An Iona of the East: The Early-medieval Monastery at Portmahomack, Tarbat Ness

An Iona of the East: The Early-medieval Monastery at Portmahomack, Tarbat Ness

Carver, Martin

Medieval Archaeology 48 (2004)


A new research programme located on the Tarbat peninsula in north-east Scotland offers the first large-scale exposure of a monastery in the land of the Picts. A case is argued that the settlement at Portmahomack was founded in the 6th century, possibly by Columba himself, and by the 8th century had developed into an important political and industrial centre comparable with Iona. Signs of the monastery’s former prominence survive in workshops producing liturgical objects, possibly including books, and in the brilliant art of the Tarbat cross-slabs at Portmahomack, Nigg, Shandwick and Hilton of Cadboll. The monastic institution, which had contacts with Northumbria and beyond, seems to have been expunged by the 11th century, probably in the context of political struggles between Scandinavian, Pictish and Scottish interests.

The Tarbat Peninsula, which juts out into the Moray Firth (NE. Scotland), has been under intensive archaeological investigation since 1994. Although the fieldwork programme is not yet complete, it is now plausible to propose that the peninsula was the site of an Early-medieval monastic estate, complementary in many particulars to the island of Iona on the other side of Scotland. The focus of the investigation is the early ecclesiastical centre at Portmahomack, hitherto unseen although occasionally anticipated.

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