Tag Archives: Portmahomack

Seminar CXXXVII: reassessing the Pictish Church

Maintaining this hectic momentum is obviously difficult but I thought it might be time to try and eat in a tiny bit more to my backlog of seminar reports. This one is slightly unusual, as it involved going back to Cambridge and returning to Oxford in the course of a day, something I’d usually try and avoid, but the cause was Alex Woolf of St Andrews giving the Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture on 30th April 2012 in Hughes Hall (no relation), and as an often-acclaimed Alex Woolf fan I might have tried to make that even if he hadn’t been speaking to the title, “The Churches of Pictavia”. Since he was, I was there, and therefore, despite a recent run of hostile comments about my daring to study Scotland with my mere one-eighth Scots blood, I’m going to write about it.

Slide from lecture by J. Jarrett, "The Kingdoms of the North", British History I (300-1087), University of Oxford 25th October 2012

Slide from my lecture, “The Kingdoms of the North”, British History I (300-1087), University of Oxford 25th October 2012

Now, I have views on the Pictish Church, as you might expect, I’ve even explained them in lecture theatres myself albeit to a rather less exalted audience as you can see above, but my views are not very deep-seated. On the other hand they are not traditional, either. The traditional view of the Pictish Church would be that Bede knew what he was talking about and that half of Pictland was converted by missions from St Columba’s Iona and the other half by missions from St Nynia’s Whithorn, but that the southern half was more or less grabbed by Anglian Northumbria, to whom the Pictish king Nechtan map Der-Ilei entrusted the task of resourcing his new royal Church after he expelled the Columban monks around 717, whereafter the Church in Pictland seems to have remained roughly under royal control, with perhaps a centre at St Andrews (then Kilrymont), maybe later moved to Dunkeld, where its maybe-single bishop was based when not visiting the various monasteries that actually handled what passed for a ministry here.1 You can doubtless see a rather colonial narrative developed there in which the inhabitants of Scotland would be godless heathens but for foreign intervention, and predictably things seem to have been a bit more complex than that. Thanks to James Fraser we now have some doubts about where the Columban missions actually went, thanks to Thomas Owen Clancy we have doubts that St Nynia existed at all, and there’s a whole variety of older work pointing out other churches and founders around the edges of early Christian Pictland: Maelrubi at Applecross, Ethernan on the Black Isle (edit: of May), a Brigidine cult later claimed for Abernethy that might, if its association with the Pictish king-list has anything behind it, be the first `royal’ church centre….2 One could add more. Also, thanks to Thomas, it’s not clear that King Nechtan was actually in control of all of Pictland when he made his suit to Wearmouth-Jarrow, or that the expulsion of the Ionan monks was fully effective or durable, so I think that we have to think of several churches in Pictland: an Ionan one perhaps with a brief pause when they were subsumed into royal charge, an Anglian one that may likewise have later been combined with a royal one maybe based on Abernethy or St Andrews or both, whatever the grouping was that Whithorn apparently claimed in the south and a bunch of other smaller ones, single cells or clumps with their own founder legends.3 Mappings like that of James Fraser below thus seem to me a bit hopeful in their coherence, even when so unambitious.4 All of these groups were probably getting their episcopal ministry from outside quite often, I suspect, from Whithorn, from Anglian Abercorn while that lasted, from Gaelic Lismore, maybe even from Iona, though St Andrews and Dunkeld both have intermittent records of bishops in the Irish Annals in the tenth century so by then the united kingship may have been keener on centralising the Pictish or Alban epispocate near their new centres at St Andrews and Forteviot.5 It’s all so hypothetical, though, and I learnt much of this so long ago and may remember it so badly that I’d happily change any of this for a better-argued point of view; after all, it’s not so long ago that I saw Thomas Owen Clancy confront the questions, “when, where and what for were the churches of the Picts?” and conclude that the only safe answers were “during the Pictish period”, “in Pictland”, and “for the Picts to worship in”, and if anyone knows it’s him.

