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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Above: Sacred vessels and precious jewellery)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Other parts of this series:

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

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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

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

On the second day of the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ weekend, we are beginning in what is, for me, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Portmahomack is a small fishing village on the north side of the Tarbat Peninsula. It’s an hours drive north from Inverness.

I’m at the end of the pier, gazing out across the deep blue sea towards highland mountains in the distance. Low in the line of dense green forest and near the sandy line of that far shore is a white fairytale castle. It could be a dream but it’s not. It’s real, and we will be visiting it on our way to the archipelago of Orkney, tomorrow. It’s called Dunrobin Castle, and is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Sutherland.

The museum at Dunrobin has some fine Pictish stones, and the castle marks the most northerly point of the Pictish trail. But the real historic trail points further north to Orkney, and that is a very different land and one-time kingdom.

No-one in the group has been to Dunrobin, before. Having glimpsed its pale spires glinting in the morning sun, we can’t wait…but our Saturday has more than enough for now.

Today’s explorations begin with the sight of an ancient church just over the rise of the hill at my back. I can’t see it from here, but I can feel its presence. I want the others to feel it in a different way to how I first discovered it. I want them to feel its ancientness before they see it. To do this I have to enter a state which is crisp and clear with anticipation, then share it – without words.

It’s one of the things we do – Sue Stuart and I. There aren’t always words for how it works, in fact it’s more powerful when there are no words at all.

There are no words from either of them here, Because they are not with us. They are hundreds of miles south in a hospital, where Sue is being tested for something serious. Where there are usually three of the Silent Eye Directors on our ‘landscape’ weekends, here, there is one, and the workshop needs to continue. We have a duty to each other – and to those who have travelled so far.

I’ve held the emotions back so far, but here they are overwhelming. Sue loves beaches, and this is one of the best… So this is for her.

We return to our vehicles and I lead the way from the bay and over the small hill to the other side of the Tarbat peninsula. In front of us, at the entrance to what looks like an old church, is a striking statue of a Pictish Priestess.

We gather around her and I describe a visualisation in which we are approaching this place, not by car, but in a boat, cutting its way through the choppy blue sea as it nears the sixth-century harbour of the old Portmahomack.

As the boat turns to make its landing, we look up at the large stones that pattern the spine of the peninsula – and mark it as sacred ground… In our vision, we can see them all, though some are miles away.

These large marker stones will form the basis of the rest of the morning. They will lead down the Tarbat peninsula and across its sister; the Fearn Peninsula. By the time we have travelled their length, we will be at Nigg, from where we can look out south, across the waters of the Cromarty Firth towards the Black Isle, our afternoon destination.

The boat nears the shore. We can pick out the outlines of the harbour, a farm, and, at the highest point, a church. Ahead of us is an entire Pictish village on the shore. It’s a large settlement for this age. At its heart is a monastery as influential as the (Irish-derived) Celtic Christian monastery at Iona, and founded at much the same time. This is 6th century Portmahomack, and the monastery is one of a chain of such institutions tasked with nothing less than keeping civilisation alive… in the face of barbarism. This village houses the central spiritual authority of the Picts.

Here, there is also a metalworking foundry and scholarly building where sacred texts are painstakingly copied or created by hand, in all their ‘illuminated’ brilliance. These would rival the works produced at Lindisfarne, many miles south, though all will be lost to history – and the attacks of the Vikings… but the evidence will remain in their unmatched stonework.

Scriptoria is the scholarly name for the historical creation of holy texts. The map, above, shows the location of monasteries with scriptoria that existed at the same time as that at Portmahomack.

(Above: the tools of scriptoria. The writing instruments were found in the foundations of the church)

Each monastery would have had a library of books for copying by hand; the work carried out by a hierarchy of skilled artists and calligraphers. This was the ancient science of sacred communication – as vital to the Pictish people as the internet is to us. The holy books taught that mankind was both beast and something more. Sacred texts fed the higher.

Everyone spoke, few people read and wrote… when the writers spoke everyone listened.

The books were loaned and gifted by monasteries to each other. They travelled long distances and the art they contained came to have a great effect on sculpture and metalwork. Strong examples of this can be seen at nearby Nigg and Rosemarkie. We intend to visit both, today.

Aided by this vision of the landing of our ancient boat, our day begins here; around and within the white building ahead. This is the Tarbat Discovery Centre, and they are expecting us…

The Portmahomack Discovery Centre is one of the best places to ‘immerse’ yourself in the world of the Picts, their culture and their civilisation.

