Colmcille’s Monastery, Tarbat: “Iona of the East” 1

This afternoon I rushed down to another local haunt of ours to re-photograph Tarbat Discovery Centre, as the skies darkened and rainbows blazoned out. It is located in an old church and is the site of an ancient Pictish monastery. As with so many of my local posts, these places all lay within a 15-20 minute radius of where we live.  The Tarbat centre is open to visitors from Easter through until September/October and by arrangement at other times.  It houses fine examples of Pictish stones, the tools and artifacts used by the monks for illuminated manuscripts, skeletons in their stone coffins, examples of the silverware produced here for monasteries around Britain and Europe and also houses the Tain RAF museum. Here is a little bit about it…

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. 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’.

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. This statue stands by the entrance to the centre.

Tarbat Statue 2 Tarbat Statue 1

Tarbatt Iona of the East Church 2

Tarbatt Iona of the East Church 3

Tarbatt Iona of the East Notice

Tarbatt Iona of the East Notice 2

Tarbatt Iona of the East Notice 4

Tarbatt Iona of the East Notice 3

Tarbatt Iona of the East Notice 5

This is a memorial stone in the churchyard.

Tarbatt Memorial Stone

The following post puts  the settlement at Tarbat into its landscape context with photos of the surrounding village a few hundred yards away of Portmahomack, a great favourite of ours.


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