The Tarbat Discovery Centre can be found in Tarbat Old Parish Church, or the old parish church of Saint Colman, which stands on the southern edge of Portmahomack in Easter Ross. To reach it you turn right off the main road as you reach the village. What you find is an attractive white church that is home to a simply outstanding museum.
Portmahomack sits on the north-eastern or sheltered side of Tarbat peninsula, which come to an end at Tarbat Ness. For centuries this area was at the heart of a thriving Pictish society that left many traces behind it, mainly in the form of carved stones. Portmahomack was also the site of a very early Christian monastery, possibly founded by Saint Columba in the late 500s. Such is the depth of history here that Tarbat has sometimes been called "the Iona of the east".
Over the years a great deal of research and investigation has taken place around Tarbat Old Parish Church, and this is reflected in the wealth of exhibits on view in the Tarbat Discovery Centre. Even the story of the church itself is a complex and fascinating one. The monastery at Portmahomack burned down in the 700s or 800s. In the 1100s the same site was chosen for the Parish Church of St Colman. (Continues below image...)
The simple structure that resulted was extended in the 1200s and a crypt was added, in which it is thought a group of MacKays were burned to death in a clan feud in 1487. In 1580, after the Reformation, an aisle was added on the north side and the focal point became a pulpit on the south wall. The church was rebuilt in 1756 but fell out of use in 1946. Efforts to find a new use for it began in 1980.
Internally, the Tarbat Discovery Centre makes excellent use of the space of the church. Most of the exhibitions are housed in the T-shaped ground floor, while a gallery around the upper floor gives access to additional areas such as the audio-visual presentation room. It also gives superb views down into the main body of the centre.
As ever with a museum like this, everyone who visits will find their own particular highlights. On our visit we very much liked the way the complex archaeological investigations of the area have been represented in one area of the church, with different recreated layers on view including a (presumably) dummy skeleton, one of two that can be seen in the Discovery Centre. The north aisle is home to some very nice carved stones, while the crypt, though in once sense quite empty, is beautifully lit and incredibly atmospheric.
Throughout the museum the interpretation of a long and complex story has been done very well. We didn't really know what to expect from our visit, but came away highly impressed.
The interest extends beyond the church itself. There is a beautiful sculpture of "The Pictish Queen" just outside the churchyard gate, on the path from the visitor car park. At the far end of the car park there is an area surrounded by old iron railings that turns out to be a baptismal well that dates back to the 1700s. Close by is a dummy Second World War concrete practice torpedo from the Royal Naval Air Station at nearby Fearne.