The Mysterious Road to Tain (2) : the Demi-god of Ross

(Above: St Duthac’s Chapel. The place of worship of the saint while he was alive)

“You’d have thought they would have looked after it, better!’

Bernie can be highly critical on these occasions. Mind you, we had trudged all the way around the small town of Tain to find it.

The original chapel of St Duthac. The priest to whose church three Scottish kings travelled to pay their respects, sits as an unmarked ruin in the middle of the town’s graveyard, not far from the main railway line, its station and the shore. Steel barriers, leaned casually against what’s left of the old walls, prevent any access to the interior, which, presumably, is dangerous.

(Above: St Duthac’s original chapel)

What happened? Why has the original place of veneration of this remarkable man been left to such a fate? Money must be one reason… but there may be another.

To build a context for the saint’s strong links to the town of Tain, we had to establish something reliable from the different versions of his life-story. The ‘Tain through time’ centre in the heart of the town would have offered some help, but it was closed – due to Covid. Our only recourse was online, and overnight.. Back in the cottage on the Black Isle, we began our research before we paid our second visit to Tain the following day. Quite a challenge, given the quality of broadband in the Scottish Highlands… Thank goodness for the iPhone and the independence of its 4G!

Several hours of coffee-assisted digging brought up an academic paper on the life of St Duthac, written by an assistant lecturer at Stirling University. We finally had some reliable information… except, as with any good study, the first thing stressed by the researcher was the fact that many different versions of Duthac’s life existed in the ‘records’.

A broad brush of St Duthac’s life reveals a straightforward and pious ‘good man’ who lived in the 11th century. He is placed in the category of those saints who gave up riches and title for their faith, thereafter following a simple life of service. In the west, we have little time for the idea of a modern saint; a view caused by our more cynical outlook on power, society and manipulation. With few exceptions, we let our saints be ‘long ago’, while science is now. But the tradition of living saints continues in Asia and the East.

To believe that a spiritual person has a deeper connection with the essential nature of life is hard for us. Yet most of us believe that layer of the human exists – and by inference – exists in ourselves, if only in potential.

Reliable records state that Saint Duthac was a man of noble birth from northern Scotland who displayed signs of unusual holiness – ‘sanctity’, as a child. He performed his first miracle by apparently carrying hot coals without suffering burns. The skeptic in me wonders where his parents were?

Duthac trained in Ireland, then returned to Tain to take up his work as a priest. Later, he was made Bishop of Tain – a position he held until his death. At the end of his life, he returned to Ireland, where his relics lay for two hundred years before being returned to Tain.

Duthac was sent to Ireland for his religious education. This period is central to his story and shows his formative education in the Irish church; the former home of the original, Celtic version of the faith which had been the Christianity in Britain prior to the advance of the rival Roman faith.

(Above: Tain – full of history)

These venerated men and women of older traditions and times shared common paths: they lived simply; they were content with what they had, and they sought no more than that – including fame. Their fame was created by others, not themselves, usually long after their death.

Saint Duthac fits this profile, well… His wider history begins long after his death, when a line of Scottish kings began to visit Tain in pilgrimage to him.

Tain, the area to the north of Inverness where Duthac lived, was remote from the rest of Scotland. It had more in common with its neighbours to the north and west than the seat of power in southern Scotland, and was thought of as belonging to an ‘Hibernio-Norse’ culture. This was to change as the growing legend of St Duthac became important political capital in centralising religious control.

Online, I stumbled on another reference to the life of Saint Duthac: the statement that he had been regarded by those in power as ‘The demi-God of the north’. Such utterances are not made lightly, and demonstrated both veneration and, possibly, fear…

Aside from ‘carrying the hot coals’, records show Duthac performed three further miracles during his lifetime. Here, we might begin to consider the symbolism in the wider context of the traditional and the mystical interpretations of miracles…

Let’s begin with the literal stories. We will consider the possible deeper meanings in the next post.

In the first of the miracles, a man was struck down with a headache. In order to alleviate his pain he sent one of Duthac’s disciples to the saint with a gold ring and some meat. Because of the young cleric’s negligence, a kite stole the gifts, but the youth continued on his way and petitioned Duthac to forgive his failure. Duthac forgave the worried young man and summoned the bird, allowing it to keep the food and returning the ring to its owner.

