Portmahomack, Highland

 Location of Portmahomack

Plan of the monastery at Portmahomack in period 2

Project title

Tarbat Discovery Programme



Cecily Spall, FAS Heritage  Vellum toolkit


Region and NGR

Highland, NH 915 840


Date ranges

6th to 16th century AD


Project summary

The Tarbat Discovery Programme was focused on the site surrounding St Colman’s Church, Portmahomack (Figure 1). During 13 seasons of excavation, the remains of settlements belonging to four periods dating to the 6th to 16th centuries (Periods 1 to 4) were excavated. Period 2 saw a Pictish monastery flourish during the 8th century at the former site of a late Iron Age (Period 1 - 6th to 7th century) estate centre (Figure 2). The monastery was comprised of a stone church and cemetery marked with four Pictish crosses, and monastic workshops producing church plate and vellum for books (Figure 3) supported by a cattle-based economy. 

Evidence of burning across the workshopsIn the early 9th century, the monastic workshops were destroyed by fire (Figure 4), and its sculpture and monastic population decimated; this event is equated with a hitherto unrecorded Viking raid, modelled through radio-carbon dating and stratigraphy to have taken place c.820-30. Afterwards, the settlement continued in Period 3 (Figure 5) in a markedly different mode, including arable production and silver trading before it was eventually abandoned, probably by the late 10th century.  Place-name evidence suggests that the Tarbat peninsula became settled with Norse incomers, as attested by names such as Bindal, Cadboll, Arboll, Tarrel and Balnabruach, and accompanied by scattered historical references to a Norse presence and the burial within the old Pictish burial ground of a hoard of ring silver and coins c.1000.

 Plan of Portmahomack in period 3


Pictish monastery, sculpture, Viking raid, trade, place-names



Carver, M O H, Garner-Lahire, J I and Spall, C A 2016 Portmahomack on Tarbatness, Changing ideologies in north-east Scotland, Sixth to Sixteenth century AD. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Carver, M O H 2016 (2nd Edition) Portmahomack, Monastery of the Picts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Carver, M O H 2008 'Post-Pictish Problems: The Moray Firthlands in the 9th to 11th centuries', Rosemarkie: Groam House Lecture for 2007.