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Tarbat Ness
Tarbat Ness

Tarbat Ness

Tarbat Ness is a long way from Colmcille’s monastic foundation on Iona off the west coast of Scotland.

But Colmcille visited this area in c.565 – only two years after he arrived in Scotland – to forge stronger political relationships with the ruling Picts and to get a guarantee that his monks would be protected as they travelled. He is said to have visited King Brude, possibly at the Iron Age fort at Craig Phadraig which sits at the edge of modern Inverness.

Visit the beautiful peninsula of Tarbat Ness to discover the Christian art and faith of the Picts who were Colmcille’s contemporaries and whose monastery at Portmahomack has been called ‘the Iona of the east’.

Colmcille and the Picts

Colmcille’s biographer, Adomnán records that Colmcille came to this region to visit King Brude, the Pictish leader. Adomnán’s book refers to several encounters between Colmcille and Picts living in the area. Colmcille is described as converting these Picts to Christianity. But it is likely that some Picts were Christian before Colmcille arrived.

Colmcille was known not only as a man of faith but also for his high profile political connections (see here). He came from a ruling clan in Ireland and established relationships with local tribes including the Dál Riata and the Picts near Inverness.

These relationships were as much about diplomacy and politics as religion. Colmcille wanted to ensure that his monks would be safe as they travelled. But he was also building good relationships with – and between – the Picts and the Dál Riata who between them ruled much of what is now Scotland.

During Colmcille’s lifetime, the balance of power shifted between the Picts and the Dál Riata. The Picts were in the ascendant having beaten King Connall in battle a few years before Colmcille arrived in Iona.

Missionary work

Colmcille would have made the long journey up the Great Glen by boat, carrying it across the narrow necks of land which separate the lochs.

His monks travelled great distances by land and sea throughout the Western Isles, the west coast of Scotland and the Orkney isles.

Missionary work was a cornerstone of the monks’ life and faith as well as liturgical observances, private mediation and prayer.

Who were the Picts?

The Picts were the oldest known inhabitants of North Britain, living in the north and east of what is now Scotland from the 3rd to the 9th century.

They were called Picti by the Romans – possibly from the Latin word ‘pingere’ to paint as they may have used tattoos or body painting. In Gaelic, they are known as Cruithne – the Welsh version of this word gives us the names ‘Briton’ and ‘Britain’.

The Pictish royalty had political links with the Dál Riata (also known as the Scotti) who were based in Argyll and the north of Ireland, and the Anglo Saxons in Northumbria.

How do we know about the Picts?

The Picts had no known writing system. The only document which survives relating to the Picts is a list of their kings, written in Latin.

From a few surviving inscriptions carved into stone, academics have suggested that the Pictish language was probably related to Old Welsh and Gaelic.

But the Gaelic-speaking Colmcille needed a translator when he visited Pictland. It is hard to tell whether Colmcille had no understanding of Pictish or whether his language skills were not good enough for him to conduct diplomatic affairs without a translator.

The best record of Pictish culture comes from their artwork. The Picts were skilled stonemasons producing complex incised and relief carvings.

Certain symbols appear on many of the stones – birds, horses, serpents, fish, mirrors, combs and abstract patterns. Once the Picts had converted to Christianity they produced many intricate stones decorated with crosses and Christian symbols. There may have been hundreds of stones standing in the landscape.

The pre-Christian symbols may have had special meanings but these are not known. Some have been interpreted as indicating certain clans or family groupings or perhaps as pictographic writing.

For examples of this, see Tarbat Discovery Centre, Hilton of Cadboll, Shandwick, and the Nigg Stone.

Getting there

The peninsula of Tarbat Ness lies about 40 miles north of Inverness, east of Tain, just off the A9.

more on…

Tarbat Ness

  • 8.1 Tarbat Discovery Centre, Portmahomack

    Between 1994 and 2007 archaeologists excavated an area around the church of St Colman at Portmahomack on the tip of Tarbat Ness. They discovered an extensive monastic settlement dating from the late 6th century. The Tarbat Discovery Centre tells the story of this Christian settlement and its re-discovery by archaeologists....

  • 8.2 Hilton of Cadboll

    Tarbat Ness is home to a number of standing stones which reflect the artistic skill and Christian faith of the Pictish people who carved them. The stones may have marked the boundary of the lands controlled by the monastery at Portmahomack. The cross-slab at Hilton of Cadboll is a replica...

  • 8.3 Shandwick

    The cross-slab stone at Shandwick is covered with Christian symbols. This is an expression of Pictish Christianity rather than being a stone which combines pagan and religious designs. There were probably a number of monastic settlements along this coast under control of the large monastery at nearby Portmahomack. The stone...

  • 8.4 Nigg Stone

    The Nigg Stone is one the finest carved Pictish stones. It was carved around 800AD - or perhaps earlier - and is covered in Christian symbols From the details of this carved stone, it is clear that there were close links between monks living in Nigg and Portmahomack, and the...

  • 8.5 Craig Phadraig

    Craig Phadraig is a wooded hill on the edge of Inverness. Follow the path up the hill to discover the possible remains of King Brude’s fort. Colmcille’s biographer Adomnán describes the saint visiting King Brude, the Pictish king, at his fort somewhere near the River Ness - possibly here at...

  • 8.6 Other Pictish Stone Sites North of Inverness

    Other Pictish stone sites Explore the history of the Picts along the east coast from Inverness northwards. The Highland Pictish Trail Trail highlighting 17 sites with Pictish stones, ranging from Inverness to Dunrobin near Golspie. A Catalogue of Pictish Stones at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery The catalogue lists all...

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Bòrd na Gàidhlig

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