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.
Did Colmcille found a monastery here? Or does it date from a time before he arrived in Iona? If so, the Pictish people living here were already Christian. What is certain is that this monastery was of a significant size and scale – sometimes dubbed ‘the Iona of the east’.
Colmcille encountered Picts as he travelled through the Great Glen and up to the edge of modern Inverness. His biographer Adomnán records this journey and these meetings. The presence of a monastery at Portmahomack implies that the Picts in this area were already Christian yet Adomnán tells several stories of Colmcille converting Pictish people.
For centuries, the Picts had been an historical mystery. They were Celts – speaking a language very similar to Old Welsh – living in North Britain from the 3rd to the 9th century but few remains had been discovered. The excavation of the monastery revealed significant new information about their culture. One of the most notable records of Pictish civilisation are the carved stones found on and near Tarbat Ness.
The monks of Portmahomack had everything they needed to live and work – they had farm land, a mill, workshops for making sacred glassware and metalwork, and a church. About 150 people lived and worked here.
At the heart of the monastery was a workshop for the production of vellum – the writing surface used by monks for their illuminated manuscripts.
Vellum is made from animal skins. Excavations in Portmahomack have revealed frames used for stretching the vellum as it dries, and fireplaces where shells, bones and seaweed were burnt and made into solutions for smoothing the vellum.
Given that the monks were making their own vellum, it is probable that they may have also produced their own highly decorated gospel books similar to the Book of Kells.
Archaeologist Martin Carver has suggested that the four cross slabs found here were used to mark out the edges of the land controlled by the monastery at Portmahomack.
‘They were the most extraordinary artists. They could draw a wolf, a salmon, an eagle on a piece of stone with a single line and produce a beautiful naturalistic drawing. Nothing as good as this is found between Portmahomack and Rome. Even the Anglo-Saxons didn’t do stone-carving as well as the Picts did. Not until the post-Renaissance were people able to get across the character of animals just like that.’
Professor Martin Carver, University of York. (Lead archaeologist, Portmahomack excavations.)
The monastic settlement came to an end around 820AD when it appears to have been attacked, probably by Vikings.
Archaeologists have discovered burnt timbers dating from this time. They also discovered broken cross slabs which appear to have been destroyed at the same time.
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