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.

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 (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.

Two journeys, one destination (3) – the mysterious Picts

(Above: the view of the neighbouring Inverness Castle from the steps of the museum)

‘The Romans were frightened of them…”

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.

(Above: the land of the Picts, stretching from the far north-east of Scotland, to the present site of Inverness, then along the Elgin coast towards Burghhead and beyond. Inverness, the site of the museum, is marked in red.
~Map adapted by the author from a photo of the panel in the Inverness Museum~)

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.

(Above: Cast of the Brodie Stone, a mystery in two halves:)

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:

(Above: after the ice; the emergence of Scotland at the end of 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.

(Above: one of the panels in the Inverness Museum places the Picts and Romans co-existing from 80-399 CE. Beyond this, the Picts survived to around 900 CE, when they ‘mysteriously vanished…’)

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.

(Above: a picture of the Pictish Hilton of Cadboll stone. We had no idea that the weekend would bring us face to face with a large and exact life-size replica! Note the twin circles in the upper and middle parts; these are considered feminine and depict ‘comb and mirror’. The inset ‘V’ shape is another classic Pictish symbol called a ‘V-Rod’)

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…

(Above: Wolf Stone
Found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromart
This incised Pictish stone was found in 1903 built into an old wall. The graceful figures of the wolf is depicted using a few carved lines to give a sense of movement and shows the power of the animal)

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.

(Above: a Pictish picture of an ‘unknown beast’. Also found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromarty)

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.

(Above: The Achavrail Armlet
The example of ‘massive metalworking’ reflects the designs adapted from continental Europe. Dating to the first or second centuries CE, this large bronze armlet was made by the ‘lost wax’ casting method)

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!


(Above: Mobile populations.. The Inverness museum illustrates many facets of Highland life. Silver pocket watches by Primus Mink and Faller brothers, 1870s. Mink and Faller brothers were craftsmen driven from Germany by political unrest during the late 1800s. They and at least six other German watchmakers flourished in Inverness at this time…)

To be continued…

Other parts of this series of blogs:

Part One, Part Two, this is Part Three

©Stephen Tanham

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 (2) – Inverness

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.

(Above: one of the Pictish slab crosses in Inverness museum)

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.

(Above: the fine lines of Pictish art display the high culture of its people)

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…

(Inverness’ beautiful and formidable River Ness, with its set of islands connected by walkways. What looks like the far bank, here, is actually the largest of these)

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.

(Above: A Parisian-style coffee hut on the bank of the River Ness)

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.

(Above: the exterior of the Cathedral Church of St Andrew)

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.

(Above: the graceful lines of the Cathedral of St Andrew, created in the Gothic Revival style)
(Above and below: the eye is drawn to the high, wooden ceiling)

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.

(Above: The icons are located on the north wall of the nave)

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…

The magnificent Pictish-style cross

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…

To be continued…

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness.