, which features in local legends but was destroyed by a local farmer in 1800s, and the Watch stone, which marks the land bridge to the area which contains the Ring of Brodgar, though the latter had not been constructed at the time the Stenness Stones were erected.

(Above: The Stenness Watch Stone, photographed in 2018)

At the centre of the Stenness circle was a large hearth. In Neolithic houses, such as those we had seen at Skara Brae (and, though not visited, Barnhouse, next to Stenness) the hearth formed a ritual focal point. The fire there would have been viewed as sacred, and as demonstrating to ‘nature’ that the tribe understood there was an inner fire possessed by all of life, and passed down to it from the ‘stars’.

(Above: a hearth at the centre of the circle would have held deep symbolic significance. This hearth is at Skara Brae)

We have lost the sense of ‘specialness of fire’. To us, fire is commonplace and practical. Unless we are young children there is no wonder in it, even though, if civilisation ended and we found ourselves freezing, few would have the ability to make it, again. The comforts of the modern world have their benefits and their disadvantages. One of the latter is the loss of contact with the vital forces of nature…

(Above: the key alignment with the line of the midwinter solstice sunset)

Like Struture 10 at the neighbouring Ness of Brodgar, the single entrance at Stenness created a hallowed central space where access could be controlled. Its use can only have been ceremonial and ritualistic: the birth of a child, perhaps; the survival of that child beyond seven years; the coming of age as an adult; the passage of a trainee into the priesthood… perhaps all these things took place here.

(Above: Bernie demonstrates the size of one of the largest stones)

There is also celebration. The coming together of the people – probably from far away, as this was such an important centre of Neolithic life. You can stand on this place, look back at Lochs Stenness and Harray and feel how they might have rejoiced at such a gathering.

There was in all probability an earlier building at the site partially represented by sections of masonry, empty stone holes and an earlier central hearth setting.

(Above: The Stenness stones are slender, and look quite fragile; yet they have withstood five thousand years of weathering)

The form of the stones themselves is of architectural note in that they are very tall and very thin blades of stone i.e. they are structurally very slender and probably at the very limit of structural stability. The stone monoliths were derived from at least five different sources, one of which was Vestra Fiold, on the west coast of Mainland, north of Skara Brae.

A leading archeologist writes:

“The Stones of Stenness speak of an early and sophisticated society in northern Britain: it is a rarity to have evidence for contemporary and adjacent ritual and settlements sites; it is an added bonus that their stories appear to weave together to present an imaginative and new appreciation of life in early prehistoric times.”

We had run out of time… No-one wanted to leave the Brodgar area. We gathered to review what this landscape had taught us about the sophisticated people who had lived here, so long ago.

  • The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar have shown that all the sites here, plus the ‘village’ of Skara Brae, were part of a single, spiritually-focussed landscape that involved both a trained priesthood and a dedicated (and hugely ‘expensive’) temple-building programme. The ritual chamber at Maeshowe is a foremost example of this.
  • The so-called ‘Dressers‘ – see image below – were the central edifice in the kind of worship these people performed, and we should examine them accordingly. From this perspective, we can see that there is a significance to the three legs. The idea of ‘threeness’ was central to much of the Celtic world, and invokes the idea that an impelling higher will uses the ‘descending’ power of duality to achieve its purposes. Mankind, as an intelligent recipient of a creative Nature, can come full circle and project this back to the Creator to demonstrate understanding.
(Above: the ‘dresser’ turns out to be the ‘altar’ of the ancient priests)
  • The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar uncovered ‘shelves’ of these dressers decorated in bright reds and yellows – very likely solar in their representation.
  • The use of the midwinter solstice as the most sacred time of the year (rather than the midsummer) indicates a subtle comprehension of the ‘tension of cycles’. In my previous ‘fictional’ example, the new priest is chosen and ordained by an appearance of the last sun of the ‘old cycle’ i.e. before the start of the six months in which the sun gets brighter, and the days longer. The priest is thus associated with the power of light over the darkness…
(Above: a sad farewell to the Ness of Brodgar area, and a certainty that we would be back for another workshop…)

The day was ending. The following morning, we would sample the best – rather than the worst – of the Viking culture that eventually overtook Orkney, bringing a long period of imposed feudalism to its occupants. But, even within that, there were elements of great beauty.

