Scheduled Monument

Portmahomack monastic settlement, 95m SSW of Tarbat West ChurchSM12793

Status: Designated


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The legal document available for download below constitutes the formal designation of the monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. The additional details provided on this page are provided for information purposes only and do not form part of the designation. Historic Environment Scotland accepts no liability for any loss or damages arising from reliance on any inaccuracies within this additional information.


Date Added
Ecclesiastical: monastic settlement
Local Authority
NH 91438 83937
291438, 883937


The monument comprises the buried remains of a large early historic, Pictish monastic settlement, used from 6th to 8th centuries AD and later re-occupied. Archaeological excavations demonstrate that the foundations of buildings survive within the settlement and aerial photographs show the cropmark of a D-shaped boundary ditch surrounding the settlement and enclosing the present Tarbat West Church. The site lies at the S edge of Portmahomack village between 10m and 20m above sea level.

The archaeological excavations, conducted between 1991 and 2007 in and around Tarbat West Church, verified the existence of the enclosure ditch and revealed a burial ground, part of a stone church and fragments of carved stone as well as evidence for smithing, fine metalwork and vellum workshops, a road, a butchery site and a water management system. This suite of evidence confirms the monastic character of the settlement. Further study of the cropmark suggests the enclosure measures about 275m WSW-ENE by at least 130m transversely. The monastery began around AD 550 and a layer of burning suggests that fire destroyed the monastic buildings by about the year AD 800. However, the site was re-occupied and continued to function as a place for metalworking and crop processing until at least the 10th century. Much of the ground had been turned over to the plough by the 12th century. The burial ground was re-used from around AD 1100 to serve the surrounding parish, continuing in use until recent times.

The area to be scheduled is irregular on plan, to include the remains described above and an area around within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduled area extends up to, but excludes, Tarbat West Church, modern roads and verges and the properties of Highfield, Pictish Cottage and St Colman's Cottage. The scheduling specifically excludes all active burial lairs and the above ground elements of all burial monuments. In addition, to allow for their maintenance, the scheduling excludes the above ground remains of post-and-wire fences and boundary walls; the top 20cm of existing paths; the top 30cm of the car park to the west of Tarbat West Church; the above ground elements of the Pictish Queen Statue, car park spot lights, Discovery Centre information board, flag pole, memorial stone, iron railings and the grill over the well; and the above ground elements of all signage and street furniture.

Statement of National Importance

Cultural Significance

The monument's cultural significance can be expressed as follows:

Intrinsic characteristics

Archaeologists have excavated a relatively small proportion of the monastic settlement, but this demonstrates that the site contains a wealth of information about the layout of monastic centres in the 6th to 8th centuries AD and the types of activities their inhabitants conducted. A church must have existed at the core of the monastery, a sacred space that was central to the life of the community. The stone E end of the crypt in the present Tarbat West Church may form part of an early church. Although the scheduling excludes Tarbat West Church, other elements of the earliest church or churches may exist in the immediate vicinity and would have high potential to augment our knowledge of the early history and development of this particular church site, as well as early medieval church architecture in general. Skeletons from two phases of graves appear to represent burials made during the monastic period and additional burials of the same date are likely to exist in the area around the present church. Burials have the potential to provide further information on the population at the time of the monastic settlement and on the local population in later periods. They can enhance our knowledge of status and burial practice, but can also reveal evidence for health, diet, illness, cause of death, and perhaps the types of activities people undertook during life.

Excavation west-south-west and south-west of the church, beyond the modern graveyard wall, suggests an extensive craft zone. The northern part included a stone-lined tank and timber workshop laid out on reclaimed land alongside a well-built road. A rich artefact assemblage suggests this was a vellum-working complex dating to the 7th to 8th centuries. To the south, a magnificent timber building with bowed sides and one rounded end may have housed artisans responsible for a fine assemblage of glass and metalworking debris found in a nearby ditch. Although archaeologists completely removed the remains in some limited areas of the site, many of the structures encountered, including part of the vellum workshop, extend beyond the limits of excavation and remain buried beneath the ground. The excavations demonstrate that the preservation of archaeological remains is outstandingly good and that there are deeply stratified deposits. Charring and waterlogging have allowed the preservation of organic remains that can inform our knowledge of the character of the local landscape and the agricultural and craft activities that were practised. Ash, identified as the remains of a tanning agent, has played an important part in the identification of the vellum workshop. It is clear that the remainder of the site has exceptional potential to provide further information about many aspects of a monastic site, including the artisan quarters. The workshops and yards can provide evidence for crafts such as vellum, metal and glass production, showing the production techniques and what skills the artisans needed. The material evidence left behind can also add to our knowledge of the types of artefact that were being made in the Pictish period and the artistic styles used. Finally, the surviving foundations can provide evidence about the construction and architecture of a range of buildings within monastic sites. The creation of culverts, drains and a pond with dam within the enclosure allows us to start to understand the engineering skills and the sophisticated use of natural resources during the early historic period.