The second miracle took place during a famine. The saint attended a feast at which a special cake was served. The saint performed a miraculous enlarging of the cake, so that it could feed the whole community. Its crumbs were seen to be bestowed with healing properties. The parallels with the Bible story of Christ feeding the five thousand are obvious.

In the third miracle the saint caused a footpath, on which a canon from Dornoch was carrying a gift of meat to Duthac, to illuminate itself through dangerous terrain, leading the young man to safety on a dark and stormy night.

Seven years after Duthac’s death, and following an exhumation of his body – found to be uncorrupted – his ‘sanctitiy’ was confirmed and he was made a Saint.

Duthac was described by scholars as leading a simple and austere lifestyle and having a reputation for the miraculous; something that surrounded him both in life and death. He was well known locally, but it took the later interests of Scottish kings to establish his wider reputation.

(Above: the location of St Duthat’s Shrine at Tain)

One historical tradition, which seems to have stemmed from the area close to the shrine, draws an important connection between the life of the saint and the establishment of Tain as a royal burgh. It places Duthac firmly in the eleventh century. This relationship between town and saint was the subject of the burgh seal. Duthac’s role as ‘guarantor’ of the burgh’s rights and privileges was emerging, which explains a lot about Duthac’s importance to the temporal and spiritual aspects of Tain’s history.

Later, King James IV was to make Duthac the subject of annual pilgrimages from Edinburgh, once even riding alone, in disguise, and arriving in two days. Historians consider James to have been a wise ruler, and a sincere follower of the spiritual life. He earned himself the name ‘The Pilgrim King’, but his life did not end well. He is said to have ‘consulted’ three of his favourite saints, including Duthac, for a decision on whether to ride south to make war with the English. Sadly, he chose to ignore their ‘oracular advice’ and King James IV died, butchered beyond recognition, at the battle of Flodden, in September 1513.

(Above: St Duthac)

By the time of the death of King James IV, in 1513, Duthac was established as one of the three most important saints in Scotland. Yet, nowadays, He is unknown to most people. What happened? What rift created that chasm between the older and newer worlds of religious ‘sanctity’?

The answer lies in a movement that had both good and ill in it; one that shattered the papal grip on Scotland, yet, at the same time, established a regime that frequently demonised women. Singing and any other form of levity was banned or severely curtailed and the heavy hand of religious authoritarianism replaced the art and expression of the former act of worship.

And the saints were banished…

(Above: The Monymusk Reliquary – containing the names of all the saints. Source Wikipedia; Public Domain)

But one saint, once branded a demi-God, whose service and goodness had helped establish a town, found his legacy being protected by that town, in a form that grew more mysterious as time passed. And four ancient letters engraved in stained glass tell a story of inheritance and protection of something precious…

But that’s for next week…

(Above: the original faded sign, photographed two years ago)

©Stephen Tanham

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

The Mysterious Road to Tain (1)

“There’s a little known saint with some strange royal connections…” mused Bernie, my wife.

“He has a pilgrimage centre near where we’re going today.” she said. “Want to see it?”

There was something in her tone – which is well tuned to what I really value – that suggested her words were precisely chosen. “And it’s on the same peninsula as Portmahomack… your favourite place in all the world.” she said, softly.

‘In all the world’ was a bit over the top… but not by much. ‘Royal’ had me both worried and enthused, but, sensing a triumph of hope over expectation, I pushed the button. “Yes… please… and thank you!”

And that’s how we came to be in Tain; a beautiful town at the point where the amazing Tarbat peninsula, home to some of the best Pictish artefacts in Scotland, joins the main geographic body of the Highlands between Inverness and John o’ Groats.

(Above: Tain’s town centre has many beautiful local-stone buildings)

It wasn’t our first visit. To be honest, our first, two years ago, had been disappointing. None of the cafes we tried would allow our collie inside, so we ended up eating a cold pie and luke-warm take-away coffee in a small park whose main sign was ‘No dogs allowed’.

We were cold and hungry, Tain. I’m sorry…

It’s funny how fate will take you on very specific journeys; if you’re willing to let it lead you off into the unknown.

Two years (and two lockdowns) further on, we had returned to Tain. But only because Bernie had spotted the reference to the mysterious saint that neither of us had heard of.

“You said he was called Dufus?” I was, possibly, being picky.