(Above: Viking beauty…)

To be continued.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekend workshops, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your areas of interest are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six. This is Part Seven

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

Two journeys, one destination (9) – Dunrobin Castle

The beautiful vision of the ‘fairytale’ Dunrobin Castle, seen here from across the bay during our visit to Portmahomack, had tantalised us with the reported splendour of its architecture and gardens. Now, we had arrived at the gateway of its estate.

(1800 words, a twelve minute read)

(Above: Dunrobin Castle through a long lens…)

Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses and the largest in the Northern Highlands, having nearly two hundred rooms. It has been home to the Earls, and later, the Dukes of Sutherland since the late medieval age. It lies just north of the beautiful coastal town of Dornoch, on Scotland’s far northeastern coast. It is said that, in terms of Scotland’s history, Dunrobin is ‘about as connected as you can get‘.

Leaving the Inverness region behind, we were finally on our way to Orkney to begin the second part of the trip: Ancient Orkney, but not without stopping to see this masterpiece about which we had heard so much. It wasn’t entirely a diversion from the Pictish Trail, the castle actually marks its most northerly point.

Dunrobin has its own museum, which houses one of the best collections of Pictish stones on the whole coast. The clarity of the markings on these stones is said to be unsurpassed, so we were excited to be coming face to face with some of the best examples anywhere in the world.

(Above: the Pictish stones of Dunrobin’s museum. Sourced from Undiscovered Scotland’s website )

The original building at Dunrobin had been a much simpler square-section fort. The family wished to create a house in the Scottish Baronial style, which had become popular among the aristocracy, who were inspired by Queen Victoria’s new residence at Balmoral. From 1835 onwards, two leading architects were commissioned (at different times) to work on the re-design of the castle: Sir Charles Barry, who was responsible for the Houses of Parliament in London; and Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer. Their work speaks for itself, and, though the subsequent image of Scotland’s highland culture was largely manufactured during Victoria’s reign–to the delight of the monarch–the beauty of Dunrobin speaks for itself.

The towering conical spires stand out on the horizon, as we had seen from the Tarbat Peninsula across the waters. Now, we were approaching them from the rear of that view, down the long drive which forms a rustic entrance for visitors.

There is no town of Dunrobin. The castle is located near to the attractive village of Golspie, on the main A9 route to the northern tip of Scotland. We had tickets for the evening ferry from that coast to Orkney’s main port of Stromness, so we couldn’t afford to be late. No-one in the party had driven that far north before, but we knew the final fifty miles of the journey involved steep winding roads that hugged the rugged coast and took longer than a glance at the map might suggest. It was sobering to think that we were now on the same latitude as southern Norway…

(Above: our run of good weather had ended. From here to Orkney we were to be rained upon, in true Scottish fashion!)

Ahead of us was the entrance to the castle. We donned our Covid masks and signed into our time-slot. We had exactly one hour to take in as much as we could. Sadly, this would be aided by the closure of the museum, as there were not enough staff available to keep it open during the current period of the virus. Our borrowed photographs (above) would have to suffice. No, matter; Orkney was to provide a rich harvest of archeological treasures of the people who, in their movement south, became the Picts.

(Above: the staircase up from the entrance room does not disappoint – nor does the rest of the castle)

Dunrobin Castle has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century and was first mentioned as a stronghold of the family in 1401. The Earldom of Sutherland is one of the seven ancient earldoms of Scotland, and the Sutherlands were one of the most powerful families in Britain with many important matrimonial and territorial alliances.

(Above: Dunrobin is, inevitably, a historical celebration of hunting; something I have little time for if it is done as a ‘sport’. However, taken in the context of history, it is an important element of life on the Sutherland estate)

The Earldom of Sutherland was created in 1235 and a castle appears to have stood on this site since then, possibly on the site of an early medieval fort. The name Dun Robin means Robin’s Hill or Fort in Gaelic, and may have come from Robert, the 6th Earl of Sutherland who died in 1427.