The wealth of early Christian art carved on stone at Portmahomack is unusual and important, especially the famous Tarbat inscription. Researchers believe many of the fragments derive from four complex carved stone monuments and it is probable that similar material remains buried elsewhere on the site. Together, the stone monuments represent a group of sculpture necessary for the life of a monastery. The stone monuments add to our knowledge of the development of Insular art, but their presence in sealed deposits is particularly significant as it may inform the dating of the carvings and their later biographies. This in turn may help researchers to a better understanding of other important Pictish cross-slabs on the Tarbat peninsula (at Nigg, Shandwick and Hilton of Cadboll) and in the wider Insular world.

Excavation makes it clear that the site was re-occupied after the abandonment of the monastery. Deposits deriving from this re-occupation can tell us about artisan workshops and craft production in the 9th to 11th centuries. We can also learn about contemporary agricultural techniques, such as crop processing.

Contextual characteristics

Early historic monastic settlements known to have surviving physical remains are rare in Scotland, particularly in what was Pictland. Nevertheless, archaeologists have excavated large areas within the monastic enclosures at Whithorn and Hoddom as well as remains at Iona, Inchmarnock and on the Isle of May. These sites will allow researchers to set the findings from Portmahomack in context, enhancing their significance.

Portmahomack is particularly significant as the only monastic settlement within the zone of Pictish control to be subject to large-scale archaeological investigation. We know of the important Pictish ecclesiastical establishments at Abernethy, Scone, Forteviot and St Andrews from historical sources, likewise the sites of Pictish palaces and other royal churches or monasteries, but we know of few physical remains with the exception of cist graves at St Andrews. Excavations and finds of carved stones suggest that Dull in Perth and Kinross may be the site of an important early church or monastery while cropmarks suggest a monastic enclosure at Fortingall, also in Perth and Kinross. However, it is only at Portmahomack that we can start to understand in detail the development and architecture of a monastic settlement and the activities conducted there. It is of particular value because, apart from the site of the church, it has not been masked or eroded by later development and has not been subject to antiquarian excavation that sometimes may confuse interpretation. In consequence, Portmahomack gives a unique insight into monastic architecture, engineering capability and craft production.

The significance of Portmahomack is also enhanced by its local context on the Tarbat peninsula, close to sites such as Nigg, Shandwick and Hilton of Cadboll. As a group they hold invaluable evidence about the structure of early Christian communities and landscapes, particularly if it can be argued that they are part of a monastic estate. The remains at Portmahomack enhance our understanding of this group of stone carvings, strengthening the argument that these monuments are closely related and giving us the potential to understand more about who carved them and why. The form of the Tarbat peninsula has changed considerably, even since the early 17th century, and in the past extensive areas of water gave Tarbat the appearance of an island. However, this was not an isolating factor; Portmahomack's coastal location resembles that of other monastic sites and the sea would have been the main communication route allowing movement around a network of monastic communities.

Portmahomack, through the remains already excavated and those known to be preserved beneath the ground, adds to our understanding of the infancy of Christian communities in Scotland, revealing national similarities and regional diversification. It offers the potential to examine the connections between ecclesiastical sites and the ways that Christian culture was dispersed. In particular, it may enhance our understanding of Christian missions. The workshops may prove to be places where monks produced items such as books and chalices, implying that Portmahomack was a centre for producing the equipment necessary for setting up new Christian communities, and from which the church disseminated new ideas and practices, including important evidence for literacy in Pictland.

