Between 1994 and 2007, archaeologists began excavating around the ancient Pictish church of St. Colman at Portmahomack, which is located in northeast Scotland. What they found intrigued them: An extensive 6th century monastic community along with evidence that the location had held special spiritual importance, Ancient Origins notes:
“Hundreds of fragments of elaborate Pictish symbol stones ; testimony to the highly-sacred nature of this northern spiritual sanctuary.”
But that wasn’t all they found. Buried in a tomb was what can best be described as one of the strangest sights ever seen: A Scotsman entombed in a bizarre “six-headed” burial that is now believed to have been part of violent Highland clan warfare.
The Six-Headed Burial
A 2008 article from The Independent referred to the St. Colman site as “one the most important archaeological discoveries in Scotland for 30 years.” It certainly led to many questions, such as why the six-headed burial had been done and what deeper meaning it might hold.
One thing that fascinated the scientists who found the oddly configured crypt is that it held an important location within the church building:
“The most prominent position in the church – in the center of the nave at the front of the entrance to the medieval crypt.”
The BBC noted that it was later determined the man found in the crypt was the “second occupant of the grave” and that the original corpse was of a man who “died violently by the sword and was buried with four additional skulls set around his head.”
Reconstructing the Past
What might have led to the death of this man and the bizarre way he was buried? Theories began to circulate:
“The researchers believe that the mysterious ‘six-headed burial’ might be related to the 15th century Battle of Tarbat which was fought by rivaling MacKay and Ross clans, which resulted in St. Colman ’s Church being burnt down.
“The spokesperson for FAS Heritage, Cecily Spall, said, ‘the Tarbat Medieval Burials project is aimed at understanding the lives of these men in as much detail as possible,’ and to achieve this, experts have now recreated the medieval man’s face.”
Dr. Jessica Liu and Dr. Sarah Shrimpton at the Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University began to reconstruct the face of the ancient Scottish warrior using his skull as a starting point.
After scanning the skull and using a computer program, Liu and Shrimpton were able to produce this visual representation of what the man had looked like while alive.
Looking For Clues in DNA
More tests are being performed in order to better determine exactly what has been found in the grave at the church:
“Once the bodies have been radiocarbon dated they will undergo stable isotope analysis which will help the scientist to better understand their origins, what they ate, and how they lived. What’s more, the experts hope the DNA analysis will reveal their genetic heritage and any family relationships between the men.”
The Battle of Tarbat
History does tell us about the battle this Pictish warrior probably took part in. And it sounds as if there were probably several casualties:
“The Battle of Tarbat was a violent affair fought in the 1480s on the Tarbat peninsula. It kicked off when men from the Clan Ross encountered a Clan Mackay raiding party near the village of Portmahomack and after slaying several of them, Mackay survivors retreated to the church, which the Rosses subsequently set fire to. This horrific event is recorded in a Scottish poem on the Great Clan Ross website.”
In 1487, the warfare finally ended, albeit in violent fashion:
“John (Iain) Riabhach Mackay … avenged his father’s death with help from the Clan Sutherland . After invading Clan Ross lands the Battle of Aldy Charrish was fought at the head of the Kyle of Sutherland, where Alexander Ross of Balnagowan and many of his kinsmen were brutally slaughtered, in a merciless revenge killing.”
In time, we may have all of the answers regarding the Battle of Tarbat and exactly who the man in the six-headed grave was. For now, we know he gave his life in what he probably considered an honorable cause.
For more on the facial reconstruction of of a Seventeenth century Scottish Soldier, watch this video:
Featured Image: Face Lab, Liverpool John Moores University via The Scotsman