To do justice to the sumptuous interior of Dunrobin would take several dedicated posts. To make this review shorter, I have restricted my reporting to a few of the rooms, leaving room for what is beyond them on the seaward side!

(Above: the beautiful library, ornamented by the ‘rugs’ on the floor, but true to the aristocratic history of its time. The guide did point this out, cautiously, so there is a consciousness of modern sensibilities within the team at Dunrobin)

The Library is a classic example of the interior of Dunrobin Castle. It was converted from a principal bedroom by Sir Robert Lorimer, The entire room is lined with sycamore wood. The Library’s focal point is the portrait by Philip de Laszlo of Duchess Eileen. Born Lady Eileen Butler, elder daughter of the Earl of Lanesborough, she married the 5th Duke of Sutherland in 1912. The Duchess, who was Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary, died in 1943. The romantic story is a classic example of the complex bloodline of those who have lived here.

(Above: The music room. Still in use for small concerts, it also houses a collection of fine paintings, including the portrait of a Venetian Procurator by Tintoretto)

The earlier castle’s keep was encased by a series of additions from the 16th century onwards. In 1785 a large extension was constructed. Remarkably this early keep still survives, much altered, within the complex of the later work, making Dunrobin one of the oldest inhabited houses in Scotland.

(Above: the dining room is the foremost example of a major Victorian public room. It is laid out for dinner in exactly the same way it would have been in 1850. It contains an extensive collection of family portraits)

I took many more photographs, but space will only allow so many. But there’s another reason to be economic with the interior’s real-estate here: the magnificent gardens… even in the drizzling, cold rain that was now a continuous backdrop to our exploring.

My wife, Bernie, was with us on this trip. She is a trained horticulturalist and had dearly wanted us to visit Dunrobin, if only to see the world-renowned gardens. Even the rain didn’t dim the splendour.

(Above: it’s quite shocking… you turn a corner of the balcony terrace and suddenly, as the castle’s ground base drops away, there’s this!)

The gardens were laid out in 1850 by the architect Sir Charles Barry, who was also responsible for the Victorian extension to the Castle. One look from above shows that inspiration came from the Palace of Versailles near Paris, and they have changed little in the 150 years since they were planted, although new plants are constantly being introduced. Despite its northerly location, the sheltered gardens are able to support a surprising range of plants, including, at the foot of the steps leading to the garden, a huge clump of Gunnera manicata, a native rhubarb of South America that has eight foot leaves.

The gardens provide the cut flowers for the displays throughout the Castle. A visit to Dunrobin’s garden is an excellent education in the design of a formal Victorian garden.

Sir Charles Barry was a man of many talents, and had previously designed a large Italianate garden for the 2nd Duke of Staffordshire’s estate at Trentham, in Staffordshire. Dunrobin’s gardens have changed little from Barry’s design of 150 years ago, although new plants are constantly tested, then introduced if hardy enough.

(Above: a few more steps and it broaden to this full view of the parterre landscape below)

Make your way down the stone steps and there emerges a jewel of a garden, full of colour, interest and unexpected features. From below the towering castle provides a splendid backdrop.

(Above: one of the parterres in all its glory…)

The design is much as Barry left it but there have been recent exciting refurbishments to the planting and ornamentation. This includes avenues of Tuscan laurel and Whitebeam and the construction of wooden pyramid features. The old method of tree culture – pleaching – has been re-introduced.

Despite Dunrobin being so far north, the Gulf Stream of warm sea water that flows from the Gulf of Mexico across the Atlantic brings sub-tropical conditions to the UK’s western gardens, from the Isles of Scilly to the North West Highlands, from where it goes on to sweep round Cape Wrath and John O’Groats before making its final landing at Dunrobin. The sheltered and warmed gardens are able to support a surprising range of plants.

(Above: and throughout this, you can look back at the castle and be constantly delighted by the thousand different views)

(Above: that’s Bernie, sheltering under the terrace in the distance. unaware of the cameraman at the end of the avenue, she was actually texting to tell me that our hour was up…)

Knowing we had a long drive ahead, we decided to risk a short visit to the cafe in the castle before setting off. A cup of tea and a piece of cake seemed in order – we’d not had time for lunch, and were due for dinner in the quayside hotel in Stromness, “If the boat was on time,” they’d said, ominously!

