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