The Rev Charlie Skrine, Associate Rector of St Helens Bishop Gate London and a keen kayaker, has been taking a sabbatical from his job to learn how early Christian monks travelled by sea on small boats spreading the gospel to the Picts.
Starting in Iona, his voyage has taken him via Applecross, in Wester Ross, round Cape Wrath and Duncansby Head, then heading south down the north-east coast to Portmahomack and the Tarbat Discovery Centre – also known as “The Iona of the East”.
At the centre he was given a warm Highland welcome by one of its trustees, Douglas Gordon, along with chairwoman, Catherine Vass, who showed the intrepid clergyman round its fascinating collection of artefacts and explained how archaeological excavations between 1993 and 2007 had revealed it to be the first Pictish monastery to be identified.
Said Douglas: “He was amazed that there was so much to see – all the intricate stone carvings of animals and people as well as the 8th century crypt.
“I took him to my house for a meal then to the evening service in Nigg Old Church, where Helen Campbell, with our minister, the Rev Dr Robert Pickles, showed him the beautifully-carved Nigg Stone.
“On the way back to Portmahomack we took him to the nearby Shandwick Stone, still in its original location, then on to the Hilton of Cadboll stone – so he saw all three of the truly great cross slabs of Easter Ross.”
Averaging about three knots when kayaking, the Rev Skrine later headed for Balintore and on to Nigg, then Inverness, where he left his craft, travelling overland to Kyle of Lochalsh to pick up his car and trailer, before returning and heading south.
Douglas added: “It was quite an adventure – not only for him but for us too.”
The story of the Tarbat Discovery Centre began in 1980 when a small group of local people formed the Tarbat Old Parish Trust to try to save the original parish church (abandoned in 1946) from ruin.
Throughout the 19th century there had been frequent reports of gravediggers unearthing pieces of carved stone and other historic objects and it was widely suggested by academics that perhaps an important site was to be uncovered.
By good fortune an aerial photograph taken in 1984, during a particularly dry summer, revealed the crop mark of an enclosure ditch very similar to that on Iona and in 1991 the trust engaged a local archaeologist, Jill Harden, to investigate further.
Peat samples from the ditch were radiocarbon dated to the 6th Century, while clearance of the church crypt during this time revealed further fragments of carved stone.
In 1993, Professor Martin Carver of the University of York was invited to come and give his opinion of the potential for the site to be of significant historic interest.
He was immediately convinced that this was the case and an application was successfully made for a funded archaeological study and conversion of the church to a museum.
In 1994 and 1995 the university initiated surveying and mapping of the fields surrounding the church and in 1996 formal archaeology excavation began inside the church to allow for the subsequent building repairs and renovation.
In 1999 a museum opened in the church with much of the space dedicated to the display of finds from the site along with the interpretation of the monastic settlement and its workshops.
The subsequent archaeological investigation or Tarbat Discovery Programme, conducted by the University of York, under the directorship of Professor Martin Carver, was carried out over 14 seasons until its conclusion in 2007.
The research programme revealed the site to be a monastery which would have played a pivotal role in the establishment of the early Christian Church in Scotland – and now widely recognised by historians as one of international importance.