We were glad we did, because the cafe is built in what was the estate’s private fire station, and the photographs are some of the best of the trip…

A brief twenty minutes later, we were on the road again, bound for the port of Scrabster and the Islands of Orkney beyond… The Pictish Trail was over. Everyone had loved it. Now, tired but happy, we were on our way to a much more ancient land with an entirely different ‘feel’.

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven (a), Part Seven (b),

Part Eight, This is Part Nine.

©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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Two journeys, one destination (8) – the thousand year fingers

Despite the world of the Picts being so far away in time, there was one man who reached back and ‘touched’ their minds with a language they shared… Art.

(1300 words, a ten-minutes read)

(Above: George Bain)

He looked, once again, at the beautiful rendering of belief and life and…. everything. Once more, he was swept away by a sense of identity with what he saw–what he felt. He knew he understood how they had created it… and he felt a connection to why they had created it.

He was determined to do it his way… and ‘his way’ was art. He picked up his stump of a pencil and let his fingers approach the circle he had drawn earlier on the graph paper. Across the internal horizon of the figure were seven dots. He hovered his pencil tip over the sixth, wondering how well he could render the curve needed. He’d had plenty of practice. He was, after all, a successful artist.

He was so wrapped up in this that his pipe rotated in his mouth – through lack of firmness of his jaw muscles. He smiled, as though sharing a joke with them…

“Not helpful,” he muttered, reflecting how much easier it was to speak with the pipe the right way up. “But I’m glad you’re here, all the same…”

(Above: gently and with precision, George Bain drew the first of his recreations of Pictish art.. The journey had begun)

(Above: George Bain worked entirely by hand, and was seldom without his pipe and his trusty ruler)

George Bain was born in Scrabster, Thurso’s port in Caithness, in 1881. Throughout his life – he travelled and worked in many places – he always stressed that he was a ‘Caithness man.’

Having journeyed up that beautiful coast on our way to Orkney – ironically via the ferry at Scrabster – I can understand why.

George Bain’s family moved to Edinburgh when he was nine. There, he studied at Edinburgh School of Applied Art, then Edinburgh College of Art. In 1902 he obtained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, where he supported himself by working as a freelance newspaper artist and a magazine illustrator.

After serving in the First World War as a Royal Engineer, he taught art at Kirkcaldy High School, and remained there as Principal Teacher of Art until he retired in 1946. As a watercolour artist, he is best known for his landscapes. He painted his native Scotland, Greece and the Balkans, and held successful international exhibitions in Paris and London.

If he was restless, it was because he had a deeper fascination which was harder to fulfil – penetrating the art of the Picts, which, at that time, was not well known and even less understood.

(Above: this reproduction of a small roundel, created by George Bain, was based on an original Insular piece only 1.5 inches across)

I have remarked before in this series of posts that when I saw a Pictish design up close for the first time, I felt just as I had when I first encountered Egyptian art. It’s an emotional experience and reminds you that there is a real power there. Art has has an ability – like symbols – to convey something deeper than the surface shape. In a sense it still ‘speaks’ – even after a thousand years. We may not comprehend it, but we can share it…

Beyond his watercolours, George Bain made it his life’s work to understand how the Picts had created their decorative art: to unravel its geometric principles and the actual techniques used to create their complex patterns. There was nothing primitive about the Picts’ designs, and by inference, their social and spiritual beliefs.

(Above: George Bains’ drawings of the evolution of the Pictish three-coil spiral)

The Picts’ work survives only in stone, but (as we have covered in previous posts) the monastic ‘Celtic’ world was closely connected across Scotland, Ireland (‘Insular’ art), Cornwall and Brittany, and there were many related examples of jewellery and illuminated manuscripts. The Celtic worlds comprised the Western fringes of the old world.

We were to see how influential that old world was when we reached Orkney…

George Bain unravelled the mathematical frameworks for constructing Celtic art. He ‘decoded’ and reproduced hundreds of examples. It enabled those who read his books to not only understand the art of their forebears, but also to have a go at creating examples of their own. In this he was unique, and it earned him a special place in Scotland’s history – and a place in the hearts of those artists and lay-folk who longed to understand the principles on which Pictish art – and Celtic art in general – was based.

