(Looking out from Craig Phadrig towards Portmahomack)
Finally, what may be proof that St Columba did indeed convert the Northern Picts to Christianity! His Vita, the “biography” of Columba written a century after his death, suggests that he did, but that is hardly a surprising claim for such a work to make. But the Venerable Bede claims it too. Since he was writing two hundred years after Columba’s life, this is both rather more surprising and more credible: Bede championed the Roman dating of Easter over the Celtic and would have had little reason to extol the achievements of one of its lead proponents unless those achievements also happened to be true.
But now, with the publication of the preliminary results of a large-scale archaeological excavation underway at the Pictish monastery of Portmahomack, we may have the definitive proof we need. Martin Carver, its lead archaeologist, has discovered that Portmahomack was probably founded in the sixth century, making it exactly contemporaneous with Columba’s life and missions from his island-base of Iona.
The findings are monumental for a number of reasons. The monastery is situated on the Moray Firth, in the heart of Pictland. It lies to the north of the stronghold of Bridei son of Maelchon (be that Craig Phadrig or Urquhart Castle, or some other site), who was king of the Northern Picts and whom Columba is said to have visited on more than one occasion. The site dates from the earliest period of Christianization in the north of Caledonia, 550-650, that is, Columba’s time and that of his successors. Portmahomack’s situation in time and place, therefore, would seem to link it firmly with Columba.
The original settlement was of modest size, established on land which was “a kind of waste that a king might be happy to grant to an itinerant community of spiritual eccentrics”. But from its humble beginnings, the monastery seems to have grown into an important center of learning. The sculpture in and around Portmahomack shows sophisticated iconography and inscriptions. It had its own metalworking school and, significantly, its own parchmenterie, or workshop for the production of vellum (animal skin rendered for use in manuscripts). This is the only definitive parchmenterie yet identified at an Insular site.
These are exciting findings indeed. I am hoping to get to Portmahomack this summer on a research trip for my series The Chronicles of Iona. Look for my posts from there, and for Portmahomack to figure in subsequent books in the series.
In the meantime, enjoy a little light reading by picking up Martin Carver’s work, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh, 2008).