Yesterday’s weather was good enough to travel. With our trainee, Dominique, who is studying the Scottish tourism, we went in the steps of the Picts, in the region of Tain (North West Scotland).
The Picts were a confederation of Celtic tribes living in what was later to become eastern and northern Scotland from before the Roman conquest of Britain until the 10th century, when they merged with the Gaels. They lived to the north of the Forth and Clyde rivers, and spoke the extinct Pictish language, thought to have been related to the Brythonic languages spoken by the Britons to the south. They are assumed to have been the descendants of the Caledonii and other tribes named by Roman historians or found on the world map of Ptolemy. Pictland, also known as Pictavia, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Alba expanded, absorbing the Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde and Bernician Lothian, and by the 11th century the Pictish identity had become completely subsumed under a new term for this amalgamation of peoples: the “Scots“.
From Fort Augustus, our first halt was in Portmahomack (see picture of the fountain). Portmahomack’s origins date back to the arrival here of St Colmac, who established a priory in AD975. The village grew between it and the shore, taking advantage of the shelter of a location on the west side of Tarbat Ness. A church was built on the site of the priory in 1255.
Than we went to Hilton of Cadboll to admire a Pictish stone which is one of the most magnificent of all Pictish cross-slabs. On the seaward-facing side is a Christian cross, and on the landward facing side are secular depictions. The latter are carved below the Pictish symbols of crescent and V-rod and double disc and Z-rod: a hunting scene including a woman wearing a large penannular brooch riding side-saddle. Like other similar stones, it can be dated between the 6th to 9th centuries. The stone was formerly on in the vicinity of a chapel just north of the village. It was removed to Invergordon Castle in the 19th century, before being donated to the British Museum. The latter move was not popular with the Scottish public, and so it was moved once more, to the Museum of Scotland, where it remains today. A replica designed and carved by Barry Grove was recently erected on the site. It took him approximately 4 years to make it. In 2001 the missing lower portion of the cross-slab, along with several thousand carved fragments, was recovered by Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division during an excavation funded by Historic Scotland.
Our last stops were at Balintore, another fishing village, to see the “Mermaid of the North”, sculpture of Steve Hayward, which tail is covered by the sea at high tide, and at Shandwick to see the 2.7m high cross slab dates back to the years around 780AD and stands in its original position. For centuries it served as a beacon for the fishermen of this coast, until it blew down and broke in half in 1846. The stone has since been restored and is now protected from the elements by a large glass box (which made us unable to take a picture). As befits a beacon, its site offers excellent views along the coast to the north east.