The Gaelic word tarbat refers to a dry crossing where boats were hauled across the neck of a peninsula. The Tarbat peninsula in northeastern Scotland juts into the Moray Firth and permitted such crossings between Cromarty and Dornoch Firths. This peninsula contains some of the finest sculpture of the European Early Middle Ages. It is now recognized as the site of the first and so far the only known early monastery in eastern Scotland, land of the lost nation of the Picts.
The sculpture at Tarbat survives in the form of monumental cross slabs, all carved and erected about a.d. 800. At Nigg, at the southern foot of the peninsula, the cross-slab features the biblical king David and the story of St. Paul and St. Anthony in the desert. At Shandwick, the large cross is accompanied by cherubim and seraphim and a mass of intricate Celtic spiral ornament. At Hilton of Cadboll, the cross side of the slab has been erased, but the reverse features a secular scene showing a woman riding to the hunt accompanied by servants and huntsmen. All of these cross slabs face the sea, and all carry symbols of the Pictish iconic language, symbols that probably represent the names of the persons commemorated.
Archaeological excavation since 1994 at the peninsula's main settlement of Portmahomack has given a context for these remarkable monuments (fig. 1). During the nineteenth century, pieces of carved stone were discovered by gravediggers in the churchyard and surroundings of Portmahomack's church of St. Colman. Among them was a stone carved in relief in insular majuscules recalling the Book of Kells (approximately a.d. 800). In 1984 a buried ditch around the church was discovered by aerial survey. The ditch's D-shaped plan recalled the enclosure that defines the monastery of St. Columba (Columcille) on Iona, an island off western Scotland. It was Columba (according to Adomnán of Iona, his biographer) who had attempted to convert the northern Picts around a.d. 565. Here were clues that Portmahomack might have been a settlement of the first Christians in Pictland.
In 1994 the University of York was invited by a local restoration group (Tarbat Historic Trust) to adopt the site as a research project. After an initial evaluation, the church itself was excavated and its fabric recorded, while outside the churchyard an area of 0.6 hectare was opened, with sensational results. In the church, excavators recorded a sequence of two hundred burials, beginning with sixty-seven graves that were wholly or partly lined with stone slabs (the distinctive "cist" burials of the Picts). These proved to contain the remains of primarily middle-aged or elderly men, the earliest of which has been radiocarbon dated to the sixth century a.d. The later burials, with a more normal distribution of men, women, and children, belong to the twelfth to fifteenth centuries a.d. Six principal phases of church building were distinguished. The earliest stone church is signaled by a single wall and probably dates to the eighth century a.d. It was replaced in the twelfth century by an east-west chapel with a square-ended chancel, which was lengthened and provided with a tower and crypt in the thirteenth century. In the sixteenth century (at the Reformation) the axis of worship was altered to run north-south and a northern "aisle," or quarter, reserved for the laird, was constructed. When the Church of Scotland split in two because of the Disruption of 1843, the axis returned to the east-west. The construction of the present church largely dates from a restoration undertaken in the mid-eighteenth century.
Numerous pieces of carved stone were found to have been reused in the foundations of the eleventh-century church, the majority carrying ornament of the eighth century. As of the early 2000s, more than 150 carved stones had been recovered from excavation in the church or outside it. Many of these are simple grave-markers carrying a cross and recalling examples known from Iona. One massive slab with a lion and a wild boar in relief belongs to a sarcophagus lid, or possibly an altar. Another with a picture of a family of cattle comes from a wall slab, perhaps a cancellum (fig. 2). Many other pieces derive from one or more monumental cross slabs that closely resemble those surviving at Nigg and Shandwick.
Excavations in the field next to the church revealed a large segment of an early Christian monastery in plan. Nearest to the church is a workshop area laid out on either side of a paved road. The workshops have produced evidence for the making of objects of silver (cuppelation dishes), bronze (hearths, crucibles, molds, and whetstones), glass (molds), leather (a tanning pit, bone pegs for a stretcher frame, and pumice leather-smoothers), and wood (a chisel clad by ferriferous wood shavings). The objects that were made appear to have been ecclesiastical in nature, since the molds and studs recall reliquaries and liturgical vessels known from the early Celtic world. South of the workshops is a millpond with a dam to provide a head of water for driving a horizontal millwheel. Farther south, still against the enclosure boundary, lie a number of grain-drying pits and the foundations of a timber-framed structure bag-shaped in plan. This was probably a kiln-barn, although its hearth shows evidence of use by a blacksmith. The boundary ditch itself was by no means defensive but appears to have been employed in collecting and bringing water to different areas of the monastery.
The male burials, the sculpture, the inscription, the enclosure, and the manufacture of ecclesiastical objects identify the Portmahomack settlement as an early monastery. The earliest burial took place in the sixth century, while the majority of the artifacts, including the sculpture, belong to the eighth century with a terminus around 800. Records indicate that Columba settled in Iona in 563 and took part in an expedition to the northern Picts in 565. He passed up the Great Glen by way of Loch Ness and met the Pictish king Bridei, son of Mailchu, somewhere near Inverness. Although the conversion of the Picts is not claimed in Adomnán's Life of St. Columba, he does say that monasteries were founded in Columba's time. Discoveries from the 1990s allow us to identify Portmahomack ("port of Colman"—or Columba) as one of these, established at the opposite end of the Great Glen to Iona, perhaps by Columba himself. By a.d. 800 the whole Tarbat peninsula had emerged as a major ecclesiastical center, its boundaries marked by monumental cross slabs carrying some of the most complex iconography seen in early Christian art. The end of the monastery and its consignment to oblivion for more than one thousand years remain something of a mystery. Sometime between 800 and 1100, the workshop area was destroyed by fire, and at the same time the monumental cross slabs were broken up and dumped. It seems likely that this targeted attack was the work of the Vikings.
Adomnán of Iona. Life of St Columba. Translated by Richard Sharpe. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York: Penguin, 1991.
Bulletins of the Tarbat Discovery Programme. 1995–. Available at www.york.ac.uk/depts/arch/staff/sites/tarbat.
Carver, Martin. Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the PictishNation. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1999.
——. "Conversion and Politics on the Eastern Seaboard of Britain: Some Achaeological Indicators." In Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World. Edited by Barbara E. Crawford, pp. 11–40. St. Andrews, U.K.: University of St. Andrews, 1998.
Foster, Sally. Picts, Gaels, and Scots. London: B. T. Batsford/Historic Scotland, 1996.