Tarbat Discovery Programme

Professor Martin Carver

Tarbat Discovery Programme

Tarbatness Road, Portmahomack, Tain, Ross-shire IV20 1YA, Scotland


Ross-shire, United Kingdom
The British Archaeology Award 2010

Digging up art - The Pictish monastery at Portmahomack

The Picts are one of Europe's lost peoples.  Living in the 5th to 8th centuries AD in the far north-east of Britain, they were consummate artists producing some of the most striking sculpture of their day.   But because they left no history, their heritage depended only on these few carved stones standing in the Scottish countryside, and the unflattering opinions of their literate neighbours. Until recently that ishellip;..

In 1984 an aerial photographer noticed an enclosure around the church of St Colman, which stands just outside the little fishing village of Portmahomack (ls"port of Colman'). The village lies on the Tarbat peninsula, a spit of land separating the Moray, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths (=sea-lakes) about 50 miles north east of Inverness. Its crumbling ls"white church' was once a seamark for sailors as well as a landmark for travellers on land, but now it was redundant and becoming derelict, to the great sadness of local people.

But how to save it, for what purpose and who would pay?  Enthusiasts from the village and the surrounding farmland formed a Trust and set to work to raise money. At first they collected donations, held car boot sales and applied for grants from the Highland Council and Historic Scotland. But there was little money in the pot - and a great many redundant churches.  A break-through was required, something to raise the stakes. Then a chance remark led the Chairman of the Trust, Caroline Shepherd-Barron, to telephone an archaeologist at the University of York, excavator of the Sutton Hoo royal burial ground and specialist in early medieval Europe. That was me!

After Sutton Hoo, I was on the look out for an opportunity to excavate a Pictish site and so throw some light on a talented but largely forgotten people. Meanwhile the local authority, Highland Council, wanted to see education and tourism developed in this out-of-the-way peninsula.  And for their part, the Trust, of course, wanted the church restored. The three parties got their heads together and came up with a design: the site would be dug by the archaeologists, the church building would be restored and then made into a museum, and the exhibition could be based on the finds recovered by the archaeologists. In this way, the church would have a long-term use, thus enhancing education and tourism and justifying the investment. And new history would be written.

We sent our design to a large number of potential sponsors, including the European Regional Development and Heritage Lottery Funds. They took us onto their books, and in 1996 the excavation began. First the church itself was recorded, above and below ground, and then an area of nearly a hectare in the adjacent fields was excavated. The results exceeded our wildest dreams: a Pictish monastery of the 6-8th century, complete with burial ground, standing stone monuments, workshops and waterworks to provide water and drive a mill.

The earliest burials had been laid in stone cists, and imitated prehistoric tombs.  A hundred graves of the monastic period (6-8th century) were excavated, together with another hundred from the medieval period (11-16th century).  There had been eight successive churches in the same place, their form reflecting the variants of Christian worship - Catholic, Reformed, Presbyterian and Free. Carved stones were found re-used in the medieval foundations, and scattered under the field beside the church. During the excavation there were certain weeks when a new piece of carved stone came to light each day, to the delight of the work-force. In the end, more than 200 pieces of Celtic carving were recovered, the broken-up remains of three or four giant works of art.

In the field beside the church was a workshop areas littered with crucibles and moulds used to make chalices and reliquaries.  Another workshop lay adjacent, where artisans had left a stone-lined pit, piles of white pebbles, ash, pumice stone rubbers and rows of bone pegs. What was being made here?  A single find gave it away: a curved knife of the sort used by leather-workers.  Hides had been defleshed in the stone-lined pit and pegged to wooden frames using the bone pegs and the pebbles (to prevent tearing). The ash had come from burning seaweed and spirorbis shells - thus providing an alkaline astringent. This would have tawed the leather, ie made it white. And so the mystery was solved: they were making parchment for books. The craftsmen were protected from the weather in large barn-like buildings built from timber and turf, laid out according to geometric principles. 

The people of 8th century Portmahomack were artistic, intellectual, Christian and literate. Their monastery was founded in the late 6th century, probably as a result of an Irish expedition led from Iona by Saint Columba.  At first it was a humble, isolated affair; but in the late 7th century there was an explosion of activity in which the influence of Northumbria was evident. During the 8th century the monastery expanded to cover the whole peninsula, its limits marked by enormous cross slabs looking out to sea. These cross-slabs, at Nigg, Shandwick, Hilton of Cadboll and Portmahomack are the outstanding stone masterpieces of 8th century Europe.  In around 800AD, the Tarbat peninsula found itself in the front line between the Scots coming from the west and the Viking Norse coming from the east. The monastery was burnt to the ground, but some of its artisans survived and were taken into employment by the new authority.  In the 11th century, St Colman's was refounded as a parish church and served as such until the end of the 20th century.  In 1999, the church restoration was complete and the building began its new life as a museum and visitor centre.

In its heyday, Portmahomack was on the main sea road around Scotland, highway of maritime traffic, trade, ideas and politics. Today, it is well off the beaten track for cars  - but visitors who make the journey will find a bright white church containing a gem of a museum, a window onto the lives and thoughts of a European people now equipped with new history.

Source: Martin Carver Portmahomack. Monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh University Press, 2008)



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