Map of Columban influences in seventh-century Pictland, from James Fraser's Caledonia to Pictland

Hardly an ambitious set of claims and yet still I quarrel…

That said, Alex has this habit of making long-vexed questions look unexpectedly simple, so you might wonder whether this was one of those occasions. And I will rediscover this with you, my readers, because though I remember being gobsmacked by this lecture, I was also somewhat blind-sided by a professional faux pas I later realised I’d made and besides it was ten months ago now, I just don’t remember what was said. BUT I HAVE NOTES. So, if they can be trusted, it went something like this. Alex spent some time setting up Pictland for us as a basically-British polity, using the analogy of the carrion and hooded crow which are actually the same species but differently identified in highland and lowland Britain because of a varied colouring more common in the north. This works on many levels, I love it. Pictland’s not some weird alien space, in other words, but a joined-up part of northern Britain. Alex suggested that parallels might be found between the stone sculpture of Iona and that of Dunkeld, fitting nicely with the putative royal take-over of a Columban start but suggesting much more of a Columban reach than I’d have allowed for; he added another founder saint (I told you one could) at St Vigeans, where there is of course yet more sculpture; and he stressed that despite its various possible divisions this Church shared the same literate and artistic culture as its Irish and Saxon brethren, something that Martin Carver’s excavations at Portmahomack also pointed towards by turning up a Pictish symbol stone and styli and possible evidence for parchment-making on the same site.6 These guys may not all have been singing off the same hymn-sheet or singing the same hymns at the same time (Alex elected not to talk about the reckoning of Easter…) but the books out of which they read their hymns would have been decorated much like those anywhere else in Northern Britain. It’s a while ago that the late Julian Brown observed that we may only think we have no Pictish manuscripts because we don’t think there are any but it remains true; there are a good few possible contendors.7

Book of Kells, fo. 27v, showing the four evangelists in their animal significations

Pictish beasts? Brown’s controversial contendor was none other than the Book of Kells, of which this is fol. 27v, from Wikimedia Commons

So far so much nuance; more characteristically iconoclastic in their problem-solving ability were a number of references to later Scottish churches associated with mounds, prompting the suggestion that we have few churches evidenced because worship was done outdoors at old meeting sites, though it is also true that the archæology of early possible church sites in Scotland is basically unknown bar Forteviot and that the one guaranteedly Pictish church site we have, Portmahomack, has no such forebear, at least not very nearby though it’s an area busy with Pictish stones. (I note, though, that the recently-discovered probable monastic site at Fortingall shares its location with a very very old yew tree…) In other respects, however, the Pictish Church probably shouldn’t have been very different from those northern formations with whom it shared artistic tendencies and likely therefore liturgy (since they would be in the same books). The resource concentrations that implies, however, must have taken time to amass, and so the whole realisation of this may have been late, later than Columba, later than Nynia, still in formation perhaps under Adomnán, Columba’s biographer who signally did not claim Columba as apostle of the Pictish kingdom.8 The Church’s ability to do intensive lordship probably attracted the attention of the kings (and here one can find a very similar argument in John Blair’s theory about the decline of minster churches in Anglo-Saxon England) and thus after the take-over we might think of German-style Klosterpfälze, albeit on a lesser scale.9 The chronology of this seems a little uncertain to me in retrospect: I’m sure I’ve heard Alex argue that the Pictish symbol stones are post-conversion so if it signifies that Portmahomack is in an area rich with them must there not be some kind of church structure before it? Isn’t that already really very close to the supposed take-over period? It is likely that I have failed to record the full subtlety of what was being suggested here. In any case, there was evidently so much variety in this ecclesiastical set-up that it is, alas, quite possible that our nice, new and all-but-unique type-site may actually have been unusual.

Three-quarter view of the St Andrews sarcophagus as diplayed in 2006

The St Andrews sarcophagus, famous for its combination of Celtic and Old Testament artistic motives, as displayed in 2006, from Wikimedia Commons

You may be forgiven for thinking that it would take a somewhat impressionable cast of mind to depart from this basically-reasonable and plausible-sounding lecture `gobsmacked’, and OK, that is perhaps true. This is because what I haven’t told you is that in the final minutes Alex brought in the St Andrews Sarcophagus.10 One of the enigmas about this fine article of Pictish sculpture is that its iconography appears to be partly Persian, which takes some explaining. There have been explanations, largely involving motives transmitted in textile, which is sort of fair enough but what’s it doing here? Alex has what must be the answer. But because the Hughes lectures are published, and I’ve already here anticipated half a dozen of the things you might want your copy for, though hopefully only so much as to sharpen your Pictophile appetites, I will leave this one secret so that you have to get hold of it. It’ll be worth it….


