The Northern Picts Project

Tarbat Old Parish Church, Portmahomack

Tarbat Old Parish Church, Portmahomack, Easter Ross (© B Keeling)

The Northern Picts Project is a collaborative venture involving the University of Aberdeen and the Tarbat Discovery Centre in Easter Ross. The main focus of research is the archaeology of Fortriu, a major Pictish kingdom that was once believed to lie in southern Perthshire. In 2006, a groundbreaking article by Alex Woolf suggested that Fortriu lay further north, beyond The Mounth (the eastern part of the Grampian Mountains). Woolf’s revised geography has generally been accepted, with the result that the kingdom’s heartland is now seen as Moray and Easter Ross rather than Strathearn.

As well as investigating the archaeology of Fortriu, the Northern Picts Project also looks at the kingdom’s history. This is the topic of A Historical Introduction to the Northern Picts, written by Nicholas Evans and issued by the project as the first in a series of publications.

One area of particular interest for the project is the Tarbat Peninsula. This contains not only the major Pictish monastery of Portmahomack – reputedly founded by St Colman in the seventh century – but also a number of hillforts and carved stones. The site of the monastery is now occupied by Tarbat Old Parish Church, now home to the Tarbat Discovery Centre – an award-winning museum and heritage venue.

The wider context of the Northern Picts Project is an international study called Pathways to Power: Rise of the Early Medieval Kingdoms of the North which encompasses a broad swathe of North European peoples and cultures. This larger project enables historians and archaeologists to consider how the early kingdoms of Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and elsewhere interacted with one another as they evolved during the first millennium AD.

Further information can be found via the links below.

Northern Picts Project
Tarbat Discovery Centre [follow on Twitter @TarbatMuseum]
Pathways to Power: Rise of the Early Medieval Kingdoms of the North
A Historical Introduction to the Northern Picts [book by Nicholas Evans]
Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts [book by Martin Carver]

Alex Woolf, ‘Dun Nechtain, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201.

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10 comments on “The Northern Picts Project

  1. Pathways to Power looks extremely interesting. Thanks for this.

    • Tim says:

      You’re welcome, Nicola. I often think I’d never hear about some of these fascinating projects if I didn’t use social media.

  2. ritaroberts says:

    Thanks for this information and I will follow on Twitter.

  3. Helen McKay says:

    Hi Tim, isn’t it wonderful, no, fantastic, that the Picts are finally getting some academic attention! Can you tell me, is there going to be any work done at Rhynie this year, I cant see any action on their blog?
    We do have a problem though, its about ‘Fortriu’. Do you remember what I wrote about Simeon and the southern/northern PIcts – that for him the southern Picts were the Cruithnigh of Galloway, and the northern Picts are north of the Forth. I was wondering if anyone would pick up on that, because what I was in effect saying softly was that Fortriu is just another name for ‘Pictland’. Its odd but Alex W. says that when Fortriu starts to be mentioned in the annals, it appears as though its referring to all of Pictland. He then goes on laying out great snippets of data and gets caught up in it all and comes up with the notion that Fortriu is just the coastal plain of Moray. So what I’m saying is that he was right the first time round, that Fortriu (or the Pictish version thereof) is just what the Picts in general, north of the Forth, called their own land. They didn’t refer to it in Latin as Pictavia in their own tongue.
    The funny thing about this is that people look at his data and think its all good, which it is per se, he did a fantastic job of pulling it all together, but as Fraser put it and I paraphrase, I accept the data, but I cant make sense of the conclusion. And that’s basically what has happened since AW’s paper, people give the nod to Fortriu as Moray, and then just proceed to write history of Pictland as though the idea doesn’t exist – why, simply because it isn’t right intuitively. As someone (sorry forgotten who) wrote recently, all the action in Pictland from the 600s onwards is in the southern regions. So Fortriu is just Pictland.
    Of course that doesn’t mean that the early original tribe of the Verturiones wasn’t perhaps based in Moray, its a matter of teasing out the data and placing the pieces within their own cultural and time context. And Scotland, Fortriu, Caledonia seems regularly to have taken its main name from the dominant tribe of the day. Which means we are missing a big story here, of how the Verturiones rose to power in Pictland, and named it Fortriu after themselves.

    • Tim says:

      Hello Helen. Firstly – I’m not sure if work is continuing at Rhynie this year. I generally find these things out via social media (especially Twitter) but can’t recall seeing anything recent.

      Secondly, regarding Fortriu and Pictland, I agree that there is probably a certain amount of synonymity between the two names. I think there are instances in the sources when the kingship of Fortriu seems to have represented the overkingship of Pictland. Also, not everyone is happy to discard the old idea of Fortriu being south of the Mounth. The eminent historian Benjamin Hudson, for example, still places it in Perthshire in his recent book on the Picts (published last year). If the names ‘Fortriu’ and ‘Pictland’ were, to some extent, interchangeable among the Picts themselves, it might remove the need for us to choose between one or other sides of the Mounth. It would also fit with the apparent reference to Dunkeld being in Fortriu in the ninth century. All of which is food for thought…..

      • Helen McKay says:

        If we take what the symbol stones tell us, then there are two outstanding main Pictish centres, one at Kintore-Inverurie, and the other the central Angus region focused around the old lake of Forfar (which of course includes Dunnichen). There are other hot spots, like Rhynie and Abernethy, but nothing so concentrated as Forfar and Kintore. But, we are still dealing with quite a few centuries, half a millennium in fact for Pictland, so its critical that we get dates for settlements and sort out the correct dates for the symbol stones as well. Its why its so exciting seeing the dig at Rhynie and at Portmahomack for example. I’d hate to see Rhynie dropped at this point, just when its getting so rewarding.

        • Tim says:

          Yes, establishing an accurate chronology for settlements and symbol stones is fundamental.

          Btw, another major project on Pictish archaeology is SERF (Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot) which can also be followed via Twitter.

          • Helen McKay says:

            Yes, this Forteviot study is a good case in point. It has no symbol stones, no cross slab even, but a free standing cross with carving that is quite different in style to all other Pictish work. We know that the place was active in the mid 850s at least. If (as I think) the symbol stones end in the early 700s, then we have a major time and culture gap here, which makes me nervous about calling it Pictish and lumping it in with other Pictish things. Its all about dating and definitions again.

            • Tim says:

              Very true about Forteviot and its archaeology. The Dupplin Cross with its Gaelicised inscription (i.e. Gaelic Fircus instead of Pictish Urgust) seems to stand at the point of transition from Pictishness to Scottishness. Its date can be narrowed down fairly closely to the 820s/830s, so it gives us a fixed chronological marker (a rare thing). The annalists were still referring to rex Pictorum for another two or three generations, but this royal title must have become increasingly anachronistic as the ninth century wore on.

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