(Above: an example of George Bain’s detailed work. This is the opening page of the Book of Kells’ section on St John’s Gospel, reproduced by the artist, with illustrative notes as to how it was created)

The act of producing authentic designs based upon an historical model requires a deeply focussed mind and a set of refined draughting skills. George Bain produced his classic work Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction in 1951. Initially, the work did not receive a lot of attention, but when it was re-issued in 1971 it caught the enthusiasm for Celtic revival prevalent among young people at that time, and the book has been in print ever since. Creative people of all walks of life were receptive to ‘having a go’ and Bain’s scholarly yet accessible methods became necessary reading to anyone who wanted experiential knowledge of a ‘drawn form’ that had fascinated the world for a century or more.

Our brief time in the company of this man’s works had not been wasted. We all wished that it could have been longer, but the Covid restrictions were in force and we understood the need to honour our departure time.

But we now had a feel, if not the details, of how expertly and geometrically the Picts had wrought their works, Knowing them through George Bain’s efforts, we each would have liked to pick up a pencil and play at Pictish art… exactly as he would have wished.

(Above: More of George Bain’s hand-drawn expositions from classic Celtic books)

By all accounts, he was not an easy man to get along with, but he was devoted to his teaching work. His mistrust of academics might have been the scarring of years of dismissal by those who felt that a ‘mere artist’ had little to add to the study of ancient history. How wrong they would have been!

George Bain died in 1968, age 87. He had, and has, a large following. His writings opened up the intricacies of an ancient civilisation to a wider public, encouraging exploration of, amongst others, The Book of Kells, Celtic Knotwork, the Pictish Stones, themselves, and the Book of Durrow. One of the main reasons for Bain’s success was his practical encouragement for fellow artists to use Celtic principles in their craftwork.

The lasting memory I took away from Groam House Museum, which houses the George Bain exhibit, was the memorial he designed for the grave of his wife, Jessie Mackintosh – the image above. Theirs was a deep love and they were inseparable. He was devastated when she died, tragically and prematurely, in 1957. In the memorial, he represented himself in Celtic style, and the entire work was created according to the principles he had learned in his Pictish studies.

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven (a), Part Seven (b),

This is Part Eight.

©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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Two journeys, one destination (7) – Rosemarkie, The Black Isle

Our final visit of the Saturday was to Rosemarkie, a beautiful village on the Black Isle, whose seafront looks south across the vastness of the Moray Firth.

Rosemarkie was also home to a Pictish Monastery. This is now celebrated by the presence of an excellent local museum – close to the site of the original church. Groam House Museum highlights and celebrates the Pictish connection.

Outside the Groam House Museum is a set of mounted mosaics based on Pictish designs. Several had attached folk tales. One in particular caught my eye as we were entering Groam House. It is called ‘The story of the salmon and the hazelnuts’.

‘There is a mythical tale that hazelnuts are believed to be the source of great wisdom.

‘The story tells of a deep dark pool surrounded by hazel trees. In the pool lives a salmon who loves to eat the hazelnuts as they fall from the trees. It said that whoever catches this salmon and eats his flesh will become the wisest person in the world.’

Nothing else, just those words… But they reminded me of one of W. B, Yeats’ mystical poems, ‘Wandering Aengus’, in which a man stops by a river and fashions himself a fishing rod from the branch of a (magical) Hazel tree. For bait he used a berry. What he catches changes his world, and fills him with a purpose that turns the rest of his life into a quest… Follow the link to read the poem.

Smiling at the connection, I entered Groam House Museum, where we were to find our own ‘catch’ of treasures.

The previous stops had left us all with a sense of wonder at the artistic skills of the Pictish craftsman. We had joked that each person, at some stage in the day, had been found with their head ‘at an angle’ trying to figure out the geometric patterns in the stonework. Yet, nowhere had we found an explanation of the complex geometries used in their construction.

The Groam House Museum is devoted to the Pictish relics found on the excavated site of the former church, itself built on the 7th century foundations of another Pictish monastery; though one smaller than that at Portmahomack.