1. One might seek such a view in works such as Alfred Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland A. D. 80-1000 (London 1984), J. MacQueen, St. Nynia (Edinburgh 1961, rev. edn. 1991), or Alan MacQuarrie, The Saints of Scotland: essays in Scottish Church history A. D. 450-1093 (Edinburgh 1997). Perhaps the key introduction would be Kathleen Hughes, Early Christianity in Pictland, Jarrow Lecture 1970 (Jarrow 1970), repr. in eadem, Celtic Britain in the Early Middle Ages: studies in Scottish and Welsh sources, ed. David Dumville, Studies in Celtic History 1 (Woodbridge 1980), pp. 38-52, which was of course the prompt for Alex’s lecture subject.

2. James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 94-115; Thomas Owen Clancy, “The real Saint Ninian” in Innes Review Vol. 52 (Glasgow 2001), pp. 1-28; P. A. Yeoman, “Pilgrims to St. Ethernan: the archaeology of an early saint of the Picts and Scots” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St John’s House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 75-91; Sally Foster, “Discovery, Recovery, Context and Display” in eadem (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 36-62 at pp. 42-50; and Abernethy and Dunkeld I have from Isabel Henderson, The Picts (Edinburgh 1967), pp. 84-90; there must be better references but I found it there in my notes and don’t fancy hunting for more.

3. Clancy, “Philosopher-King: Nechtan mac Der-Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (2004), pp. 125-149.

4. Fraser, Caledonia to Pictland, p. 110, though to be fair he does also observe, pp. 108 & 109: “It is a leap of faith to conclude from such scattered notices [as those he has just gathered] that Nér and Banchory were Columban monasteries in seventh-century Pictland….”

5. Henderson as in n. 2 above; for Forteviot, see Leslie Alcock, “Forteviot: a Pictish and Scottish royal church and palace” in Susan Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 211-239, though there must by now be something more given recent digs. Ah yes: websearching reveals Nicholas Aitchison, Forteviot: a Pictish and Scottish royal centre (Stroud 2006), though I’ve not seen this myself.

6. Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Jarrow 2008); for wider context see Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 297-398.

7. Julian Brown, Northumbria and the Book of Kells, Jarrow Lecture 1971 (Jarrow 1972), rev. as “Northumbria and the Book of Kells” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 1 (Cambridge 1972), pp. 219-246; repr. in Brown, A Palaeographer’s View: the selected writings of Julian Brown, edd. Janet Bately, Michelle Brown and J. Roberts (London 1993), pp. 141-178.

8. Adomnán, Vita Columbae, edd. & transl. Alan Orr Anderson and Marjorie Anderson as Adomnán’s Life of Columba (London 1961), rev. M. Anderson as Adomnán: Life of Columba (Oxford 1991), II.32-35.

9. John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2005), pp. 323-341; for Klosterpfälze see John W. Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship and Royal Monasteries in early medieval Germany, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th Series, 21 (Cambridge 1993).

10. Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus.

Recent finds in soil and sea, from the heart of the Empire and well beyond its borders

Since my own work this brief ‘holiday’ has so far been mostly revising stuff I wrote long ago, rather than finding out new stuff, I’m sticking to observations culled from the Internet this post. I think almost all of them came from either News for Medievalists or the Heroic Age blog, so thanks to both those fine institutions for these links that I went and followed.

In the first place, of interest to no-one but me most likely, I have discovered a Catalan archaeology blog, ArqueoCat, which has duly been blogrolled, though nothing there has been posted since I did this. Its focus seems to be mainly prehistoric, and of course it’s written in Catalan (there is a translator for webpages offered by the Catalan government but its results are, er, erratic) but I have hopes for it and I also have the relevant language skills. If you have those, I’ve also just happened across a Catalan blog dealing in medieval romances and chivalry, Eixa altra Edat Mitjana, whose author is apparently reading this, so hullo! I warn the general readership, it is about as work-safe as Got Medieval, and phrases like “butt-trumpet” may be necessary. As we’ve observed before, the Middle Ages weren’t a particularly clean-minded era.

For those of you reading mainly in English, I had Kirsten Ataoguz’s Early Medieval Art blog down in the resources section, but discovered I was never checking it, and have therefore put it with the other blogs where it probably rightfully belongs, and have simultaneously discovered, I think through someone’s notice at the Unlocked Wordhoard (how do people expect Prof. Nokes actually to read all those darn blogs? I lose too much time on the ones I follow already) Medieval Ecclesiastical Art, which is a bit late for me academia-wise but has the signal advantage of telling me about places I might actually visit, because I in turn have the signal advantage of being in Europe of course, though some of our political parties here might prefer to think otherwise.

