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 (Church) di San Clemente

The entrance to the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome

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.

The underground portico at the west end of the 4th century church

The rediscovered underground portico of the 4th century church in San Clemente

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 under St Colman's Church at Portmahomack

The crypt under St Colman’s (Tarbat Old Church) at Portmahomack

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 Calf Stone, a fragment of a Pictish Sculptured Stone from Portmahomack. Illustration by Elizabeth Hooper (c) University of York

The Calf Stone, a fragment of a Pictish Sculptured Stone from Portmahomack. Illustration by Elizabeth Hooper (c) University of York

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.

Portmahomack

Portmahomack

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 this month’s iScot magazine.

Tarbat Discovery Centre

Perspective

In 1986 the Guardian newspaper showed a powerful advert in which a skinhead looks as though he’s about to rob a pedestrian. Then the whole scene is revealed and rather than being a thief, the skinhead is in fact saving the man’s life, dragging him to safety as a pile of bricks crashes down from the scaffolding overhead.

It was an excellent example of how seeing only half the picture, or hearing only half the story, can cause us to jump to some very wrong conclusions indeed. Called Points of View, it demonstrated how imporant it is to get the whole picture in order to really understand what’s going on. It obviously made a lasting impact on me, for thirty years later I still remember it vividly, and its message.

Sometimes all it takes is a slight shift in perspective and a whole new scenario opens up in front of us. Take the time to look at things from a different standpoint, and you’ll find a lot can change.  In a way it’s a bit like the fake news that’s so prevalent today. We need to step back and look at the other side of the coin before believing what we’re being told to believe. What we’re being presented with as ‘truth’.  But we’re intelligent beings. We can think. We can ask questions. Ask for proof before simply accepting the newspaper headlines

A change in perspective can also clarify the reasons things are the way they are. Think, for example, of the view from a plane as you come in to land. From above, you can see the neat patterns of fields and houses, appreciate the orderliness that we can so easily miss at ground-level. Sometimes things aren’t as random as we thought they were.

One of my favourite views is from the Skye Bridge. Not quite the same as being in a plane, admittedly, but even that elevation opens up so much, and gives views for miles around. In the midst of all that grandeur sits tiny Eilean Bàn. With a reputation for being haunted, it’s home to a Stevenson lighthouse and the former lighthouse keepers’ cottages that became the final residence of the author Gavin Maxwell. Maxwell became known world-wide for his Ring of Bright Water trilogy, books that opened the eyes of millions to the wonder of otters and the natural world.

It could be easy to overlook Eilean Bàn as the mighty Skye Bridge soars overhead. But it’s an island with a long and interesting history, and a visit to the Gavin Maxwell Museum or the island’s impressive wildlife hide is a worthwhile day out.

I’m glad that Maxwell’s life and work is celebrated here. I grew up with his books and laughed – and cried – through the eponymous film starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.  And I’ve paid many a visit to Sandaig, the beautiful bay south of Glenelg, that was Maxwell’s home for so many years and immortalised as the ‘Camusfeàrna’ of his books. Maxwell was a gifted, but troubled and complicated man. And yet, despite being a mass of contradictions, he did so much to bring understanding and love of the natural world to many people.

In this month’s iScot magazine I look at all this, as well as the history of the surrounding settlements and islands. Everything from vicious Vikings, to a startling 19th century plan to turn Kyleakin into a city called New Liverpool! Now that really did surprise me. That the plan ultimately came to naught, however, didn’t. From Kyleakin to New Liverpool? I’d have to admit that that’s one shift in perspective I just can’t quite manage to make!

 

Cape Wrath – remote but reachable

It’s genuinely remote, there are plenty of obstacles to getting there, but it can be done – and it’s definitely worth it! Time of year, weather and MOD activity in the bombardment range, all have to be taken into consideration before you set out. Once these factors are sorted, however, you’re on your way. And fear not – there will be a cup of tea waiting for you when you finally reach the lighthouse!