The Groam House exhibits are centred on the giant ‘Rosemarkie Stone (above and below), a classic Type Two cross-slab over twelve feet high, with Christian markings on one side, and more mysterious and ancient Pictish carvings on the other. At the time of their carving, both the traditions were embraced by the Picts, and hence the use of the double design. Archeologists remark that with the Christian faith dominating the world to the south of Easter-Ross, the Picts may have been hedging their bets!

(Above: the reverse, Christianised face is less distinct due to weathering, but the illustrative drawing, below, helps)

The hand-drawn Illustration of both its faces, below, is taken (via Wikipedia) from Angus J Beaton’s Illustrated Guide to Fortrose and Vicinity, published in Inverness in 1885.

The Rosemarkie stone is carved from fine-grained sandstone. It was disovered in the first two decades of the 19th century in the floor of the old church in the village of Rosemarkie. The stone had been broken into two parts that have since been reconstructed.

The Christianised side is elaborately carved. The reverse side carvings include a double disc and z-rod, and no less than three crescents and v-rods. It is unique to find this repetition of a symbol, and must indicate a local emphasis of whatever it signifies.

(Above: Tree vine and grapes; a Pictish representation of Christ and his Disciples, though the original meaning of may pre-date Christianity)

There are other treasures at Groam House. Rosemarkie’s first stone church became a place of pilgrimage. The sculptured slab above could reflect such a role as one side of a stone shrine – a box that would have held a few bones of a revered saint.

(Above right: St Curadan)

Rosemarkie is generally linked to Saint Curadan, one of the bishops who witnessed St Adnoman’s Law of the Innocents, in 697 AD. This was the first declaration of rights for the safety of women and children during warfare. It was signed by representatives of Christian kingships across the British Isles at a meeting in Ireland. But there is also a story linking the church to Saint Moluag, whose monastic focus was on the west coast, on Lismore. He died in 592 AD. Some of his bones were brought here during the troubled 800s. It was at this time that Saint Columba’s relics were taken from Iona to Dunkeld.

The vine carving was done around 100 years later, at a time when Christianity had become the entire basis of the Picts’ religion. It represents a tree vine with grapes, symbolising Christ’s disciples, his blood and salvation. The imagery is just right for a shrine – perhaps the stone box was prepared for relics of Saint Curadan?

Sadly, the main Groam House exhibits made no mention of how the Pictish works were created, in terms of geometric principles. At that point, I had completed my circuit of the ground floor and was back near the door. My eye was taken by a colourful picture on one side of the notice board. Enquiring, I learned it was of St John, and created by a Scottish artist who had specialised in the reconstruction of Pictish geometry…

I must have looked disbelieving because the guide, smiling, pointed upwards. “We have two floors,” he said. “The upper one is dedicated to the work of George Bain, the man who gave us the keys to the art of the Picts…”

It had been a long day, with a small amount of sustenance. My legs were a touch weary as I climbed the steep stairway to what looked like an extended attic. But what we saw, waiting in that upper floor was refreshment enough…

Forty minutes later, our pre-booked time came to an end. The manager and guide of Groam House had extended it for as long as he dared. Mercifully, the cafe we knew on the seashore was still open, and, as the afternoon light began to fade, we were finally able to have some coffee…. and a little cake.

Next week I will recount the discoveries of that forty minutes and the sheer excitement of seeing the art of the Picts decoded…

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, this is Part Seven

©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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Interlude ~ Saving the ‘best’?

So, while we should have been on a workshop and holiday, I was stuck in that limbo between the medics telling me it ‘looks like cancer’ and them doing something about it. I was determined that, before the doors closed on adventure, at least for a while, we would have at least one more. And it needed to be a good one.

We had revisited Rollright, paid our respects at Churchill’s grave, nodded to half a dozen White Horses and spent some time with the great stones of Avebury. There was really only one thing left that we could do… at least at this end of the country. And, even then, it would be pushing it for me to drive the distance.

We had to go to Stonehenge.

