Portmahomack and the Picts

When I was eight, our family moved to Tarbat Ness Lighthouse, where my dad was a lightkeeper. This wasn’t his first posting – his first lighthouse was Inchkeith, on an island in the Firth of Forth, but for that assignment he’d go out to the lighthouse for a month, then come back home to Edinburgh for a month.

Tarbat Ness was different, because our whole family lived at the lighthouse itself. We were nearly a mile from the nearest house, three miles from the fishing village of Portmahomack with its primary school and corner shop, and a further ten miles from the nearest town, Tain, with its high school and supermarket.

After life in Edinburgh, this was a bit of a shock; but we loved it.

Tarbat Ness Lighthouse

The lighthouse stands on the tip of a peninsula that thrusts out into the North Sea. On one side is the Dornoch Firth, with the bright white baronial Dunrobin Castle nestled on the far northern shore; on the other is the Moray Firth, looking across to Elgin. Directly ahead is nothing but open sea until you hit Norway.

We had a stretch of private road where we could ride our bikes; rocky inlets ideal for picnics; an old deserted pigsty where swallows nested every year; huge areas of prickly gorse that smelled like honey in summer; rockpools with hermit crabs, sticklebacks, and anemones; and sometimes, you could see dolphins in the Moray Firth.

The tower itself was tall – the tallest on mainland Scotland – and painted white with two broad red bands. Inside was all bright paint and shiny brass, cold to the touch even in summer. The gears and governors of the mechanism that drove the rotating lenses whirred smoothly like an enormous clock movement. On clear autumn nights, we’d sometimes stand outside and watch the broad beam sweep across the sky against a backdrop of the blackest sky and brightest stars I’ve ever seen. During the summer holidays I’d climb the two hundred steps up the tower with my dad and stare far out across the sea, gripping the balcony rail; no matter how calm it was on the ground, it always seemed breezy at the top, and in stormier weather you could feel the whole tower sway in the wind.

I couldn’t help but absorb the influence of the sea. The lighthouse was surrounded by water on three sides, and I remember my dad telling me that “peninsula” meant “almost an island” – and it was. In winter when the snow filled the only road with drifts taller than a man, we were completely cut off until the tractors had snow-ploughed the route. There was barely a tree to be seen for miles, so the sea-winds blasted straight across the peninsula without hindrance. Even the rocky coast was full of long gouges where the sea had battered it over the centuries and millennia.

There was a deep history to the place, too. An old man, walking near the lighthouse, pointed to a grassy bump and told me that he reckoned it was a Viking burial mound. I was always interested in history, even at such a young age, and it always irked me that I had no way of investigating further – although maybe that’s for the best. I hate to think of the damage I could have done with my Dad’s spade!

Chances were that the grassy bump was just the result of digging the lighthouse’s foundations, anyway. But that didn’t mean that some of the stories weren’t true. There had been a Viking attack at Tarbat Ness in the 11th Century, when Thorfinn the Mighty, Earl of Orkney, battled the Scottish king.

We didn’t know it at the time we lived there, but there are even older roots in the area. Roots right back into the pre-Scottish times, when the Picts ruled the land.

So when I was feeling nostalgic and looking up information on my childhood home, I was amazed to come across the stunning discoveries that were made after I left.

I found Martin Carver’s book Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts, which tells the story of the monastic settlement at Portmahomack, stretching back possibly to the mid-6th century – the time of Columba and other wizard-saints, wandering the country, performing miracles, banishing monsters, and – more reliably, perhaps! – founding churches.

My brother and I attended Tarbat Old Primary School in the village, just along the road from Tarbat Old Church. I even remember going on a class outing to look in the crypt.

The book tells the story of the archaeological dig at that church, uncovering the story of the monastic settlement from its founding to its probable destruction at the swords and torches of the Vikings in about 800AD, and beyond, right up to the present day, with church built on top of church built on top of monastery.

Now, the old church houses the Tarbat Discovery Centre – a museum, learning and activity centre dedicated to displaying and preserving the heritage of the Tarbat peninsula, especially the ruins of the Pictish monastery. Some day I’ll manage a visit – but I live 500 miles away these days, which makes it a wee bit difficult.

I couldn’t resist this amazing story of Picts and Scots and Vikings, that happened right where I’d lived, on the very shore I’d walked. The era, too, was fascinating, with Pictish power on the decline, and Gaelic-speaking Scots from Dalriada creeping in, along with the burgeoning threat of Viking attacks. It just seemed like a perfect setting for my book.

The Beast on the Broch

The Beast on the BrochThe Beast on the Broch is an historical fantasy adventure for children aged 8-12, featuring Picts, Scots, Vikings, a lonely girl, and her unforgettable friendship with the mythical Pictish Beast.

Available to order now from your local bookshop, in selected branches of Waterstones throughout Scotland, or online from Amazon, Wordery, and so on.

For more information, see My Books.


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