Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Window into the Past: Tarbat Discovery Centre

Tarbat old church by Jim Bain
Credit: "Tarbat Old Church" by Jim Bain (

Europe is full of abandoned churches that have been re-imagined for other purposes. I came across a marvelous example of one of these recently on the Tarbat peninsula in northern Scotland.

From the outside, the simple, whitewashed building still looks like the modest rural parish church it once was, steeple intact, surrounded by gravestones in the green, gently undulating countryside. But inside, it’s been transformed into a window on centuries past.

The Tarbat Discovery Centre, forty-six miles north of Inverness, is a monument to the Picts who used to live here as well as – indirectly – to the scholars who strive to uncover their secrets.

After it ceased to be an active church in 1946, the Church of St. Colman fell into disrepair. In 1980, the building was revived as an historic trust property. But excavations that began on the site in the 1990s unexpectedly revealed one of the earliest Christian sites in Britain and the only Pictish monastery ever found in Scotland.

Now the building contains for all to see the results of the excavations: photos and artifacts that tell the story of the monastery from the sixth through the ninth centuries.  Portmahomack (“Port of Columba”) was one of the monasteries established by St. Columba on his mission to convert the northern Picts in the sixth century, and excavations of it shed light on life in one of these early monastic communities.

Archaeologists discovered that the monks of Portmahomack produced goods for use in other monasteries. A stone-lined tank, pegs made out of sharpened cattle bone, curved knives, and bone styli all indicate an eighth-century book-making industry in which monks laboriously turned calfskin into parchment suitable for illuminated manuscripts like the famous Book of Kells. Clay molds and ornamental glass studs are the only remains of monastic workshops that once produced reliquaries, sacred vessels, book covers, and other objects needed for the holy life.

reconstructed faceAs I wandered through the museum, I was pulled toward one particular exhibit: the reconstructed face of a red-bearded man discovered in a stone-lined grave. Analysis of the skeletal remains indicated that he’d lived a strenuous life in the fifth or six century and was in his late twenties or early thirties when he died. As I looked, I realized that here was a face that had witnessed the early history of the monastery. Was he one of the early missionaries? Or a convert?

And then there's the Picts’ extraordinary artistic ability. Hundreds of fragments of stone carvings were recovered, many featuring curly spirals and weaving, interlaced patterns or elaborately carved animals. The “Boar Stone,” the lid of a sarcophagus, pictures a naturalistic carving of a boar and a mysterious wolf-like creature next to it. The animals on the “Calf Stone” are even more other-worldly. Two cattle are pictured with a calf. Above them is an animal resembling a mountain lion; above it, an odd bird-like creature with four legs.

pict carving

We can only guess what meaning the strange creatures held for the Dark Age monks, but perhaps other discoveries at Portmahomack will eventually help archaeologists understand their symbolism.

In the ninth century, the monastery was destroyed by the Vikings, who burned it and smashed the stone carvings. But the sense that Tarbat was sacred held on; other churches were built and re-built on the site of the monastic church until it was finally abandoned in the twentieth century. But at the Tarbat Discovery Centre, the world of Scotland’s earliest monks lives on.

Interested in learning more? Check out Scotland's Treasures for yourself!