We felt a real sense of achievement when we visited Cape Wrath. There’s the lighthouse and the welcome Ozone Cafe, as well as the decaying Lloyds Buildings, which are described on the Visit Cape Wrath website as: “a signalling station complex established by Lloyd’s of London Marine and Commercial Insurers to monitor passing ships, tracking their cargos, ports of departure and destination along with estimated arrival times”. Built between 1894 and 1903, advances in communications led to their closure in 1932, although they were reused at the start of World War II as a coastguard station.

The decaying Lloyds Buildings, closed in 1932

The small group who travelled on the ferry and minibus with us were from all corners of the globe. There’s obviously something very addictive about getting to the (almost) unreachable parts of the world!

I’ve written an article describing the journey and the history of the Cape – from the terrifying arrival of the Vikings – those fearsome Sons of Death – through the trials and tribulations of the Clearances, to the present day set-up where the MOD own vast tracks of the land. The article is available in the April edition of the excellent iScot magazine. iScot is a wide-ranging publication, which looks at what’s happening in Scotland today: what’s going on in the news and what there is to see, do and think about in this wonderful country of ours. If you have an interest in Scotland it’s well worth considering a  subscription, whether in paper form or in a digital edition.

Cape Wrath was the hvarf, the ‘turning point’ for the Vikings. Life is full of turning points and our reactions to these can have a profound effect on how we live our lives and relate to those around us. At times life can be more challenging than we might prefer, but, with places like Cape Wrath to visit, at least we can’t complain that it’s dull!

Visit Cape Wrath

iScot Magazine

Walk Highlands

Saints, Kings and Vikings – 300 years of history carved in stone in Govan

The Jordanhill Cross

The Jordanhill Cross

Although almost on my doorstep, I have to admit that I’ve only just discovered the magnificent carved stones housed in Govan Old Parish Church.  Hundreds of years of history, belief and kingship set in stone and preserved for all to see in the heart of Glasgow.  The Govan Stones are an exceptional array of early medieval Christian sculpture that show clearly the importance of this place to the Kings of Strathclyde.

According to tradition, the original church on this special site, dedicated to St Constantine, was founded early in the 6th century, built of wood, close to a holy well (a location much favoured by the Celts) and surrounded by an almost circular wall.  The people who lived here at that time were neither Scots nor Picts, rather Old-Welsh-speaking Britons, part of a powerful kingdom ruled from Alt Clut – Dumbarton Rock.  But then came the dreaded Vikings who sailed up the Clyde and in 870 AD the mighty fortress of Dumbarton fell to those ferocious Norse warriors.

However, Dumbarton’s loss was Govan’s gain as it was to Govan that the new kings of Strathclyde looked to establish their power base.  Already an important religious site, Govan now grew as a political and administrative centre: the Christian and the secular powers in the kingdom very closely intertwined.  A growing sign of that increased status and subsequent wealth is reflected in what became known as ‘The Govan School’ of carving, which flourished between 900 and 1100 AD.  Swirling snakes, elaborate interwoven decoration, mounted warriors, biblical scenes, huntsmen and saints – it’s all there!

One of the weighty hogback Viking Stones

One of the weighty hogback Viking Stones

As are five massive Viking hogback grave markers, which are truly monumental!  At first glance they look like huge humpbacked beasts, but on closer inspection you can see that some are carved to represent wooden-tiled roofs; copies, possibly, of the wooden houses of important Viking chiefs of settlements or bases further west, who recognised the immense spiritual prestige of St Constantine’s Church at Govan and who craved the recognition burial at such an important Christian site would give them.  A “thin place” perhaps?

The Tomb of St Constantine

The Govan Sarcophagus: but who was laid to rest within it?

For me though, the most amazing piece is the Govan Sarcophagus, a stone coffin carved from a single massive block of solid sandstone – apparently the only one of its kind left today from pre-Norman Scotland.  Just who was laid to rest within it can’t be known with absolute certainty, and theories and speculation come and go. But it is thought that it could well have been the final resting place of the 9th century Scottish king Constantine, son of Kenneth mac Alpin, or even Constantine’s own son, Donald.

One of the great things about history is that we are always learning more and more about what went on in the past.  New archaeological discoveries, new research, and resultant re-assessment, often by younger historians, continually brings new evidence to light.  Our knowledge and understanding of the past is not set in stone: but fortunately for us all the wonderful carvings here in Govan are!!

The Govan Stones