The Discovery Centre is unique in that the main subject of its work is itself. In a very real sense, the church remains a partly Pictish building. No less than six churches have stood on this site, and the earliest construction – part of a stone wall that still forms a side of the recovered crypt – is as it was constructed by the Pictish builders of the 9th century.

(Above: the Discovery Centre is housed in the old church of St Colman. Bishop Colman led the ‘Celtic Christian’ contingent, centred in Lindisfarne, during the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. Under the jurisdiction of the powerful Northumbrian King Oswiu, the church of Rome prevailed, steering Britain’s history away from the more mystically-inclined and nature-facing Celtic tradition that had travelled with St Columba from Ireland. Bishop Colman – St Colman – is remembered in the name of the old church, though there are no records to show if he spent time here, as he and his monks from Lindisfarne departed into exile… It is likely that here, as in Iona, Celtic Christianity continued for a while after)

You can plan a weekend workshop like this, and have it go mainly to plan, but the exceptions will often form the best bits. The lady who runs the Tarbat Centre is a Portmahomack local and very welcoming. We are lucky. It’s still early and we have the place to ourselves.

She is in the middle of explaining the layout when a rather wild shout comes from above: “Margaret, I’ve done it!”

She smiles. “That’s Robert, one of our best volunteers…” she leaves it there… but you know there’s more to the story, as we’ll find out later. After watching a short introductory video, we wander… and it’s amazing.

The upper floor is the education centre where talks are given. The centre owes its existence to the results of the major excavation carried out by York University between 1997 and 2004.

(Above: the archeological work at Portmahomack, carried out by York University during 1997-2004. St Colman’s church is top right)

The centre has three levels. The main, middle floor is divided into exhibition sections. The crypt – the lowest level – dates all the way back to medieval times. It has lots of history and two skeletons…

On our first pass around the centre, we concentrate on the societal aspects revealed by the Tarbat discoveries – the importance of the Portmahomack monastery to the lives of all the Pictish people. There is one important aspect of this to consider before we can progress to the archeological relics: the question of how central the monastery was to the economy of the region. Two information boards describe this well:

‘The Tarbat peninsula contains some of the most productive agricultural land in Britain, But when the monastery was founded in the 6th century CE, the landscape was very different. The valley behind the church was marshland, which has been radiocarbon dated to the 1st millennium BCE.

Several Neolithic and Bronze Age flint arrowheads have been found close to the area suggesting that wild fowl on the marsh attracted prehistoric hunters. This wild marshland was tamed by the monastic community of Portmahomack, who drained it to create grazing for cattle and plough lands for grain.

Vast quantities of animal bones have been found during excavation which show that plenty of pasture must have been available for grazing cattle and sheep. Pigs were also eaten and may have been let loose to forage for food nearby. More rarely, deer bones have been found which shows that the land surrounding the monastery was home to wild herds.

Crops were also cultivated and the first signs of this were visible in the earth as scratch marks made by a wooden plough. In order to toughen the board against wear and tear, it was studded with small pebbles known as ‘plough pebbles’. The pebbles sometimes fell out and many have been found during excavation. An ancient ditch found beneath the church dated to the 6th century, contained burnt grain identified as barley. A massive barn found in the farm area of the monastery would have been used to thresh, dry and store the barley following harvesting by hand using a sickle.

For centuries, grain was ground by hand, using either a trough quern or a rotary quern, but both methods were time-consuming and hard work, The 8th century monks introduced the horizontal water-powered mill, in which a fast moving stream turned the mill wheel, which turned a millstone.

The dam for a mill has been uncovered at Portmahomack, made of a massive retaining wall with a culvert feeding the mill race. The mill itself may lie under the modern road. Monasteries like Portmahomack eventually came to control grain processing and this was an important factor in controlling the size and economy of the local population.’

A very important ‘village’…

Now, Robert is shouting from the lecture room that he’s solved another of Margaret’s problems, and I’m wondering how I’m going to fit any more into a single blog… and suddenly everything goes quiet, outside and in, and I realise we don’t have to…

The Discovery Centre is too good to squash into a single post… so let’s give it two…

Besides, ahead of me at this point in the retelling is one of the most beautiful chalices I’ve ever seen… And I’m eager to fit it into our newly discovered cultural framework of the amazing Picts.

(Above: a beautiful and mysterious chalice awaits us…)

In the next post we will examine the legacy of the Pictish objects found within the excavated Portmahomack site, before moving on, down the spine of the peninsula, to a beautiful glass-protected cross-slab… and two surprises, one of which will test our ingenuity to the full!

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

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

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

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