Forteviot and the Southern Picts

If the 8th century sculptured stone at Fowlis Wester is anything to go by, the Picts were a dapper looking bunch. The men, that is, as they’re the ones depicted on the carved stones we see today. With razor-sharp beards and nifty topknots, they’d be quite at home amongst today’s hirsute males. And as both mirrors and combs feature among the symbols carved on Pictish stones, they must have been deemed to be of great importance to be given such lasting status. Cool dudes, indeed!

Yet they’re an elusive bunch, our Pictish ancestors. We know they were tribes in northern and eastern Scotland who spoke a Celtic language and flourished from the 3rd to the 9th centuries, spanning the late Iron Age and the early medieval period. Yet there’s still much about them we don’t know.

Fortunately, there have been a number of Pictish-related archaeological projects in recent years. These excavations have unearthed (and are still unearthing) finds that have added greatly to our knowledge and understanding of the Picts. And as knowledge of the past is not static, as any archaeologist worth his or her salt knows, there’s always more to discover.

East of Fowlis Wester is the village of Forteviot: a small, unassuming place, yet one with a remarkable past. It was once the heart of the mighty kingdom of the southern Picts and would go on to be acknowledged as the ‘cradle of Scotland’. The place where the Scots and the Picts finally came together as the Kingdom of Alba, which in turn gave birth to the nation that would become Scotland.

That transformation is a fascinating story. And one which I examine in this month’s article. The story of our Pictish ancestors is riveting history. And slowly but surely, bit by bit, we’re learning more.

iScot issue 93

What lies beneath? From Pictland to Scotland

“The past is still a place that is not safely settled,” wrote Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author, best known for his Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient. At the start of Ondaatje’s tale neither the patient’s name nor his past are known, but as the story unfolds his true identity, and the tragic events leading to his desperate state, are gradually revealed.

Just as the history of an individual is uncovered in this many-layered story, so archaeologists continue to delve into the past, unearthing new levels and discovering artefacts that reveal ever more about our country’s history and the lives of our ancestors.

The entrance to the Basilica di San Clemente

It’s surprising how often we think of the past as something fixed and final – but nothing could be further from the truth. The past is not static and archaeology and historical research are our tools for learning more.  As new finds come to light, we’re able to reassess our understanding of how people lived in bygone days.

Some years ago I read Ngaio Marsh’s novel When in Rome, where her suave gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn joins a select group on a murderous tour of the Basilica (Church) di San Tommaso. The setting is based on the real Basilica di San Clemente, an ancient site where archaeologists have discovered at least three levels of buildings, the oldest being deep under the present ground level.

On top is the 12th century basilica. Below that archaeologists have unearthed a 4th-century basilica, originally part of the sumptuous home of a Roman nobleman. Below that again, a lower basement served as a mithraeum (a temple for the worship of Mithras) until that religion was outlawed.

It’s even possible that the home of that wealthy Roman nobleman had been built on the foundations of a much older republican-era building, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 64 AD. These exciting discoveries have shed a great deal of light on the turbulent history of Rome and the varied lifestyles of its inhabitants.

The crypt at St Colman’s Church

But what about Portmahomack? Similar far-reaching discoveries were made here between 1994 and 2007, when archaeologists uncovered the site of what seems to be the largest Pictish Christian Monastery in Scotland. Founded around 560 AD, perhaps even by Columba himself, this monastery in Pictland grew and flourished for the next 300 years. Archaeological evidence suggests that the monastery had a farm and a cemetery, as well as workshops for the making of sacred church objects, intricate sculptures, and illustrated books (similar to the Book of Kells).

The Picts have long been one of history’s great mysteries, but discoveries like these at Pormahomack have given us unique insights into their civilisation. They were not simply the barbaric ‘painted’ warriors of Roman propaganda, but an artistic, highly cultured people, skilled craftsmen, well-organized, well-travelled and not isolated from contemporary politics and events, with Portmahomack a key point on the North Sea trade routes.

But then tragedy struck when, around 800 AD, the monastery and the surrounding community were destroyed by Viking invaders. The wonderful treasure that was this unique Pictish monastery was reduced to rubble and gradually disappeared beneath the earth, to be eventually forgotten.


But sacred sites draw people to them, and other churches were built on this hallowed ground.  Until finally, centuries later, gravediggers unearthed fragments of ancient carved stones and it became clear that something very ancient and substantial lay beneath their feet. And the re-discovery began.

One way or another we are all shaped by the past. A better understanding of that makes for a better understanding of ourselves.  And who knows what else is waiting to be discovered?

You can read about this, and much more, in my article in the March/April 2019 issue of iScot magazine.

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