“There are, apparently, many variants,” she said, reasonably. “Duthac is one of them.”

I nodded my head, looking at the strange and antique lettering on the information board before us…

Behind the sign, ‘Tain through time’ the exhibition was closed, as most things still are – doubly so if you have a dog.

But the dubious antique lettering drew me in, again, and I realised I had seen another faded and battered sign of the same format. But that one had only talked about a King’s ferry, not a route, not a road… not even a royal road.

So, to make sense of this journey, we need to go back to that moment…

Two years ago, when we first visited the Black Isle and various other points north of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, we were standing one afternoon at the ferry point in Nigg, opposite Cromarty.

(Above: ten minutes by ferry across the loch from Nigg lies Cromarty)

My attention was taken by a rusty notice board fixed to an industrial fence. Nigg became one of the main maintenance bases in the North Sea Oil boom of the 1970s onwards. There is little left of its former pastoral beauty. This sign was barely visible.

(Above: the original faded sign, photographed two years ago)

It had been a wonderful day of exploring, and I was busy photographing the late afternoon sun streaming through the darkening white clouds and illuminating the Cromarty Firth.

(Above: early evening gold breaks through the thick clouds to shine on the Cromarty Firth)

The last thing I wanted to look at was an old and rusting sign. But the presence of a small ferry here intrigued me. The information board promised some history – they often contain gems of local knowledge not easily found elsewhere, so I always photograph them for later reference in the blogs.

I studied it… Ferries have always been interesting. They are usually linked to the ancient folk-history of a place. Bernie, who is an historian by training, shares this love. When on holiday we’ll often take a local ferry just for the experience.

The notice board stated that the present ferry crossing (currently ten mins, two cars max) had been in place for well over a thousand years. King William (I) had used it to crush a local rebellion in 1179, establishing a castle on the shores of the loch in the process. The lands granted for the support of the castle had included the revenue from the ferry. It is likely that its name “The King’s Ferry” derived from this time.

The information board records that, three hundred years later, between 1488 and 1513, King James IV of Scotland used the ferry many times to visit and pay his devotions at the shrine of Saint Duthac at the nearby town of Tain, located at the neck of the Tarbat peninsula. His devotion to the saint was such that he switched the historic castle income from the ferry to pay for a chaplain in Tain.

(Above: the location of St Duthat’s Shrine at Tain)

It seems that at this point, the route across the Cromarty Firth and on into Ross became known as the ‘King’s Route’ I remember first reading this, and wondering if there might be a deeper meaning. Kings are certainly important, but there is an older and more spiritual meaning, exemplified in such phrases as the biblical ‘King of Kings’. Was this route simply a way taken by a particular king, or was this a reference to a path of devotion resulting in an ‘inner royal state’?

(Above: a genuine, though unmarked, ruin of great significance)

In the next post, we’ll return to the present moment in Tain and find that something linked to the mysterious St Duthac was open… two things, in fact, though one of them – despite being genuine – was an unmarked ruin…

©Stephen Tanham

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

The Paradox of Cromarty

(Above: the short crossing to Nig, in Ross, links the two halves of this split Scottish county of Ross and Cromarty… and there’s an oil rig in the way…)

We’re in the town of Cromarty, in the north-east Highlands of Scotland. We’re on the old quayside, looking across the Cromarty Firth at the land known as Ross – as in the county name ‘Ross and Cromarty’.

The quayside is the oldest section of the town, and represents well the evolution of this lovely community. Cromarty is one of the gems of this peninsula; known as ‘The Black Isle’. Named because of the difficultly of reaching it across the turbulent waters of the Moray Firth.

(Above: The Black Isle lies immediately to the north-east of Inverness. Map adapted from Google Maps. Ignore the circle, which I was unable to move to the right)

But the town of Cromarty, whilst appearing quite idyllic and prosperous, offers a strange contrast of landscapes…

(Above: Cromarty Firth is the nominated ‘parking-place’ for oil platforms that are ‘resting’: being kept in readiness for an upwards shift in wholesale oil prices)

The thriving metropolis of Inverness, gateway to this part of the Scottish Highlands, lies only thirty minutes south of Cromarty. It’s all very different from the days when the ‘Kings Ferry’ connected travellers by ferry across this waterway to continue their northwards journey on the ‘Kings Road’ to the farthest reaches of north-east Scotland, and possibly beyond, to Orkney.