As a child and young woman, before the barriers and management rolled in, roping off the stones to protect them from further damage, I had spent a lot of time with them, getting to know the feel of them and wandering amongst their strange presence.  Since before the building of the henge and circles, before the barrows,  it would seem that humankind has held this place sacred, as not only settlements but burials have been found here dating back a full ten thousand years. We had passed the site several times now on our travels, each time considering that we ‘ought’ to visit the stones, as Stuart has seen them only from a distance… and each time deciding that we just could not do it.

The stones, seen from the road in high summer, seem like some magical creature with its wings clipped and caged in a zoo, visitors are funnelled around the outside of the circle at a safe and respectful distance. There are crowds. Noise… hubbub. On the one occasion I had taken friends there who are sensitive, it had ended in grief and tears… the atmosphere is wrong. No matter how carefully the authorities site their visitor centre, how lightly they appear to touch the landscape, the simple fact that around a million and a half people come to visit this one stone circle, every single year, cannot help but leave its psychic mark.

But this year, there had been the COVID lockdown. The site had been closed for month. There had been less travel, fewer visitors… time for the stones to take a deep breath and recuperate… There had to be something good to come from the social distancing measures.

And, given the circumstances, this might well be not only our best chance but also our last to visit the most iconic stone circle in the world. It had to be done.

But, we would still be kept at a distance from the stones… behind the barriers… walking around them in frustrated circles… and you really need to be within the circle. Having known it myself in earlier times, I wanted to be able to share that experience… because it changes everything.

I booked our timed tickets… and could not believe that I was lucky enough to be able to book, for that day, when it is usually fully booked months, sometimes years in advance, as part of a handful of people who would be allowed beyond the barriers, within the stones, after hours. A wholly unexpected birthday gift would, ‘coincidentally’ cover the cost. As compensation for missing both the Scottish weekend and our holiday, it was as much as we could do… and all fell into place so neatly…

And yet,  I still pulled up at the visitor centre filled with trepidation. It had been a long time since I had last visited Stonehenge, up close and personal… What impact has the new centre had on the landscape? It looked quite discrete to be fair, at least now when it was empty of visitors…

What protective measures would be in place and would we really be able to get a feel for the stones in the way I remembered? Our ever-present robin seemed to laugh at my fears as we waited for the bus that would take us across the monument fields. We could only wait and see…

Two journeys, one destination (6) – a Pictish horizon

With the wonderful Portmahomack behind us, it was time to meet the three Pictish stones that marked the horizon line of the Tarbat Peninsula. These would originally have been visible from the sea, and boats approaching from the Moray Firth would have known they were approaching sacred Pictish land – centred on the monastery at Portmahomack.

On this second day of the Silent Eye’s Pictish Trail weekend, our plan was to work our way back from Portmahomack along the spine of the Tarbat Peninsula towards Inverness, viewing each of the major standing stones and ending with a visit to Rosemarkie – across the Cromarty Firth on the Black Isle.

Our first stop was at Balintore, a village that looks out over the Moray Firth. There, we saw signs for the nearby Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone. I was eager to see this famous stone, about which we had read so much in the Tarbat Discovery Centre. I knew a little of its history, but the truth was to be more fascinating than I could have envisaged…

This Pictish stone at Hilton Cadboll was created at the Portmahomack Monastery to the classic design of a what we now call a Pictish Class II cross-slab. One side would have contained symbols from the older Celtic (pre-Christian) religion, mixed with local glyphs of the sponsoring family. The other would contain Christian iconography.

The cross-slab was erected here in about AD 800. Sadly, it broke soon after, under the pressure of high winds. The stone was re-erected, on the same spot; the lower portion being buried to form a new base. It broke again in 1674, and a further section was left in the ground. This beautiful stone has not enjoyed a happy history…

In about 1676 the entire Christian cross-face was chipped off by a local laird to create a family grave slab! By 1780 the surviving half of the stone was recorded as being near the ruins of a now-vanished chapel which is presumed to be located under the mound of earth next to the present stone.

(Above: the mound that covers the ancient church and, possibly its hamlet)

100 years later the stone endured a somewhat ‘political’ journey via Invergordon Castle and the British Museum to be returned to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where the original is now located.

