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Celtic tribe known as the Picts feature article from the pages of Scottish Life Magazine

Scotland's Ancient Tribe

Inside a former parish church quietly hugging the landscape northwest of Inverness, the Tarbat Discovery Centre offers an amazing gateway back to the Celtic tribe known as the Picts.


No one with a pinch of curiosity in their veins could resist the fascination of the Tarbat Discovery Centre at Portmahomack, with Tarbat Old Church at its centre. Evidence has proved the existence of a succession of Christian churches on this remote peninsula off Ross-shire's northeast coast, starting with a monastic settlement in the 6th century. Although much has already been discovered about life here in the first millennium A.D., there is still a vast quantity of artifacts yet to be unearthed and a wealth of knowledge yet to be learned, so it is, indeed, a centre of discovery.

Archaeology is a slow, laborious discipline, and because of the nature of the site at Portmahomack, there have been, and will continue to be, frustrating curbs on the work -- for example, an important portion of the area is covered by a graveyard where a considerable number of the graves are too recent to allow for any sort of excavation. It was this graveyard that first alerted historians to the fact that Tarbat Old Church stood on land that had been in use as a religious settlement as long ago as the 6th century when the Picts were dominant in the area. Grave diggers in the 19th and early 20th centuries began to find pieces of carved stones while carrying out their duties and antiquarians started taking an interest and dating them.

In an age when man struggles to find the secrets of the Big Bang some 10 to 20 billion years ago, it is extraordinary that we know so little about a people who lived for a few centuries within the last two thousand years. Tarbat has contributed some valuable clues to our somewhat shadowy picture of our Pictish ancestors. Tacitus, describing Agricola's defeat of the Picts at the Battle of Mons Graupius in the first century, quoted the Pictish chief, Calgacus, thus: "We, the most distant dwellers upon the earth, the last of the free, have been our remoteness and by the obscurity which has shrouded our name...beyond us lies no nation, nothing but waves and rocks."

This stirring statement is entirely understandable if you walk out to Tarbatness Lighthouse, not far northeast of the Discovery Centre on a hook of land that juts arrogantly into the Moray Firth, considerably nearer to Norway than to London. It is easy to picture those ancient people standing here, surrounded by tracts of barren land and wild ocean, believing they were indeed close to "Ultima Thule," a distant place beyond the borders of the known world. It is also easy to see why communities chose to settle here in the days when the only roads were tracks beaten down by their own feet and transport of anything more substantial than man or beast was only possible by water. Indeed, before sophisticated land drainage was employed, the peninsula was frequently so waterlogged that it was almost an island.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2010 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos: © Museums Scotland © Tarbat Discovery Centre