Today there are vast, and award-winning bridges, but back then it was a long detour around the head of Loch Ness, or more likely, a boat ride from Inverness.

The view in front of us is divided; the huge oil platform ahead is ‘resting’. It’s been retired from active service in the North Sea, pending a rise in the wholesale price of oil. At a certain price point, it becomes viable to operate it again, and giant tugs will pull it out into active use in the seas off North-East Scotland.

(Above: I jumped out of the car to take this fast-vanishing shot of a local ‘paddle-boarder’ crossing the line of one of the largest platforms. Cromarty is a place of intense contrasts)

We counted ten such platforms, all ‘resting’ or being maintained. It requires a skeleton crew onboard at all times, so it’s also expensive to park them in this way.

(Above: beyond the rigs lies a crescent of beautiful mountains)

Beyond the array of the oil platforms lies a ring of beautiful mountains, many of them still snow-capped in this extraordinarily cold spring, where there is still frost in May.

(Above: Cromarty – beautiful and full of history)

We’re having a week’s break on the Black Isle, one of our favourite resting spots. It was originally booked a year ago, but due to Covid, we were offered a choice of refund or a year’s postponement. We choose the latter. It’s lovely to be back in this gentle part of the Scottish Highlands.

The other reason for being back in Cromarty is to scout out a possible location for one of our Silent Eye landscape weekends, which we hope to resume, soon. This part of Scotland was host to our ‘Pictish Trail’ workshop, last September and before the recent lockdowns.

Stuart and I will take turns to host the new series of ‘Landscape Workshop’, and other close friends of the School have offered to guest-host others in their areas, such as the sacred wells of the Malvern hills.

(Above: the central streets of Cromarty are compact and orderly.)

This time, I’m looking for something different, something that contrasts the ancient landscape with the harsh results of modern living and its associated technologies. It’s a topical consideration, and Cromarty is a fitting location…

(Above and symbolically: human nature, unchecked by strong values, drifts downwards towards chaos, drowning the vital and corrective energy of individuality)

The clash of unchecked technology and sustainable living is a central consideration, given the global warming background to all our lives.

There are few landscapes that bring nature together with the harsh sides of mankind’s struggle for survival and prosperity. Cromarty has both, and I want my mind (and emotions) to work on the potential this location offers.

(Above: the beautiful shore path offers a choice of walks along the loch, the longest being 2.5 miles)

There’s a conscience here in Cromarty. There’s also a rich seam of intelligence and consciousness. The locals work together to support each other with projects, craft workshops, theatre and books. You can feel that it’s not only peaceful but involved. It’s the kind of mindfulness that is productive and harmonious.

(Above: beside the loch, an engraved tall stone commemorates all those who, through poverty, were forced to leave these beautiful shores. Ironically, the oil boom may have enabled some to return. The final words speak of a reunion of the heart, regardless of place)

I asked the lady owner of the local bookshop about the contradiction of the presence of the giant rigs, just offshore, She smiled and said, “You just don’t see them after a while. They’re a part of the landscape.”

I think here’s a lesson there, positive and negative.

That sentiment of the ‘changed normal’ was what first made me think of Cromarty as a basis for a weekend, perhaps one that would contrast human ego and human soul; held, necessarily, in balance between the perceived ‘higher and lower’, where the stage for the drama is human nature.

With Sue’s sad death, Stuart and I are examining how we take the Silent Eye forwards, particularly in terms of workshops. The teaching system is well-established and we plan to extend this with online events. Covid under Covid has taught us much, and the powers of ‘Zoom’ to reach across the world and host a virtual discussion, or even short workshop, have been established.

(Above: the old lighthouse – now a research centre for Aberdeen University)

We also feel it’s time to be open to new ideas for the workshops.

The Cromarty weekend would have a residential base in the local B&Bs, but the workshop would be held as a series of walks and talks in the landscape, never far from the contrasts of beautiful loch, mountain and the ever-present giant rigs of Cromarty Firth.

The more I think about it, the more I like it…

(Opening soon: the Silent Eye’s post-Covid workshops for 2021/22. Image courtesy of the Royal Hotel, Cromarty, whose floral door this is)

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn 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.

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.