The local people were not happy at the loss of their precious stone, but accepted that it was now safe from harm and, at least, back in Scotland. Its original base and thousands of broken fragments were extracted from the site in 2001. But the local population were so supportive of their folk-history, they paid for a magnificent replica to be carved, in situ, over a five year period. The work was carried out by local sculptor Barry Grove.

(Above: the seaward-facing side of the Hilton Cadboll slab-cross. This was re-created by the sculptor using his knowledge of similar stones)

Barry says of the reconstructed stone:

“No Pictish tools survive. At our Iron Age bonecarving workshop, Jim Glazzard used a Viking tool box as his basis for the iron tools. The Hilton of Cadboll stone also provided some evidence. It snapped and blew over several centuries ago, and the remains of the base and lower areas of carving became buried.”

Remarkably, during an excavation taking place prior to the erection of Barry Grove’s replica, the original base (from AD 800) was found preserved by the soil – which also revealed the nature of the Pictish carver’s chisel marks. This provided the sculptor with a basis of authentic design and technique for the reconstruction of the missing cross face. Using what he had as clues, Barry Groves spent a month on the design, then began what would be five years of stone carving. The rediscovered original base has a secure home in the local Seaboard Memorial Hall in Balintore. Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit.

It’s a remarkable story of a small community succeeding against the odds…

(Above: the upper face of the ‘Celtic’ Pictish design, showing a noble woman leading a hunt, which includes several men in the group on foot. This is deemed to show her superiority. She may well have been the sponsor of the Hilton of Cadboll stone. Above the hunt scene, the upper face contains the traditional twin discs and ‘V-Rod’ design, which will be commented on later in the post.

Standing before the ‘restored’ Hilton Cadboll cross-slab is a profound experience. You can view the stone as original Pictish ancestors would have seen it over 800 years ago. Standing in front of it in the sunshine, with the sea at your back, is quite an experience…and freely given. There is no charge.

It is believed that all such stones were originally painted. The image below shows how the centre section of the Hilton Cadboll cross slab would have originally looked. The use of colour makes the symbols a lot more ‘familiar’.

But what of the Pictish symbols, such as the ‘V-Rod’ and the twin discs, both of which feature on the Hilton of Cadboll stone? It is unlikely that we will ever find a ‘Rosetta stone’ that gives a word for word translation. But there’s nothing stopping us looking at the symbols and letting our conscious (and possibly subconscious) minds having a go…

Symbols are universal. If they ‘speak’ to us, then there’s a reason. We can relax and let them share what they are. We don’t have to be archeologists to sit with the symbol and let it talk. If we take a child’s approach and ‘say what we see’, then insights can happen.

Take the upper symbol above – the V-Rod. When I did this, earlier, the two halves of the rod suggested an arrow. But it’s not broken in two, just bent… at what looks like a precise angle; a little greater than 90 degrees. Lets take a guess and examine what 100 degrees looks like:

That looks quite close… So, as fingers have been around for a long time, and the Picts clearly had a strong grasp of numbers and geometry, we could say that the V-Rod might represent 10×10 fingers – or ten ‘men’. The arrow may indicate that they were warriors, so we have ten warriors, which may have had symbolic significance. It might have been short form for an army, for example.

The crescent looks moon-like to me, but it might also represent the bowl of the heavens. Also, it seems to contain waves. This might alter the overall interpretation of the symbol. The lower curves in the crescent remind me of the bowed shape of a sail. We might be looking at sailing warriors, then. Masters of the craft of sailing long distances, possibly using the moon or stars for stealthy navigation? Or perhaps the moon is simply a symbol for the sea, with which it is intimately connected?

And here, I’d better stop, because I’ve just realised I’m making a very good case for a leading family whose ‘crest’ this is being Viking!

My logic may be baseless, but it’s the kind of open-minded approach that can bring insights. But we should move on… We had a timed entry at the museum in Rosemarkie, due to Covid restrictions, and we’d yet to visit Shadwick and Nigg.

The Hilton Cadboll stone is a dream to photograph…unlike our next location; which is a classic example of an intact Pictish cross-slab that has stood in its original position for over a thousand years…

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

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

©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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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.

Two journeys, one destination (4) – two sides of the hill

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:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, this is Part Four

©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.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.