That kind of leads us to archaeology, and recently the hot archaeology appears to be in Rome where they are claiming to have found the underground retreat where the Emperor Caligula was murdered. I am pretty dubious about this. I mean, even I have fallen prey to the whole let’s-associate-a-written-source-with-our-recent-find syndrome, it’s natural enough, but in the case I blogged about here, the source was rather more solid than Suetonius’s Vita Cæsarum and the archaeology rather clearer. This new case could be all wrong: let’s remember that the Roman digs are being led by someone who was trying to tell us he’d found genuine evidence for Romulus and Remus only a few years ago. Their level of interpretation comes across too much, in English-language media at least, as “it looks so close it must be true! what do you mean, dating evidence?” and I worry. There’s some further reports that I haven’t seen (no YouTube at work, no inclination to switch off the Black Sabbath at home—after all, heavy metal’s a legitimate subject of scholarly inquiry now) here on News for Medievalists, which I guess are covering the same stuff. However, that’s all Classical so I don’t have to worry more than I choose to. Much more interesting to me, and not sensational for them so rather less likely to be over-/misreported, is this story that they’ve found evidence for ‘Dark Age’ habitation apparently in the Classical catacombs, people living among the ancient dead. A certain amount of sensationalism has crept in with a claim that these people “must” have been runaway slaves or persecuted Christians living in hiding, but I wonder (and I’m not the first). The Roman catacombs elsewhere in the city, and some of those in Milan, have turned up much more complicated scenarios than this, including anti-Christian graffiti, so I hope more investigation goes on here as it would be a window into a period of Rome about which I don’t think we know as much as we’d like.

The site of the tomb complex uncovered in Rome (follow link for credits)

Then from the other end of Empire, I discover that Martin Carver isn’t the only one with a Pictish-period monastery in Scotland to play with, although Inchmarnock, where digging has recently been concluded, is on the opposite coast to Portmahomack, where meanwhile the digging and finds continue, which must be almost irritating for them now that they have the Visitors’ Centre up and running and have to rearrange the display every time something new that’s old comes up. Inchmarnock isn’t quite so productive a site, or so Pictish but, as has been said here before the Picts were on Skye, though we only see them as they Gaelicise, so the dating could be crucial for such a definition. Unfortunately for the Pictish nation enthusiasts, what’s come up so far is mainly slates, and those used for writing in Ogham, which makes an Irish connection most likely. But writing on slates is always interesting anyway, my first really popular post here was about that very phenomenon, and the parallel intrigues me especially as the report suggests that the slates suggest people learning Ogham, which would be inordinately important for the literacy scholars, some of whom, of course, taught me to pay attention to this stuff. If writing was being taught, I suppose it is likely that what they’re finding is from a monastery, and we know that there was eventually one there. All the same, it’s not as conclusive as Portmahomack’s all-male cemetery, but I see that this hasn’t stopped the dig leader writing a book about it which I guess I shall now have to read, some day in my mythical free time.

Well outside the Empire in one direction, because I already mentioned Inuit cultures here once I now feel they’re sort of part of the remit even though I know nothing about them. Partly it’s because it’s useful to keep a vague notion of what else is going on where in the world during the Middle Ages just so that one doesn’t get too fixed to a European idea of progress and development. So, late Antique Alaska: we have new evidence. Constantine was founding a new Rome and these people really didn’t care, but we know more about them than we did a few weeks ago.

"A bird bone... grooved for snapping out thin blanks that would be ground down and eyed into sewing needles"

'A bird bone... grooved for snapping out thin blanks that would be ground down and eyed into sewing needles'

And lastly, and maybe most importantly of all I find this story about a sunken Arab dhow, from its cargo datable to after 826 A. D., that has been found, still mostly preserved on the seafloor with a fabulous cargo. The important thing is not so much the cargo, however, as the location, which is off Sumatra. Then the cargo becomes important, because it’s basically gold treasure and really really fine Tang dynasty pottery of the highest grades, as well as 40,000 china bowls—which are now the oldest known actual ‘china’ in the world—packed in beansprouts… Who knows what this stuff was doing on one badly-lost dhow, which seems to have come to grief on the reefs of the Gaspar Strait, but it illustrates really high-value commercial links between (probably) Iraq, via Basra and on into the cAbbasid Caliphate, and Tang dynasty China, well before we have much evidence of such contact. Also, bulk long-distance trade too: even Chris Wickham would have trouble writing off 40,000 bowls as marginal luxury traffic… So I hope for much more on this in future months.

If that isn’t enough to keep you clicking, and in some cases boggling at how little some Romance languages can change over six hundred years, well, I don’t know what would be but I look forward to seeing it…