Associative characteristics

The beginning of Christianity in Scotland is an important subject, particularly to the present Christian community, and the early monastic settlements are vital to any understanding of how the faith spread throughout the country. Documentary sources refer to the coming of Christianity, but the accounts we have are partial and problematic. Adomnan's Life of St Columba describes a mission by Columba to the northern Picts about the year AD 565. Adomnan suggests Columba travelled up the Great Glen to the vicinity of Inverness, where he met the Pictish ruler Bridei. Although Bridei did not lead his people to Christianity, Columba founded monasteries that survived to the time Adomnan was writing in the 8th century. Although many aspects of the story appear mythical rather than historical, it provides a possible context for the founding of Portmahomack. The Northumbrian monk Bede provides an account set some 150 years later. He notes that Nechtan, king of the Picts, sent an embassy in the 710s to Ceolfrid, Abbot of Jarrow, requesting guidance on matters including the date of Easter and the appropriate tonsure for monks and asking for masons to be sent to give instruction in building in stone. Bede was not a detached observer and appears to have drafted the reply, but the passage suggests a context for the transmission of ideas from Northumbria to at least one Pictish kingdom. The fragmentary nature of the historical record enhances the significance of the archaeological remains preserved at Portmahomack.

Monasteries were centres of power, wealth and industry and as such were prime targets for Viking raiders. The archaeological remains at Portmahomack have high potential to illuminate a well-known episode in popular history.

National Importance

This monument is of national importance because it has an inherent potential to make a significant addition to our understanding of the past, in particular to early historic monastic settlements in the British Isles. With its rare, complex and well-preserved archaeology, this site has the potential to make a very significant contribution to our knowledge of monastic architecture, engineering, economy, and art. The evidence for monastic workshops and for the vellum, metalwork and glass they produced now seems to be particularly significant, but archaeologists have investigated a relatively small part of the site and there is high potential for other future discoveries. The deposits deriving from continued use of the enclosure after the end of monastic life provide evidence to illuminate a poorly understood period of Scottish history and augment the sequence known from Whithorn. The loss of the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to appreciate and understand early historic monasteries and the central role of these power centres from their initial founding through the Viking incursions to the birth of Scotland.



RCAHMS record the site as NH98SW 4. The Highland Council SMR record is MHG8473.

Aerial photographs consulted:

D 76246, 2000, Oblique aerial view centred on the excavation with church and churchyard adjacent, taken from the ENE., ©RCAHMS

1984, Oblique Aerial View of Cropmark at Portmahomack, ©Barri Jones


Adomnán, Adomnán of Iona. Life of St Columba, ed R Sharpe, London: Penguin, 1995.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed B Colgrave and RAB Mynors, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Carver, M 2001, 'Tarbat Discovery, Programme, Highland (Tarbat parish), early medieval settlement', Discovery Excav Scot, 24-5, 64-5.

Carver, M 2004, 'An Iona of the East: the Early-medieval Monastery at Portmahomack, Tarbat Ness', Medieval Archaeology, Vol 48, 1-30.

Carver, M 2008, Portmahomack Monastery of the Picts, Edinburgh University Press.

Carver, M 2008, 'Early Scottish monasteries and prehistory: a preliminary dialogue', Scott Hist Rev 226, 332-51.

Carver, M, Garner-Lahire, J & Roe, A 1997, 'Tarbat, Portmahomack (Tarbat parish), early medieval settlement', Discovery Excav Scot, 51-2.

Carver, M, Garner-Lahire, J & Roe, A 1998, 'Tarbat, Portmahomack (Tarbat parish), early medieval settlement', Discovery Excav Scot, 63.

Carver, M & Spall, C 2006, 'Tarbat Discovery, Programme 2, Highland (Tarbat parish), research excavation', Discovery Excav Scot, 103.

Carver, M & Spall, C 2006, 'Tarbat Discovery, Programme 1, Highland (Tarbat parish), research excavation', Discovery Excav Scot, 102-3.

Carver, M & Spall, C 2007, 'Tarbat Discovery, Programme, Highland (Tarbat parish), excavation', Discovery Excav Scot, 124-5.

Macdonald, A D S & Laing, L R 1973, 'Early ecclesiastical sites in Scotland: a field survey, part II', Proc Soc Antiq Scot, Vol 102, 129-145.

Spall, C 2009, 'Reflections on the monastic arts: recent discoveries at Portmahomack, Tarbat, Easter Ross', in Edwards, N (ed) 2009, The Archaeology of the Early Medieval Celtic Churches, Soc Medieval Archaeol Monogr 29, Maney Publishing, 315-31.

Yeoman, P 2009, 'Investigations on the May Island, and other early medieval churches and monasteries in Scotland', in Edwards, N (ed) 2009, The Archaeology of the Early Medieval Celtic Churches, Soc Medieval Archaeol Monogr 29, Maney Publishing, 227-44.

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